The Incest Motif in Shelley's The Cenci

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Date: Fall 1985
From: Comparative Drama(Vol. 19, Issue 3)
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 7,292 words

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[(essay date fall 1985) In the following essay, Groseclose discusses how parent-child incest functions as a metaphor for tyranny in The Cenci.]

Mary Shelley admired her husband's 1819 play, The Cenci, because it was, she felt, the most direct of his works.1 The author himself, apparently both pleased and abashed that the writing of the drama consumed scarcely two months, implied a similar simplicity when he told E. J. Trelawny that in The Cenci he had expended considerably less effort on poetic language and "metaphysics" than was his wont.2 One scarcely wishes to contradict the two persons most intimately connected with the work, but a survey of the critical literature suggests that the drama is among the poet's densest, richest, and most ambiguous creations.3 Explored from every viewpoint--i. e., from its theatricality to its philosophy--The Cenci has yielded itself to interpretation in a most rewarding manner, though its paradoxes stubbornly remain. One feature, Shelley's decision to include incest among Count Cenci's crimes, has been regarded as a self-explanatory action; since Cenci's violation of his daughter provides the controlling symbol of the play, it establishes the rationale for its inclusion (and its rejection). But incest was not, in fact, an aspect of the original story. I should like to offer some analyses which will attempt to delineate the reasons which might have led Shelley to draw upon the incest motif and to sketch out some of the consequences for later treatments of the Cenci's history.


At the turn of the eighteenth century, there were few Italophiles who did not fall under the spell of Beatrice Cenci, for emotions were easily stirred by the pathos of her sorrowful life and her equally soulful "portrait" by Guido Reni. Today accepted neither as a portrait of Beatrice nor as the hand of Reni, the painting in Shelley's day rivalled Raphael's Transfiguration as the most famous picture in Rome.4 The image satisfied the early Romantic propensity for mournfulness, an attribute believed to endow mere physical beauty with spiritual distinction. Certainly Shelley succumbed to the painting's charms in just these terms:

There is a fixed and pale composure upon her features. ... Her head is bound with folds of white drapery from which the yellow strings of her golden hair escape, and fall about her neck. The moulding of her face is exquisitely delicate; the eyebrows are distinct and arched; the lips have that permanent meaning of imagination and sensibility which suffering has not repressed. ... Her forehead is large and clear; her eyes, which we are told were remarkable for their vivacity, are swollen with weeping and lustreless, but beautifully tender and serene. ...5

Beatrice won the hearts of viewers, however, neither because of the canvas' superbly delineated features nor because of the ascription to Guido Reni (to which was added the piquant notion that he had taken the likeness the night before her execution).6 She was also the protagonist of a tale abundant with Gothic horrors. Shrewd Nathaniel Hawthorne remarked, "I wish ... it were possible to see the picture without knowing anything of its subject or history; for no doubt, we bring all our knowledge of the Cenci tragedy to the interpretation of it."7 Indeed legend, which had encrusted history and tied the painting to its fancies, had rendered the painting less portrait than icon. It is impossible now to ascertain the details of the case beyond the fact that a young Roman named Beatrice Cenci was beheaded by the Church in 1599 for parricide; the defenders and detractors of Beatrice have between them impugned whatever evidence existed.8 Shelley and Hawthorne knew the story through the heavily embellished manuscript accounts in wide circulation at the time. Shelley was, I think, being ingenious when he declared that his manuscript source, "The Relation of the Death of the Family of the Cenci," had been suppressed, since he knew (and counted on) how widely the story had spread. An extensive transcription of the Cenci episode, apparently drawn from the manuscript accounts, had been published in Volume X of Ludovico Antonio Muratori's Annali d'Italia (1749), a very public document.9 In any case, Shelley seemed truly to believe in the accuracy and authenticity of the "Relation" ["of the Death of the Family of the Cenci"], purportedly taken from the "Cenci Palace Archives," that Mary Shelley copied in 1818 at Leghorn. Upon arriving in Rome the following spring and discovering that "the story of the Cenci was ... not to be mentioned in Italian society without awakening a deep and breathless interest," Shelley settled on the "Relation" as a source for the tragedy he had long planned to write.10 He candidly acknowledged that the narrative's two-hundred-year notoriety in Rome assured its future popularity as much as it recommended its dramatic potency.

