Last week I gave a lecture on the influence of Dante on 19th century art; given that it’s Valentine’s Day soon, it seems appropriate to feature two unfortunate lovers who appear in the Divina Commedia of the Italian poet, Canto V of Inferno to be precise.
Francesca da Rimini was a contemporary of Dante; he knew relatives of her family in Ravenna and the story associated with her. Francesca was the daughter of Guido da Polenta who had been at war with a rival family, the Malatesta. To cement a peace, Guido decided to marry his daughter to the Malatestan heir, Giovanni Malatesta. However Giovanni was deformed, so his handsome young brother, Paolo, was sent as a proxy. The inevitable happened: they fell in love, although they had inspiration from a book about Lancelot's passion for Queen Guinevere. It all ended in tragedy when the enraged husband found the lovers together and stabbed them, most vividly depicted in Ingres’s 1819 version.
This story was immensely popular with British nineteenth-century painters too. In the early part of the century two Scotsmen, the criminally underrated William Dyce and Sir Joseph Noel Paton, painted the subject. Dyce’s version, exhibited in 1837, was accompanied by an extract from Boccaccio who maintained the lovers were entirely innocent, a view I share. Although Dorothy L. Sayers in her great commentary on the poem says that Dante is at his most gentle with this episode, I still find him moralistic; why else would he place them in the Circle of the Lustful? Dyce’s composition owes more to the forms of the French neo-classical school and the German admirers of Raphael in Rome, the Nazarenes. Needless to say this picture owes its greatest debt to that great, young renaissance master himself. Interestingly, after Dyce’s death the figure of the vengeful and murderous Giovanni was removed on the orders of Paton no less; what remains is a spooky hand reaching towards the lovers. Shudder! We also get a reference to the star-crossed lovers with a crescent moon in the sky and a star near it, which could actually be the planet Venus, an suitable deity for the tragic pair.
Paton treats the subject very differently. The artist shows Dante meditating on the fate of Francesca and Paolo, whilst holding a copy of his Inferno, presumably? The poet muses on the ill-starred lovers floating in the sky above him, naked and bound together by drapery, Francesca’s long flowing hair, and of course passion. This picture seems to be based on views of Italy. There’s an Italian palazzo at the right, vaguely reminiscent of the Villa Medici; there are also cypress trees leading down into a beautiful Italian garden. Paton seems to be thinking of an earlier generation of art than Raphael- the quattrocento. The scenes of Christ and the Adulterous Woman and the Prodigal Son (signifying sin and forgiveness respectively) on the arch remind me of Masaccio’s figures in the Brancacci Chapel, although they could be a fusion of different quattrocento painters.
Dyce and Paton painted his subject just once, but our final artist portrayed it (and the Arthurian story within a story) on a number of occasions. In 1855, Dante Gabriel Rossetti created a series of watercolours commissioned by Ruskin. Rossetti’s watercolour shows Francesca and Paolo on the left reading of the adulterous affair of Lancelot and Guinevere which inspires them to passion; the centre has Dante and Virgil watching the lovers on the right who float in the Circle of the Lustful surrounded by a strange pattern of goldfish shapes; these probably symbolise hell fire, passion, or both. The romantic poet Keats has a good description of it, told from Paolo’s point of view:
"... But to that second circle of sad hell,
Where ‘mid the gust, the whirlwind, and the flaw
Of rain and hail-stones, lovers need not tell
Their sorrows. Pale were the sweet lips I saw,
Pale were the lips I kiss’d, and fair the form
I floated with, about that melancholy storm.
Rossetti was so obsessed with Dante that he changed the order of his original name so that Dante came first, not third. On one occasion he even painted a picture of Giotto painting the real Dante, but that’s another post. This photograph shows DGR flanked by the painter and Keats admirer William Bell Scott, and Ruskin.
Happy Valentine’s Day.