The face of Beatrice Cenci

in Ekphrastic encounters
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This chapter considers literary responses to one of the most famous Renaissance images of all: the supposed portrait of Beatrice Cenci (long misattributed to Guido Reni), a major nineteenth-century tourist attraction in Rome. Hawthorne was the writer most obsessively drawn to the portrait, in which he sought to read an original innocence and an innocence regained or redeemed after terrible experience. Beatrice’s portrait therefore presents Hawthorne firstly with what he took to be a type of feminine knowledge; this he aligned with the image as opaque, mysterious, functioning at a level that evades analysis. Hawthorne then proceeds to connect this to the theology of the fortunate fall; that is, to a Christian concept not easily given verbal formulation or summary, one in fact representing a fundamental mystery in time. For Hawthorne, the light of Beatrice Cenci’s face signified the paradox of her having undergone an essential change to her being, though one in which she remained fundamentally the same. The focus of this chapter is Hawthorne’s struggle in The Marble Faun to make sense of this idea – to define just what it is Beatrice Cenci knows; and how she has come to know it.

Ekphrastic encounters

New interdisciplinary essays on literature and the visual arts

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