Rome: A ghost at Castel Sant’Angelo

The sad story of Beatrice Cenci

When one visits a city that has thousands of years of history behind it, and in particular Rome “caput mundi”, which means, capital of the world, as the ancient Romans defined their beloved city, fascinating and exemplary stories interweaved in a path that can range from more classical monuments, to Baroque churches, to the great Piazza San Pietro with the wonderful cupola, in an alternation of sacred and profane quite unique in its kind.

Piazza san pietro

And it is right in this city that it is possible to find some really curious and singular references to mysteries and ghost stories or esotericism that over the course of time have accompanied men that were trying to overcome the strict rules that the Church imposed on all those unlucky people who were found practicing “Magic, devil’s work and evil” leading them directly to the scaffold. Purifying fire or beheading. These were fierce ages and yet they did not lack of important examples. For an itinerary of mystery, one can start from the place that more than others meant punishment and detention: Castel Sant’Angelo, the imposing building that rises on the right bank of the Tiber where a bridge, Ponte di Sant’Angelo connects it with the left bank. Near the Vatican, its history is linked to that of Rome and its events of power and beauty, of marvelous and obscure. Built by Emperor Hadrian as a funeral mausoleum in 125, it was completed with the present form by Antonio Pio in 135 with the characteristic cylindrical shape that immediately gives the feeling of closure and fortress.


After the imperial age, it became an important building in the life and temporal power of popes. Its name come from a vision that Pope Gregory I had in 590 while he was in prayer to ward off a plague epidemic, and saw the Archangel Michael drawing his sword. It was a place where the Vatican treasure chests with the treasures were kept, and had an important feature that allowed the pontiffs to escape from St. Peter’s and take refuge at Castel Sant’Angelo. It is the famous Passetto, an elevated street that runs along the Vatican walls to reach the safe and fortified fortress. During the terrible sack of Rome in 1527, Pope Clement VII managed to escape the terrible Lanzichenecchi (German mercenaries) who were at the expense of Emperor Charles V, finding shelter in the castle’s rooms. The building also served as a courthouse and jail, and many illustrious figures were held prisoners in cells so tight that they were not able to move at all. Benvenuto Cellini, Caravaggio, Giordano Bruno and other philosophers and thinkers considered heretical were imprisoned until the nineteenth century when there was a shift and prisons were then filled with patriots fighting for the Unity of Italy and for a secular state.


In this place of pain and suffering, according to the legend, wanders the ghost of a young beautiful girl condemned to death and whose story is full of injustice and atrocity. She was called Beatrice Cenci. She was the daughter of Francesco, a corrupt nobleman and devoted to the most shameful vices. Little Beatrice, who was soon orphaned by her mother, was locked in a convent and later, when her father remarried with Lucrezia Petroni she was seen again at palace. Her life became a living hell due to the abusive and morbose paternal attentions. Later on, due to the great debts that the terrible man had accumulated, she was forced to follow her family in the fief of Petrella Salto, which was at that time in the Kingdom of Naples.


The Count was so dedicated to his vices that had incestuous encounters with the poor girl. The situation was too out of hand and therefore, with the help of her brothers Giacomo and Bernardo and two assistants Olimpio Calvetti and the blacksmith Marzio da Fioran, they concocted a plan to eliminate the Count. Together with the help of the stepmother Lucrezia, the Count was killed. Nonetheless, not everyone thought that his death had been accidental, and they began to investigate, disinterring the body and discovering wounds from the murder and certainly not from a fall from a ledge. Beatrice, her brothers, the stepmother and the two assistants were imprisoned at Castel Sant’Angelo. The trial, of which we have precise and meticulous documentation, was a farce and none of the mitigating evidence, such as incestuous and psychotic injuries and obsessions suffered by the girl, were helpful. All were condemned to death.


During those centuries, in Rome, as well as in all the cities of the world, capital punishments were an “epic” moment in which people gathered, driven by the curiosity of seeing the event and by the fear of the punishment itself. On September 11, 1599, in the square opposite Castel Sant’Angelo, Beatrice Cenci was beheaded with a sword. The same fate had been inflicted earlier on her stepmother and her brothers who were afterwards quartered and their poor remains scattered.


Beatrice’s agonizing death was turned into a legend. In fact, it is said that on the eve of September 11, the date of death, the ghost of the young woman can be seen in Castel Sant’Angelo, carrying her poor head in her hands, as if a soul torn and in memory of the injustice suffered so that in the course of the following centuries the pain can be renewed and take on mysterious forms.


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