Vol. 20 No. 13 · 2 July 1998

Screaming in the Castle: The Case of Beatrice Cenci

Charles Nicholl

5107 words

Beatrice Cenci was – to take a sample of soundbites over the centuries – a ‘goddess of beauty’, a ‘fallen angel’, a ‘most pure damsel’. She was also a convicted murderer. This is a charismatic combination, not least here in Italy, and her name has lived on, especially in Rome, where she was born and where she was executed in 1599.

The story as it comes down to us has the compactness of legend. It tells of a beautiful teenage girl who kills her brutal father to protect her virtue from his incestuous advances; who resists interrogation and torture with unswerving courage; and who goes to her execution unrepentant and borne along on a wave of popular sympathy. There have been many literary treatments of the story, the most famous of which is Shelley’s verse-drama, The Cenci, written in 1819. Other writers drawn to the subject include Stendhal, Dickens, Artaud and Alberto Moravia. The appeal of the story is partly lurid – a pungent mix of Renaissance sex and violence; a sense of dark deeds behind the closed doors of a prominent Roman family. It affords a glimpse, in Shelley’s words, of ‘the most dark and secret caverns of the human heart’. There is also the ethical conundrum it poses, its puzzle of legal guilt v. moral innocence. At the end of Moravia’s play, Beatrice Cenci (1958), she tells her prosecutors: ‘Accuse me if you wish, but I am innocent … According to your justice you will certainly be able to prove that I am guilty of my father’s death. But you will never be able to prove that I am not at the same time innocent according to another justice – a justice which you cannot know, still less administer.’ The beautiful murderer, the innocent sinner: La Cenci has cast her spell on the imagination – especially on a certain kind of male imagination – and it is with some difficulty that one digs back through the silt of literary sentiment to the event itself, which took place four hundred years ago in the precipitous little village of La Petrella del Salto, in the foothills of the Abruzzi mountains a hundred kilometres north-east of Rome.

Sometime after seven o’clock on the morning of 9 September 1598, a woman called Plautilla Calvetti was combing flax in her house at La Petrella. She heard a confused clamour outside – ‘shouted words that I could not understand’. She hurried out into the street. Someone she knew called to her: ‘Plautilla, Plautilla, they are screaming in the castle!’

The castle stood up on a steep crag above the village. It was known as La Rocca, and certainly today its stubby ruins, overgrown with broom and elder, look more like an outcrop of rock than the remains of a building. It was then the kind of rough-hewn, strategically placed fortress-cum-country-house that a very wealthy and very dodgy Roman nobleman might choose to hole up in when things got a bit hot – both climatically and figuratively – down in Rome. This was broadly the case with the current tenants of the building: Count Francesco Cenci, a 52-year-old Roman around whom accusations of corruption and violence clustered like summer flies; his second wife, Lucrezia; and his youngest daughter, Beatrice. The two women were essentially prisoners in the castle, slaves to the Count’s brutality, paranoia, and – if the rumours were to be believed – sexual abuse.

Plautilla knew the castle, and its secrets, rather better than most in the village. Her husband, Olimpio, was the castellano, or manager of the castle, and she, too, worked there as a housekeeper. This was why the villagers were here at her house, shouting that something was wrong – even wronger than usual – up at La Rocca. Olimpio was absent, however.

Plautilla ran straight away up the steep track to the castle, ‘with one slipper on and one slipper off’. She saw Beatrice Cenci looking down at her from one of the windows. She called up to her: ‘Signora, what is the matter?’ Beatrice did not answer. She was clearly distraught but ‘strangely silent’, unlike her stepmother, Lucrezia, who could be heard screaming inside the castle.

Some men came hurrying down the track. As they passed Plautilla they told her: ‘Signor Francesco e morto.’ The infamous Count Cenci was dead. His body was lying in what was called the ‘warren’, a dense patch of scrub below the castle rock which was used as a refuse tip. It appeared he had fallen from the wooden balcony that ran around the upper storey of the castle. There was a drop of six canne (about thirteen metres) into the warren. Part of the balcony had collapsed: one could see splintered wood, though the gap looked small for the bulky Count to have fallen through.

Ladders were fetched. Three or four of the men climbed down the ‘wilderness wall’ and into the warren. They confirmed that Cenci was dead – despite his fall having been broken by the branches of an elder tree. Indeed, the body was already cold to the touch, suggesting death had occurred some hours before. It was hauled up with great difficulty, roped to one of the ladders, and on this improvised stretcher it was carried to the castle pool, down below the outer gate. A crowd of villagers had gathered, among them three priests. They stared at the mortal remains of the great Count Cenci. His face and head were matted with blood; his costly casacca or gown of camel’s hair was torn and befouled with the rubbish of the warren: a ‘miserable rag’.