Briefly, the events described in the manuscript were these: Count Francesco Cenci, a wealthy and dissolute Roman nobleman, ensured the wellbeing of his soul by paying huge sums to Pope Clement VIII Aldobrandino in return for the dismissal of sexual offenses and other serious crimes, including the assassination of two of his sons. Debauched himself, he continually sought to corrupt his younger daughter Beatrice, and eventually he imprisoned her and her step-mother Lucretia in Castle Petrella, near Naples. The two women, who determined to kill Cenci, received aid from Monsignor Guerra, Beatrice's would-be suitor, and Giacomo and Bernardo, the Count's eldest and youngest sons. The actual perpetrators were Marzio and Olimpio, Cenci's disaffected servants, who murdered their employer at Beatrice's instigation--indeed, at her insistence--by driving a nail through his eye and another through his neck. Shortly thereafter, Olimpio was killed in an unrelated incident. Marzio, however, was arrested and tortured, whereupon he confessed, implicating all the others. Monsignor Guerra escaped from Rome in disguise; Beatrice and her family were imprisoned, tried by the Church, and executed (with the exception of the youth Bernardo) on the eleventh day of May 1599. The beheaded Beatrice was buried in San Pietro in Montorio. A description of la bella Parricida, as she was called, accompanied the manuscript account:

Beatrice was rather tall, of a fair complexion; and she had a dimple on each cheek, which, especially when she smiled, added a grace to her lovely countenance that transported every one who beheld her. Her hair appeared like threads of gold; and ... the splendid ringlets dazzled the eyes of the spectator. Her eyes were of a deep blue, pleasing, and full of fire. To all these beauties she added, both in words and actions, a spirit and a majestic vivacity that captivated every one. She was twenty years of age when she died.11

The holograph in Mary Shelley's hand of an English translation of the "Relation" and the translation Shelley sent to Thomas Love Peacock are comparable to other extant versions with respect to the broad outlines of the story.12 The play differs from the source in that Shelley altered several details, but variations were abundant and his departures are not singular. What is unusual is that he introduced the act of incest; all versions, including the one from which Shelley worked, mention Francesco Cenci's attempts to seduce his daughter but no consummation. The memorandum Shelley prepared from the manuscript account as outline for his drama is even more vague, stating only that Francesco "tempts" Beatrice, and then, astonishingly, Shelley adds, "He thinks by mild means to bring her to his will."13 The "mild means" listed in his source include in addition to debauching of maidservants and prostitutes whom Cenci placed in his wife's bed and with whom he cavorted in front of Beatrice, his attempts to convince his daughter that "children born of the commerce of a father and daughter [are] all Saints. ..." When Mary Shelley first copied the translation, she omitted Francesco's efforts to seduce Beatrice and explained: "the details here are too horrible and unfit for publication." Kenneth Neill Cameron has supposed that her omission and attendant remark referred to the rape, but this is not the case.14 Although not mentioned in the "Relation," the loss of her honor was the extenuating motivation attributed to Beatrice during her trial by the renowned defense attorney, Prospero Farinaccio, whose argument was rejected by the adjudicating Roman Catholic prelates as unproven.15 Muratori alludes to Farinaccio's defense, but there is no evidence Shelley had read the Annali.

In any event, Shelley willfully altered his source in order to make the attempted rape actual. It is possible that he simply augmented the "Relation" by drawing upon rumors current in Roman folklore, but how does one determine what was or was not the gossip about the Cencis in Shelley's day or earlier? The only testimony I can offer is that, immediately after her death and for several years following, a large crowd traced the route of her funeral cortege from the Piazza Castel Sant'Angelo to San Pietro in Montorio as though in honor of a martyr or someone unjustly punished.16 If rumor of her rape still existed, therefore, Shelley was responsible for changing heresy to "fact." If no such rumors persisted and Farinaccio's defense was forgotten or discredited by 1819, then Shelley--far from drawing on "facts [which] are a matter of history" to rationalize "whether such a thing as incest in this shape ... would be admitted on the stage"--manufactured history.17

Dramaturgically the decision was a necessity. No less than Beatrice's attorney, Shelley needed to link serious provocation with the magnitude of the crime. The absence of the rape/incest incident would render the Count a one-dimensional figure of insensible wickedness, Beatrice merely wayward, and the parricide trivial. So Cenci's violation of his daughter, occurring offstage between Acts II and III, is the event that controls the play structurally and histrionically. The first two acts belong to Count Cenci, who initially overwhelms the other characters through the sheer force of his malignancy: "All men delight in sensual luxury; / All men enjoy revenge, and most exult / Over the tortures they can never feel, / Flattering their secret peace with other's pain. / But I delight in nothing else. I love / The sight of agony ..." (I. i. 77-82). Shelley steadily constructs a portrait of jaded sensuality, of rage at the incapacitating encroachment of age, and of malicious wielding of power which will culminate in the enactment of a "deed ... whose horror might make sharp a duller appetite than [Cenci's]" (I. i. 100-02). In contrast, Beatrice presents a mild impression in the drama's first half. Her personality is that of a submissive child made melancholy and pathetic by a "home of misery," while she weakly bears her share of suffering along with her stepmother and younger brother. The midpoint of the play, the opening of Act III, changes all of this. Thereafter Beatrice becomes the dominant character, and the Count is reduced in Act IV to a spite-filled shell of a man whose enmity is no match for Beatrice's steely determination to avenge herself. Finally, in the last act, after she has been arrested for murder, Beatrice resumes a pathetic demeanor, but now her suffering is balanced by a nobility and dignity that the frightened girl-child of the first acts could never achieve.


