The young and beautiful Beatrice Cenci (1577-1599) is kept with her stepmother, Lucretia, in appalling isolation and darkness in a forbidding castle by her cruel father, Francesco, whose enormous debts and misdeeds make him unable as well as unwilling to support his offspring. He wants to keep Beatrice from marrying to avoid paying a dowry.

He suffers from a horrifying skin disease, possibly syphilis, that covers his lower body in itchy painful sores. He requires Beatrice to rub him nightly with a rough towel, and he is careless to the point of exhibitionism about his sexual and eliminatory functions.

Beatrice decides that he must be killed if her lot is to improve. She begins an affair with Olimpio the married seneschal of the castle—giving herself to obtain his allegiance; soon she is pregnant. She appeals to her brother in Rome for help. He sends poison, but Beatrice cannot use it, because Cenci has her sample all his food and drink.

Angry and impatient with her situation and fearing her father’s wrath when he discovers the affair with an underling, she insists that Olimpio kill Francesco immediately. With the help of the peasant, Marzio, Olimpio smashes the sleeping man’s skull with a hammer and together they stuff his body through a hole in the balcony to make the crime look like an accident.

Suspicions about the death are raised almost within the moment of its discovery because of the wounds on the body, blood in the bedchamber, and the apparent lack of grief in the family. Time passes. Beatrice and Lucretia go back to the family mansion in Rome. Olimpio leaves his own wife to be with Beatrice, and he blackmails the Cenci family into treating him as an equal. Her brother, Giacomo, barely tolerates him.

Beatrice gives birth and the child is handed to the nuns for care. Eventually charges are laid and confessions are extracted by torture on the wheel. Marzio dies in prison of his wounds. Olimpio roams freely but is himself murdered for a ransom.

The lawyer for the defense argued that the father’s sexual abuse of Beatrice was a mitigating circumstance, but he failed to convince the court. Beatrice is beheaded along with her stepmother, while her brother is tortured, drawn and quartered. Because the killig of a parent is the most odious of crimes, the executions are staged as a public spectacle in front of Hadrian’s tomb. Beatrice’s corpse is escorted by a vast crowd to its final resting place near the altar of San Pietro Montorio by Rome’s Gianicolo garden.


The once popular American novelist, Prokosch, offers his own plausible version of the oft-told tale story with his usual flair for lavish, sensual description of moment, space and character that is vaguely reminiscent of prose-works by Dylan Thomas.

Unlike Shelley’s version of the story (see The Cenci: A Tragedy in Five Acts in this database), Prokosch’s account refuses to take sides, and none of the characters are sympathetic. Cenci is odious and lasvicious; Olimpio, a narcissistic fop; Marzio, an innocent fool drawn to crime against his own better judgment. Lucretia is vapid and fat. The wives of Cenci and Olimpio are decent but weakened by their unquestioning bond to men.

Beatrice remains enigmatic. Her feelings for Olimpio are insincere and manipulative. Prokosch has her order Olimipio to commit the crime for the almost justifiable reasons of incarceration and cruelty, but he implies that the lawyer dreamed up the defence argument of sexual violation, and she merely goes along with his suggestion. When finally forced by torture to admit her guilt, she does so simply and dies with dignity. Her grave is still a site of pilgrimage for romantics who can reconcile their sympathies for her plight with those aroused by a transgression of the fifth commandment.

One of the compelling aspects of this work is the pungent glimpses provided into the everyday lives of ordinary people in the past. This novel shares this trait with famous scholarly works based on inquisition sources, such as Emmanuel Le Roy La Durie’s Montaillou or Carlo Ginzberg's, The Cheese and The Worms.

Prokosch is himself interesting because of his own flirtation with crime. Twice he admitted to forgery for falsifying editions of noted authors.



Greenwood Press

Place Published

Westport, Conn.



Page Count