« AnteriorContinuar »
NOTE ON THE CENCI. BY THE EDITOR.
The sort of mistake that Shelley made, as to the extent of his own genius and powers, which led him deviously at first, but lastly into the direct track that enabled him fully to develop them, is a curious instance of his modesty of feeling, and of the methods which the human mind uses at once to deceive itself, and yet, in its very delusion, to make its way out of error into the path which nature has marked out as its right one. He often incited me to attempt the writing a tragedy—he conceived that I possessed some dramatic talent, and he was always most earnest and energetic in his exhortations that I should cultivate any talent I possessed, to the utmost. I entertained a truer estimate of my powers; and, above all, though at that time not exactly aware of the fact, I was far too young to have any chance of succeeding, even moderately, in a species of composition, that requires a greater scope of experience in, and sympathy with, human passion than could then have fallen to my lot, or than any perhaps, except Shelley, ever possessed, even at the age of twentysix, at which he wrote the Cenci.
On the other hand, Shelley most erroneously conceived himself to be destitute of this talent. He believed that one of the first requisites was the capacity of forming and following up a story or plot. He fancied himself to be defective in this portion of imagination—it was that which gave him least pleasure in the writings of others—though he laid great store by it, as the proper framework to support the sublimest efforts of poetry. He asserted that he was too metaphysical and abstract—too fond of the theoretical and the ideal, to succeed as a tragedian. It perhaps is not strange that I shared this opinion with himself, for he had hitherto shown no inclination for, nor given any specimen of his powers in framing and supporting the interest of a story, either in prose or verse. Once or twice, when he attempted such, he had speedily thrown it aside, as being even disagreeable to him as an occupation.
The subject he had suggested for a tragedy was Charles I., and he had written to me, "Remember, remember Charles I. I have been already imagining how you would conduct some scenes.
The second volume of St. Leon begins with this proud and true sentiment,' There is nothing which the human mind can conceive which it may not execute.' Shakspeare was only a human being.'' These words were written in 1818, while we were in Lombardy, when he little thought how scon a work of his own would prove a proud comment on the passage he quoted. When in Rome, in 1819, a friend put into our hands the old manuscript account of the story of the Cenci. We visited the Colonna and Doria palaces, where the portraits of Beatrice were to be found ; and her beauty cast the reflection of its own grace over her appalling story. Shelley's imagination became strongly excited, and he urged the subject to me as one fitted for a tragedy. More than ever I felt my incompetence; but I entreated him to write it instead; and he began and proceeded swiftly, urged on by intense sympathy with the sufferings of the human beings whose passions, so long cold in the tomb, he revived, and gifted with poetic language. This tragedy is the only one of his works that he communicated to me during its progress. We talked over the arrangement of the scenes together. I speedily saw the great mistake we had made, and triumphed in the discovery of the new talent brought to light from that mine of wealth, never, alas I through his untimely death, worked to ha depths—his richly-gifted mind. •
We suffered a severe affliction in Rome by the loss of our eldest child, who was of such beauty and promise as to cause him deservedly to be the idol of our hearts. We left the capital of the world, anxious for a time to escape a spot associated too intimately with his presence and loss *. Some friends of ours were residing in the neighbourhood of Leghorn, and we took a small house, Villa Valsovano, about half-way between the town and Monte Nero, where we remained during the
* Such feelings haunted him when, in the Cenci, be makes Beatrico 6peak to Cardinal C&mulo of
that fair hi uc-eyed child,
All see, since his most piteous death.
summer. Our villa was situated in the midst of a podere ; the peasants sang as they worked beneath our windows, during the heats of a very hot season, and in the evening the water-wheel creaked as the process of irrigation went on, and the fire-flies flashed from among the myrtle hedges :—nature was bright, sunshiny, and cheerful, or diversified by storms of a majestic terror, such as we had never before witnessed.
At the top of the house, there was a sort of terrace. There is often such in Italy, generally roofed. This one was very small, yet not only roofed but glazed ; this Shelley made his study; it looked out on a wide prospect of fertile country, and commanded a view of the near sea. The storms that sometimes varied our day showed themselves most picturesquely as they were driven across the ocean ; sometimes the dark lurid clouds dipped towards the waves, and became waterspouts, that churned up the waters beneath, as they were chased onward, and scattered by the tempest. At other times the dazzling sunlight and heat made it almost intolerable to every other; but Shelley basked in both, and his health and spirits revived under their influence. In this airy cell he wrote the principal part of The Cenci. He was making a study of Calderon at the time, reading his best tragedies with an accomplished lady living near us, to whom his letter from Leghorn was addressed during the following year. He admired Calderon, both for his poetry and his dramatic genius; but it shows his judgment and originality, that, though greatly struck by his first acquaintance with the Spanish poet, none of his peculiarities crept into the composition of The Cenci; and there is no trace of his new studies, except in that passage to which he himself alludes, as suggested by one in El Purgatorio de San Patricio.
