Roman Tales (or it sucks being a woman in 16th century Italy) by Stendhal

Therefore, kind reader, do not search in these pages for a striking style, shimmering with fresh allusions to fashionable modes of thought. Above all, do not expect the cloying emotions of a George Sand novel.”

Earlier this year, after reading a piece written by Mérimee, I decided to read more Stendhal, so I was delighted to receive a kindle version of Roman Tales for review. For its content, the Tales reminded me of The Celebrated Crimes from Alexandre Dumas, and coincidentally, both The Celebrated Crimes and Roman Tales includes a section on The Cenci. Anyway, here’s a brief rundown of the contents-

Roman talesRoman Tales is composed of three stories:

The Abbess of Castro

Vittoria Accoramboni

The Cenci

And an appendix:

The Geopolitical Terrain

Stendhal’s Popes 

Stendhal and Money

Brigands in Italy by Stendhal

Preface to The Cenci by Percy Bysshe Shelley

On the Cenci Portrait by Dickens

The three stories were published in France in 1839. A few years previously Stendhal “acquired from the archives of certain Roman patricians” the ‘right’ to copy some manuscripts which recalled some of the more famous trials of the 16th and 17th centuries. According to the introduction by Norman Thomas di Giovanni, the stories are more “adaptations” and not “faithful versions,” and the Abbess of Castro is “an original piece of writing.” The stories certainly read as though they were written by the same hand, and at the same time, while there’s an immediacy to the tales that smack of the sense of eye witness accounts, Stendhal allows himself to interject with comments about 16th century Italian society and values

While the stories are all different (and by that I mean that they have different elements that add to the drama), by the time I finished the book, I decided that the women of 16th Century Italy didn’t exactly have a fair shot at life. Why? Because the three women in the tales–in spite of their wealth, beauty, position, wit etc etc end up royally screwed and abused by the society in which they lived and died.

The Abbess of Castro is prefaced with background information on the power of Brigand culture, and we are told:

If anyone needs to know the history of Italy, the important thing is not to read the widely accepted authors. Nowhere has the value of a lie been better appreciated, nowhere better paid.

Thanks Stendhal, that’s good to know, and if anyone out there wants to suggest some histories to read, I’d be happy to hear from you. But back to the story which concerns a beautiful young woman, Elena de’ Campireali who falls in love with Giulio Branciforte against her family’s objections. While Guilio lives in a crude home on the outskirts of town, he’s the son of a famous brigand, and he becomes a brigand too. Naturally this is a relationship that’s frowned upon by Elena’s father, but the lovers manage to meet in secret a few times. This story illustrates the power of allegiances, and unfortunately Elena and Guilio find themselves on opposite sides. The de’ Campireali family are “distantly related” to the Orsini family, while Guilio belongs to the “Colonna faction.” These familial and political connections come crashing down to smash Elena’s secret romance. The events that take place separate the lovers, and Elena returns to the convent. The trouble doesn’t stop there, and their love story is fraught with tragedy when Elena’s mother and Prince Colonna interfere.

The second story, is Vittoria Accoramboni, Duchess of Bracciano. It’s a matter of conjecture which is the saddest story of the three in the collection, but I’d argue that Vittoria Accoramboni competes with The Cenci for first place. I already knew the gist of The Cenci, but the story of Vittoria was virgin territory to me. Vittoria is another beautiful, and apparently charming young woman given in an arranged marriage to Felice Peretti who was formally adopted by his uncle Cardinal Montalto–the man who later becomes Pope Sixtus V. The Cardinal was extremely fond of Vittoria and promoted and protected her brothers. The story turns ugly when Vittoria’s husband is murdered, and it’s rumoured that her family is behind the move to marry her off to yet another wealthy husband. Vittoria’s wishes don’t appear to come into the picture. Three days after the murder of Felice, Vittoria and her mother are living in the palace of the “enormously fat” Prince Paolo Giordano Orsini, the Duke of Bracciano, and the very man suspected of organising the murder of Felice.

Few believed that the murder could have been committed without the consent of the Accoramboni family. They blamed Vittoria’s brothers, who had been drawn by ambition into an alliance with a rich and powerful prince.

Trading Vittoria like a pawn ends badly. That’s as much of the story as I’ll give away, and what happens to Vittoria is not pretty. But that’s not the power of this story–its power comes from the realisation that the desire to possess Vittoria, fired presumably by a burst of lust, leads to an incredible amount of blood-letting, slaughter and torture. These are merciless times and we are told that “the dead were left to be scavenged by dogs.”

