Romance Stories: Paolo & Francesca as told by Dante...
Even as doves when summoned by desire,
borne forward by their will, move through the air
with wings uplifted, still, to their sweet nest,

those spirits left the ranks where Dido suffers,
approaching us through the malignant air;
so powerful had been my loving cry.

"O living being, gracious and benign,
who through the darkened air have come to visit
our souls that stained the world with blood, if He

who rules the universe were friend to us,
then we should pray to Him to give you peace,
for you have pitied our atrocious state.

Whatever pleases you to hear and speak
will please us, too, to hear and speak with you,
now while the wind is silent, in this place.

The land where I was born lies on that shore
to which the Po together with the waters
that follow it descends to final rest.

Love, that can quickly seize the gentle heart,
took hold of him because of the fair body
taken from me— how that was done still wounds me.

Love, that releases no beloved from loving,
took hold of me so strongly that through his beauty
that, as you see, it has not left me yet.

Love led the two of us unto one death.
Caina waits for him who took our life."
These words were borne across from them to us.

When I had listened to those injured souls,
I bent my head and held it low until
the poet asked of me: "What are you thinking?"

When I replied, my words began: "Alas,
how many gentle thoughts, how deep a longing,
had led them to the agonizing pass!"

Then I addressed my speech again to them,
and I began: "Francesca, your afflictions
move me to tears of sorrow and of pity.

But tell me, in the time of gentle sighs,
with what and in what way did Love allow you
to recognize your still uncertain longings?"

And she to me: "There is no greater sorrow
than thinking back upon a happy time
in misery— and this your teacher knows.

Yet if you long so much to understand
the first root of our love, then I shall tell
my tale to you as one who weeps and speaks.

One day, to pass the time away, we read
of Lancelot— how love had overcome him.
We were alone, and we suspected nothing.

And time and time again that reading led
our eyes to meet, and made our faces pale,
and yet one point alone defeated us.

When we had read how the desired smile
was kissed by one who was so true a lover,
this one, who never shall be parted from me,

while all his body trembled, kissed my mouth.
A Gallehault indeed, that book and he
who wrote it, too; that day we read no more."

And while one spirit said these words to me,
the other wept, so that— because of pity—
I fainted, as if I had met my death.

And then I fell as a dead body falls.

— Dante, InfernoV.82-142
     translated by Allen Mandelbaum

Dante does not use Paolo's name in this Canto nor Francesca's until line 103. The encounter that follows, in which Francesca tells Dante their sad tale, is one of the most celebrated passages in the Commedia.

Joseph Cornell: Paolo & Francesca (1943)
Collection Richard L. Feigen, New York

Paolo & Francesca were historical contemporaries of Dante. Francesca's father, Guido da Polenta, lord of Ravenna had waged a long war with Malatesta, lord of Rimini. Finally peace was made through intermediaries, and to make it more firm, they decided to cement it with a marriage. Guido would give his beautiful young daughter Francesca in marriage to Gianciotto, eldest son of Malatesta. Though Gianciotto was very capable and expected to become ruler when his father died, he was ugly and deformed. Guido's friends informed him that if Francesca sees Gianciotto before the marriage, she would never go through with it. So they sent Gianciotto's younger brother Paolo to Ravenna with a full mandate to marry Francesca in Gianciotto's name. Paolo was a handsome, pleasing, very courteous man, and Francesca fell in love the moment she saw him. The deceptive marriage contract was made, and Francesca went to Rimini. She was not aware of the deception until the morning after the wedding day, when she saw Gianciotto getting up from beside her. When she realized she had been fooled, she became furious. In any case, the feelings of Paolo and Francesca for each other were still very much alive when Gianciotto went off to a nearby town on business. With almost no fear of suspicion, they became intimate. Gianciotto's servant found them out, and told his master all he knew. Gianciotto returned secretly to Rimini and went to Francesca's room. Since it was bolted from within, he shouted to her and pushed against the door. Paolo and Francesca recognized his voice, and Paolo pointed to a trapdoor that led to a room below. He told Francesca to go open the door as he planned his escape. As he jumped through, a fold of his jacket got caught on a piece of iron attached to the wood. Francesca had already opened the door for Gianciotto, thinking she would be able to make excuses, now that Paolo was gone. When Gianciotto entered and noticed Paolo caught by his jacket. He ran, rapier in hand, to kill him. Seeing this, Francesca quickly ran between them, to try to prevent it. But Gianciotto's rapier was already on its way down. Before reaching Paolo, the blade passed through Francesca's bosom. Gianciotto, completely beside himself because of this accident— for he loved the woman more than himself— withdrew the blade, struck Paolo again, and killed him. Leaving them both dead, he left, and returned to his duties. The next morning, amidst much weeping, the two lovers were buried in the same tomb.

— Charles Singleton,
     Commentary: Dante's Inferno(1977)

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