Virgil and Dante encounter Minos, Hell’s judge, and then souls of the lustful who lost themselves in their passions. Dante hears the tragic story of Paolo and Francesca.
(To read a footnote, click the number in the text. To come back from a footnote, click the up arrow at the note number.)
So we went down from the first circle of Hell into the second one. It’s smaller but there’s more pain here, and that makes the souls scream louder. Minos, that monstrous judge,Minos was the son of Europa and Zeus. In mythology he became the king of Crete, and was so famous for his wisdom and justice that after he died, he was made judge of the dead when they entered the … Continue reading sat there examining each new soul with a snarl and, coiling his long tail, sent it away. What I mean is that, when a wicked sinner appears before him, it confesses everything, and, being an expert judge of sins, he knows exactly where in Hell that soul belongs. The number of times he wraps his tail around himself indicates how far down the sinner will be thrown.Dante sets us up for this extended explanation by the earlier mention of Minos’ long tail. First, note how Dante cleverly “monsterizes” his Hell-guardians – in this case with a … Continue reading And the souls of all the damned just keep crowding in front of him for judgment. Each one speaks, hears, and is hurled into the depths.
When he caught sight of me, Minos set aside his judgments and spoke out: “O you who come to this place as a guest of Pain, be careful how you come in and whom you trust. It’s easy to get in here, but don’t be fooled by that!”One might expect such honest candor from a judge, but there is irony here: honesty in Hell where the Father of Lies presides! Minos’ address to Dante is clearly pointed, but not as sharp as … Continue reading
Virgil spoke right up: “Why are you shouting at him? Don’t interfere with his destined journey. It has been willed where Power wills it – that’s all you need to know.”Recall that Virgil used identical words to reply to Charon’s first challenge to Dante at the shore of the Acheron in Canto 3. And the fact that Dante’s journey is destined will be repeated on … Continue reading And that was it.
Now all the sounds of suffering and anguish there began to pound on me.After a shocking introduction to Hell in Canto 3, ending with Dante fainting, Limbo was a pleasant respite. Now it’s back to the “real” Hell where there’s plenty of pain and screaming. … Continue reading I had come to a place that was almost totally dark, but it blasted with the noise of powerful winds coming from all sides. You see, this Hell-storm, raging eternally, punishes the souls there by whirling and tossing them all over the place. When they’re blown past the place where Minos judged them they shriek with horrible lamentations and blaspheme the almighty power of God.We saw similar lamentations and cursing in Canto 3.
I soon discovered that all lustful sinners are condemned to this place – those who enslave their reason to their passions.Dante presents this canto to us in two parts. The first and shorter part, showed us Minos and the judgment of the sinners. In the longer second part, we will join Dante in his encounter with the … Continue reading You’ve seen how immense flocks of winter birds fill the sky with their swirling black patterns? Just so, the terrible winds in this place blew the lustful spirits in every direction. They’re here, then there, then up, then down – there’s never a moment of rest, never a hope of suffering less.Watching the amazing waving patterns of these immense flocks of birds is one of Nature’s awesome sights. Like so many other nature descriptions that Dante will make throughout his poem, one has to … Continue reading
Soon enough, like cranes in flight, stretched out in endless lines, I saw great numbers of spiritsOnce again, Dante makes us conscious of the numbers of sinners he sees. Dante the pilgrim is in need of moral strength, and these numerical reminders are a literary version of the wagging finger that … Continue reading flying toward us, crying like mourning birds,One might think of mourning doves here and the plaintive sound of their cooing (mourning). And there’s more irony here: one thinks of doves as symbols of peace, but Dante’s descriptions of the … Continue reading carried along by those battling winds. Seeing them, I asked Virgil: “My teacher, who are those souls punished in this awful wind?”
“Ah!” he answered right away, “you most likely know the story of the first one up there. She was an empress over a vast kingdom of many different cultures. But she was so corrupted with every kind of lust that she changed the laws to cover up the scandal of her lascivious carryings-on. Semiramis is her name. She was the wife of Ninus, and succeeded him to the throne of ancient Assyria. Her kingdom is now ruled by the Sultan.Dante’s historical source for this information about Semiramis is Paulus Orosius, a 4th century Christian historian and student of St. Augustine. Accustomed as we are nowadays to tabloid … Continue reading)
“The one next to her is Dido, queen of Carthage, who killed herself for love of Aeneas and thus broke faith with the memory of her husband, Sichaeus.Dido, a major figure in Virgil’s Aeneid, was the daughter of Belus, king of Tyre. After her husband’s murder, and vowing to remain ever faithful to his memory, she fled from Tyre and founded the … Continue reading Next is Cleopatra – in love with men’s lust!13This is a most brief identification for one of ancient history’s most famous women. Historical accounts about Cleopatra have been glamorized by Shakespeare (Antony and Cleopatra) and the great … Continue reading And there’s Helen of Troy. That woman caused years of war and woe! Ah, and there’s Troy’s greatest warrior, Achilles, who, like the others, lost his life for love. And near him is Paris, who stole Helen and thus started the Trojan War.14The story of Helen, Achilles, and Paris is somewhat complicated, and made more so by different accounts. Helen of Troy, the title … Continue reading
And that one there is Tristan.”With even less identifying information than Cleopatra, Dante assumed that his readers were familiar with Tristan and his lover, Isolde, who were famous characters in Medieval romances. There are … Continue reading
He kept going, naming more than a thousand and telling me how love had cut them off from life.This must have taken quite some time, and the cumulative effect on Dante of so many romantic tragedies will only be seen at the end of this canto. And once again we have Dante giving us numbers – … Continue reading When he had finished naming all these famous ancient souls, I was left dazed with pity and confused.After hearing such a long list of glamorous, but tragic, love stories, it’s no wonder that Dante feels pity. But this canto is hardly over, and we need to bear this idea of Dante’s pity in mind … Continue reading And I began: “My poet, do you see those two over there who move together so lightly upon these winds? With all my heart, I’d love to speak with them if it’s possible.”This begins a pattern that we will see repeated time and again in the poem: Dante sees souls that he either knows or who pique his curiosity, and he wants to talk with them. And sometimes it’s … Continue reading