In his fine article on incest in Romantic literature, Peter Thorslev discusses the "symptomatic" (i. e., biographical) and symbolic uses of the theme.18 He shrugs off allegations that Shelley's neurotically suppressed desire for his sister erupts in certain poems and concentrates instead on the undeniably stronger case for the symbolic role of incest in The Cenci. I am prepared to support Thorslev's argument, but there is a biographical factor he does not mention that has a bearing on the play itself. When Shelley was writing The Cenci, he was amorously involved with Claire Claremont, his wife's half-sister. How far sexually this attachment progressed we do not know, and Shelley's (and Claire's) biographers agree only that in all likelihood their union was physical.19 Leviticus 18. 18, in a list of incestuous practices, specifically denounces intercourse between a man and his sister-in-law; the prohibition is yet included in the canons of the Anglican Church. If he knew it, Shelley would scarcely take such an injunction seriously. He would, in fact, probably welcome the opportunity to reject once again the conventions governing moral conduct--conventions which he felt were paltry. I do not know if Mary Shelley would have concurred. Certainly she tried valiantly to adapt herself to Shelley's rigorous, yet free-wheeling personal code, though in regard to his repeated affairs she never wholly succeeded. References to her coldness (in Shelley's own poetry as well as his contemporaries' assessments), her querulousness, and her bitterness gain in frequency around the times Claire formed their spasmodic menáge à trois. In light of this, it is interesting that Mary herself wrote about incest soon after The Cenci was completed and at a time when Claire was still a member of the household.20

In Mathilda, a feeble novella unpublished until 1959, Mary Shelley bravely if not well treats the subject of father-daughter incest. The story is straightforward. The parents of Mathilda enjoy a true love match that tragically ends when the mother dies shortly after giving birth. Stunned by grief, Mathilda's father entrusts the infant to the care of an aunt and is absent for sixteen years. After father and daughter eventually meet, they share a few idyllic months before the father commits suicide as a consequence of falling in love with his daughter. Mathilda, in turn, isolates herself from society and gradually, in spite of a friendship with a young poet (Shelley?), wastes away. Written during a time of severe personal tragedy for Mary, the novella is neither tough-minded nor psychologically acute but rather sentimental and wistful.21 The language is overwrought and the plot minimal.

In Mathilda Mary wrote of events closely, almost embarrassingly, associated with her own life. The young girl's mother dies giving birth; her father first rejects her, then is overwhelmed by love for her--a sad fantasy in the face of the similarity of events with Mary's own life, for William Godwin remained cold to his daughter. It is not easy to determine what Mary comprehended by the autobiographical nature of her novella. Nevertheless, one is tempted to assign the credibility of her treatment of incest not only to innocent wish-fulfillment on her part--i. e., simply that her father would love her--but also to a personal apprehension of the circumstances in which illicit passion within a family group and the unhappiness thereby induced might develop.

Prior to The Cenci, Shelley's personal response to incest had not been so sensitive. Amongst friends, he had not been averse to making jocular, indulgent references to brother-sister love, and he had, of course, treated sibling incest very positively in the Revolt of Islam (1817).22 As in the earlier poem, however, he seemed at pains to dissociate himself from the action portrayed in The Cenci. "My chief endeavor," Shelley wrote Thomas Medwin, "was to produce a delineation of passions which I had never participated in. ..." Later he told Trelawny that "In writing The Cenci my object was to see how I could succeed in describing passions I had never felt. ..." In reference to either the incest or the murder, the interesting aspect of these statements is that he felt it necessary to make them. Was Shelley here anticipating the calumny his already tainted reputation and the scandalous play would together elicit? Did he fear a revival of the "league of incest" story?23 Was he, and this seems most likely, combatting the gossip which at the very time not only linked him to Claire Claremont but also provided them with issue, the baby Elena Shelley?


Whether one adds a biographical element to Shelley's choice of (or use of) incest as a theme in The Cenci, its symbolic role is paramount and multifarious. The philosophical base--the existence and power of evil--has been admirably explicated; without minimizing this reading, I would like to take up the notion that the metaphorical sense of the play might also be political.24