Shelley wished The Cenci to be acted. He was not a play-goer, being of such fastidious taste that he was easily disgusted by the bad filling up of the inferior parts. While preparing for our departure from England, however, he saw Miss O'Neil several times ; she was then in the zenith of her glory, and Shelley was deeply moved by her impersonation of several parts, and by the graceful sweetness, the intense pathos, and sublime vehemence of passion she displayed. She was often in his thoughts as he wrote, and when he had finished, he became anxious that his tragedy should be acted, and receive the advantage of having this accomplished actress to fill the part of the heroine. With this view he wrote the following letter to a friend in London :—
"Theobjectof thepresent letter is to ask afavour of you. I have written a tragedy on a story well known in Italy, and, in my conception, eminently dramatic. I have taken some pains to make my play fit for representation, and those who have already seen it judge favourably. It is written without any of the peculiar feelings and opinions which characterise my other compositions; I having attended simply to the impartial development of such characters as it is probable the persons represented really were, together with the greatest degree of popular effect to be produced by such a development. I send you a translation of the Italian MS. on which my play is founded; the chief circumstance of which I have touched very delicately; for my principal doubt as to whether it would succeed, as an acting play, hangs entirely on the question as to whether any such a thing as incest in this shape, however treated, would be admitted on the stage. I think, however, it will form no objection, considering, first, that the facts are matter of history, and, secondly, the peculiar delicacy with which I have treated it *.
"I am exceedingly interested in the question of whether this attempt of mine will succeed or not. I am strongly inclined to the affirmative at present; founding my hopes on this, that as a composition it is certainly not inferior to any of the modern plays that have been acted, with the exception of 'Remorse ;' that the interest of the plot is incredibly greater and more real, and that there is nothing beyond what the multitude are contented to believe that they can understand, either in imagery, opinion, or sentiment. I wish to preserve a complete incognito, and can trust to you that, whatever else you do, you will at least favour me on this point. Indeed this is essential, deeply essential to its success. After it had been acted and successfully, (could I hope for such a thing) I would own it if I pleased, and use the celebrity it might acquire to my own purposes.
"What I want you to do, is to procure for me its presentation at Covent Garden. The principal character, Beatrice, is precisely fitted for Miss O'Neil, and it might even seem to have been written for her, (God forbid that I should see her play it—it would tear my nerves to pieces) and in all respects it is fitted only for Covent Garden. The chief male character I confess I should be very
• In speaking of his mode of treating this main incident, Shelley said that it might be remarked that, in the course of the play, he had never mentioned expressly Cenci's worst crime. Every one knew what it must be, but it was never imaged in words—the nearest allusion to it being that portion of Cenci's curse, beginning, "That if she have a child," sic.
unwilling that any one but Kean should play— that is impossible, and I must be contented with an inferior actor."
The play was accordingly sent to Mr. Harris. He pronounced the subject to be so objectionable, that he could not even submit the part to Miss O'Neil for perusal, but expressed his desire that the author would write a tragedy on some other subject, which he would gladly accept. Shelley printed a small edition at Leghorn, to insure its correctness; as he was much annoyed by the many mistakes that crept into his text, when distance prevented him from correcting the press.
Universal approbation soon stamped The Cenci as the best tragedy of modern times. Writing concerning it, Shelley said: "I have been cautious to avoid the introducing faults of youthful composition; diffuseness, a profusion of inapplicable imagery, vagueness, generality, and, as Hamlet says, words, word:" There is nothing that is not purely dramatic throughout; and the character of Beatrice, proceeding from vehement struggle to horror, to deadly resolution, and lastly, to the elevated dignity of calm suffering joined to passionate tenderness and pathos, is touched with hues so vivid and so beautiful, that the poet seems to have read intimately the secrets of the noble heart imaged in the lovely countenance of the unfortunate girl. The Fifth Act is a masterpiece. It is the finest thing he ever wrote, and may claim
proud comparison not only with any contemporary, but preceding poet The varying feelings of Beatrice are expressed with passionate, heartreaching eloquence. Every character has a voice that echoes truth in its tones. It is curious, to one acquainted with the written story, to mark the success with which the poet has inwoven the real incidents of the tragedy into his scenes, and yet, through the power of poetry, has obliterated all that would otherwise have shown too harsh or too hideous in the picture. His success was a double triumph ; and often after he was earnestly entreated to write again in a style that commanded popular favour, while it was not less instinct with truth and genius. But the bent of his mind went the other way; and even when employed on subjects whose interest depended on character and incident, he would start off in another direction, and leave the delineations of human passion, which he could depict in so able a manner, for fantastic creations of his fancy, or the expression of those opinions and sentiments with regard to human nature and its destiny ; a desire to diffuse which, was the master passion of his souL
Finding among my papers the account of the case of the Cenci family, translated from the old Roman MS., written at the period when the disastrous events it commemorates occurred, I append it here, as the perusal must interest every reader.
