Tuned in: Steve Winwood, Higher Love
Our fascination with romantic enchantment was born from Celtic myth, poetry, courtly love, and secrets sprung from ancient lore. We are familiar with images of valiant knights embarked on missions of honor, beautiful women, and adulterous love affairs—the most famous couples for this being Lancelot and Guinevere and Tristan and Isolde.
However, there is also the story of Paolo and Francesca made famous in the Middle Ages by the Italian writer and poet, Dante Alighieri. His work the Divine Comedy describes his journey through Hell (The Inferno), Purgatory (Purgatorio), and Heaven (Paradiso). In the Inferno, Dante travels through the nine circles of hell, where men and women atone for their sins in varying degrees of torment for each descending circle. When he comes to the second circle: Lust or The Carnal, he sees the souls of ‘ a thousand shades’ who are swept around in a storm.
‘Here, there, up, down, they whirl and, whirling strain with never a hope of hope to comfort them, not of release, but even of less pain
… sounding their harsh cry, leaving the long streak of their flight in air, so come these spirits, wailing as they fly.’ (Ciardi)
Dante calls out and the spirit of Francesca answers him. She relates to him
the story of how love for the wrong man was her undoing. One day, she and Paolo, alone together, began reading the Arthurian legend of Lancelot and Guinevere. This is when their love was kindled. When they came to a romantic passage in the story they were drawn to kiss.
“For when we read how her fond smile was kissed by such a lover, he who is one with me alive and dead
breathed on my lips the tremor of his kiss.” …. ‘As she said this, the other spirit who stood by her, wept so piteously, I felt my senses reel and faint away with anguish.’ (Ciardi)
Their passion sealed, they became lovers. Later, Francesca’s husband discovers their transgression and kills them.
“Love, which permits no loved one not to love, took me so strongly with delight in him that we are one in Hell, as we were above.”
Now they are condemned to an eternity of torment for their sin, and Dante, overcome with pity, faints.
It is believed that Dante based this episode on a real couple of his time, and may have even met Paolo. Guido da Polenta, lord of Ravenna, warred against the Malatesta family, the rulers of Rimini. In order to seal a peace agreement with the Maletestas, Guido married his daughter, Francesca to the oldest son and Maletestan heir, Giovanni and known as Giancotto (crippled John). Giancotto was brave, crass, and deformed. Francesca’s father knew she would refuse Giancotto, so he tricked her into believing that her new husband was the handsome brother, Paolo, sent to settle the nuptial contract. The following day, Francesca discovered that she was married to Giancotto, but she had fallen for Paolo and the two became lovers.
Informed of their love affair, Giancotto caught them together in Francesca’s bedroom. When Giancotto lunged at Paolo with his sword, Francesca stepped between them (what we women will do for our men <sigh>) and was killed. Horrified that he had killed Francesca, Giancotto killed his brother Paolo as well. According to the Italian Renaissance writer, Boccaccio, Francesca and Paolo were buried together in one tomb.
In this story, I see the inspiration perhaps for Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet to be written much later. Two star-crossed lovers bound together for eternity, but in this case, in expiation for their sin.
‘This was the piteous tale they stopped to tell. And when I heard these world-offended lovers, I bowed my head.’ (Ciardi)
Star-crossed, world-offended, or just a sad tale of love’s cruel irony, our hearts are drawn to stories of vanquished or stolen love. We yearn for the happy ending, even when life often denies us this satisfaction. On this Valentine’s Day, let us think of those we love, and what the words ‘I love you’ really mean, whether it’s spoken with tenderness, conviction, or whispered in a lover’s ear.