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Gustave Doré, from his illustrations to the Divine Comedy (1857): Dante faints at the pitifulness of Francesca da Rimini's plight, while the hurricane of souls that she and her lover are trapped in surround the scene
Daughter of Guido I da Polenta of Ravenna, Francesca was wedded in or around 1275 to the brave, yet crippled Giovanni Malatesta (also called Gianciotto or "Giovanni the Lame"), son of Malatesta da Verucchio, lord of Rimini. The marriage was a political one; Guido had been at war with the Malatesta family, and the marriage of his daughter to Giovanni was a way to secure the peace that had been negotiated between the Malatesta and the Polenta families. While in Rimini, she fell in love with Giovanni's younger brother, Paolo. Though Paolo, too, was married, they managed to carry on an affair for some ten years, until Giovanni ultimately surprised them in Francesca's bedroom some time between 1283 and 1286, killing them both.
In the first volume of The Divine Comedy, Dante and Virgil meet Francesca and her lover Paolo in the second circle of hell, reserved for the lustful. Here, the couple are trapped in an eternal whirlwind, doomed to be forever swept through the air just as they allowed themselves to be swept away by their passions. Dante calls out to the lovers, who are compelled briefly to pause before him, and he speaks with Francesca. She obliquely states a few of the details of her life and her death, and Dante, apparently familiar with her story, correctly identifies her by name. He asks her what led to her and Paolo's damnation, and Francesca's story strikes such a chord within Dante that he faints out of pity.
Works of art inspired by the Inferno scene
Henry Fuseli: Dante Observing the Soaring Souls of Paolo and Francesca, pen and ink, c. 1800
Joseph Anton Koch: Dante and Virgil in the Second Circle in Hell, pen, ink and watercolor on paper, 1823
Giuseppe Fraschieri: Dante e Virgilio incontrano Paolo e Francesca, oil on canvas, 1846 (Civica Galleria d'Arte Moderna, Savona)
John Riley Wilmer: Paolo and Francesca, watercolor, gouache and ink, 1930
Reception after Dante
In the years following Dante's portrayal of Francesca, legends about Francesca began to appear. Chief among them was one put forth by poet Giovanni Boccaccio in his commentary on The Divine Comedy, Esposizioni sopra la Comedia di Dante; he stated that Francesca had been tricked into marrying Giovanni through the use of Paolo as a proxy. Guido, fearing that Francesca would never agree to marry the crippled Giovanni, had supposedly sent for the much more handsome Paolo in Giovanni's stead. It wasn't until the morning after the wedding that Francesca discovered the deception. This version of events, however, is very likely a fabrication. It would have been nearly impossible for Francesca not to know who both Giovanni and Paolo were, and that Paolo was already married, given the dealings the brothers had had with Ravenna and Francesca's family. Also, Boccaccio was born in 1313, some 27 years after Francesca's death, and while many Dante commentators after Boccaccio echoed his version of events, none before him had mentioned anything similar.
In the 19th century, the story of Paolo and Francesca inspired numerous theatrical, operatic, and symphonic adaptations.