It was during the washing of the body, at the castle pool, that questions started to be raised. As they rinsed the blood off the Count’s raddled face, they found three wounds on the side of his head. Two were on the right temple, the larger one ‘a finger long’. The deepest and ugliest wound was near the right eye. One of the women deputed to wash the body, whose name was Dorotea, made irreverent comments about the dead man. She thrust her forefinger into the wound with grisly relish. One of the priests, Don Scossa, later said: ‘I could not look at it any longer.’ Porzia Catalano, another onlooker, said: ‘I turned my eyes aside so I didn’t have to look, because it frightened me.’

It was not the ghoulish jesting of Dorotea that struck the priests, however, so much as the nature of the wounds. How far their statements were shaped by later knowledge we do not know, but the priests who witnessed the washing of the body all claimed to have recognised instantly that the wounds on Cenci’s head had been made not by a fall from the balcony but by a violent blow with a sharp instrument. They thought they had been ‘made with a cutting tool like a hatchet’ or with a ‘pointed iron’, or possibly with a stiletto. One of the priests, Don Tomassini, also noted a deep bruise on the Count’s arm, above the left wrist. Thus, even before the dead man’s eyes had been closed (or rather, as Don Scosso pedantically noted, ‘the left eye, for the right eye was completely destroyed by the wound’), even before the body, clad in a fresh shirt and laid on sheets and cushions from the castle linen chest, had been carried down the twisting lane to the village church of Santa Maria which was to be its resting place, it was already suspected that Count Cenci’s death was not an accident but a case of murder.

Standing on the site of the castle pool four centuries later, assisted by the conventions of the Hammer horror movie which this story often resembles, one envisages that moment of dawning recognition, when the assembled villagers fall silent and their eyes slowly turn back up to the forbidding silhouette of La Rocca, to the ‘strangely silent’ figure of Beatrice at the window.

This brief account, based on statements by witnesses, catches at least something of the reality of the Cenci murder. It is a local event, as all historical events are to begin with; a sudden noisy intrusion into the routines of a late summer morning in La Petrella. This is the event before the dust has settled. Thereafter it becomes progressively distorted by various kinds of partisanship – the police investigation, the extraction of confessions, the hectorings of the trial, the blanket cruelties of the verdict – and then by the obscuring draperies of legend.

The investigation – by the Neapolitan authorities, who controlled the province of Abruzzo Ulteriore – was thorough and even ardent defenders of Beatrice do not dispute its basic findings. Count Cenci had indeed been murdered, horribly. While he slept, drugged by a sleeping draught prepared by Lucrezia, two men had entered his bedroom. Despite the drug it seems he awoke. One of the men held him down – the bruise on the wrist which Don Tomassino spotted – while the other placed an iron spike against his head and drove it in with a hammer. The two slighter wounds on the Count’s head were probably botched blows before the coup de grâce smashed home. They then dressed the body, humped it to the edge of the balcony and threw it down into the warren. Leaving a half-hearted hole in the balcony floor to make it look like an accident, and a mass of ‘scene of the crime’ evidence – blood-soaked sheets and the rest – to show that it wasn’t, they rode off into the night.

The two men were Olimpio Calvetti – the trusted castellano of La Rocca, the husband of Plautilla and, it later transpired, the lover of Beatrice – and a hired accomplice, Marzio Catalano, a.k.a. Marzio da Fiorani. These were the murderers of Count Cenci, but they were really only hitmen. The true architects of the murder were the Count’s immediate family: Lucrezia and Beatrice, his long-suffering wife and daughter, and his eldest surviving son, Giacomo. The latter was actually in Rome when it happened, but his extensive confessions provided the bulk of the case against them. Beatrice was said to have been the most implacable of the conspirators, the one who urged the assassins on when they baulked at the last moment. She, however, refused to confess, even under torture.