As for the third story, The Cenci, this one has to be the most famous of the bunch, so I don’t think I’m giving away too much to say that young Beatrice Cenci and her brother conspired to murder their father, Francesco Cenci. Given that the stepmother was also privy to, and assisted in the plan, it’s a safe bet to assume that Francesco Cenci was a monster, and the story gives details of his miserliness and “evil” behaviour. We are told he was “appalling,” but Francesco Cenci’s flaws also included perversion. In spite of his high rank, he served time in prison for “perverted love affairs.” It’s bad enough when a man takes his kinkiness to the point of prison, but Cenci forced his daughter Beatrice to submit to his unnatural demands. Isolated and with no avenue for legal alternatives Beatrice, her brother and her mother took matters into their own hands….

Roman Tales presents us with three very different women who all suffered terribly in one form or another. While Elena de’ Campireali tried to define her own destiny, she discovered that the forces of society were against her, and she could not lead the life she wanted. Vittoria was a pawn for her family; she too suffered horribly and rather unexpectedly. Beatrice Cenci decided that life with her father was “unbearable,” and since she was a prisoner in his home, she felt she had no recourse but to murder the man who tormented her. I would add that the murder was clumsily done, and it could have been carried out with far less tell-tale signs of violence.

There are no happy endings here for these women, and the question in each story is how far will the bloodshed spread before it’s stopped. Roman Tales is a marvellous collection which gives us a glimpse into another world. It’s a lawless, feudal world where alliances are paramount, and individuality–at least for the females–is not an option. When reading the stories, it struck me repeatedly how choices that were based on Free Will and individualism resulted in cascading violence and bloodshed, and yet at the same time this is a period of history in which remarkable figures appeared–albeit briefly in some cases. Roman Tales is highly recommended for anyone interested in this period.

Translated by Susan Ashe and Norman Thomas di Giovanni

Review copy



Filed under Fiction, Stendhal

12 responses to “Roman Tales (or it sucks being a woman in 16th century Italy) by Stendhal

  1. Brian Joseph

    This sounds awesome Guy!

    Though it covers an earlier period, I am just finishing up A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara W. Tuchman. This book covers Italian Politics and alliances , arraigned marriage, Brigands, etc. The real life accounts in this book sound a lot like your descriptions of the stories that Stendhal tells.

  2. It sucked being a woman before the 1970s. Period.

    I’ve never heard of this work by Stendhal, but then, I’m not a specialist. He was interested in news story, Le Rouge et le Noir is based upon one too.

    I find politics in Italy at that time very difficult to understand.

  3. I have an old edition I read ten years ago or more that has The Cenci and The Abbess, but as a third, it has Vanina Vanini.

    Time for a re-read.

  4. janakay

    I really enjoyed the review, particularly as I didn’t even Stendahl wrote short stories. I read Charterhouse of Parma several years ago, thought it was great and always meant to follow-up with more, but we all know how those intentions (frequently) turn out. Perhaps these stories will be a more time friendly way to ease back into a truly great writer …

    • I haven’t read Charterhouse–just the Red and the Black, but Merimee’s wonderful essay gave me the push I needed. There’s a French television version of The Red and the Black that’s well worth catching BTW. This kindle version is under $5

  5. I stayed away from Stendhal since I’ve read Le Rouge et le Noir. I did so not like it. These three stories sound good though, especially the second. They might be a good way to reappraoch him before I’ll tackle La Chartreuse de Parme.

  6. Some of the Stendhal stories are available at the Australian Gutenberg Project, but only as text or HTML. They seem to have different copyright there as they have Dreiser’s American Tragedy for free, which you have to pay for from Amazon Kindle.

    Before the Revolution is loosely based on C of Parma – a great film. []

    Can’t imagine anyone not liking, loving!, Le rouge et le noir. Julien is so repulsive!

    • Now imagine me: although Le Rouge et le noir is a masterpiece, I didn’t like it. Julien and Mathilde got on my nerves.

      I enjoyed La Chartreuse de Parme.

      • “…although Le Rouge et le noir is a masterpiece…”

        Courage! Apparently you did NOT think it was a ‘masterpiece.’ (I think S intended them to grate on one’s nerves a bit, especially the nerves of the bourgeoisie…is that us?)

        Personally, one of my all-time faves.

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