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Visions of Dante

Selected Themes from the Divine Comedy

Paolo and Francesca (Inferno, Canto V)

In the second circle of Hell, Dante and Virgil encounter the lustful, who are eternally buffeted about by a powerful windstorm much in the way that, in life, they allowed their passion to rule over reason. Here, among various figures of Dante’s acquaintance, he encounters the shades of Francesca di Rimini and her lover Paolo Malatesta, the younger brother of her husband, Giovanni Malatesta of Rimini, who murdered them both in a jealous rage. Perhaps the most famous tragic love story in all of the Divine Comedy, the episode of Paolo and Francesca not only serves as a warning, but also allows Dante to memorialize Francesca far beyond her own lifetime by allowing her to tell her story.[1]

Felice Giani
Italian, 1758–1823
Dante Faints after Hearing Francesca's Story, ca. 1805
10 7/8 x 16 inches (27.6 x 40.6 cm)
Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University
Acquired through the generosity of Marilyn Friedland, Class of 1965, and Lawrence Friedland, and through the Frank and Margaret Robinson Prints, Drawings, and Photographs Endowment
(1 image)

A prolific designer and painter of decorative interiors based on classical mythology and literature, Felice Giani turned to depictions of Dante’s Divine Comedy toward the end of his career and produced many exquisite finished drawings like this one as broader interest in Dante revived in Europe after 1800. Here, Giani captures the swirling hurricane of Hell’s second circle, populating his scene with couples swept about by the winds in an unnatural dance of amorous pursuit and lamentation. Francesca unburdens herself to the travelers while Paolo weeps.

Upon recognizing the pair, Dante had already been moved to “sorrow and pity.” By the time he had heard Francesca’s full account, he was so taken by their tragedy that he fainted and crumpled to the ground, “even as a dead body falls.”

Michael Mazur
American, 1935-2000)
Paolo and Francesca, from L’Inferno of Dante, 2000
25 1/4 x 19 3/4 inches (64.14 x 50.17 cm)
Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Vassar College
Purchase, Philip and Lynn Straus, class of 1946
(1 image)

In recounting her sad tale, Francesca reveals that her initial transgression with Paolo came as the two read the story of Sir Lancelot’s first forbidden kiss with King Arthur’s Queen Guinevere.  As such, Francesca references a rich tradition of courtly romance literature that Dante knew and admired, and a book shockingly serves as instigator of lustful behavior.

Mazur’s poignant interpretation of Paolo and Francesca likewise speaks of the power of texts, both of Dante’s and of the particular story of Lancelot. Dante’s lovers, represented by paired skulls, seem to rise from an open book as if embodied in Dante’s telling. But the kiss that joins the mouths of the two skulls is modeled on the actions of the doomed Lancelot and Guinevere.

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[1] Barolini, Teodolinda. “Inferno 5: What’s Love Got to Do with It? Love and Free Will.” Commento Baroliniano, Digital Dante. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2018.