THE DEATH OF THE FAMILY OF THE CENCI.
Tm most wicked life which the Roman nobleman, Francesco Cenci, led while he lived in thia world, not only occasioned hit own ruin and death, but also that of many others, and brought down the entire destruction of his house. Thit nobleman was the ton of Monsignorc Cenci, who, having been treasurer during the pontificate of Pius V., left immense wealth to Francesco, his only ton. From thit inheritance alone he enjoyed an income of 160,000 crowns, and he increased his fortune by marrying an exceedingly rich lady, who died after the had given birth to seven unfortunate children. He then contracted a second marriage with Lucrctia Pctroni, a lady of a noble Roman family; but he had no children by her. Sodomy wat the least, and atheism the greatest, of the vices of Francesco; as is proved by the tenor of his life; for he was three timet accused of todomy, and paid the sum of 100,000
crowns to government, in commutation of the punishment rightfully awarded to this crime : and concerning his religion, it is sufficient to state, that he never frequented any church; and although he caused a small chapel, dedicated to the apostle St. Thomas, to be built in the court of his palace, his intention in to doing wat to bury there all hit children, whom he cruelly hated. He had driven the eldest of these, Giacomo, Cristofero, and Rocco, from the paternal mansion, while they were yet too young to hare given him any real cause of displessnre. He sent them to the university of Salamanca, but, refusing to remit to them there the money necessary for their maintenance, they desperately returned home. They found that this change ouly increased their misery, for the hatred and contempt of their father towards them was so agrravated, that he refuted to dress or maintain them, so that
they were obliged to have recourse to the Pope, who caused Cenci to make them a fit allowance, with which they withdrew from his house.
The third imprisonment of Francesco for his accustamed crime of sodomy, occurred at this time, and his Sods took occasion to supplicate the Pope to punish their father, and to remove Bo great a monster from his family. The Pope, though before inclined to condemn Francesco to the deserved punishment of death, would not do it at the request of his sons, but permitted Mm again to compound with the law, by paying the accustomed penalty of 100,000 crowns. The hatred of Francesco towards- his sons was augmented by this proceeding on their parts; he cursed them ; and often also struck and ill-treated his daughters. The eldest of these, being unable any longer to support the cruelty of her rather, exposed her miserable condition to the Pope, and supplicated him either to marry her, according to hia choice, or to shut her up in a monastery, that by any means she might be liberated from the cruel oppression of her parent. Her prayer was heard, and the Pope, in pity to her unhappiness, bestowed her in marriage toSignore Carlo Gabriel]i, one of the first gentlen>eo of the city of Gabbio,and obliged Francesco to give her a fitting dowry of some thousand crowns.
Francesco fearing that his youngest daughter would, when she grew up, follow the example of her sister, bethought himself how to hinder this design, and for that purpose shut her up alone in an apartment of the palace, where he himself brought her food, so that no one might approach her; and imprisoned her in this manner for several months, often indicting on her blows with a stick.
In the meantime ensued the death of two of his sons, Rocco and Cristofero—one being assassinated by a surgeon, and the other by Paolo Corso, while he was attending mass. The inhuman father showed every Egn of joy on hearing this news, saying that nothing would exceed his pleasure if all his children died, and that when the grave should receive the last he would, asa demonstration of joy, make a bonfire of all that he possessed. And on the present occasion, as a further sign of his hatred, he refused to pay the smallest sum towards the funeral expenses of his murdered sons.
Francesco carried his wicked debauchery to such an excess, that he caused girls (of whom he constantly krpt a number in bis house), and also common courtezans, to sleep in the bed of his wife, and often endeavoured, by force and threats, to debauch his daughter Beatrice, who was now grown up, and exceedingly beautiful—f
Beatrice, finding it impossible to continue to live in so miserable a manner, followed the example of her sister; she sent a well-written supplication to the Pope, imploring him to exercise his authority in withdrawing her from the violence and cruelty of her father.—But this petition, which might, if listened to, have saved this unfortunate girl from an early death, produced not the least effect. It was afterwards found among the collection of memorials, and it is pretended that it never came before the Pope.