There is little difficulty in discerning the political ramifications of Shelley's depiction of Francesco Cenci. The character's impressive quality as Shelley portrays him is not so much the depth of his depravity (which alone would be merely grotesque) but the acuity of his perceptions about his depravity. He recognizes whence it originates, the hypocrisies that sustain it, and the voraciousness of its easily-jaded appetite. The social order of his time and place being structured on absolute rather than discriminating power, Cenci is the domestic agent of a patriarchal despotism ruling Church and State. As oppression seeps inevitably into the exercise of absolute power, the fictions which shroud its actions must be carefully maintained. Thus an autocratic Pope such as Clement VIII Aldobrandino may rely on the derivation of the authority of the "Holy Father" from God the Father and, at the same time, refuse to discipline Cenci, who is also a father: "[The Pope] holds it of most dangerous example / In aught to weaken the paternal power, / Being, as 'twere, the shadow of his own" (II. ii. 54-56). Cenci scoffs at these shams by ripping the façade of mercy from the Papal dispensations he has received: "No doubt Pope Clement, / and his most charitable nephews, pray / ... that I long enjoy / Strength, wealth, and pride, and lust, and length of days / Wherein to enact the deeds which are the stewards / Of the revenue" (I. i. 26-33). Mocking the line of authority, he ironically and caustically pleads that to accomplish his iniquitous designs "the world's Father / Must grant a parent's prayer against his child" (IV. i. 106-07). Cenci will not hide from what he is, for he has "no remorse and little fear, / Which are ... the checks of other Men" (I. i. 84-85). Finally, he comprehends the quickly-sated desire for domination that is the driving force of corrupted power (I. i. 96-109) and unflinchingly discerns that to debase his victim spiritually is ultimately more devastating than any form of physical injury. "I rarely kill the body, which preserves, / Like a strong prison, the soul within my power," he gloats (I. i. 114-15). Thus does Cenci plot incest, an appropriate act to demonstrate his cognizance of the ineluctable degeneracy that corrupted power breeds.

With the character of Beatrice, Shelley approaches the situation from the non-aggressor's point of view. In Acts I and II he carefully presents Beatrice as an innocent, and then, with unforgettable imagery, describes her contamination as the transference of an infection by rape. Her innocence allows misfortune because it is ignorance; she is easy prey for her father, the representative of a duplicitous social order, because she believes the premises of the authority by which her world is controlled. And endowed not with one father but three, she is too fragile to withstand the seemingly contradictory demands of so cumbersome a patrimony.25 Poignantly, she cries out her bewilderment to "God, whose image on earth a Father is" (II. i. 16-17) and conflates the familial and religious patriarchies she must obey: "What if we / ... were his own flesh, / His children and his wife, whom he is bound / To love and shelter? / ... / I have borne much, and kissed the sacred hand / Which crushed us to earth, and thought its stroke / Was perhaps some paternal chastisement!" (I. iii. 103-06, 111-13). When the incest has been committed, Beatrice instantly perceives her physical violation as a spiritual defilement. Flesh is dissolved "to a pollution, poisoning / The subtle pure, and inmost spirit of life!" she moans (III. i. 22-23), and decries the blood "which [is] my father's blood, / Circling through these contaminated veins ..." (III. i. 95-96). The polluted blood now coursing through her veins will be purged by blood-letting.

Shelley knew that Francesco Cenci's evil had a specific political name: tyranny. Cenci's incestuous behavior is no wanton deed of lust. It is a deliberate attempt by a despot to compel Beatrice's submission to her place in the autocratic order. "I will drag her, step by step, / Through infamies unheard of among men," resolves Francesco (IV. viii. 80-81), until "she shall become ... to her own conscious self / All she appears to others / ... A rebel to her father and her God" (IV. i. 85-90). Of their union a monstrosity will be born: "May it be a hideous likeness of herself ... turning her mother's love to misery" (IV. i. 144-51). What is born of the unnatural coupling is an abnormal thing: parricide. More important than the forceful subversion of Beatrice's independent spirit that the act of incest represents is its result, since the murder, too, may be comprehended as a political act. When Beatrice lashes out, it is against the "power moulding my wretched lot," the entire hierarchy of fathers to whom she is subject. It is, in a word, insurrection.

In other words, if parent-child incest is a symbol of tyrannical oppression, then the parricide must represent the possibility of eliminating tyranny through violence. Although Shelley was always a persuasive and powerful spokesman for non-violent reform, he had gradually begun to conclude that, on occasion, armed resistance might be necessary. "No man," he wrote in 1812, "has a right to disturb the public peace by personally resisting the execution of a law, however bad."26 He seemed to reiterate this position in 1819 in his "Philosophical Essay on the Nature of Reform": "if the tyrants command their troops to fire upon [the assembled people] or cut them down unless they disperse, [their leader] will exhort them peaceably to risk the danger, and to expect without resistance the onset of the cavalry, and wait with folded arms the event of the fire of the artillery."27 Shortly after the Peterloo Massacre occurred on 16 August 1819, Shelley had dashed off a poetic solution in "The Mask of Anarchy":

And if the tyrants dare
Let them ride among you there,
Slash, and stab, and maim, and hew,--
What they like, that let them do.
With folded arms and steady eyes,
And little fear, and less surprise,
Look upon them as they slay
Till their rage has died away.

