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The story of Francesca da Rimini

April 4, 2009
Dante, print 1802

Dante, T Stothard R.A., print, 1802.

Francesca da Rimini appears in Dante’s Inferno. Boccacio tells the story of Francesca’s tragic love affair with Paulo in his commentary on the fifth Canto. Both extracts are reproduced here, translation by Henry Boyd, 1802.

First the story as told by Boccacio.

Francesca was daughter to Guido de Polenta, Lord of Ravenna.  Between Polenta and the family of the Malatestas, Lords of Rimini, there had been a long and deadly feud; at length peace was made, by the mediation of some of the petty princes of the neighbourhood.  That ths alliance might be more firmly established, both parties were prevailed upon to make it more secure by the bonds of affinity.  It was agreed, that the beautiful daughter of Guido should be given in marriage to the son of Malatesta, named Lanciotto.  This being previously mentioned among some of the friends of Guido, one of them made the following observation to the father: “Reflect maturely on the measure you are about to pursue.  If you do not proceed with due precaution in this affair, it may be the occasion of a new offence, and make the breach wider than it was before.  You know that you daughter is of a high spirit; if she sees Lanciotto beforethe celebration, not all the world would persuade her to consent.  It does not therefore appear to me advisable that Lanciotto should come hither himself, but that one of his brothers should be sent for in his stead, pay his address by proxy, and espouse her in the name of the absent husband.” 

Lanciotto, it seems, though a young man of spirit and enterprise, was deformed in his person, and of a disagreeable aspect; yet ambition induced the father of Francesca to sacrifice her to him in preference to any of his brothers, as he was the presumptive heir of the Signiory.  Being aware of the disagreeable consequences, such as his friend had laid before him, he ordered measures to be taken according to his advice; confiding in his daughter’s sense of duty, as a guard to her subsequent conduct, when it should be too late to retract.  A short time after Paulo, the brother of Lanciotto, came to Ravenna as the ostensible lover of the fair Francesca.  Paulo was engaging in his person, and his manners are described as peculiarly attractive.  As he crossed the courts of the palace of Ravenna, with a train of gentlemen in his retinue, according to the custom of the times, he was pointed out to Francesca, by one of her female attendants, “as the man destined to make her happy;” the first glance was the commencement of a fatal passion, the more resistless, as she was totally unguarded against an attachment which began under the mask of innocence. 

Under the influence of this cruel deceit, the contract was made, and she was conducted to Rimini immediately after the celebration, under the belief that she travelled in company with her spouse.  The fallacy was not discovered till the light of the morning discovered Lanciotto by her side, instead of Paulo.  The conflict in her mind betwixt indignation, grief, and love, however severe, it is supposed she found means to conceal; for it does not appear that her husband entertained any suspicions of her aversion, at least, if he did, he did not at first seem to entertain a suspicion that his brother (whatever attachment he might have felt at first) could be made the instrument of his dishonour.  His frequent absences in distant parts of the Signiory, soon, however, afforded them frequent opportunities of indulging their guilty commerce, and so much security, that a discovery was easily made by a faithful domestic, who on his master’s return disclosed the secret, and on his indignant expressions of disbelief, he offered to give him a demonstrative proof if he would submit to his guidance. 

Lanciotto at last complied; and returning from his next expedition in secret, contrived, by means of his faithful domestic, to conceal himself near his wife’s bedchamber, into which, shortly after, he saw Paulo enter through a secret trapdoor.  The husband immediately left his ambuscade, and made what haste to the door he could in order to break it open, but either the noise alarmed the guilty pair, or they had perceived him through a chink of the door or partition.  However it was, Paulo had time to descend by the trap-door, or pass by the sliding panel, and thought he could by that means prevent the fatal consequences; but an untoward circumstance led (it is said) to a discovery; the skirt of his nightgown was either caught in the closing door, or fastened on a nail, which detained him till Francesca (unconscious of this accident) had admitted her husband; the detection was instantly made by means of this entanglement, and the guilty brother dragged back into the room; where, as Lanciotto struck at him with his dagger, Francesca, endeavouring to save Paulo, through herself in the way and received the fatal stroke, undesigned, it was said, by her husband; who, incensed almost to frenzy by this new disaster, sacrificed Paulo to his resentments by repeated wounds.