The judicial process lasted exactly a year, during which time both of the murderers died. Olimpio Calvetti, on the run in the Abruzzi hills – we shift from Hammer Horror to Spaghetti Western here – had his head sliced off with a hatchet by a bounty hunter. Marzio Catalano died under torture in the interrogation rooms of the Tordinona Prison in Rome. On 10 September 1599, Giacomo, Beatrice and Lucrezia Cenci were executed outside the Castel Sant’Angelo on the banks of the Tiber. Giacomo’s death was protracted – he was drawn through the streets on a cart, his flesh mutilated with heated pincers, his head smashed with a sledgehammer, his body quartered – but the two women walked to their death ‘unbound and in mourning garments’ and were ‘cleanly’ beheaded. A not entirely trustworthy account of the execution adds that Lucrezia had difficulty settling at the block because of the largeness of her breasts. A fourth Cenci, Bernardo, too young to be actively involved, was forced to watch the killing of his kin and was despatched to the galleys thereafter.

The affair was a cause célèbre, which echoed briefly through the newsletters of the day: ‘The death of the young girl, who was of very beautiful presence and of most beautiful life, has moved all Rome to compassion’; ‘She was 17 and very beautiful’; ‘She was very valorous’ at her death, unlike her stepmother, who was a ‘rag’.

The bald facts of the case do not go very far in explaining the passionate interest it has aroused, which has little to do with the actual murder of Count Cenci: on that, posterity’s verdict is a simple ‘good riddance’. It is rather the particular quality – real or imagined – of the person who has become the protagonist, the star, of the story: Beatrice Cenci. Though there was undoubtedly a continuous knowledge of the case from the late 16th century onwards, the legend of Beatrice Cenci is essentially a Romantic construct whose origin can be found in a long and highly-coloured account by the historian, Ludovico Antonio Muratori, in his 12-volume chronicle, Annali d’Italia, published in the 1740s. This popular book brought the case to a new generation of Italian readers, and when Shelley arrived in Rome in 1819 he found that ‘the story of the Cenci was a subject not to be mentioned in Italian society without awakening a deep and breathless interest.’ For Beatrice herself, he added, ‘the company never failed to incline to a romantic pity’ and a ‘passionate exculpation’ for the crime she had committed.

Shelley almost certainly knew Muratori’s version and may also have known an early dramatisation by the obscure and prolific Florentine playwright Vincenzo Pieracci (1760-1824), but the only source he mentions in the Introduction to his play is a mysterious ‘old manuscript’, which he describes as ‘copied from the archives of the Cenci Palace in Rome’ and ‘communicated’ to him by a friend. Mary Shelley also mentions this manuscript in her later notes on the play, though exactly what it was, and how much Shelley’s historical errors or reworkings were taken from it, is unclear. His version of the murder itself, for instance, is strangely sanitised: the Count is strangled by Olimpio, ‘that there might be no blood’. This accords rather better with his idealisation of Beatrice than the messy reality of the murder.

Shelley’s poetic heroine, agonising between the impossible alternatives of incest and parricide in tones that sometimes recall Isabella in Measure for Measure, is the exemplar of the Romantic Beatrice and ushers in a parade of doomed heroines in prose works by Stendhal (Les Cenci, 1839), Niccolini (Beatrice Cenci, 1844), Guerrazzi (Beatrice Cenci, 1853) – the latter a work of almost unbearable treacliness – together with shorter essays or treatments by the elder Dumas and Swinburne. In the 20th century the legend has persisted – a film (Beatrice Cenci, 1909) directed by the Italian Expressionist director Mario Caserini; a ‘Theatre of Cruelty’ version, Les Cenci, by Antonin Artaud, first performed in Paris in 1934, with Artaud in the role of the wicked Count; and Alberto Moravia’s wordy, Anouilhesque play, Beatrice Cenci (1958).

Then there is oral tradition. A typical synoptic version of the story runs: ‘her father dishonoured her, and in revenge she killed him by stabbing a silver pin into his ear’ (Carlo Merkel, Due Leggende intorno a Beatrice Cenci, 1893). Another, recorded in La Petrella in the Twenties by Corrado Ricci, describes her torture: ‘they hung her up by her yellow hair, which reached to her knees.’ This finds its way into Artaud’s play: ‘From the ceiling of the stage a wheel is revolving on its invisible axis. Beatrice, attached to the wheel by her hair, is urged on by a guard who grips her wrists behind her back.’

