Masterpiece: The portrait of Beatrice Cenci, the muse and the myth

by Isabelle Blank | 2/26/19 10:48am

Just as contemporary crowds flock to the Louvre today to catch a glimpse of DaVinci’s “Mona Lisa,” during the 19th century, there was one painting that stood out amidst all the rest as the most captivating work of the “Grand Tour.” The artwork, falsely identified as Guido Reni’s 1599 portrait of Beatrice Cenci attracted visitors from all around the globe and spawned numerous copies. Writers such as Charles Dickens, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville all documented their journey to Rome to see the painting. Hawthorne wrote in his travel journal that the painting’s “spell is indefinable, and the painter has wrought it in a way more like magic than anything else I have known.” The work appears in two of Edith Wharton’s novels and provided the inspiration for Percy Shelley’s 1819 drama “The Cenci.”  

The haunting portrait of a young girl, which was later rejected by scholars both as the work of Reni and as a portrait of Cenci, still hangs in Rome’s Barberini Gallery. Though scholars postulate that the subject is in fact a sibyl, the Barberini label remains unchanged. Many of today’s tourists bypass the portrait in order to see better-known pieces in the collection, ignorant of the ghost story that captured the imaginations of canonical writers and artists over a century ago. Though the true subject and painter remain unknown, the mythology and history surrounding this painting eclipses the art object itself.

The girl in the portrait is the image of purity. She looks over her left shoulder with wide brown eyes. Her body is wrapped in a white robe and dark tresses fall from beneath a white turban. Her skin is pale and soft, her cheeks rosy with youth. She parts her lips as though the painter has captured her in a moment of exhalation. This girl is unthreatening, modeled without hard angles or stark lighting. This is the portrait identified as Beatrice Cenci: a historical murderess whom folklore renders more victim than villain. 

Cenci is figured in popular imagination as the Barberini portrait’s innocent apple-cheeked girl. Though Cenci’s father allegedly raped her before she murdered him, she is referred to as the “Roman Virgin.” At papal decree, the historical Cenci was publicly beheaded outside Rome’s Castel Sant’Angelo on the morning of September 11, 1599. Legend claims that every year on the evening of Sep. 10, Cenci’s headless ghost appears on the Sant’Angelo Bridge. The mythologized figure of the martyred Cenci inhabits all roles of the Madonna-whore complex. She is a damsel in distress whose father locked her away in a castle, a villain who took bloody revenge against her own father and a heroine who remained composed in the face of execution.

The legend goes that Reni, who scholars now assert was not even in Rome at the time of Beatrice’s execution, painted the portrait in Beatrice’s jail cell the night before her death. The Italian painter Achille Leonardi cemented this fictitious scene in his 1866 painting “Guido Reni painting the portrait of Beatrice Cenci in jail.” Dickens gives an imagined account of Reni witnessing the execution of Cenci. In an essay on the portrait, Dickens writes “as you see her on his canvas, so she turned towards [Reni] … from the first sight of the axe, and stamped upon [Reni’s] mind a look which he has stamped on mine as though I had stood beside him in the concourse.” The painting’s false creation myth arises from an accumulated cultural imaginary solidified and rendered traceable by such mythic account.  

The Barberini portrait of an unknown girl became famous due to an externally ascribed narrative. The work became an empty vessel into which the story of a wronged woman could be placed. Myth operates not to conceal, but to distort and to simplify. The mythology projected onto Beatrice Cenci eclipses both the historical figure’s autonomy and the Barberini portrait’s true origin and representation. Cenci was a woman who was punished for asserting her own power in the wake of trauma. The Barberini portrait lent Cenci an imagined face and masked a real woman’s experience of paternal rape and papal punishment with a romanticized story.