Paolo and Francesca, William Dyce, 1845.

Paolo and Francesca, William Dyce, 1845.

Boyd includes the Boccacio version as an extended footnote to his translation of the fifth Canto of Dante’s Inferno, where Dante encounters Francesca and Paulo.

XVII

Dido they left, that led the num’rous flight,

And thro’ the shadows of eternal night

Struck by the potent charm the lovers came:

“Mortal,” they cry’d, “whose friendly thoughts impel

Thy feet to wander thro’ the shades of Hell

To learn our woes, the fates allow your claim!

XVIII

“Ah! could the fruitless prayers that hence arise,

Bend the stern Ruler of the distant skies,

Thine were the joys of everlasting rest!

So sweet the pause thy adjurations gain

For us, ill-fated pair, untimely slain

Where Padus rolls the tribute to the west!

XIX

“This mangled form was fated to inspire

The gentle PAULO’sbreast with am’rous fire;

From his to mine the soft infection spread:

Too soon the fatal secret I divin’d;

Too soon with his my guilty wish combin’d,

Wretch that I was! who shar’d his brother’s bed!

XX

“Love link’d our souls above, and links below,

But, far beneath, in scenes of deeper woe

The eldest murth’rer and his mates prepare

Already to receive the ruffian’s soul:

Where Caina reaches to the nether pole

With Fratricides the penal doom to share.”

XXI

She paus’d, and her eternal plaints renew’d;

Struck with her hapless tale I musing stood:

“Why pensive thus?” the gentle bard enquir’d;

Then I: “Could aught the captive souls persuade

To tell the trains for their seduction laid,

Millions might shun their fate, by Heav’n inspired.”

XXII

Then turning round to view the hapless pair,

Sighing, I thus address’d the weeping pair:-

“How sad th’atonement of thy guilty joys!

But say, how first you saw his passion grow;

What busy demon taught thee first to know

The secret meaning of his smother’d sighs?”

XXIII

She wept, and “Oh! how grievous to relate

Past joys, and tread again the paths of fate,

Let him who sung ELIZA’s woes declare:

But since, unfated still, the wish remains

To know the source of our eternal pains,

Thou shalt not vainly breathe the pious pray’r.

XXIV

“One day (a day I ever must deplore!)

The gentle youth, to spend a vacant hour,

To me the soft seducing story read,

Of LAUNCELOT and fair GENEURA’s love,

While fascinating all the quite grove

Fallacious Peace her snares around us spread.

XXV

“Too much I found th’insidious volume charm,

And PAULO’s mantling blushes rising warm;

Still as he read the guilty secret told:

Soon form the line his eyes began to stray;

Soon did my yielding look my heart betray,

Nor needed words our wishes to unfold.

XXVI

“Eager to realize the story’d bliss,

Trembling he snatch’d the half-resented kiss,

To ill soon lesson’d by the pandar-page!

Vile pandar-page! it smooth’d the paths of shame.”

While thus she spoke, the partner of her flame

Tun’d his deep sorrows to the whirlwind’s rage.

XXVII

So full the symphony of grief arose,

My heart, responsive to the lovers woes

With thrilling sympathy convuls’d my breast:

Too strong at last for life my passion grew,

And, sick’ning at the lamentable view,

I fell, like one by mortal pangs oppress’d.

END OF THE FIFTH CANTO

Dante Alighieri, Divina Commedia, Inferno, trans, Henry Boyd, T. Cadell and W.Davies in the Strand, London, 1802, Canto V, pp. 134-138.

Dante collapses at the end of Canto V of the Inferno.

Dante collapses at the end of Canto V of the Inferno. Print by Dore. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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