The discriminating ear will pick up a subtle threat running through the verses in various paraphrases like an implacable basso continuo: "Ye are many, they are few." Similarly a reluctant but clear-eyed Shelley had added to his essay: "The last resort of resistance is undoubtedly insurrection. The right of insurrection is derived from the employment of armed force to counteract the will of the nation."28

If he admitted violence could be countenanced, although only as a last resort and after passive resistance had failed, then Shelley's quasi-Biblical declaration in his preface to The Cenci is stunningly fatuous: "No person can be truly dishonored by the act of another, and the fit return to make the most enormous injuries is kindness and forbearance, and a resolution to convert the injurer from his dark passions by peace and love" (Works, II, 200). Did he truly mean that Beatrice should respond to her father with "kindness and forbearance" after he had raped her? In fact, her behavior in the first two acts embodies just that passivity he advocated, and its consequence is to enrage Cenci more and ultimately to drive him to his horrific act. On the one hand demonstrating the failure of passive resistance, the poet implies that Beatrice is nevertheless guilty twice over--for the parricide and, later, for lying about her role in the murder. She is a criminal then, or would be, if Shelley's admiration for her were not everywhere evident, particularly in the nobility of her demeanor and the beauty of the lines which she speaks as she faces death.

Perhaps the confusion arises from the desire, manifested in choosing to make incest the crux of his plot, to create neither criminal nor heroine but a special kind of political victim. To support this hypothesis, one must add to the "Relation" as source for The Cenci another essay, Shelley's "An Address to the People on the Death of the Princess Charlotte" (1817). The demise of Liberty was his theme, its symbol the passing of the Princess, but its cause the execution of the leaders of the so-called Derbyshire Insurrection. Three workers, Jeremiah Brandreth, Isaac Ludlam, and William Turner, had been incited by a government-employed provocateur to march on Nottingham, where they were arrested. The government's tactic in exciting the workers to disobedience was to demoralize their opposition by a swift, brutal punishment: "On the 7th November, Brandreth, Turner, and Ludlam ascended the scaffold. We feel for Brandreth the less, because it seems he killed a man. But recollect who instigated him to the proceedings which led to murder."29 Drawing on newspaper accounts, Shelley describes the execution scene: "These men were shut up in a horrible dungeon, for many months, with the fear of a hideous death and of everlasting hell thrust before their eyes. ... What these sufferers felt shall not be said. But what must have been the long and various agony of their kindred may be inferred from Edward Turner, who, when he saw his brother dragged along the hurdle, shrieked horribly and fell into a fit, and was carried away like a corpse by two men. ... Brandreth was calm and evidently believed the consequences of our errors were limited by that barrier [death]. Ludlam and Turner were full of fears, lest God should plunge them in everlasting fire."30 It seems to me that Shelley, reading the "Relation" scarcely a year later, might have been struck by the similarity of Bernardo's collapse upon the execution of his family members, the anxiety of Lucretia and Giacomo as they faced the ax, and Beatrice's serenity in the same situation. More important, Beatrice's rape by her father and execution by the Church--the conflation of the two as her dual patrimony stressed throughout the play--parallels the provocation and retribution of the Derbyshire episode.

In other words, the statement "No person can be truly dishonored" was not sanctimony but warning, motivated by genuine alarm. Shelley could have anticipated how very inflammable Beatrice's example might be, especially to the smouldering anti-clerical factions in Italy and the anti-monarchical parties in England. Embracing these causes himself, he foresaw how readily such dissatisfaction could be exploited by the very agents of victimization and how the noblest, most justifiable rebellion might be defeated thereby. The oppressed must beware meeting violence with violence, lest, in succumbing to vengeance, they become pawns of power--lest they become, like Beatrice, victims.


An international array of writers, Hawthorne, Guerrazzi, Niccolini, Landor, Stendhal, and the Marquis de Custine among them, employed the Cenci story as subject or symbol, many in ways that directly or indirectly acknowledge Shelley's precedent.31 Less well-known today, however, is the popularity the image of Beatrice accrued in the visual arts. Her story, its Gothic horror and melancholy easily magnified in the quest for emotionally-charged themes, became a staple of Romantic iconography for the Italian School particularly. In my opinion, the quantity and kind of attention the image of Beatrice Cenci received in the visual arts is attributable to the incest motif in Shelley's drama.

There are basically two types of depictions: copies of the so-called Guido Reni portrait and representations of the events associated with her unhappy life and, especially, her death. Within the first group may be found the numberless engravings and canvases that were almost omnipresent in the Roman art market for nearly a century, all hyperbolically touted as duplicates taken directly from the original. In many ways, the most important of these reproductions is an engraving made to accompany Johann Kaspar Lavater's Physiognomische Fragmente (4 vols.; 1775-78) because the inscription gives the first identification of a previously unnamed head of a young girl in the Colonna collection as Beatrice and the artist as Guido Reni.32 The ascription to Guido was not immediately accepted, for to cognoscenti of the Bolognese master the attribution seemed somewhat far-fetched. Claiming the appealingly mournful portrait to be of Beatrice, however, was instantly successful, and in 1786 Luigi Cunego became the first of a veritable host of graphic artists to publish "una stampa reppresentatante il rittrato della famosa nobil Donzella Beatrice Cenci Roman, che lascio la Testa supra un palco nel' anno 1599."33 Perhaps it was Cunego's engraving that Shelley carried with him in Rome, although by the turn of the century several other artists were competing for the patronage the prints enjoyed.

