Beatrice Cenci, daughter of a noble Roman family, was beheaded September 11, 1599, at the age of 22. Executed the same day were her stepmother and brother. They had been sentenced to death by Pope Clement VIII, for the murder of Beatrice’s abusive father, Francesco, despite their defense of the murdered man’s many abuses, which may have included actual or anticipated sexual abuse of Beatrice. Legend has it that Beatrice’s ghost walks with her severed head annually on the eve of her execution date.
For a long time this portrait of a young woman dressed as a sibyl, in the collection of the Palazzo Barberini, was believed to be of Beatrice and to have been painted by Guido Reni.
Today, both attributions are in serious doubt. Elisabetta Sirani, a member of Reni’s artistic circle and with whom Reni was buried, is one possible candidate for the painting’s author. The identity of the young sitter is uncertain. But Beatrice’s tragic story was one that appealed to the romantic imagination and inspired Percy Bysshe Shelley to write a play about her. While this may not actually be Beatrice, the image is a compelling one; it is not surprising it found its way into the repertoire of cameo artists at a time when its identity was not in dispute. They rendered her more, or less, faithfully. None of the cameos seems to completely capture the position of the head: turned and tilted, with the chin lowered. Most give her a more confident air than possessed by the girl in the painting.