When in Rome, in 1819, a friend put into our hands the old manuscript account of the story of The Cenci. We visited the Colonna and Doria palaces, where the portraits of Beatrice were to be found; and her beauty cast the reflection of its own grace over her appalling story.
–Mrs. Percy Shelley
Julia Margaret Cameron often directed female models to represent tragic heroines whose sorrow made them beautiful. Cameron composed this image around the sitter's downcast eyes and scrolling hair–which spills out from under a turban. Cameron's niece, May Prinsep, plays the role of Beatrice, the central figure of Percy Bysshe Shelley's play, The Cenci (1819). Prinsep's sorrowful expression conveys the character's resignation to her fate.
Beatrice Cenci, the daughter of a Roman count, lived in Florence during the late 1500s. After Beatrice conspired with her mother and brother to have her father killed, the trial brought to light his cruelty, which included an attempt to rape her. Although the story won public sympathy, the family was nonetheless executed. Cameron was fascinated by this true story and made several photographic studies based on it.