For wealthy or more devoted admirers of the portrait, copies in oil were executed with equal frequency. Readers familiar with Hilda and Miriam, the protagonists of Hawthorne's Marble Faun, will not be surprised to learn that women artists, at that time frequently forced into the role of copyist, produced versions of the Cenci canvas (e. g., the copy by Augusta H. Saint-Gaudens). Established American painters such as Thomas Sully, Cephas Thompson, and Elihu Vedder also produced duplicates. Moreover, the tourist trade in copies of the painting apparently could provide a regular occupation: Bonfiglio's Guide--giving the studio address and thematic specialty of foreign and native painters in Rome for the convenience of prospective buyers--recognized two men solely for their Beatrice reproductions.34 So plentiful did the patrons become that access to the original had to be curtailed; copies were then made from copies, a circumstance that accounts for the broad range of verisimilitude one finds in the portraits.

Of the second type of imagery associated with Beatrice--episodes taken from her life--favorite topics were her trial and punishment. Only a handful of these works are currently known, even to specialists in the field, and then mostly by means of photographs. Still, some generalizations may be made, for the depictions are characteristically Romantic. For example, a propensity for fabricating biographies of the Old Masters, oftentimes with emphasis on the painter's love life, led to imaginative reconstructions of a painter's relationship with his model. Raphael's portrait of La Fornarina (c. 1516, Borghese Gallery, Rome), a baker's daughter presumed to be his mistress, was the basis of J. A. D. Ingres' several versions of the two embracing in the studio. Likewise, embedded in the legend that Guido took his likeness of Beatrice the night before her execution is implied the warmth of his appreciation for his beautiful sitter. Since the sitter's approaching death was also an issue, the erotic quotient is heightened by horror. It is probably no coincidence that Guido's alleged Beatrice, when it went to the Barberini collection at mid-century, hung in the gallery next to Raphael's Fornarina.

At least two paintings are directly drawn from Shelley's play. Francesco Hayez's Il Cenci e la Figlia (c. 1845; whereabouts unknown) illustrates the evil Count attacking his daughter in her bed, and Charles Robert Leslie's Scene from Shelley's The Cenci (1853) visualizes the ranting Francesco and his terrorized family. However, almost all contemporary references to representations of Beatrice, even the portrait copies, assume a relationship to Shelley's drama and frequently use quotations therefrom to bolster their emotional impact. An example that well illustrates this sympathetic association is the observation of American art critic Henry Tuckerman: "I paused long before two famous original paintings--Raphael's Fornarina and Guido's portrait of Beatrice Cenci. The one from the perfection displayed in its execution, the other from the melancholy history of its subject, are highly attractive."35 He appends, without further explanation, the passage from The Cenci that begins with Beatrice's moan, "I am cut off from the only world I know. ..."

All of the depictions of Beatrice fall within the larger genre of paintings devoted to heroines who prefer death to sexual violation. Lucretia, wife of Tarquin, for instance, who stabs herself after being raped by her husband's political rival, and Virginia, whose father stabs her to save her from a lustful ruler, were popular topics of Italian history painters. Beatrice was compared with these "Roman women of the heroic time, whose firmness she recalled while she surpassed their charms."36 One difference--unremarked, as far as I can determine, at the time--is that Beatrice dies dishonored. She is resurrected as a heroine only after her death.

After the publication of Shelley's play, therefore, the number and variety of images of Beatrice dramatically increase. The trade in copies of Guido's portrait becomes virtually a mania after 1819; tellingly, this is accompanied by a noticeable mutation of sweet to sensual in Beatrice's physiognomy. In fact, all representations reveal to a greater or lesser degree a preoccupation with sexuality, a concern I believe to be inculcated by the incest motif in The Cenci. Does this situation mean that the great seriousness with which the poet approached the story and the tragedy he discerned therein was trivialized? In part, the answer is yes. His philosophical and political subtleties were easily overshadowed by the sensationalism of his plot and outweighed by the pathos of his characterizations. Nevertheless, in the sentimentalized visual treatment of Beatrice are potent iconographic implications which in particular manifest themselves in the comparison with Lucretia and Virginia. The deaths of Lucretia and Virginia brought about uprisings that drove out corrupt governments, since the sexual aggressor in each case had been a tyrant whose lasciviousness was the final outrage to his aggrieved subjects. As the intermittent political turmoil steadily worsened throughout the nineteenth century and nationalistic fervor concomitantly grew, Beatrice came to be regarded as a potential Lucretia or Virginia, the connection of Roman liberty with a sexually victimized yet heroic woman now assuming a prophetic note. An indication of the Italian public's attitude toward Beatrice was a proposal in 1872 to erect to her honor a monument inscribed with the following verse:

Not cruel death,
Not the ravished flower of youth,
Not the denial of love's bliss, ...
These wrongs did not so grieve me as that my honorable name
Was for long years defiled.
Roman sisters
Now that you are free so to do,
Give again a sepulchre to my ashes
And honor to my memory,
So will you do service
To eternal justice
To the fatherland
To me
And to yourselves likewise.37

In Shelley's play the act of incest as a symbol constitutes a variation on the classic theme of Saturn devouring his children, an attempt to retain power by a monstrous act. The politically rebellious found tempting parallels between their own situation and Cenci's oppression by physical force. Did not their antagonists (the Papacy, the French, the Austrians, various Italian petty princes, depending on one's persuasion) make invidious use of their traditionally paternalistic relationship with the Italian people? The visually acute were quick to act on Shelley's example in transforming Beatrice from an historical figure to a politically-charged emblem. As a result, her pictorial import recalls that of Joan of Arc, whose story was also revived by artists and writers of the nineteenth century, especially when France had need of a symbol of nationalism and unity. Joan of Arc's execution for witchcraft in 1431 is literally rendered a martyrdom by her sanctification nearly five centuries later. Beatrice, whom Shelley conceived as a victim, became a secular martyr.


1. See Mary Shelley's notes to The Cenci, published in The Complete Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed. George Edward Woodbury (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1948), II, 441-42. All references to The Cenci are to this edition.

2. Ibid., II, 469.

3. The most comprehensive account is Stuart Curran, Shelley's Cenci: Scorpions Ringed with Fire (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1970). See also E. S. Bates, A Study of Shelley's Drama The Cenci (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1908), and the chapter devoted to The Cenci in Kenneth Neill Cameron, Shelley, the Golden Years (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1974).

4. See Barbara Groseclose, "A Portrait Not by Guido Reni of a Girl Who Is Not Beatrice Cenci," Studies in Eighteenth Century Culture, 11 (1981), 107-32.

5. Works, II, 202-03.

6. Shelley repeats this story in his Preface (Works, II, 202).

7. Passages from the French and Italian Notebooks, ed. Randall Stewart (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1932), pp. 39-90.

8. See, for example, Carlo Tito Dalbono, Storia de Beatrice Cenci e di suoi tempi con documenti inedititi (Naples: G. Nobili, 1864); Antonio Bertolotti, Francesco Cenci e la Sua Famiglia, 2nd ed. (Florence: Gazzetta d'Italia, 1879); Ilario Rinieri, Beatrice Cenci (Siena: Typ. Pontificia S. Bernardino, 1909); and Corrado Ricci, Beatrice Cenci, trans. Morris Bishop and Henry Logan Stuart (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1925), 2 vols.

9. Works, II, 1989-99. I should take the opportunity to correct here my error in "A Portrait Not by Guido Reni of a Girl Who Is Not Beatrice Cenci," as I state that the manuscript accounts were probably based on Muratori's 1749 Annali d'Italia. At the time I was writing, I was unaware of Truman Guy Steffen's article (see below, footnote 12) which dates extant manuscripts by watermarks; two (in the Strunk collection, Univ. of Texas) are seventeenth-century.

10. Works, II, 199.

11. Works, II, 462. The translator is not named.

12. Truman Guy Steffen, "Seven Accounts of the Cenci and Shelley's Drama," Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, 9 (1967), 601-18, surveys and dates seven extant manuscripts.

13. Paul Smith, "Restless Casuistry: Shelley's Composition of The Cenci," Keats-Shelley Journal, 13 (1964), 80.

14. Cameron, p. 399; see also Steffen, p. 603.

15. Dalbono, Bertolotti, Rinieri, and Ricci all examine this issue; see also George Bowyer, A Dissertation on the Statutes of the Cities of Italy; and a Translation of the Pleading of Prospero Farinaccio in Defense of Beatrice Cenci and her Relatives (London: Richards, 1838), pp. 73ff.

16. Interestingly, as Smith notes (p. 82), Shelley "[condemned] Italian society for its passionate exculpation" of Beatrice although his own revisions of the story (Smith does not refer specifically to the rape) had the effect of partially justifying her action.