“Yes… when they get closer you should call out to them – call in the name of the love that floats them along – they’ll come to you.”After this, Virgil remains virtually silent through the rest of the canto. But hearing him direct Dante to call to the two lustful sinners “in the name of the love that floats them along” leaves … Continue reading
So, when the wind started blowing in our direction, I cried out to them: “O weary souls! If it’s not forbidden, please come here and speak with us.” Well, just as doves float slowly down from the sky when they return to their sweet nests, those two spirits left Dido and all the rest up there in that foul air and glided gently to us – just by the tenderness of my calling to them.As one can see here, Dante the poet is a master craftsman of language, and his well-chosen words create just the effect he wants to produce in both the Pilgrim and the reader. “Doves floating … Continue reading
“O living soul, so gracious and kind, who journeys through this dim place to visit with us who left the world stained with our blood, if we could still befriend the King of Heaven, we would ask him to grant you peace because you have pity on our dreadful plight. Whatever you’d like to say or hear from us we’ll gladly tell you, as long as these fierce winds remain calm.The pathos in this almost prayer-like greeting (beseeching the King of Heaven) creates a tension here that one might miss because the grace of these lines befits a person of great refinement and … Continue reading
“I was born near RavennaThe city of Ravenna was the seat of the Western part of the Roman Empire from 407-475. In Dante’s time it was about a mile from the Adriatic, surrounded mostly by marshy areas and pine forests. … Continue reading where the river Po and all its streams let out into the sea.At last the speaker reveals her identity, short of giving her name. She is Francesca da Rimini, a coastal city about 120 miles south of Venice. As she tells Dante, she was originally from Ravenna … Continue reading
Love, which flares up quickly in a gentle heart, left this one smitten with the beauty of my body, torn from me (how the memory of it still injures me deeply!). Love, which never excuses a person loved from loving back, swept me away with such joyous delight in him that, even now, he never leaves me. Love led the two of us headlong to a sudden death.The unusual structure of the lines, each beginning with the same word (Love), is called an anaphora, a rhetorical device designed both to get attention and to make emphasis. This happened once before … Continue reading
But Caïna is waiting for the one who robbed us of life.“Caïna is an area at the very bottom of hell reserved for those who treacherously betrayed members of their own family. The name is derived from Cain who, in chapter four of the Book of Genesis, … Continue reading
This is what she told us, and when she finished, I just bowed my head in sorrow. Seeing this, Virgil said, “What’s going on with you?”
And when I could speak again, I just sighed: “How sad. What sweet thoughts, what longing desires finally brought these two pitiful souls down into this awful place.”Savor these weighty phrases with Dante as he pauses: “sweet thoughts,” “longing desires,” “pitiful souls,” “awful place.” One might wonder whether Dante’s behavior here indicates … Continue reading So, trying to take up where she left off, I said: “O Francesca, your terrible agony pains me to tears. Tell me, if you can: in the midst of that sweet passionate fever, what led you to such forbidden desires?“This is the only time that Francesca is actually named, and as painful as it might be for him, Dante doesn’t hold back from asking her a key question. And the way the question is phrased is … Continue reading
“Ohh…” she replied tenderly, “there’s no greater pain than remembering happy times when you’re deep in grief. I suspect your guide knows this as well.Any number of great thinkers have stated this sad truth about life in similar words. Note how she uses the quiet Virgil as an example because, as glittering a poet as he was, he has been remanded to … Continue reading However, if you want to delve into the root of such love as ours, I’ll try to tell you – with words and tears. One day, just to pass the time, we were reading the story of Lancelot and how, like us, he had fallen in love.Stories of King Arthur, his knights, Lancelot and Guinevere, etc., were very popular in Dante’s time. And note the phrasing here. She does not say that she and Paolo like Lancelot were in love. … Continue reading We were by ourselves and beyond suspicion. But as we read, our eyes kept meeting and we’d blush and lower our glances. How can I say it… we yielded to our passions because of one single line in that book.This may well be the most important line in the canto. Think for a moment of the power of words, of what they can do, of what they can express, of what they can bring into existence when coupled with … Continue reading When we read how those secretly desired lips were finally kissed by such a famed lover, this one here (who will accompany me for eternity), all a-tremble, kissed my mouth.One can imagine the two lovers, by now seasoned in sin, sequestered in some hidden place, just passing the time by reading aloud (who was reading?) the story of Lancelot and Guinevere. At various … Continue reading A pimp was that book, and a pimp was the one who wrote it!Dante uses the word “Galeotto” here. This is the character Gallehault in the story of Lancelot and Guinevere, and it was he who introduced the famous knight to Queen Guinevere. Their resulting … Continue reading That day we read no further…”With these few words, Dante, a consummate artist, remands the conclusion of this tragic story to our imagination. The sex and murder were probably already known by his contemporary readers. Legend … Continue reading
The whole time she was relating this tragic story, her lover wept alongside her so bitterly that pity completely overwhelmed me. I tell you, I swooned as though I had died, and dropped to Hell’s floor like a corpse!Brilliantly, Francesca has emotionally seduced Dante so thoroughly that he compares his collapse with death. Francesca and Paolo were run through with the sword of her outraged husband, and Dante has … Continue reading
See the Excursus on Dante’s Burial.An Excursus on Dante’s Burial. “Dante’s last laugh: Why Italy’s national poet isn’t buried where you think he is” by Jessica … Continue reading
Notes & Commentary
|↑1||Minos was the son of Europa and Zeus. In mythology he became the king of Crete, and was so famous for his wisdom and justice that after he died, he was made judge of the dead when they entered the underworld. A Christian reader might raise an eyebrow at Dante’s use of a pagan mythological figure as the Judge of souls after death, but Dante comfortably and to good purpose makes use of these figures as guardians of various levels of his Inferno. And there will be more!|
|↑2||Dante sets us up for this extended explanation by the earlier mention of Minos’ long tail. First, note how Dante cleverly “monsterizes” his Hell-guardians – in this case with a great serpentine tail. It is pure fantasy on Dante’s part – and it works well – that the judgment of the sinners is rendered by the number of times Minos wraps his tail about his body. The sinners here readily confess just as they readily crowded the shore of the Acheron in Canto 3.|
