The death of Francesco Cenci has the ring of a contemporary crime. A wealthy, well-connected man is killed when he steps onto a balcony which inexplicably gives way beneath him. Within days of his burial, local gossip suggests that it was no accident — the hole in the balcony is too small for anyone to slip through. Investigators discover blood-stained bed-clothes, and when the body is exhumed the skull is found to have been caved in by blows from an axe. Under questioning, Francesco’s servants reveal that he was killed on the orders of his wife and daughter aided by two sons.
The Cenci murder took place in Italy in 1598, but what gave it a resonance that seems modern in every age since were the motives of the murderers. Francesco was a bisexual sadist: he forced his wife into multiple couplings with male and female prostitutes, sodomised his stableboys, imprisoned his daughter, Beatrice, whipped her in sight of witnesses with a bull’s-pizzle sjambok and, allegedly, raped her. His killers, prompted and driven on by Beatrice, were themselves victims, goaded to extreme violence by the untrammelled cruelty of an abusive husband and father.
The final act, their dreadful torture and execution at the instigation of Pope Clement VIII, created a perfect tragedy which only required an image for the imagination to work on. Two centuries after the murder, the necessary icon was provided by Guido Reni’s painting of a lovely, startled girl, unconvincingly identified as Beatrice.
This is the starting-point of Belinda Jack’s ambitious essay. In it she sets out to show that among the many artists who have taken the Cenci murder as their subject, five in particular — Percy Bysshe Shelley, Herman Melville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, an American sculptor, Harriet Hosmer, and the French dramatist Antonin Artaud — became so obsessed with the sadistic, sexual undercurrents of the Cenci case that they were destroyed by it: ‘The work they produced under “Beatrice’s Spell” was almost invariably their last, their farewell to art, and often to life.’
This appealingly Gothic thesis appears most plausible in relation to Shelley whose play The Cenci brought to the fore Francesco’s cruelty and incest. Jack makes much of the bullying — the electric shocks and terrifying horror stories — with which Shelley buttressed his own domination of women close to him, his sisters, wife Harriet, and sister-mistresses, Mary Wollstonecraft and Claire Clairmont. She argues that Shelley used the subject to explore his own dark psyche, and quotes Robert Southey’s letter emphasising the similarities between the poet and his play: ‘Your character with your domestic arrangements might furnish the subject for a drama scarcely less painful than the detestable story of the Cenci ...’ It was the failure of the play with which he was so strongly identified, Jack implies, that drove Shelley to despair and a wilful death by drowning.
Unfortunately, the argument bears scant relation to reality. What shocked Southey about the play was not its incest but its atheism; Shelley’s anguish arose from the death of his young son William rather than the critical pasting given The Cenci, and so far from being broken by its failure, in the next two years he wrote some of his finest work, including The Mask of Anarchy and the odes to the Skylark, the West Wind and Liberty.
The other examples carry even less conviction. Melville lived for almost 40 years after Pierre, his tribute to the Cenci, during which he wrote some excellent short stories, of which Billy Budd is an example; Hawthorne’s Cenci novel, The Marble Faun, was followed by the admittedly thin Our Old Home; and as Jack herself admits, Hosmer’s sculpture of Beatrice was hugely admired, leading to years of productive work. Certainly Artaud’s Les Cenci bombed horribly and was followed by a long decline, but it takes a blinkered judgment to ascribe these events to ‘the Cenci disease’ rather than his uncontrollable addiction to hallucinogenic drugs.
Despite the absurdity of Belinda Jack’s thesis, she has caught at an authentic artistic thread. It would have responded better to being teased than tugged, but the power of the murder’s appeal remains undeniable.