17. Letter to Peacock, July 1819, quoted in Works, II, 445.

18. Peter Thorslev, "Incest as Romantic Symbol," Comparative Literature Studies, 2 (1965), 41-58.

19. Cameron, p. 264, writes that Mary's "jealousy must have been directed with special force against Claire, for Shelley and Claire had either had an affair or came close to having one in 1815, following which Claire was ejected from the household amid 'a turmoil of passion and hatred.' In 1817 the 'Constantia' poems reveal a passionate interest in Claire and contain derogatory comments on Mary." An even-handed though inconclusive account is given in Richard Holmes, Shelley the Pursuit (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1975), pp. 468-74; however, Holmes adds on an appendix (pp. 482-84) that indicates his bewilderment on the subject. See also The Journal of Claire Claremont, ed. Marion Kingston Stocking (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1968), p. 97.

20. Elizabeth Nitchie, "Mary Shelley's Mathilda," Studies in Philology, extra ser., No. 3 (1959), p. 25, dates the work to the latter part of 1819.

21. In mourning for their daughter Clara, who died in Venice on 24 September 1818, a scant five months after the publication of Frankenstein, the Shelleys arrived in Rome on 20 November, residing there for much of the following year. On 7 June 1819, their son William Shelley died, the severity and propinquity of the two tragedies inducing in Mary a depression severe enough to alienate the couple briefly. See Carlos Baker, Shelley's Major Poetry: The Fabric of a Vision (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press; 1948), pp. 287-91.

22. Laon and Cythna became, in The Revolt of Islam, childhood sweethearts rather than siblings, as Shelley's publisher resisted the incest motif. See especially Thorslev, pp. 50-52.

23. Cf. Cameron, p. 29: "When English society heard of this visit [in 1816] of Shelley, Mary, and Claire to Byron, a story spread (perhaps begun by Southey) of a 'league of incest' at Geneva." The term "incest" was presumably used because it was assumed that Shelley and Byron both were conducting affairs with the (half-) sisters. Cameron believes that Shelley's disclaimer of a personal knowledge of incest in the Preface to Laon and Cythna is the consequence of his knowledge of the Geneva rumors; see p. 621. See also Holmes, p. 543, on Samuel Taylor Coleridge's review of The Revolt of Islam in the Quarterly for April 1819. Coleridge made much of Shelley's "penchant for incest" and delved into his relationships with Harriet, Mary, and Claire.

24. Cf Curran, pp. 209-19, on the mounting of The Cenci by the Korsch Theater of Moscow in 1919-20; "The play was chosen and presented ... for its political and social message. The raw denunciation of a corrupt ruling class ... ends in Shelley's play without hope for release, except insofar as the individual human being is willing to stand in unheroic martyrdom rather than succumb to an unnatural and inhuman system. Russian revolutionaries ... would find in Beatrice Cenci not Shelley's image of despair, but a heroic symbol of their struggle." Of interest for the light it may throw on Shelley's political perceptions, though the examination is of metaphysics, is James Rieger, "Shelley's Paterin Beatrice," Studies in Romanticism, 4 (1965), 169-84.

25. Cf. Rieger, p. 173: "The tragedy's great developmental irony is Beatrice's growing awareness ... that Cenci, Clement, and Almighty God form a triple entente. Her father, il Papa, and Pater Omnipotens constitute a tacit hierarchy."

26. "A Declaration of Rights," in Shelley's Prose or the Trumpet of a Prophecy, ed. Daniel Lee Clark (Albuquerque: Univ. of New Mexico Press, 1954), p. 70.

27. Ibid., p. 257.

28. Ibid., p. 259.

29. Ibid., p. 168.

30. Ibid., p. 165.

31. Francesco Guerrazzi, Beatrice Cenci, Storia del Secolo XVI (Pisa: Typ. Vannuccini, 1854), comes closest to the political thrust of Shelley's drama, though his novel is mostly an anti-clerical diatribe designed to muster public support for his own views. To my mind, Hawthorne's use of the Guido portrait of Beatrice as a symbol of "unconscious sin" in The Marble Faun (Boston: Ticknor and Field, 1860) most effectively parallels the spiritual complexities Shelley revealed. Louise K. Barnett, "American Novelists and the 'Portrait of Beatrice Cenci'," New England Quarterly, 53 (1980), 168-83, suggests the incest motif in Melville's Pierre is related to the author's knowledge of the Beatrice legend.

32. See also Charlotte Steinbrucker, Lavaters Physiognomische Fragmente in Verhaltnis zur Bildenen Kunst (Berlin: W. Bonngräbner, 1915), p. 51.

33. Giornale delle Belle Arti per l'Anno MDCCLXXXVI, No. 8 (February), p. 63.

34. See F. Saverio Bonfigli, The Artistical Directory, or a Guide to the Studios in Rome with Much Supplementary Information (Rome: Typ. legale, 1858).

35. Italian Sketchbook (Boston: Light and Stearns, 1837), p. 42.

36. Francis Alphonse Wey, Rome (London: Chapman and Hall, 1872), p. 61.

37. See Ricci, p. 272. The verses are said to have been composed by Francesco Guerrazzi.

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420059960