|↑3||One might expect such honest candor from a judge, but there is irony here: honesty in Hell where the Father of Lies presides! Minos’ address to Dante is clearly pointed, but not as sharp as Charon’s was. Morally speaking, Dante needs to hear these warnings as part of his spiritual recovery. The key word here is caution; be more careful than trusting. The fact that it’s easy to get into Hell should be clear to Dante by now – he was well on his way in the dark forest. And, as we saw at the beginning of Canto 3, the gates of Hell are always open. One is reminded of the injunction in the Gospel: “Enter by the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and many there are who enter that way” (Mt 7:13). And Dante’s mentor gives a similar warning in Aeneid 6:126-27: “…the path to hell is easy: black Dis’s door is open night and day.”|
|↑4||Recall that Virgil used identical words to reply to Charon’s first challenge to Dante at the shore of the Acheron in Canto 3. And the fact that Dante’s journey is destined will be repeated on other occasions.|
|↑5||After a shocking introduction to Hell in Canto 3, ending with Dante fainting, Limbo was a pleasant respite. Now it’s back to the “real” Hell where there’s plenty of pain and screaming. Furthermore, it should be apparent by now that the noise of Hell is not only sensed by Dante’s ears. He literally feels it beating him and pounding on him physically.|
|↑6||We saw similar lamentations and cursing in Canto 3.|
|↑7||Dante presents this canto to us in two parts. The first and shorter part, showed us Minos and the judgment of the sinners. In the longer second part, we will join Dante in his encounter with the carnal sinners – represented by Francesca and her lover Paolo. But before we meet them, however, we have another clever experience of the contrapasso. The wild black storm raging around Dante, like a hurricane or a tornado, simulates the unbridled passions of the lustful sinners, tossing them here and there as it rages eternally. Recall from Canto 3 how Virgil told Dante that the souls in Hell have lost the good of their intellect. In other words, they have allowed sin to steal their will to choose what is good. Here, Virgil complements that earlier statement by telling Dante that these carnal sinners have allowed their lustful passions to enslave their reason. Thus the “darkness.” Their sins have be-nighted them. In what follows, Dante will, as it were, play this out for us in slow motion – and to wonderful effect!|
|↑8||Watching the amazing waving patterns of these immense flocks of birds is one of Nature’s awesome sights. Like so many other nature descriptions that Dante will make throughout his poem, one has to believe that he actually saw what he describes. This wonderful spectacle of birds is called murmuration. See this on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eakKfY5aHmY.|
|↑9||Once again, Dante makes us conscious of the numbers of sinners he sees. Dante the pilgrim is in need of moral strength, and these numerical reminders are a literary version of the wagging finger that warns, “Pay attention or you’ll become one of them!”|
|↑10||One might think of mourning doves here and the plaintive sound of their cooing (mourning). And there’s more irony here: one thinks of doves as symbols of peace, but Dante’s descriptions of the birds here and the violent storms battling each other are anything but peaceful! Furthermore, mourning is an appropriate response to what is about to take place.|
|↑11||Dante’s historical source for this information about Semiramis is Paulus Orosius, a 4th century Christian historian and student of St. Augustine. Accustomed as we are nowadays to tabloid sensations, Orosius’ description of Semiramis seems tame, but disgusting enough to put her first on Virgil’s list of Who’s Who in the wind:
“His [Ninus’] wife Semiramis succeeded him on the throne. She had the will of a man and went about dressed like her son. For forty-two years she kept her own people, lusting for blood from their previous taste of it, engaged in the slaughter of foreign tribes. Not satisfied with the boundaries that she had inherited from her husband, who was the only king of that age to be warlike and who had acquired these lands in the course of fifty years, the woman added to her empire Ethiopia, which had been sorely oppressed by war and drenched with blood. She also declared war upon the people of India, a land which nobody ever had penetrated excepting herself and Alexander the Great. To persecute and slaughter peoples living in peace was at that time an even more cruel and serious matter than it is today; for in those days neither the incentive for conquest abroad nor the temptation for the exercise of cupidity at home was so strong. Burning with lust and thirsty for blood, Semiramis in the course of continuous adulteries and homicides caused the death of all those whom she had delighted to hold in her adulterous embrace and whom she had summoned to her by royal command for that purpose. She finally most shamelessly conceived a son, godlessly abandoned the child, later had incestuous relations with him, and then covered her private disgrace by a public crime. For she prescribed that between parents and children no reverence for nature in the conjugal act was to be observed, but that each should be free to do as he pleased.” (Historiae Adversus Paganos 1.4.7-8
|↑12||Dido, a major figure in Virgil’s Aeneid, was the daughter of Belus, king of Tyre. After her husband’s murder, and vowing to remain ever faithful to his memory, she fled from Tyre and founded the city of Carthage. Following his destiny to found Rome, Aeneas and his crew were forced to make for port in Carthage due to a great storm. Queen Dido and Aeneas fell madly in love, but after a time he was reminded of his destiny and warned by Mercury to resume his voyage. Aeneas and his men left secretly and Dido, discovering that she had been abandoned, killed herself upon a great pyre whose flames could be seen by Aeneas as he sailed away.|
|↑13||This is a most brief identification for one of ancient history’s most famous women. Historical accounts about Cleopatra have been glamorized by Shakespeare (Antony and Cleopatra) and the great modern movie spectacles that create a character larger than life and a flashpoint in the clash of empires and their heroes. She was the last ruler of Egypt before it was subsumed by the empire of Rome. During an affair with her, Julius Caesar helped rid her of her brother/husband with whom she jointly ruled. Not long afterward, she bore the married Caesar a son. After Caesar’s assassination, she ensnared Mark Antony, and though he was also married with children, the two of them carried on in shameful debauchery until Augustus (then Octavian) invaded Egypt. Trapped and with no other refuge, Mark Antony took his own life and died in his lover’s arms. Not long afterward, Cleopatra followed him in suicide, clasping a deadly asp to her breast. While the manner of her death has dramatic and cinematic appeal, this “snake theory” is hotly contested among scholars who suggest she died by poison in some other manner.|
|↑14||The story of Helen, Achilles, and Paris is somewhat complicated, and made more so by different accounts.