These literary or anecdotal aspects of the legend are closely connected with a visual aspect: the supposed portrait of Beatrice by Guido Reni, which shows a beautiful young girl with brown hair and wide, lustrous eyes. According to tradition – scrupulously nurtured by all the 19th-century writers on the subject – the portrait was taken from the life during Beatrice’s imprisonment, in late 1598 or 1599. An alternative tradition, taking into account the unlikeliness of the unknown Guido being able to visit her in the Corte Sevella prison, says it was based on a glimpse the artist had of her in the street as she went to her death. Shelley saw it in 1818, in the Palazzo Colunna in Rome, and described the face as ‘one of the loveliest specimens of the workmanship of Nature’:

There is a fixed and pale composure upon the features; she seems sad and stricken down in spirit, yet the despair thus expressed is lightened by the patience of gentleness … The lips have that permanent meaning of imagination and sensibility which her suffering has not repressed … Her eyes, which we are told were remarkable for their vivacity, are swollen with weeping and lustreless, but beautifully tender and serene. In the whole mien there is a simplicity and dignity which, united with her exquisite loveliness and deep sorrow, are inexpressibly pathetic.

The portrait was, in Mary Shelley’s view, the spark which ignited the poet’s interest – Beatrice’s ‘beauty cast the reflection of its own grace over her appalling story; Shelley’s imagination became strangely excited’.

A few years later, the expatriate French novelist and flâneur Henri Beyle, better known as Stendhal, was similarly moved, seeing in the portrait ‘a poor girl of 16 who has only just surrendered to despair. The face is sweet and beautiful, the expression very gentle, the eyes extremely large; they have the astonished air of a person who has just been surprised at the very moment of shedding scalding tears.’ Dickens found it ‘a picture almost impossible to be forgotten’, full of ‘transcendent sweetness’ and ‘beautiful sorrow’. In her face ‘there is a something shining out, that haunts me. I see it now, as I see this paper, or my pen’ (Pictures from Italy, 1846). Nathaniel Hawthorne, meanwhile, found the picture ‘the very saddest ever painted or conceived: it involves an unfathomable depth of sorrow.’ It is ‘infinitely heartbreaking to meet her glance … She is a fallen angel – fallen and yet sinless’ (Transformations, 1858).

Despite these plangent and heavyweight endorsements, it is almost certain that the face in the portrait has nothing at all to do with Beatrice Cenci. Guido Reni, a Bolognese by birth, is not known to have painted in Rome before 1608, nine years after her death. In its visual imagery – particularly the turban-like drapery – the portrait is more likely to be a representation of one of the Sibyls. (There is a turbanned Cumaean Sibyl by Guido Reni at the Uffizi.) The girl’s extreme youth suggests she is the Samian Sybil, sometimes referred to in classical sources as a puella.

The earliest connection of the portrait with Beatrice appears to be in a catalogue of paintings owned by the Colonna family, compiled in 1783 – ‘Item 847. Picture of a head. Portrait believed to be of the Cenci girl. Artist unknown.’ In documentary terms this identification, itself tentative, belongs to the late 18th century, to the time of the upsurge of interest in La Cenci arising from the account in Muratori’s Annales. It is not too cynical to suggest that her name was appended to the picture to lend it a spurious glamour. This seems to have been the result, for when Shelley showed a copy of it to his Roman servant, he ‘instantly recognised it as the portrait of La Cenci’.

The painting now hangs in the gloomy corridors of the Palazzo Barberini; it was purchased in 1934 by the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica. The label below it has a question mark after both the artist and the subject, and adds an apologetic note that the painting is of ‘poor quality’ and is only famous because of its supposed connection with Beatrice. A couple of rooms away hangs the gallery’s masterwork: Caravaggio’s breathtaking Judith Cutting off the Head of Holofernes. In the expression of Judith, resolute but disgusted by the sheer messiness of the operation; in the fountains of blood spurting over the bed-sheets; in the scarcely veiled eroticism – her hardened nipple is painted with great specificity beneath the white gown – one might see an entirely different reading of Beatrice Cenci: not sweet and mournful like the young Sybil, but steeled to a necessary, or perhaps merely expedient, act of butchery. There is no provable connection between Caravaggio’s Judith and Beatrice, but it is by no means impossible. Caravaggio was working in Rome at the time of the trial and execution and the painting is broadly datable to this period. Perhaps it contains a vein of comment on the Cenci case; it is rather more likely to do so than the dubious Reni portrait, which caused so many flutters beneath the frock-coats of the literati.

In the later 19th century, the case became the object of more serious historical investigation. In some instances the findings contradicted the received pseudo-facts of the legend, though they did little to diminish its popularity. Even sober scholars found it hard to resist the peculiar allure of La Cenci. When a Victorian antiquarian, Edward Cheney, discovered an autograph letter of Beatrice’s in a Roman archive, he duly published the text in a learned periodical (Philobiblon, Vol 6, 1861). Halfway through his transcription, however, he signals an omission, with a note that states: ‘Here the manuscript is illegible from tears having blotted it.’ I have seen a photograph of the original document. There is some deterioration of the paper, but no sign whatever that this was caused by La Cenci’s teardrops. The bibliophile has suffered that characteristic rush of blood to the head which Beatrice excites in all the historians, particularly male ones.

