Rome Program

A Brief History of the Palazzo Cenci Bolognetti

By Dr. Patricia Osmond de Martino

Palazzo Cenci Bolognetti, in which our ISU College of Design Rome Program is located, is, like the city of Rome itself, the result of several layers of history and numerous transformations. In its present appearance it dates mostly to the period from the late 16th to the late 17th century, when it was built on and around a cluster of medieval houses and towers, constructed, in turn, on an artificial mound of Roman ruins, known as monte dei Cenci.

In the 14th century, much of the area around the little hill or monte was already the property of the Cenci family, and documents of the 15th century describe a large family house or domus magna paterna. In the late 1500s the older part of this domus, facing onto the piazzetta del Monte Cenci, acquired a new, more orderly facade, and in the same period the family church of S. Tommaso was restored and frescoed. Finally, in the 17th century the palazzo, which in the meantime had been extended along one side of the present Piazza delle Cinque Scole, a large market area bordering the Ghetto, was enhanced with a new facade. Later in the same century the magnificent spiral staircase was built to a design by Giovanni Antonio De Rossi (1679-1688), the architect of Palazzo Altieri.

In the early 18th century, Virginio Cenci, through his marriage to Maria Anna Bolognetti, became heir to the properties and titles of the Bolognetti, principi of Vicovaro and marchesi of Roccapriora, and the names of the two families are inscribed over the main door. The last heir of the family left most of the palazzo to the Istituto Pasteur-Fondazione Cenci Bolognetti, a scientific research institute connected with the Institut Pasteur in Paris and the University of Rome.

The Cenci had accumulated their wealth through trade and banking, and, thanks to papal connections and positions in the Curia, they also acquired vast properties outside the city and titles of nobility. By the late 16th century, the family consisted of four branches, and over 200 members of the family, household and servants occupied several palazzi encircling the monte de Cenci.

One notorius member of the family was Francesco Cenci, remembered not only for rebuilding much of the palazzo on the piazzetta Monte Cenci and for restoring the church of S. Tommaso, but also as the father of Beatrice Cenci, who, in September 1598, plotted with her brother, stepmother, and two accomplices, to murder him at the family castle of Petrella Salto, northeast of Rome. A man already convicted on numerous charges of assault, rape and murder, Francesco had terrorized and brutalized his own children and wife, but Pope Clement VIII refused to grant the assassins a pardon. After being imprisoned in Castel Sant'Angelo, Beatrice was executed in 1599, along with her brother and stepmother.

From then on, the tragic figure of the young Beatrice, only 18 years old, has inspired stories in literature, art and cinema, from the celebrated portrait ascribed to Guido Reni to Percy Bysshe Shelly's The Cenci, Stendhal's Les Cenci, and a long series of Italian and French films of the last century, combining facts and fantasy, legend and history.

Bibliography: Mario Bevilacqua, Il Monte dei Cenci (Rome, 1988); Guide rionali di Roma. Rione VII- Regola, pt.1 (Rome, 1980); Beatrice Cenci: la storia il mito (Rome, 1999). (PJO, VIII-05)