Helen of Troy, the title by which the world has come to know her, was the wife of Menelaus, the king of Sparta. This is the Helen whose beautiful face is said to have launched a thousand ships (in the Trojan War). Christopher Marlowe, a contemporary of Shakespeare, wrote a play in 1604 called The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus. In it he writes:
“Was this the face that launched a thousand ships
And burnt the topless towers of Illium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss…”
In the Roman de Troie, Benoit de Sainte-Maure writes this of Helen: “Because of her, the world has had such trouble; because of her, Greece is so impoverished of her noble knighthood; because of her, the world is worse; because of her, the rich and best are dead, vanquished, and cut to pieces; because of her, kingdoms have been devastated; because of her, Troy is burned and destroyed.”
Paris, son of King Priam of Troy, enters the story because he was given the gorgeous Helen as a gift by Aphrodite for judging a beauty contest among the goddesses. Paris took Helen to Troy where he married her, setting the Trojan War in motion when her husband-king, Menelaus, gathered an army to take her back.
Achilles enters the story having fallen hopelessly in love with Polyxena, whose father was Priam, king of Troy. Desiring to marry her, Achilles is lured to the temple where he thinks the marriage will take place. But there he is ambushed by Paris, who shoots him in the (famous Achilles’) heel with an arrow. As noted previously, Dante did not know Greek, so he did not read Homer. Most likely, his knowledge of these characters and the larger epic to which they belong came from versions of the story that were popular in the Middle Ages.
|↑15||With even less identifying information than Cleopatra, Dante assumed that his readers were familiar with Tristan and his lover, Isolde, who were famous characters in Medieval romances. There are numerous versions of this sad tale. Common to most versions, it seems that Tristan’s uncle, King Mark of Cornwall, was engaged to the Irish princess Isolde. Sent by Mark to bring her to England, Tristan and Isolde fell in love and continued their secret affair even after she was married to the king. In one version, Tristan is hit by a poisoned arrow and dies a long, slow death, during which Isolde is summoned. After a harrowing voyage she arrives just in time to lay alongside her lover and expire with him. Another version has it that though they thought they had hidden their assignations, the king found them out and killed Tristan in flagrante delicto.|
|↑16||This must have taken quite some time, and the cumulative effect on Dante of so many romantic tragedies will only be seen at the end of this canto. And once again we have Dante giving us numbers – in this case “more than a thousand.”|
|↑17||After hearing such a long list of glamorous, but tragic, love stories, it’s no wonder that Dante feels pity. But this canto is hardly over, and we need to bear this idea of Dante’s pity in mind as it continues. But pity isn’t all. Dante tells us he was confused. Confused about what? Perhaps the answer to this question is to couple the confusion with the pity – not a good state to be in, for sure. But what’s important to note here is that this pity and confusion not only leave Dante more vulnerable, but they also cause him to be more susceptible to the story Francesca is about to tell him.|
|↑18||This begins a pattern that we will see repeated time and again in the poem: Dante sees souls that he either knows or who pique his curiosity, and he wants to talk with them. And sometimes it’s vice-versa. In Canto 3, you will recall, Dante told us that he recognized some of the neutral sinners, but Virgil simply told him to look and pass on. Except, of course, he had a comment about the one who made the cowardly refusal. Here he’s already bolder and clearly points to two sinners he wants to talk with – very much!|
|↑19||After this, Virgil remains virtually silent through the rest of the canto. But hearing him direct Dante to call to the two lustful sinners “in the name of the love that floats them along” leaves one wondering whether Virgil is as naive as Dante. Most likely not. But with tongue in cheek, a mischievous commentator might suggest that Virgil not only approves Dante’s request, but actually sets him up by adding the flourish of calling in the name of love. Let’s see how this will play out.|
|↑20||As one can see here, Dante the poet is a master craftsman of language, and his well-chosen words create just the effect he wants to produce in both the Pilgrim and the reader. “Doves floating slowly,” “sweet nests,” “gliding gently,” and “tenderness” cause us to forget the infernal storm raging around us, and to forget that the storm symbolizes the roiling passions that brought these dove-like sinners here in the first place. Nor must we forget that these sinners allowed their stormy passions to enslave their reason.