Francesco, having discovered this attempt on the part of his daughter, became more enraged, and redoubled his tyranny; confining with rigour not only Beatrice, but also his wife. At length, these unhappy women, finding themselves without hope of relief, driven by desperation, resolved to plan his death.
t The details here are horrible, and unfit for publication.
The Palace Cenci was sometimes visited oy a Monsignore Guerra—a young man of handsome person and attractive manners, and of that facile character which might easily be induced to become a partner in any action, good or evil, as it might happen. His coun tenancc was pleasing, and his person tall and well proportioned; he was somewhat in love with Beatrice, and well acquainted with the turpitude of Francesco's character, and was hated by him on account of the familiar intercourse which subsisted between him and the children of this unnatural father: for this reason he timed his visits with caution, and never came to the house but when he knew that Francesco was absent. He was moved to a lively compassion of the state of Lucretia and Beatrice, who often related their increasing misery to him, and his pity was for ever fed and augmented by some new tale of tyranny and cruelty. In one of these conversations Beatrice let fall some words which plainly indicated that she and her motherin-law contemplated the murder of their tyrant, and Monsignore Guerra notonly showed approbation of their design, but also promised to co-operate with them in their undertaking. Thus stimulated, Beatrice communicated the design to her eldest brother, Giacomo, without whose concurrence it was impossible that they should succeed. This latter was easily drawn into consent, since he was utterly disgusted with his father, who ill-treated him, and refused to allow him a sufficient support for his wife and children.
The apartments of Monsignore Guerra was the place in which the circumstances of the crime about to be committed were concerted and determined on. Here Giacomo, with the understanding of his sister and mother-in-law, held various consultations, and finally resolved to commit the murder of Francesco to two of his vassals, who had become his inveterate enemies; one called Marzio, and the other Olympio: the latter, by means of Francesco, had been deprived of his post as castellan of the Rock of Pet re 11a.
It was already well known that Francesco, with the permission of Signer Marzio di Colonna, baron of that feud, had resolved to retire to Petrella, and to pass the summer there with his family. Some banditti of the kingdom of Naples were hired, and were instructed to lie in wait in tho woods about Petrella, and, upon advice being given to them of the approach of Francesco, to seize upon him. This scheme was so arranged that, although the robbers were only to seize and take off Francesco, yet that his wife and children should not be suspected of being accomplices in the act. But the affair did not succeed; for, as the banditti were not informed of his approach in time enough, Francesco arrived safe and sound at Petrella. They were obliged therefore to form some new scheme to obtain the end which every day made them more impatient to effect; for Francesco still persisted in his wicked conduct. He being an old man, above seventy years of age, never quitted the castle; therefore no use could be made of the banditti, who were still secreted in the environs. It was determined, therefore, to accomplish the murder in Francesco's own house.
Marzio and Olympio were called to the castle; and Beatrice, accompanied by her mother-in-law, conversed with them from a window during the night-time, when her father slept. She ordered them to repair to Monsignore Guerra with a note, in which they were desired to murder Francesco, in consideration of a reward of a thousand crowns: a third to be given them before the act, by Monsignore Guerra, and the other two thirds, by the ladies themselves, after the deed should be accompliahed. Having consented to this agreement, they were secretly admitted into the castle the 8th of September, 1598; but because this day was the anniversary of the birth of the Blessed Virgin, the SignoraLucretia, held back by her veneration for so holy a time, desired, with the consent of her daughter-in-law, that the execution of the murder should be put off until the following day. They dexterously mixed opium with the drink of Francesco, who, upon going to bed, was soon oppressed by a deep sleep. About midnight his daughter herself led the two assassins into the apartment of her father, and left them there that they might execute the deed they had undertaken, and retired to a chamber close by, where Lucrctia remained also, expecting the return of the murderers, and the relation of their success. Soon after the assassins entered, and told the ladies that pity had held them back, and that they could not overcome their repugnance to kill in cold blood a poor sleeping old man. These words filled Beatrice with anger, and after having bitterly reviled them as cowards and traitors, she exclaimed, "Since you have not courage enough to murder a sleeping man, I will kill my father myself; but your lives shall not be long secure." The assassins, hearing this short but terrible threat, feared that if they did not commit the deed, the tempest would burst over their own heads, took courage, and re-entered the chamber where Francesco slept, and with a hammer drove a nail into his head, making it pass by his eye, and another they drove into his neck. After a few struggles the unhappy Francesco breathed liislast. The murderers departed, after having received the remainder of the promised reward; besides which, Beatrice gave Marzio a mantle trimmed with gold. After this the two ladies, after drawing out the two nails, enveloped the body in a fine sheet, and carried it to an open gallery that overhung a garden, and had underneath an elder-tree : from thence they threw it down, so that it might be believed that Francesco, attending a call of nature, was traversing this gallery, when, being only supported by feeble beams, it had given way, and thus bad lost his life.
