Percy Shelley: Poems

The Cenci: Preface

A manuscript was communicated to me during my travels in Italy, which

was copied from the archives of the Cenci Palace at Rome, and contains

a detailed account of the horrors which ended in the extinction of one

of the noblest and richest families of that city during the

Pontificate of Clement VIII, in the year 1599. The story is, that an

old man having spent his life in debauchery and wickedness, conceived

at length an implacable hatred towards his children; which showed

itself towards one daughter under the form of an incestuous passion,

aggravated by every circumstance of cruelty and violence. This

daughter, after long and vain attempts to escape from what she

considered a perpetual contamination both of body and mind, at length

plotted with her mother-in-law and brother to murder their common

tyrant. The young maiden, who was urged to this tremendous deed by an

impulse which overpowered its horror, was evidently a most gentle and

amiable being, a creature formed to adorn and be admired, and thus

violently thwarted from her nature by the necessity of circumstance

and opinion. The deed was quickly discovered, and, in spite of the

most earnest prayers made to the Pope by the highest persons in Rome,

the criminals were put to death. The old man had during his life

repeatedly bought his pardon from the Pope for capital crimes of the

most enormous and unspeakable kind, at the price of a hundred thousand

crowns; the death therefore of his victims can scarcely be accounted

for by the love of justice. The Pope, among other motives for

severity, probably felt that whoever killed the Count Cenci deprived

his treasury of a certain and copious source of revenue. (The Papal

Government formerly took the most extraordinary precautions against

the publicity of facts which offer so tragical a demonstration of its

own wickedness and weakness; so that the communication of the

manuscript had become, until very lately, a matter of some

difficulty.) Such a story, if told so as to present to the reader all

the feelings of those who once acted it, their hopes and fears, their

confidences and misgivings, their various interests, passions, and

opinions, acting upon and with each other, yet all conspiring to one

tremendous end, would be as a light to make apparent some of the most

dark and secret caverns of the human heart.

On my arrival at Rome I found that the story of the Cenci was a

subject not to be mentioned in Italian society without awakening a

deep and breathless interest; and that the feelings of the company

never failed to incline to a romantic pity for the wrongs, and a

passionate exculpation of the horrible deed to which they urged her,

who has been mingled two centuries with the common dust. All ranks of

people knew the outlines of this history, and participated in the

overwhelming interest which it seems to have the magic of exciting in

the human heart. I had a copy of Guido's picture of Beatrice which is

preserved in the Colonna Palace, and my servant instantly recognized

it as the portrait of La Cenci.

This national and universal interest which the story produces and has

produced for two centuries and among all ranks of people in a great

City, where the imagination is kept for ever active and awake, first

suggested to me the conception of its fitness for a dramatic purpose.

In fact it is a tragedy which has already received, from its capacity

of awakening and sustaining the sympathy of men, approbation and

success. Nothing remained as I imagined, but to clothe it to the

apprehensions of my countrymen in such language and action as would

bring it home to their hearts. The deepest and the sublimest tragic

compositions, King Lear and the two plays in which the tale of Oedipus

is told, were stories which already existed in tradition, as matters

of popular belief and interest, before Shakspeare and Sophocles made

them familiar to the sympathy of all succeeding generations of


This story of the Cenci is indeed eminently fearful and monstrous:

anything like a dry exhibition of it on the stage would be

insupportable. The person who would treat such a subject must increase

the ideal, and diminish the actual horror of the events, so that the

pleasure which arises from the poetry which exists in these

tempestuous sufferings and crimes may mitigate the pain of the

contemplation of the moral deformity from which they spring. There

must also be nothing attempted to make the exhibition subservient to

what is vulgarly termed a moral purpose. The highest moral purpose

aimed at in the highest species of the drama, is the teaching the

human heart, through its sympathies and antipathies, the knowledge of

itself; in proportion to the possession of which knowledge, every

human being is wise, just, sincere, tolerant and kind. If dogmas can

do more, it is well: but a drama is no fit place for the enforcement

of them. Undoubtedly, no person can be truly dishonoured by the act of

another; and the fit return to make to the most enormous injuries is

kindness and forbearance, and a resolution to convert the injurer from

his dark passions by peace and love. Revenge, retaliation, atonement,

are pernicious mistakes. If Beatrice had thought in this manner she

would have been wiser and better; but she would never have been a

tragic character: the few whom such an exhibition would have

interested, could never have been sufficiently interested for a

dramatic purpose, from the want of finding sympathy in their interest

among the mass who surround them. It is in the restless and

anatomizing casuistry with which men seek the justification of

Beatrice, yet feel that she has done what needs justification; it is

in the superstitious horror with which they contemplate alike her

wrongs and their revenge, that the dramatic character of what she did

and suffered, consists.

