A Family Slaughtered Their Tyrannical Father And Became Legends For It

Beatrice Cenci shocked Rome in 1598 when she masterminded the execution of her own father, Count Francesco Cenci. Francesco was guilty of many forms of mistreatment towards his children, both sexual and physical, but the courts routinely exonerated him due to his noble status.

Because of this injustice, Beatrice took matters into her own hands. She seduced servants and used persuasion to convince the entire Cenci family to help her eliminate Count Francesco once and for all. Like Giulia Tofana, the woman who sold poisoned makeup for wives to use on their cruel husbands, Beatrice almost got away with it.

In 1599, the pope ordered Beatrice’s execution for the crime of patricide. The Roman people rose up in protest, shouting that Beatrice deserved mercy. Should Beatrice have lost her life for killing her tyrannical father? Or did the pope have other motives when he sent the beautiful young woman to her ultimate fate?

  • A Dead Aristocrat Shocked Rome, But The Suspect Was Even More Shocking
    Photo: Georg Braun; Frans Hogenberg / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    A Dead Aristocrat Shocked Rome, But The Suspect Was Even More Shocking

    In 1598, a scandalous death shocked all of Rome. The victim was an aristocrat, Count Francesco Cenci. At first, Cenci's fall from the balcony of his family’s hillside castle in the small village of La Petrella del Salto seemed accidental. When villagers went down to retrieve the Count’s body, however, he was already cold to the touch. Later, they noticed multiple wounds on the Count’s face and head that couldn’t have been caused by the fall.

    Soon, the news spread that the Count's death was not an accident, and the reveal of the guilty party was even more shocking: the Count’s own daughter, Beatrice Cenci. The young woman orchestrated a conspiracy that involved Count Francesco’s entire household.

  • Francesco Held A Sinister Reputation, But He Always Escaped Punishment

    Beatrice Cenci was born in 1577. She grew up in Rome at a time when the city was experiencing a renaissance, with new building projects and wealth flowing into the city. Beatrice’s father, Francesco, was a count, the heir to a vast fortune, but he also had a terrible reputation. He starved his own servants and only stopped when the papal courts ordered him to feed them; he took a mistress and beat her until she performed certain sexual acts; he even confessed to accosting young boys on multiple occasions.

    Because of Francesco's status as an aristocrat, he never faced serious punishments. He was only convicted of “unnatural vice” for his treatment of his mistress, and he was simply ordered to pay fines for crimes that would have sent a poor man to the gallows.

  • Daughters Were At The Mercy Of Cruel Fathers

    Francesco Cenci had seven children: five sons and two daughters. Beatrice was the youngest daughter. As soon as they were old enough, Francesco's children tried to escape their father's wrath and cruelty. One son, Giacomo, disowned his rich father and left, while two were fatally injured in duels.

    In many ways, a son's escape from an unsafe household was much simpler than a daughter gaining her freedom. In the Renaissance era, the daughters of wealthy men were forced to marry husbands chosen by their fathers. With little power, women were at the mercy of the men in their lives.

    Beatrice’s older sister, Antonina, found a way to escape Francesco: she petitioned the pope directly, requesting permission to marry without Francesco’s consent. If the pope refused her, Antonina even promised to join a convent just to escape her father. Fortunately, the pope granted his consent to Antonina’s marriage and forced Francesco to pay the dowry.

  • Francesco Isolated His Family In A Castle
    Photo: Gabriele Marcelli / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    Francesco Isolated His Family In A Castle

    After paying Antonina's dowry, Francesco moved his family away from Rome. His legal troubles were only growing, and he didn’t want Beatrice to follow her sister’s path of independence. Francesco was furious when the pope forced him to pay a large dowry for his oldest daughter.

    Francesco escaped to La Petrella del Salto, a small village about 60 miles north of Rome. The family’s castle sported many scenic views of the surrounding Abruzzi Mountains, but the home was anything but idyllic. Instead, Beatrice, her brother Bernardo, and her step-mother Lucrezia were treated like prisoners in the castle.

    Trapped in a deserted castle far from Rome, Beatrice could not escape her father’s brutality. She became a captive – and her anger continued to grow.

  • Beatrice Started Plotting After A Life Of Mistreatment
    Photo: MAPRO/Safra catalogue / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Beatrice Started Plotting After A Life Of Mistreatment

    Francesco's treatment of his wife and children became even more obscene after they left Rome. He forced Beatrice to scrape the scabies off his body, even from his testicles. He insisted that Beatrice and her step-mother share a bed with him. According to rumors, Francesco even raped his daughter repeatedly.

    Beatrice wrote a letter to her brother, Giacomo, back in Rome pleading for help, but Francesco found the letter and punished his daughter. Beatrice sought help from the authorities, but she was ignored because of her father’s status.

    As a last resort, Beatrice began plotting her father’s end.

  • Beatrice Used Seduction To Orchestrate The Conspiracy

    Beatrice wanted her father dead, but she wasn’t the only one. Her step-mother agreed to help plot Francesco’s death, as did Bernardo and Giacomo, Beatrice’s youngest and oldest brothers respectively. The mastermind of the plot was Beatrice herself.

    Beatrice began by seducing one of the castle's male servants, Olimpio Calvetti. In many retellings of Beatrice's story, including the 1969 film by famed director Lucio Fulci, the two were portrayed as doomed lovers – a bloodthirsty spin on Romeo and Juliet. 

    Beatrice then hired a second accomplice, named Marzio, to act as her hitman. Beatrice, a 21-year-old woman, would most likely have had some physical difficulty slaying her father, but Olimpio and Marzio could overpower the count. If anything were to go wrong, Beatrice could hide her own role.