THURSDAY, 16 FEBRUARY 2012 11:55
Susan Ashe’s translation of Stendhal’s Roman Tales will be published in the Friday Project's Library of Lost Books in November 2012.
In the foreword to his five-act tragedy The Cenci, Shelley writes, ‘Of the Castle of Petrella, I could obtain no further information than that which is to be found in the manuscript.’ Stendhal in his Roman Tales gives little detail of the fortress which figures in two of his book’s three stories and was the scene of Francesco Cenci’s gruesome murder. Intrigued to learn that the castle’s ruins stood fewer than forty miles from the Abruzzese village where we were staying – this was shortly after I had finished the translation of the Stendhal stories - we decided to take a look.
The village of Petrella Salto lies on the western edge of the Abruzzi mountains, where they meet the Sabine hills. Approaching from L’Aquila, you hurtle over a dizzying series of viaducts that span thickly-forested gorges. The village itself is well-kept and prosperous-looking. Above it, on a crag, tower the ruins of the thirteenth-century fortress now known as La Rocca Cenci.
Leaving your car at the foot of the crag, you climb through strangely silent pine woods. Passing under a stone archway and up another flight of steps, you emerge onto what must have been the floor of the castle. From here you take in a vast southern panorama of forested mountains and a recently constructed lake. Aside from a few stumps of masonry, what remains of the building is part of a tower, a couple of small windows, and a doorway. All is grey stone, ancient, forlorn, and cleansed by time.
The Cenci tragedy of 1599 was preceded by an earlier grim episode. At the outset of the sixteenth century, the then lord of La Petrella became entrenched in a dispute with his neighbour, the lord of Staffoli. One night two hundred armed men from Staffoli broke into La Petrella and murdered almost the entire household. The only survivor was a small child who, thrown out of a window, was caught by her clothing on a nail. Plucked to safety, she was cared for by the villagers.
It’s eerie up among the ruins. Hard to believe the place was ever comfortable. And what did the villagers live on? Where were their fields? Stendhal records that, barely able to cultivate the rocky soil, they mostly survived by plundering travellers on the highways. The owner of the castle, from whom Francesco Cenci seems to have leased it, was the formidable Prince Colonna, who kept a private army of bandits but passed himself off in Rome as a devoted servant of the pope. Old Colonna and Francesco Cenci both owned palazzi in Rome. Colonna would have been well aware of the type of man Cenci was. Everyone in Rome knew. Even after 400 years, such is the horrific fascination of the Cenci story that, trying to think myself into the period, I wonder how people endured its violence and brutality. You would think that nothing could shock them. But the fate of young Beatrice Cenci did.
Cenci used the Rocca as a refuge when things got too hot for him in Rome. Local people in Petrella would have seen Beatrice growing up and marvelled at her luminous beauty. According to the municipality’s information website, in order to prevent Beatrice running away to get married Cenci kept her locked up in the castle. Desperate, Beatrice persuaded her lover, the castellan of La Petrella to murder her father. The suggestion is that the castellan was in it mainly for the money.
Was love in those days always tainted with lust, money, position, and power? Are we to believe that Beatrice’s youth and beauty so touched the hearts of her lawyers and the entire Roman nobility that, in an attempt to commute the sentence, they fabricated the story of sexual abuse and incest? Not according to those who gave evidence at the trial and who were eye-witnesses to Francesco Cenci’s depravity.
Of all the chilling chronicles that Stendhal foraged from the archival libraries of old Roman families, that which clings longest in the mind is the appalling end of fifteen-year-old Beatrice Cenci. Together with her step-mother, she was beheaded for the crime of patricide, in Rome, on the eleventh of September 1599.
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