The most challenging documentary discoveries were made by a tenacious archival ferret, Dr Antonio Bertoletti. In 1879 he published his findings in a slim, refreshingly dry volume, Francesco Cenci e la sua Famiglia. His first discovery was a manuscript volume in the Vittorio Emmanuele library in Rome, headed ‘Memorie dei Cenci’. In it he found, in the surprisingly well-formed hand of Count Cenci, a precise register of the births and deaths of his many children. Among these, Bertoletti was surprised by the following entry: ‘Beatrice Cenci mia figlia. Naque alla 6 di febraio 1577 di giorno di mercoledi alla ore 23, et e nata nella nostra casa.’ So we learn that the beautiful teenage girl of legend, invariably described as 16 or 17, was actually 22 years and seven months old when she died. Her birthplace – ‘our house’ – was the rambling Palazzo Cenci, on the edge of Rome’s Jewish ghetto. It is still standing, though split into apartments and offices: one may imagine her passing under its dark archways, lingering by the small fountain in the courtyard, walking up the marble stairs. From the top floors she could see the broad sweep of the Tiber, and on the far bank the drum-like shape of the Castel Sant’Angelo, where she would meet her death. The topography suggests the narrowly circumscribed ambit of her life.

Bertoletti also made a remarkable discovery in his examination of Beatrice’s will, or rather – crucially – wills. (The fact that she was allowed to write a will at all puts a question mark over the received view that Pope Clement VIII hounded the Cenci to death in order to swell his coffers with confiscated revenues.) In her first and fullest will, notarised on 27 August 1599, Beatrice left a great deal of money – about 20,000 scudi in all – to charitable and religious causes. She made particular provision, in the form of trusts, for the dowries ‘of poor girls in marriage’. She also made a number of smaller bequests, typically 100 scudi, to individual relatives and retainers. What caught Bertoletti’s eye, however, was the following clause, and the rather more secretive trust fund it alluded to:

Item. I bequeath to Madonna Catarina de Santis, widow, 300 scudi in money, to be placed at interest, and the interest to be given in alms according to the instructions I have given her. If the said Madonna Catarina should die, this legacy is to be transferred to others, on condition that they use it for the same purpose, according to my intention, as long as the person to whom these alms are to be given remains alive.

Beatrice’s friend Catarina de Santis is obscurely traceable: a respectable widow with three unmarried daughters (also remembered in Beatrice’s will). But who is the unnamed person who is to be the beneficiary of the legacy, according to the ‘instructions’ given to Catarina verbally but not revealed in the will? The probable answer was discovered by Bertoletti in a hitherto unknown codicil to the will, added by Beatrice on 7 September 1599, witnessed by her brother, Giacomo, and lodged with a different notary. In this codicil, written two days before her execution, she increases the sum allotted to Catarina to 1000 scudi and specifies the purpose of the bequest as being ‘the support of a certain poor boy [povero fanciullo], according to the instructions I have verbally given her’. She also adds that, if the boy attains the age of 20, he should be granted ‘free possession’ of the capital. It cannot be proved, but it seems very likely that this ‘poor boy’ for whom she made such generous and secret provision was her son. If so, there is not much doubt that the father of the boy was Olimpio Calvetti, whose intimacy with Beatrice is noted by many witnesses. The hushing up of a pregnancy may have been one of the reasons for the ‘imprisonment’ of Beatrice at La Rocca.

From these documents a different Beatrice emerges. The angelic Beatrice of legend, the sweet and mournful girl of the Guido Reni portrait, the spotless damsel (or sublimated Lolita) of the 19th-century romancers, proves to have been a tough young woman in her twenties, probably the mother of an illegitimate child, probably the lover of her father’s murderer. This does not, of course, lessen the awfulness of her situation or the tyranny of her father. Nor does it lessen the evils of the sexual abuse she suffered, even if her vaunted chastity is no longer part of that equation. But how much of this is fact? Did her father really violate her, or attempt to do so?