The second mention of Dido here (but none of the other famous lovers) reminds us again of that large section of Virgil’s Aeneid devoted to her affair with Aeneas that nearly derailed his destiny. But just as Virgil created a lush and memorable love story, Dante is about to create his own, centered around a woman every bit as famous in literature as Virgil’s Dido. Over the centuries, many have claimed this to be the most memorable canto in the entire Comedy.
|↑21||The pathos in this almost prayer-like greeting (beseeching the King of Heaven) creates a tension here that one might miss because the grace of these lines befits a person of great refinement and gentility who, at the same time, plays on the Pilgrim’s emotions. But we cannot, must not, dismiss the admitted fact that a “dreadful plight” has left the world “stained” with blood. Does our Pilgrim grasp this, or is he still “dazed with pity and confused”?|
|↑22||The city of Ravenna was the seat of the Western part of the Roman Empire from 407-475. In Dante’s time it was about a mile from the Adriatic, surrounded mostly by marshy areas and pine forests. Nowadays, it about five miles from the coast because the sea has receded. The city has several well-preserved buildings of late Roman and (later) Byzantine architecture, and many of its ancient churches contain some of the most beautiful and famous mosaics in the world. Dante would certainly have seen all of this. Ravenna was Dante’s last refuge during his exile, where he was treated with great honor and respect by the Lord of the place, Guido Novello di Polenta, the uncle of Francesca da Rimini, the chief character in this canto. Dante died of malaria in the Franciscan monastery in Ravenna on September 14, 1321, and the story of his burial is filled with intrigue and mystery. See the “Excursus on Dante’s Burial” after the last footnote.|
|↑23||At last the speaker reveals her identity, short of giving her name. She is Francesca da Rimini, a coastal city about 120 miles south of Venice. As she tells Dante, she was originally from Ravenna (about 80 miles south of Venice) and, as it turns out, she was the aunt of Guido Novello di Polenta, the Lord of Ravenna who was also Dante’s host during the last years of his life when he lived there. Her father, Guido Il Vecchio da Polenta, had been Podestà at Florence in 1290, not long after Francesca had been murdered. Dante would surely have known him. Her story, even in Dante’s time, was already mixed with legend, and what she will tell Dante are secrets known to no one else but her lover, Paolo, who is there with her. In 1275, the lame Giovanni Malatesta of Rimini (also known as Gianciotto or Giovanni the Cripple) entered into a political alliance with Ravenna sealed by his marriage with Francesca, whose father was Lord of that city at the time. After their wedding, Giovanni and Francesca moved to Rimini where she met and later fell in love with his younger brother, the handsome Paolo, who was already married with two children. Their affair apparently lasted for several years until in 1285 Giovanni caught them in flagrante delicto and ran them through with his sword! By the way, Dante would have been 10 years old at the time of this tragic murder. The legend, of course, adds details that make an “ordinary” adultery much more appealing. It would seem that because he was unable to travel to Ravenna for the wedding, Giovanni sent Paolo in his place. Francesca, thinking it was Paolo she was to marry, fell in love with him at first sight. Only later did she learn the truth, and Dante will fill in some details as well. The Inferno was published around 1314, well after these events took place, and he moved to Ravenna at the request of his host, Guido Novello, around 1318. Dante would die in 1321. By the time the Inferno was published, and Canto 5 is early in the poem, Dante knew this story in both fact and legend. It must have been fascinating, several years later, to be living with Francesca’s nephew and in her home town.
In Part 20 of his 1373 Commento, Boccaccio adds even more details to the story: “You must know that she was the daughter of Guido da Polenta the elder, lord of Ravenna and Cervia. A long, harsh war had raged between him and the Malatesta, lords of Rimini, when through certain intermediaries, peace was treated and concluded. To make it all the more firm, both sides were pleased to cement it with a marriage. Whereupon it was arranged that Messer Guido was to give his beautiful daughter, called Madonna Francesca, in marriage to Gianciotto, son of Messer Malatesta.
When this became known to some friends of Messer Guido, one of them said to him: ‘Be careful how you proceed, for if you do not take precautions, this wedding may bring scandal. You know your daughter, and how high-spirited she can be. If she sees Gianciotto before the marriage is concluded, neither you nor anyone else can make her go through with it. And so, by your leave, it seems to me that you ought to go about it in this way. Do not let Gianciotto come here to marry her, but rather one of his brothers who, as his representative, will marry her in Gianciotto’s name.’
Gianciotto was a very capable man, and everyone expected that he would become ruler when his father died. For this reason, though he was ugly and deformed, Messer Guido wanted him rather than one of his brothers as a son-in-law. Recognizing that what his friend had told him was true, he secretly ordered that his advice be carried out. So that, at the agreed-upon time, Paolo, Gianciotto’s brother, came to Ravenna with a full mandate to marry Francesca in Gianciotto’s name. Paolo was a handsome, pleasing, very courteous man.
As he was walking together with some other gentlemen about the courtyard of Messer Guido’s home, he was pointed out through a window to Madonna Francesca by a young handmaiden inside, who recognized him and said to her: ‘Madonna, that is the man who is to be your husband.’ The good woman said it in good faith. Whereupon Madonna Francesca immediately fell completely in love with him.
The deceptive marriage contract was made, and the lady went to Rimini. Nor did she become aware of the deception until the morning after the wedding day, when she saw Gianciotto getting up from beside her. Whereupon she realized she had been fooled, and, as can well be believed, she became furious. Nor did the love she had conceived for Paolo disappear. I have never heard tell how they then got together, other than what [Dante] writes; and it is possible that it did happen that way. But I believe that that is probably a fiction constructed upon what might possibly have happened; and that the author did not know what really took place.