And so indeed was it believed the next day, when the feigned lamentations of Lucrctia and Beatrice, who appeared inconsolable, spread the news of Francesco's death. He received an honourable burial; and his family, after a short stay at the castle, returned to Rome to enjoy the fruits of their crime. They passed some time there in tranquillity; but Divine Justice, which would not allow so atrocious a wickedness to remain hid and unpunished, so ordered it, that the Court of Naples, to which the account of the death of Cenci was forwarded, began to entertain doubts concerning the mode by which he came by it, and sent a commissary to examine the body and to take informations. Among other things, this man discovered a circumstance to the prejudice of the family of the deceased: it appeared that the day after the event of her father's death, Beatrice had given to wash a sheet covered with blood, saying: * '■ • *
• • • • «
These informations were instantly forwarded to the Court of Rome; but, nevertheless, several months passed without any step being taken in disfavour of the Cenci family; and, in the mean time, the youngest son of Francesco died, and two only remained of'the five that he had had ; namely, Giacomo and Bernardo. Monsignorc Gucrra, having heard of the notification made by the Court of Naples to that of Rome, fearing that Marzio and Olympio might fall into the hands of justice, and be induced tocoufess their crime
suddenly hired men to murder them, bat succeeded only in assassinating Olympio at the city of Terni. Marzio, who bad escaped this misfortune, soon incurred that of being imprisoned at Naples, where he confessed the whole; and instantly, while the arrival of Marxw at Rome from Naples was expected, Giacomo asd Bernardo were arrested, and imprisoned in the Corte Savella, and Lucrctia and Beatrice were confined in their own house under a good guard; but afterwards they were also conducted to the prison where were the brothers. They were here examined, and all constantly denied the crime, and particularly Beatrice, who also denied having given to Marzio the mantle trimmed with gold, of which mention was before made; and Marzio, overcome and moved by the presence of mind and courage of Beatrice, retracted all that he had deposed at Naples, and, rather than again confess, obstinately died under his torments.
There not being sufficient proof to justify puttie? the Cenci family to the torture, they were all transferred to Castello, where they remained several months in tranquillity. But, for their misfortune, one of the murderers of Olympio at Terni fell into the hands of justice; he confessed that he had been hired to this deed by MonsignoreGuerra, who had also commissioned him to assassinate Marzio. Fortunately for this prelate, he received prompt information of the testimony given against him, and was able to hide himself for a time, and to plan his escape, which was very difficult; for his stature, the fairness and beauty of his countenance, and his light hair, made him conspicuous fci discovery. He changed his dress for that of a charcoaL man, blackening his face, and shaving his bead; and thus disguised, driving two asses before him, with some bread and onions in his hands, he passed freely through Rome, under the eyes of the ministers of justice, who sought him everywhere; and, without being recognised by any one, passed out of one of the gates of the dry, where, after a short time, he was met by the ebirri, who were searching the country, and passed unknown by them, not without suffering great fear at his rick of being discovered and arrested: by means of this ingenious disguise ho effected his escape to a cafe country.
The flight of MoQBignore Gucrra, joined to the confession of the murderer of Olympio, aggravated the other proofs so much, that the Cenci were re-trunsfened from Castello to Cortc Savella, and were condemned to be put to the torture. The two sons sank vilely under their torments, and became convicted; Lucrctia, being of advanced age, having completed her fiftieth year, and being of a fat make, was not able to resist the torture of the cord—[The original is wanting.] —But the Signora Beatrice, being young, lively, and strong, neither with good nor ill treatment, with menaces, nor fear of torture, would allow a single word to pass her lips which might inculpate her; and even, by her lively eloquence, confused the judges who examined her. The Pope, being informed of all that passed by Signor Ulysse Moraci, the judge employed in this affair, became suspicious that the beauty of Beatrice had softened the mind of this judge, and committed the cause to another, who found out another mode of torment, called the torture of the hair; and when she was already tied under this torture, be brought before her her mother-in-law and brothers. They began altogether to exhort her to confess; saying, that since the crime had been committed, they must suffer the punishment. Beatrice, after some resistance, said, " So you all wish to die, and to dis