Throughout her interrogation Beatrice maintained that she was entirely innocent of the murder. Her defence was simply that she had no motive for killing her father. It was only later, during the long and crucial summing-up by her lawyer, Prospero Farinacci, that the question of incest arose, as a compelling mitigation of her crime. Corrado Ricci notes sternly: ‘in all the trial records from November 1598 until August of the following year – in more than fifty examinations – there is not the slightest hint of any such deed.’ There is plenty of evidence of her father’s violent temper – it is certain that on one occasion he attacked her with a whip – but no mention of incest.

Then, in her last examination, on 19 August 1599, Beatrice reports her stepmother, Lucrezia, urging her with these words to kill her father: ‘he will abuse you and rob you of your honour.’ This seems to suggest that sexual violence was threatened, though the phrasing does not prove that any sexual violence had yet taken place. Ten days later, a former servant at La Petrella, Calidonia Lorenzini, appeared before the prosecutor. (She did so voluntarily, at the request of certain friends of Beatrice’s.) In her deposition she stated that a few days before Christmas 1597, she was in bed at ‘the third hour of the night’, when Lucrezia came in, having been sent out of the bedroom by the Count. A few minutes later, she relates, ‘I heard a voice, which seemed to me that of Beatrice, saying: “I do not want to be burned!” I heard nothing else afterwards. The following morning I asked Signora Beatrice what had ailed her when she uttered those words … She told me that her father had come into her bed, and she had told him she did not wish him to sleep there.’ In terms of statements by witnesses this is as near as we get to first-hand evidence of the bruited incest. The prosecutor was not impressed: he was particularly sceptical that the chattery Calidonia could have kept all this secret from her fellow maid, Girolama, who knew nothing of it.

Girolama herself gives a vivid glimpse of the brutishness of domestic life in the Cenci household. It was the Count’s custom, she said, to have his skin ‘scratched and scraped’ with a damp cloth – he suffered from a form of mange. This duty often fell to Beatrice. She told Girolama ‘that sometimes she scratched her father’s testicles; and she said also that she used to dream that I, too, was scratching them, and I said to her: “That will I never do!”’ Girolama also reported that ‘Signor Francesco used to go about the house in just a shirt and doublet and a pair of drawers, and when he urinated it was necessary to hold the urinal for him under his shirt, and sometimes [Beatrice] was obliged to hold it; and it was also necessary sometimes to hold the close-stool.’ These observations tell us something about life inside La Rocca, but they do not constitute proof that Cenci had raped his daughter.

It may be that the certainty of Beatrice’s violation at the hands of her father is the hardest part of the legend for us to surrender, but the truth of the Cenci case, as with many cases of sexual abuse in the family today, will never be known. There are too many untrustworthy sources: suborned and frightened witnesses (witnesses were routinely tortured – hoisted on ropes or stretched on a kind of rack known as la veglia – to make them agree with others); documents that may not after all mean what we think they mean; a profusion of folklore and fantasy and poetic wish-fulfilment that has worked its way too deep into the story to be separated out. Francesco Cenci was an arrogant, greedy, lecherous and violent man. There are many reasons why he might have had his head stoved in on a dark night in the badlands of the Abruzzi. Lust for his daughter, credible but unproven, may have been one of them. At least five people were involved in the killing. Each had motives of some sort, but only one (the hitman, Marcio, who was in it for the money) had a motive that can be defined with any certainty.

The ethereal legend of Beatrice does not itself contain the complexities and untidiness of the truth: it is a memory device that serves to remind us of the intense repressions and vulnerabilities suffered by a well-born young woman in late Renaissance Italy. In this sense, as a representative, as an individual woman who speaks for countless others, Beatrice is a heroine. But to the other questions we want to ask – What was she really like? What really happened and why? – she gives no answer. There was ‘screaming in the castle’; there were ‘shouted words’. They were audible for a moment above the white noise of history but are no longer decipherable.

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Vol. 20 No. 14 · 16 July 1998

Charles Nicholl says of Count Francesco Cenci (LRB, 2 July) that he had ‘his head stoved in’. The verb is ‘to stave (in)’, with past tense and participle ‘staved (in)’ or ‘stove (in)’, so: ‘had his head stove in’. There is a verb ‘to stove’, meaning ‘to heat in an oven’, which does have past tense and participle ‘stoved’. I haven’t met this before, but there is a parallel with ‘to heave (in sight)’, with past tense and particple ‘heaved’ or ‘hove’. The form ‘hoved (in sight)’ instead of ‘hove (in sight)’ has recently appeared more than once (in the Guardian). Presumably we don’t see ‘droved’ for ‘drove’ (or ‘drived’ for that matter) because this particular strong verb is in very common use.

Benedict Nixon
London N10

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