I have endeavoured as nearly as possible to represent the characters

as they probably were, and have sought to avoid the error of making

them actuated by my own conceptions of right or wrong, false or true:

thus under a thin veil converting names and actions of the sixteenth

century into cold impersonations of my own mind. They are represented

as Catholics, and as Catholics deeply tinged with religion. To a

Protestant apprehension there will appear something unnatural in the

earnest and perpetual sentiment of the relations between God and men

which pervade the tragedy of the Cenci. It will especially be startled

at the combination of an undoubting persuasion of the truth of the

popular religion with a cool and determined perseverance in enormous

guilt. But religion in Italy is not, as in Protestant countries, a

cloak to be worn on particular days; or a passport which those who do

not wish to be railed at carry with them to exhibit; or a gloomy

passion for penetrating the impenetrable mysteries of our being, which

terrifies its possessor at the darkness of the abyss to the brink of

which it has conducted him. Religion coexists, as it were, in the mind

of an Italian Catholic, with a faith in that of which all men have the

most certain knowledge. It is interwoven with the whole fabric of

life. It is adoration, faith, submission, penitence, blind admiration;

not a rule for moral conduct. It has no necessary connection with any

one virtue. The most atrocious villain may be rigidly devout, and

without any shock to established faith, confess himself to be so.

Religion pervades intensely the whole frame of society, and is

according to the temper of the mind which it inhabits, a passion, a

persuasion, an excuse, a refuge; never a check. Cenci himself built a

chapel in the court of his Palace, and dedicated it to St. Thomas the

Apostle, and established masses for the peace of his soul. Thus in the

first scene of the fourth act Lucretia's design in exposing herself to

the consequences of an expostulation with Cenci after having

administered the opiate, was to induce him by a feigned tale to

confess himself before death; this being esteemed by Catholics as

essential to salvation; and she only relinquishes her purpose when she

perceives that her perseverance would expose Beatrice to new outrages.

I have avoided with great care in writing this play the introduction

of what is commonly called mere poetry, and I imagine there will

scarcely be found a detached simile or a single isolated description,

unless Beatrice's description of the chasm appointed for her father's

murder should be judged to be of that nature. (An idea in this speech

was suggested by a most sublime passage in "El Purgaterio de San

Patricio" of Calderon; the only plagiarism which I have intentionally

committed in the whole piece.)

In a dramatic composition the imagery and the passion should

interpenetrate one another, the former being reserved simply for the

full development and illustration of the latter. Imagination is as the

immortal God which should assume flesh for the redemption of mortal

passion. It is thus that the most remote and the most familiar imagery

may alike be fit for dramatic purposes when employed in the

illustration of strong feeling, which raises what is low, and levels

to the apprehension that which is lofty, casting over all the shadow

of its own greatness. In other respects, I have written more

carelessly; that is, without an over-fastidious and learned choice of

words. In this respect I entirely agree with those modern critics who

assert that in order to move men to true sympathy we must use the

familiar language of men, and that our great ancestors the ancient

English poets are the writers, a study of whom might incite us to do

that for our own age which they have done for theirs. But it must be

the real language of men in general and not that of any particular

class to whose society the writer happens to belong. So much for what

I have attempted; I need not be assured that success is a very

different matter; particularly for one whose attention has but newly

been awakened to the study of dramatic literature.

I endeavoured whilst at Rome to observe such monuments of this story

as might be accessible to a stranger. The portrait of Beatrice at the

Colonna Palace is admirable as a work of art: it was taken by Guido

during her confinement in prison. But it is most interesting as a just

representation of 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. Her head is bound with

folds of white drapery from which the yellow strings of her golden

hair escape, and fall about her neck. The moulding of her face is

exquisitely delicate; the eyebrows are distinct and arched: the lips

have that permanent meaning of imagination and sensibility which

suffering has not repressed and which it seems as if death scarcely

could extinguish. Her forehead is large and clear; 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. Beatrice Cenci

appears to have been one of those rare persons in whom energy and

gentleness dwell together without destroying one another: her nature

was simple and profound. The crimes and miseries in which she was an

actor and a sufferer are as the mask and the mantle in which

circumstances clothed her for her impersonation on the scene of the


The Cenci Palace is of great extent; and though in part modernized,

there yet remains a vast and gloomy pile of feudal architecture in the

same state as during the dreadful scenes which are the subject of this

tragedy. The Palace is situated in an obscure corner of Rome, near the

quarter of the Jews, and from the upper windows you see the immense

ruins of Mount Palatine half hidden under their profuse overgrowth of

trees. There is a court in one part of the Palace (perhaps that in

which Cenci built the Chapel to St. Thomas), supported by granite

columns and adorned with antique friezes of fine workmanship, and

built up, according to the ancient Italian fashion, with balcony over

balcony of open-work. One of the gates of the Palace formed of immense

stones and leading through a passage, dark and lofty and opening into

gloomy subterranean chambers, struck me particularly.

Of the Castle of Petrella, I could obtain no further information than

that which is to be found in the manuscript.