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Pyramus and Thisbe Tristan and Isolde
Francesca and Paolo - Legedary Love Stories
378    Dibyendu Banerjee    31/01/2022

The monumental epic poem La Commedia, popularly known as The Divine Comedy, by the Italian poet, writer and philosopher Dante Alighieri, depicted the journey of the soul towards God, along with the description of Inferno for the awareness of sin and the advice to avoid it.

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In Inferno, the first part of the Comedy, followed by Purgatorio and Paradiso, Dante described his virtual journey through hell, guided by the shade of the Roman poet Virgil. On their way, they passed through the Circle of the Lustful, where the souls of sinners of sexual pleasures are punished by being transformed into a whirling cyclone. The whirlwind of the cyclone sweeps them and forces them, just as in life their intense passions tossed them back-and-forth into sullied sin. Apart from Semiramis, Helen, Paris, Tristan, Cleopatra and others, they also foundamong those sinners two shades, who are closely tied together and seem to fly as one. They seemed to be trapped in an eternal whirlwind, destined to be swept through the air forever, just as they allowed themselves to be swept away by their passions. The pair identified themselves as Francesca and Paolo, agreed to speak with Dante and Francesca, who was murdered by her husband for her adultery with his brother, took the lead to tell him the story of their illegal love, while Paolo kept on weeping in the background.

francesca and paolo
Painted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Francesca de Polenta was the beautiful young daughter of Guido da Polenta, lord of Ravenna, who cruelly and unethically used her as a valuable diplomatic pawn in the power games of Italian noblemen of the 13th century. Before her marriage, she lived in her father’s castle, almost like a prisoner, from which she cannot escape, which was a very common condition of women in those days, prisoners of their patriarchal families. As Guido had been at war with the Malatesta family, he decided to make peace with his enemy, Malatesta da Verucchio and seal the deal by marrying Francesca, to one of the sons of Malatesta, as a cunning political tie.

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Unfortunately, her marriage was arranged to Giovanni Malatesta, who was powerful, but ugly and deformed or crippled. However, probably he was not actually crippled and only had a slight limp as his physical condition did not impair his ability to be a powerful and fearless soldier.

francesca and paolo

Nevertheless, Guido da Polenta had doubts that his beautiful and romantic young daughter would not welcome such a man as her husband. So it was decided that Francesca was to marry Giovanni by proxy with the handsome Paolo, another son of Malatesta, but Francesca was not informed that Paolo was only the proxy. Unaware about the arrangement of the proxy marriage, Francesca fell in love instantly as soon as she saw him and was delighted at the thought of marrying the handsome and healthy Paolo. On the other side, although Paolo was married to a countess, he also fell for her at the first sight, but out of duty went through the rituals of the proxy marriage. However, on the morning after her wedding night, when Francesca found herself lying beside the deformed Giovanni, she immediately realised the trick and the bitter truth.

francesca and paolo

The story did not end there and Francesca and Paolo began an affair behind the backs of their spouses due to their mutual attraction and managed to carry on their affair for some ten years. Their lust was ignited, when one day the two were reading the tale about the adulterous affair between Queen Guinevere, wife of King Arthur of Camelot and the knight Sir Lancelot, the greatest knight of King Arthur's court. In the part of the story, where the pair finally succumbed to their love for each other, Paolotremblinglyplaced his lips upon the mouth of Francesca and they became engaged in an extramarital affair. But finally, Giovanni was intimated about the affair by one of his servants and one day, when he caught the lovers together in bed, he opened his sword to kill his brother. At that critical moment, in a mad pursuit to save her lover, Francesca threw herself in between the two men, ignoring Giovanni's attacking sword and was fatally stabbed. After inadvertently killing the woman he married, Giovanni withdrew his sword from her chest and then ran Paolo through with it, killing him instantly. But as they allowed themselves to be swept away by their passions, their souls were punished to remain eternally intertwined into a whirling cyclone in hell.

francesca and paolo
Francesca and Paolo, intertwined into a whirling cyclone

The tragic romantic storyof Paolo and Francesca, which was depicted by Dante in his The Divine Comedyas a warning against succumbing to sin, is the oldest surviving written account of the legendary tale. But much later, the followers of Romanticism rejected the celebration of reason by celebrating emotion above rationality and the character of Francesca was also transformed from a sinner into a commendable example of female love and a cultural icon. Instead of heeding Dante’s warnings against pitying the damned, several famous personalities like the reputed Russian composer Tchaikovsky, English poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, sculptor Auguste Rodin and English poet Lord Byron highlighted and specifically underlined the tragic elements of the tale, offering an interpretation of the story from a new angle that gained universal cultural fame. Apart from challenging theChristian concept and belief of the afterlife, they used the story as a way of grappling with their own sexuality and immortalised the love story in not less than 40 musical adaptations, paintings, sculptures and literary compositions. 

francesca and paolo
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Author Details
Dibyendu Banerjee
Ex student of Scottish Church College. Served a Nationalised Bank for nearly 35 years. Authored novels in Bengali. Translated into Bengali novels/short stories of Leo Tolstoy, Eric Maria Remarque, D.H.Lawrence, Harold Robbins, Guy de Maupassant, Somerset Maugham and others. Also compiled collections of short stories from Africa and Third World. Interested in literature, history, music, sports and international films.
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