So What Are You Reading?

Reviews of Books.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

A Roman Scandal. Susanne Kircher

A Roman Scandal is historical fiction based on the true story of Beatrice Cenci who killed her father, Francesco Cenci, and was executed for her crime in 1599. Based on the 1925 two volume biography of Beatrice written by Corrado Ricci, the book is an accurate retelling of what is known about this sad story.

Told from the point of view of Ginevra Cenci, the wife of Francesco's cousin, the novel is presented as her true account written to dispel the rumors and exaggerations that sprung up in Rome after Beatrice's execution. The presentation is chronological with the first section devoted to Beatrice's early life and her father's scandalous life in Rome. After being arrested and fined three times for sodomy, Francesco decides to leave Rome with his second wife Lucrezia and his 18 year old daughter Beatrice to live in a secluded castle called La Rocca in the small village of Petrella del Salto, north of Rome. Their stay at La Rocca, which Beatrice calls imprisonment, makes up the second part of the book, and ends with the murder of her father with the help of two of the servants. The novel's third part consists of the investigation of the murder, the trials of Lucrezia, Beatrice and her two brothers, and their execution.

This is only one of many accounts of the famous story of Beatrice Cenci that have made it into print over the 400 years since her death. A Roman Scandal is good at presenting the facts in an interesting and straightforward manner. The author was a newspaper woman and the narrative is clear and detailed. Not being told from the point of view of the main characters, however, the story fails to bring them and their motivations to life. We the readers know that something terrible was happening at La Rocca that caused Beatrice to plot her father's death, but outside of one whipping we do not really know why she was driven to such desperation. She and her step-mother were prisoners, and the man seemed to have a skin condition that required them to wipe his body with a towel. Although other tellings of this story lead readers to believe that Francesco sodomized the two women, Ms. Kircher avoids this conclusion. She sticks to the recorded official version and actually seems to be unable to come down on one side or the other on this crucial, but unverified, aspect of the story. Her descriptions of people and places are accurate and her presentation of the upper class Roman life of the time is well done. Yet, for a historical novel, she skimps on the details of 16th century life that bring such stories to life. Thus this novel is best for its historic accuracy, but is not that successful in bringing these two outstanding characters to life.

Interestingly, Ms. Kircher never mentions the famous painting of Beatrice that is attributed to Guido Reni which was purportedly painted in her prison cell as she awaited her execution. The cover of this book has a drawing of Beatrice done by Tony Destefano.


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