Collection Highlight: Portrait of Beatrice Cenci

A portrait of Beatrice Cenci by Salvatore Rosa, hanging in the David Hewes Art Gallery at the Camron-Stanford House

On the westward facing wall of the David Hewes Art Gallery, look past the beautiful sculpture of Adrianne and the Panther, and you’ll see the eyes of a pensive young woman. This young woman is Beatrice Cenci, painted by Salvatore Rosa, and is a copy of Guido Reni’s 17th century original portrait. The Rosa copy was purchased by David Hewes during the family’s Grand Tour in the 1870s. While the majority of the paintings collected by the Hewes party were reproductions of classic Renaissance masterpieces, mostly religious motifs, this portrait stands out. She is not the Virgin Mary, Magdalene, or an angel. In fact, Beatrice Cenci was a murderer.

So how did this portrait come to hang in the Hewes Art Gallery at the Camron-Stanford House? And what was it about Beatrice that David, or maybe his stepdaughter, Franklina, found so fascinating?

Who Was Beatrice Cenci?
Beatrice was a young Roman noblewoman who caused quite a stir in the 16th century when she murdered her father, Count Francesco Cenci. The trial that followed was well documented, and made Beatrice a bit of a legend.

Beatrice was born in in 1577 to Ersillia Satacroce and Count Francesco Cenci, who was rumored to be generally unpleasant, with many acts of violent behavior reported against his name. His violence was not limited to business associates and staff. The Count abused his family, including his wife, his sons, and going so far as to rape his daughter Beatrice multiple times. Count Francisco Cenci was jailed, not for the terrible crimes against his family, but for other crimes. However, because of his high status, the Count was released without serving his full sentence.

Portrait of Beatrice Cenci, painted by Guido Reni c.1662.

Beatrice, tired of the abuse, alerted the authorities about his treatment of his family, but no action was taken, other than her father sending Beatrice away from Rome to live in a separate household, along with her siblings and stepmother. While some may have thought the distance from her father a welcome respite, Beatrice was (rightfully) angry that she had been effectively banished, and her cries for help ignored. Together with her three siblings and stepmother Beatrice made a decision to put an end to the violence and kill her father.

Beatrice, with the help of two local vassals attempted to poison her father during one of his visits. The attempt was unsuccessful, and a second plot was born. Seeing no other solution, Beatrice, her step mother, and her siblings took a more violent approach and bludgeoned the Count to death. Though they tried to stage the murder as an accident, the authorities realized the plot and arrested the family. All were sentenced to death. The people of Rome, well aware of the Count’s violent behavior and the circumstances surrounding the murder, petitioned for the family’s forgiveness. Pope Clement, however, would not pardon them, and the execution orders proceeded despite the public outrage.

Beatrice, her stepmother, and two of her siblings were executed at the Sant’Angelo Bridge on September 11, 1599. Only the youngest of the siblings, 12 year old Bernardo was spared.

Today, we see often see violent crimes sensationalized in television, news, and other media. This is not a modern phenomenon. Beatrice’s story became legend in Rome and beyond. Beginning in the 1600s, Beatrice’s story has been romanticized, and become a symbol of the common people’s resistance against a corrupt and cruel aristocracy, especially in Rome. Her story has been retold through paintings, books, and plays, operas, poetry. One of the most well known is Percy Bysshe Shelley’s The Cenci: A Tragedy in Fieve Acts, which was published in 1819. And of course, the Guido Reni portrait of Beatrice Cenci remains the most well-known portrayal of the young woman.

Franklina and Beatrice
Franklina visited the Barbarini Palace in November of 1875. In her journal she recalls being struck by the painting during her visit. She writes:

At the Barbarini Palace we saw Guido’s portrait of Beatrice Cenci, taken in prison the day before her execution. The face is not exactly a beautiful one, but it is full of despair, so tremulous with unshed tears, so childlike & innocent that looking at it one can forgive her any crime & cry shame upon her murderers … [her expression] is pure & ethereal as an angel’s.
(Nov 8, 1875)

Tourists viewing the portrait of Beatrice Cenci attributed to Guido Reni, exhibited at Palazzo Barberini, Rome, Italy, illustration from Nuova illustrazione Universale, Year 1, No 22, May 3, 1874. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

While we do not know for certain the circumstances that led David Hewes to purchase Salvatore’s replica during his trip to Italy, it may be possible that Franklina may have influenced his decision. From reading her journals and letters, we gather that Franklina was a bit of a romantic when it came to history, literature, and art, but she was also keenly interested in the experiences of women throughout history. It is plausible that Franklina would have learned about Beatrice’s story and was intrigued by the story behind the painting. She almost certainly would have been familiar with Shelley’s work, at the very least.

Whether it was Franklina’s insistence that the painting be purchased, or a fanciful purchase of a souvenier by David Hewes, the painting made its way from Italy back to Oakland, California. We are grateful that the painting eventually made its way back to the Camron-Stanford House, where the family lived in the 1870s. The painting is an opportunity for us to share a story of a woman from a time when the experiences of women were largely ignored or overlooked. Next time you visit the Camron-Stanford House, keep your eyes peeled for Beatrice Cenci’s pensive gaze as you browse through the gallery.

Learn More
Read Shelley’s The Cenci: A Tragedy in Five Acts Online
Read more about Franklina’s travels in Europe in our publication: Franklina C. Gray: The Grand Tour
See the Original Beatrice portrait at the Barbarini Palace
Beatrice Cenci in the Camron-Stanford House Collection

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