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Beatrix Cenci

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CAT 113 Vincent Biondi after Guido Reni. Beatrix Cenci. Florence ? : Vincent Biondi, 1838. William Reese Collection, Melville Society Archive, New Bedford Whaling Museum.

Beatrice Cenci was executed in Rome in on September 11, 1599, one month before the body of Saint Cecilia was exhumed in “miraculous” preservation. The legend that Guido Reni (1575-1642) saw her the night before she died and painted her soon thereafter was widely believed in the mid-nineteenth century when Melville went to the Barberini Palace to see Guido’s celebrated portrait of her there, even though Guido’s first visit to Rome from Bologna probably came in 1601, two years after Beatrice Cenci had been executed for having murdered her father after he had raped her.

One of Guido’s first commissions in Rome had been to paint the Martyrdom of St. Cecilia and the Coronation of Sts. Cecilia and Valerian for the Capello del Bagno at Saint Cecilia in Trastevere (c. 1601-02; Pepper, cat. 12 and 13). These paintings were installed next to the copy of Raphael’s Saint Cecilia in Bologna that Guido had been commissioned to create as the altarpiece in the chapel. Young Guido’s Martyrdom scene dramatized the strength of the executioner who is in the process of delivering the blow to the neck of Cecilia that does not kill her. His Coronation scene is an elegant tondo in which the angel from the ancient Roman Passio story is descending to present Cecilia and Valerian with the crowns of roses and lilies they had received a century before in the Saint Cecilia Cycle in the Bologna Oratorio (fig 1).

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Figure 1. Guido Reni. Coronation of Sts. Cecilia and Valerian, oil on canvas, 1601-02. Capello del Bagno, S. Cecilia in Trastevere, Rome (transferred to the Polet Chapel at San Luigi del Francesi by 1614).

After his success with the Saint Cecilia commission in Trastevere, Guido was invited to paint the five frescoes of the Saint Cecilia Cycle in the Polet Chapel at San Luigi del Francesi. When Guido turned down the invitation, the commission went to Domenichino, a fellow student at the Carracci Academy in Bologna who arrived in Rome soon after Guido had. Domenichino’s commission also included a Coronation scene. His version, like that of Guido, had a tight focus on the three primary figures. Domenichino presented his two kneeling saints within a rectangular rather than a circular composition, and his descending angel had already touched a toe to the ground, but the primary elements closely resembled those of Guido’s Coronation. Domenichino at this point was much less skilled than Guido in painting the human figure, and the organ to the left of Saint Cecilia in Guido’s painting is much more clearly defined than Domenichino’s in the same position, but each of these Bolognese painters was already combining the floral crowns from the ancient Roman Passio with the musical iconography Raphael had initiated in Bologna to celebrate the newly disinterred, miraculously preserved body of the saint herself in the city of Rome. Guido’s copy of Raphael’s Saint Cecilia in Ecstasy was transferred from the chapel in the Trastevere to join Domenichino’s five new frescoes in 1614 (Pepper, cat. 11).