In any case, the feelings of Paolo and Francesca for each other were still very much alive when Gianciotto went off to some nearby town as podesta. With almost no fear of suspicion, they became intimate. But a certain servant of Gianciotto found them out, went to Gianciotto, and told him all he knew, promising to give him palpable proof should he want it. Gianciotto, completely enraged, returned secretly to Rimini. When the servant saw Paolo entering Francesca’s room, he immediately went to get Gianciotto and brought him to the door of the room. Since it was bolted from within and he could not enter, he shouted to her and began to push against the door. Paolo and Francesca recognized him immediately. Paolo thought that if he fled quickly through a trap door that led to a room below, he might conceal his misdeed, in whole or in part. He threw himself at it, telling the woman to go open the door. But it did not happen as he had planned. As he jumped through, a fold of the jacket he was wearing 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. Whereupon Gianciotto entered and immediately noticed Paolo caught by the fold of his jacket. He ran, rapier in hand, to kill him. Seeing this, Francesca quickly ran between them, to try to prevent it; but Gianciotto had already raised his rapier, which he now brought down with all his weight behind it. And thus happened what he would not have wanted: 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.”
Scenes of the lovers and their murder are the subject of numerous famous paintings. In addition to this, the lovers are the subject of 28 operas (!) composed between 1823 and 1914, a symphonic poem by Tchaikovsky (1876), several plays, sculpture (The Kiss by Rodin), and poetry. The Story of Rimini, written by Leigh Hunt and published in 1816, is a lovely poem, particularly fascinating as a long, rhymed version of the story that fills in many of the details of both the true and fictional stories.
|↑24||The unusual structure of the lines, each beginning with the same word (Love), is called an anaphora, a rhetorical device designed both to get attention and to make emphasis. This happened once before in the very first lines of Canto 3. Spoken in this way, Francesca commands Dante’s attention and plays on his pity. She never mentions her lover’s name, and whatever romance there may be in each statement is quickly consumed by the blood and violence that left the world “stained with our blood.” Apart from the romantic tragedy of the story, there’s the moral tragedy of a violent death without the opportunity to repent. What Dante the Pilgrim has to grapple with is that there is an ultimate price to be paid for allowing oneself to be “swept away” by sin. One might almost imagine Francesca relating these facts to Dante through gritted teeth. The pretense of romantic courtly speech is maintained here, which Dante the poet knows well, but he also knows it well enough to mock it with Francesca’s successful attempt to ensnare the unwitting Pilgrim. Note also how she eludes any responsibility for their sin because they were overcome by the power of Love – a further mockery, this time the First Letter of St. John (4:19): “Let us therefore love, because God first loved us.” Time and again we will encounter sinners in the Inferno who either shirk responsibility for their own choices or blame others – or both. John Ciardi in his translation of the poem (New American Library, New York, 1954) presents an important lesson for the reader here: “At many points of the Inferno Dante makes clear the principle that the souls of the damned are locked so blindly into their own guilt that none can feel sympathy for another, or find any pleasure in the presence of another. The temptation of many is to interpret this romantically: i.e., that the love of Paolo and Francesca survives Hell itself. The more Dantean interpretation, however, is that they add to one another’s anguish (a) as mutual reminders of their sin, and (b) as insubstantial shades of the bodies for which they once felt such great passion.” (64) And here is another subtle contrapasso at work. Dante initially addressed Francesca and Paolo as “weary souls.” Weary, one suggests, because “he never leaves me” and they are forced to reenact the sin that sent them “headlong to a sudden death.” It might sound alluring to engage in sexual congress forever. But forever?|
|↑25||Caïna is an area at the very bottom of hell reserved for those who treacherously betrayed members of their own family. The name is derived from Cain who, in chapter four of the Book of Genesis, killed his brother. If one were looking for the smallest bit of fun in this otherwise dark episode, it’s this: we have probably forgotten that there are two Dante’s. One can assume that Dante the Pilgrim had no idea what Francesca was talking about when she spoke about Caïna. Well, someplace very bad, for sure. But one might presume that when Dante the Poet set about writing the Inferno he had this first part of his great poem pretty much mapped out, perhaps in an outline or a summary, and had already created and named this place called Caïna.|
|↑26||Savor these weighty phrases with Dante as he pauses: “sweet thoughts,” “longing desires,” “pitiful souls,” “awful place.” One might wonder whether Dante’s behavior here indicates that he knows more than his prayers when, as the French say, it comes to les affaires du coeur. Nevertheless, this break in the action while he sighs out his pity allows everyone, including the reader, to “buckle-up” for the climax of this love tragedy.|
|↑27||This is the only time that Francesca is actually named, and as painful as it might be for him, Dante doesn’t hold back from asking her a key question. And the way the question is phrased is important. If Dante had asked her why she did it, her answer might be rather short. But asking what led her to “such forbidden desires” opens a much larger space for a broader and more complex answer.|
|↑28||Any number of great thinkers have stated this sad truth about life in similar words. Note how she uses the quiet Virgil as an example because, as glittering a poet as he was, he has been remanded to Limbo, and there the souls experience exactly what she is talking about – forever. It’s also interesting to consider that Francesca could just as easily have used the exiled Dante, and said to him: “I suspect you know this as well.” On the other hand, we’ve had no references to his exile yet, though they will come. Of course, and we must be reminded of this important fact all the time: we too are understood to be traveling along with Dante the whole time, so Francesca’s words are aimed at us as well. And spiritually this is what Dante proposes throughout the poem. We live in exile from our true home, which is in Heaven, and any happiness we may experience is only a shadow of the joy we will experience eternally when, after a long and difficult journey, we finally come home. The whole point of Dante’s journey through Hell and Purgatory is acquaint him (and us) graphically with the nature of will and choice, sin and repentance, so that like him we can to set our sights on what is truly right and good, not what seems to be right and good, or what is definitely not right and good.|
