Sooners study architecture in the Hogwarts of Rome: The Cenci Family Palace


Cenci Palace. Photo by Minh Tran.

While the white wig clad servants in gilded coats, maids ducking quietly through secret doors, and members of Rome’s high society have long vanished, the Cenci family palace still maintains the essence of palatial life in Rome during the late 1500’s. The outside of the building is like so many others in Rome and can go almost unnoticed to a passersby in the piazza. But upon crossing the threshold of the massive green doors, visitors are instantly flung back in time. A hike up the monumental travertine spiral staircase (which is rumored to have been designed in such a way that Lord Cenci could ride his horse up them) takes you to the landing at the third floor where a heavy dark door opens into the studio spaces.


Cenci Palace stair. Photo by Minh Tran.

Marble floors, fresco covered walls, elaborately vaulted ceilings, and hand plastered columns make up the grand foyer. The floor of the building that the studio resides on undoubtedly must have been used for public audiences and hosting guests who needed to be put in their place by the majesty of the Cenci Palace. A visitor would have to progress through a series of rooms before reaching the actual room that Lord Cenci would be in. The first room, where most people would spend the majority of their time waiting, has a large stone fireplace and is now where the main library is located. Shelves around the room contain volumes of both contemporary and classical works of architecture, design, and history. The next room is slightly smaller in size with a much smaller fire place, this is where the students from Iowa State have their studio. The next two rooms are studio spaces for the University of Oklahoma. They are more elaborately decorated and would have been used to stage and queue visitors before they actually proceeded into the final room of the wing (our lecture hall) in which Lord Cenci would have greeted them with his notoriously terrible attitude and awful temper.

Cenci Palace by Klaas Reimann-Philips.

Cenci Palace by Klaas Reimann-Philips.

The Cenci family1 was your typical dysfunctional high ranking family of Rome’s glory years. Lord Francesco Cenci was quick to anger, fond of immorality, and an abusive husband and father. After years of crying out for help to the local officials, his wife Lucrezia and daughter Beatrice conspired to kill him while the family stayed at their summer castle. After the first attempt with poison failed, the pair resorted to more gruesome means with a hammer before shoving the Lord off a balcony to his death. Like all perpetrators of poorly executed plans of passion, they were caught and later beheaded in a public spectacle. Legend has it that on the anniversary of her death, Beatrice’s ghost crosses the Tiber River with her head in her hand.

Whether or not this ghost story is true, the Cenci palace has a long and fabled history in the heart of Rome. Walking through the narrow doors of the studio spaces on a daily basis will certainly have a lasting effect on each of us, much like the cobble streets of the city around it will. Having such fine quarters with new faces in a new place will be a grand experience for the lives, educations, and future careers of the students from the University of Oklahoma College of Architecture.

– Grant Newby

1   Knopf, Alfred A. “From Ponte Sant’Angello to the Ghetto.” Rome. New York: A.A. Knopf, 2005. 254. Print.

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