The Cenci. A Tragedy, in five Acts ...

Italy. Printed for C. and J. Ollier ... London. 1819.

8vo., pp. [2], xiv, 104, with the initial blank, uncut in the original blue-grey boards, drab paper spine; tear to front joint, corners somewhat worn, but an exceptional copy, from the library of Simon Nowell-Smith.


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First edition, one of only 250 copies printed for Shelley at Livorno (Leghorn) and then sent to Ollier, his publishers, for sale in London. Shelley arranged for the printing himself, as he told Peacock, because in Italy ‘it costs, with all duties and freightage, about half of what it would cost in London’. Despite the desire to save money the paper and printing are of very high quality.

Shelley had been fascinated with the ‘fixed and pale composure … exquisite loveliness and deep sorrow’ of the tragic Beatrice Cenci in Guido’s portrait, which he saw in the Palazzo Colonna in Rome in 1818. The portrait fired his imagination and produced the most-enduring of Romantic verse dramas. It is ‘totally different from anything you might conjecture that I should write; of a more popular kind ... written for the multitude’. Perhaps only Shelley would have chosen the themes of atheism and incest for a play with which he expected to please the ‘multitude’.

Thomas Love Peacock’s efforts to procure the presentation of the play at Covent Garden were unsuccessful. It was first staged in a single private performance on 7 May 1886 – Robert Browning’s birthday – under the auspices of the Shelley Society, with Browning as the guest of honour.

Buxton Forman 56; Granniss 50.

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