|↑29||Stories of King Arthur, his knights, Lancelot and Guinevere, etc., were very popular in Dante’s time. And note the phrasing here. She does not say that she and Paolo like Lancelot were in love. Rather the opposite, she says it was Lancelot like us who had fallen in love – an ever so subtle shifting of blame. Remember, according to the story/legend, they had been lovers since almost the moment before Francesca’s wedding, in which Paolo had acted as his older brother’s proxy – Francesca thinking it was actually him.|
|↑30||This may well be the most important line in the canto. Think for a moment of the power of words, of what they can do, of what they can express, of what they can bring into existence when coupled with the imagination, of how they convey knowledge, certainly in this case what they can make people do – for good or ill. Surely, Dante the poet, throughout the latter part of this canto, but certainly here, is reflecting on his own gifts as a poet and writer and the power he has with those gifts. “By the power of one line alone we lost our souls.” Simply stunning!|
|↑31||One can imagine the two lovers, by now seasoned in sin, sequestered in some hidden place, just passing the time by reading aloud (who was reading?) the story of Lancelot and Guinevere. At various points, one or the other would raise their eyes from the text and knowingly catch the glance of the other, blush, and look away. They were so caught up with each other and so caught up in the story they were reading that – and this is very important to understand – in their minds they became Lancelot and Guinevere! They became the main characters in an immensely popular love story. And, of course, this excuses them from sin because what they are doing is a fiction. They’re reenacting a scene from a book. Once again, the power of words.|
|↑32||Dante uses the word “Galeotto” here. This is the character Gallehault in the story of Lancelot and Guinevere, and it was he who introduced the famous knight to Queen Guinevere. Their resulting adultery tore asunder the court of King Arthur and the brotherhood of the Knights of the Round Table. The delicacy of Francesca’s confession to Dante is itself torn asunder as Francesca blames her adultery with Paolo not only the book, but on the one who wrote it as well. One might be tempted to ask, “How ridiculous can you get!” But we must remember that Francesca is completely serious and convinced of their innocence. And, what’s worse, as we shall see, Dante is completely taken in by her. (Were you?) Once again, as will be seen many more times in the Inferno, the sinners blame everyone and everything for their sins.|
|↑33||With these few words, Dante, a consummate artist, remands the conclusion of this tragic story to our imagination. The sex and murder were probably already known by his contemporary readers. Legend would take care of the rest.|
|↑34||Brilliantly, Francesca has emotionally seduced Dante so thoroughly that he compares his collapse with death. Francesca and Paolo were run through with the sword of her outraged husband, and Dante has been run through with the sword of her words. Francesca told him that they lost their souls by the power of words and, in a sense, Dante the Pilgrim has allowed himself to become lost in her words. Not to excuse the poor pilgrim, because we ourselves may have been taken in by words – Francesca’s or others’ – but we must keep in mind that this is actually Dante’s first encounter with sinners in “real” Hell, and he’s still quite weak, having only recently been rescued from the moral wilderness of the Dark Forest. We will want to watch him grow along this journey designed to make him strong.|
|↑35||An Excursus on Dante’s Burial.
“Dante’s last laugh: Why Italy’s national poet isn’t buried where you think he is”
by Jessica Phelan
14 September 2018
Dante Alighieri will forever be associated with Florence, city of his birth and the dialect he helped elevate such that it would one day become the basis of Italy’s national language. Yet when Dante died nearly 700 years ago this week, Florence isn’t where he ended up.
The story of how Dante’s remains came to be in Ravenna isn’t that complicated. It’s how they came to stay there that gets strange.
When the poet died, sometime between September 13-14th, 1321, he hadn’t seen Florence for some 20 years. Exiled for life after finding himself on the losing side of a war for control of the city, Dante spent the next several years roaming, defiantly refusing conditional offers to return home on terms he saw as unjust.
He eventually settled in Ravenna, in present-day Emilia-Romagna, at the invitation of its ruler.
He had lived in the city for just three years when he died aged 56. But his body was in Ravenna, and Ravenna wasn’t about to let it go.
Dante was buried by the church of San Pier Maggiore (now the Basilica di San Francesco) with all the pomp that Ravenna could muster. After a funeral attended by the city’s great and good, his body went into a Roman marble sarcophagus that was laid to rest outside the church’s cloisters.
And there it remained for the next 160 odd years, undisturbed but for the addition, in 1366, of an epitaph by fellow poet Bernardo Canaccio, who couldn’t resist including a dig at Florence: “… here I lie interred, Dante, an exile from my homeland, he who was born of Florence, an unloving mother.”
Meanwhile that “unloving mother” was growing distinctly fonder of her lost son. Fellow Tuscan poet Giovanni Boccaccio, who along with Petrarch would follow Dante’s precedent of writing in the vernacular instead of Latin, wrote texts and gave lectures in praise of his idol, whose reputation was gathering weight across Europe.
All the praise seems to have reminded the Florentines of the Dante-shaped hole in their cemetery. Seventy-five years after the poet’s death, the city made its first documented request for Dante’s remains. It would prove the first of many.
In 1396 Ravenna said no. In 1430, Florence asked again. Ravenna again declined. In 1476 Florence tried a third time – and for the third time, Ravenna turned them down.
So it looked rather like a taunt when the governor of Ravenna decided, in 1483, that the city’s most illustrious corpse ought to occupy a more prominent position. That year Dante’s sarcophagus was moved to the other side of the cloister and a sculptor commissioned to make a marble bas-relief of the poet at work to hang above it.
