Dante’s Divine Comedy: tasting notes 7 – seduction by literature

Rodin’s Kiss. Photo by Patrick Stamm licensed under CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0

Among the carnal sinners in the second circle of hell, we meet Paolo and Francesca. Of all the stories in the Inferno, theirs is perhaps the one that most invites our empathy: which of us has not been where they are?

Dante’s scene-setting is a powerful example of contrapasso ­– the idea that the punishment should mirror the sin (see Note 5). The souls of the lustful, who “subject reason to desire”, are whirled about by a mighty wind, as passive and helpless before it as they were when gripped by passion in this life. The sinners’ tormented wails and shrieks mingle with the bellowing of the storm, come fa mar per tempesta, “as of a sea in tempest”.

Virgil identifies individual shades as they whirl past. As his teacher “names the knights and ladies of old times”, Dante is overcome by pity and feels bewildered. His troubled response speaks of a tension between divine judgement and human compassion, and prepares the way for Francesca’s later revelations: according to Sinclair, Arthurian romances featuring courtly love and chivalry were popular in Dante’s time and Dante knew how powerful they could be. The story of the adulterous lovers Lancelot and Guinevere, which triggers the downfall of Paolo and Francesca, was one of the best known and was already subject to censure by some in the Church concerned about its effects on morality. Think of it as the Lady Chatterly’s Lover of its time.

Dante sees two shades together – still a couple even in the afterlife – who seem less buffeted by the gale than the others. With this he signals that these two are special, less deserving of damnation. Virgil encourages him to call them over – and they come quali colombe dal disio chiamati, “like doves summoned by desire”, a gentle simile that sets the tone for what follows.

Dante gives the narration of their fate to Francesca, hinting that he feels more sympathy for her than for Paolo. Her words occupy a moment of calm in the storm, and form an interlude of tender reflection, as if telling their tale can give these tormented souls a moment of respite. Francesca speaks of the compulsive power of love, of how it “absolves no one beloved from loving” in return, of how it “brought them to one death”. As she looks back in sorrow, Dante gives her one of the Comedy’s most famous and poignant lines: ‘Nessun maggior dolore che ricordarsi del tempo felice nella miseria’, “There is no greater pain than to recall a happy time in misery”.

The da Rimini family were known to Dante, so the story of the double murder of Francesca and her lover at the hands of her jealous husband would have been familiar to him. It was also a sensational local news story ­– a crime de passion of the kind you can read about in today’s Italian newspapers.

Francesca’s husband was actually Gianciotto Malatesta, Paolo’s ugly and deformed older brother. The story, probably fabricated, is that she was tricked into the marriage, having – as she thought – become engaged to Paolo, with whom she had long been in love. When she raised her veil after the marriage ceremony, the dreadful truth dawned: the fathers of the two families had done a deal and she was now the wife of a man she didn’t love. Gianciotto then went off to fight a war, leaving Paolo and Francesca alone in the family home.

What happened next is European poetry’s first seduction by literature. In the words of Francesca:

Dante’s response to Francesca’s story is immediate and extreme: he faints for pity, falling “as a dead body falls”. But is this just pity? His “little death” at this point echoes Francesca’s earlier remark that love “brought them to one death”. Perhaps Francesca’s story has reminded Dante of his own infidelity and of how close this brought him too to damnation. That, at least, is the opinion of Ian Thomson, in his fascinating 2018 book about the Comedy and its cultural legacy.

Paola and Francesca by Dante Gabriel Rossetti from Wikimedia Commons

That the names of Paolo and Francesca live on today, we owe entirely to Dante; others writing at that time barely mention them. Dante’s version of their story caught the Romantic imagination and has had a huge influence on the arts over the past 200 years. A precursor of Wagner’s Liebestod, it inspired countless Romantic poems and was translated by Byron; a host of paintings, by the likes of Ingres, Doré, Watts, Rossetti and Klimt; some fine sculptures, including Rodin’s The Kiss; several symphonic poems, among them a powerful work by Tchaikovsky; a score of operas, the two best known being by Rachmaninov and Zandonai; a film directed by Rafaello Matarazzo; and even some video games. Recently, the two lovers featured in the Dante Project, a ballet set to music by Thomas Adès and staged at the Royal Opera House in London.

Perhaps the last word on Paolo and Francesca should be left to George Santayana, reflecting on Dante’s use of contrapasso in Three Philosophical Poets: Lucretius, Dante and Goethe:

“Can an eternity of floating in the wind on each other’s arms be a punishment for lovers? That is just what their passion, if left to speak for itself, would have chosen. It is what passion stops at and would gladly prolong for ever. Divine judgement has only taken it at its word. … Abandon yourself, Dante would say to us, abandon yourself altogether to a love that is nothing but love, and you are in hell already.”

Genius lines:
(1) La bocca mi baciò tutto tremante. How’s that for a mouthful of Southern sensuality? I love those two explosive ‘b’s, committing the two sets of lips to each other, echoed by two tremulous ‘t’s’; also, because the accent falls on the second syllable of baciò, the line stops abruptly in the middle, a derailing that suggests the shocking, disruptive nature of this illicit passion.

(2) Galeotto fu il libro e chi lo scrisse. Galehaut, a companion knight of Arthur (not to be confused with Galahad, Arthur’s son), was the intermediary or go-between who introduced Lancelot to Guinevere, facilitating their adulterous relationship. Through the mouth of Francesca, Dante pinpoints the role of literature in seduction.