But the mighty Republic of Florence had bigger guns to use. The Medici, Florence’s original power dynasty, were about to assume the ultimate authority: the papacy. Giovanni di Lorenzo de’ Medici was appointed Pope Leo X in 1513 and what previous delegations had proved unable to achieve by diplomacy, he could demand by papal decree.
In 1519, at the request of Florentine intellectuals and artists, Leo X granted his fellow townspeople permission to go to Ravenna and fetch Dante’s remains. The poet was to return to Florence and be laid to rest – for good this time – in a spectacular monument designed by none other than Michelangelo, Tuscan, sculptor, painter, poet and patronee of the Medici.
A delegation set forth for Ravenna. It arrived at the church of San Pier Maggiore, with the weight of the Catholic Church and one of Europe’s most powerful families behind it. The delegates ordered the sarcophagus opened. Dante’s remains were… not there.
The Franciscan brothers, whose order had been guarding Dante’s tomb for nearly 200 years by this point, had got wind of the papal mission and tunnelled a hole through the wall of their monastery into the sarcophagus. They stashed the poet’s body inside the gap, all without being spotted from the outside.
The Florentines’ reaction to finding Dante gone isn’t recorded, but it’s safe to bet they were pretty riled. According to some versions of the story they found themselves in the awkward position of not being able to report the body missing, since doing so would involve admitting they had thrown open the tomb with the intention of stealing it.
Ravenna took note and moved Dante’s remains inside the cloisters for safe-keeping, where monks guarded them jealously for another 150 years. On October 18th, 1677, a friar named Antonio Santi put them into a wooden chest (we know because he left a note), and in 1692 it’s recorded that workers carrying out repairs on the sarcophagus were supervised by armed guards to make sure they didn’t try anything.
By the late 18th century plans were afoot to give Dante a more imposing tomb. In 1781 a local architect commissioned by Ravenna’s Catholic authorities completed a small neoclassical mausoleum, lined with marble and topped with a dome, that would house the original sarcophagus and 15th-century bas-relief. So that no one could be in any doubt, it was inscribed: “DANTIS POETAE SEPULCRUM” (“Tomb of Dante the poet”).
Accounts diverge at this point: either the monks neglected to mention that they’d hidden the bones and quietly let the new tomb go empty, or they returned the bones to the sarcophagus. But even if they did, they wouldn’t stay there for long.
This time the threat didn’t come from Florence, but from France. When, in 1805, Napoleon declared himself “Emperor of the French and King of Italy” and occupied the north-east of the peninsula, Ravenna fell under the Frenchman’s rule – and Dante’s custodians became increasingly concerned about their new masters.
As Napoleon’s armies seized property from religious orders up and down their new territory, the friars of San Francesco found themselves forced to abandon their monastery, but not without taking measures to ensure that the poet’s remains didn’t become part of the booty. In 1810, after less than 30 years in his new mausoleum (if he’d ever been there in the first place), Dante was gathered up and put back in the same wooden chest in which he’d spent most of the 18th century.
The casket was hidden in a wall of the chapel and the gap sealed. The friars fled, without leaving any record of what they’d done or where to find the bones.
In another few years the French would have left Italy, but Ravenna’s old rival remained. As the 500-year anniversary of Dante’s death approached, it was time for Florence to revive its claims to Dante yet again.
The city pointedly commissioned a tomb of its own in the Basilica di Santa Croce, this one much grander than Ravenna’s. The poet sits pensively atop a tomb, statues of Italy and Poetry in mourning on either side.
The inscription reads: “Honour to the most illustrious poet”, a quotation from Canto IV of the Inferno – which, as all good Dante scholars know, continues: “His shadow, which had departed, now returns.”
Ravenna can’t have missed the point, but chose to ignore it. As impressive as it was, Dante’s tomb in Florence was to lie empty from its completion in 1830 right up until today.
But meanwhile, his Ravenna monument was also empty. For several decades in the 19th century, Dante was in the bizarre position of having two tombs and not being in either of them. Not that most people were any the wiser: his acolytes continued to make their pilgrimages to the mausoleum in Ravenna to pay homage to the poet, not realizing that all the while he was several metres away inside a chapel wall.
And there he might have remained had a labourer not uncovered the chest during work on the basilica in 1865, and had a sharp-eyed student not spotted Friar Santi’s note labelling the box “Dantis ossa” (“Dante’s bones”).
The contents were subsequently handed to doctors for examination, who pronounced them to be the almost intact skeleton of an older man between 165-170 centimetres tall, with a “larger and more beautiful” than average skull that they took to indicate superior intelligence.
The bones were transferred to a crystal case and placed on public display, where they attracted large crowds of admirers. Then they were moved to a heavy wooden casket lined with lead and put back where they were supposed to be all along, in the mausoleum.
But, incredibly, it wouldn’t be the end of their travels. Having survived Florentine appeals, papal machinations and Napoleonic incursions, Dante’s remains would face one last threat: World War II.
In March 1944, with northern Italy occupied by the Nazis and the Allies attempting to bomb them out, the poet’s bones were moved once more – this time to a patch of earth in the basilica’s garden, where they remained safely until hostilities ceased.
On December 19th, 1945, Dante was put back in his Ravenna mausoleum for the final time (we assume), and the grassy mound that sheltered him marked with a plaque.
As for his hometown, Florence has finally abandoned its hopes of seeing Dante return after death, contenting itself with the monument in its cathedral and a statue of the poet in the square outside. If Dante wouldn’t come to them, however, the Florentines would send a little bit of Tuscany to him: each year the city sends local olive oil to burn in the lamp that lights Dante’s mausoleum.
Rest in peace, Dante – wherever you are.