Francesca da Rimini, the third woman in my Medieval Moms series, was a sinner. (Last week was the saint: see here.)
How do we know she was a sinner? We know because Dante assigned her to the Inferno, to the circle of the lustful, where she was to be eternally buffeted about (along with her lover) in a raging whirlwind as payback for her adultery with her brother-in-law Paolo Malatesta.
Unusually, we only know about Francesca and her sin because of Dante. There's no mention of them at all in anything written before Dante wrote his Commedia. But she and Paolo were Dante's contemporaries, and their story captured his imagination, and then Dante commentators (including Dante's sons) filled in some of the details for us. Still later, two chroniclers of the Romagna region picked up the story. And finally, Giovanni Boccaccio took it on, adding some original elements that tended to provoke sympathy for the lovers, and from there the story went viral, in a pre-internet sort of way.
Especially throughout the 19th century, stories, plays, operas, tone poems, and numerous other treatments of the tale proliferated. Wikipedia lists no fewer than 20 (!) operas based on Francesca and Paolo (don't worry, I won't include all the YouTube links).
|Sergei Rachmaninov and his Paolo and Francesca|
Rodin's famous sculpture The Kiss was originally entitled Francesca da Rimini:
So what, exactly, happened to cause such a (belated) fuss?
Francesca was the daughter of Guido Minore da Polenta, aka Guido il Vecchio, who was lord of Ravenna in 1275, the year he gave his teenaged daughter in marriage to Giovanni (called “Gianciotto,” or “John the Lame”) Malatesta, the second son of that Malatesta da Verucchio who was to become the first lord of Rimini (a position Gianciotto never achieved). This amounted to a powerful political alliance between two prominent families of the Romagna.
So far, so good. Gianciotto was probably well into his thirties, maybe close to forty, and Francesca was sixteen, but that wasn't unusual. He and Francesca in due course had a daughter, who they called – rather ironically – Concordia. (They may also have had a son, Francesco, who died in infancy.)
However, Gianciotto also had an exceedingly attractive younger brother called Paolo. Paolo was himself married, to the unfortunately-named Orabile Beatrice, countess of Ghiaggiolo, and they were the parents of two children, one of whom was named Uberto.
An attraction grew between Paolo and Francesca, resulting in a clandestine adulterous affair. The various dramatic treatments of their liaison differ on the details; some suggest that it was at the very moment of the couple's first kiss that Gianciotto burst into Francesca's chamber and skewered them both on his sword, whereas other accounts suggest that the affair trundled along uneventfully for almost a decade before Gianciotto committed his act of combined fratricide and uxoricide.
Later writers introduced new elements: a telltale servant; Paolo's attempt to escape, until his clothing got hung up on something and he found himself stuck in the trap door; Francesca's attempt to protect her lover, which resulted in her death (which in this version her husband did not intend) as well as Paolo's; and the idea that Francesca believed she was marrying Paolo (perhaps a wedding by proxy?) and fell in love with him, only learning later that she was stuck with his much less appealing brother.
Dante, though, who in his telling is profoundly moved at the plight of the lovers he encounters in the Inferno, tells us, as only he can, how their love began, here in Francesca's words:
We were reading one day, for pleasure, of
Lancelot, how Love beset him; we were alone and
without any suspicion.
Many times that reading drove our eyes
together and turned our faces pale; but one point
alone was the one that overpowered us.
When we read that the yearned-for smile was
kissed by so great a lover, he, who will never be
separated from me,
kissed my mouth all trembling. Galeotto was the
book and he who wrote it: that day we read there no
Dante Alighieri, Inferno 5:127-138, trans. Robert M. Durling
Dante may have met Paolo when Dante was 17 and Paolo was in Florence serving as Capitano del Popolo (one of two leading governmental positions that the medieval Italian communes always gave to “foreigners,” or people from other cities, in an attempt to avoid local factionalism).
Dante scholar Teodolinda Barolini observes of Dante's version that “he took a story that was notorious enough for him to have heard it, but that eventually would have been lost, and made it a story that has never been forgotten.”
But what happened to Concordia? She was probably no more than nine years old when her mother died. For that matter, what became of Paolo's children? Here the story gets even murkier.
Gianciotto remarried, to Zambrosina, daughter of Tebaldello de' Zambrasi, of Faenza, and they had five children: Tino, Guidoni, Ramberto, Margherita, and Rengarduccia. Gianciotto's father Malatesta, Concordia's grandfather, wrote in his will in 1311 that Concordia and her half-siblings should amicably resolve any issues relating to the distribution of Francesca's dowry.
This raises some interesting questions. A woman's dowry was her own to control, as a rule, but perhaps Francesca left no will. Or, perhaps because of her adultery, her husband's family felt justified in claiming the dowry. It did not revert to her family, though had she been guiltless and unjustly murdered by her spouse, her birth family might possibly have taken legal steps to reclaim it. In any case it is hard to understand why the children of Gianciotto's second marriage should have had a share in it at all, but I've not been able to learn anything more about it. It does appear that the murder did not destroy that all-important alliance between the two families – an alliance that was also cemented by the marriage of Francesca's brother Bernardino to Maddalena, younger sister of Gianciotto and Paolo.
Some say Concordia ended her days in a convent of Poor Clares, Sant'Arcangelo di Romagna, but others say there is nothing to support this. We just don't know. But Concordia was raised in the palace where her father killed her mother, raised not only with her half-siblings, but with her cousins, the sons of her uncle (who was also her mother's lover). It can't have been easy – perhaps not for any of them.
There is one more sad (and confusing) story pertaining to the next generation. Unfortunately, we have two opposing versions. In the first, Paolo's son Ramberto, many years later, avenged his father by murdering Gianciotto's son Uberto at a banquet.
But wait – haven't we seen already that Ramberto was Gianciotto's son, not Paolo's? And Uberto was Paolo's son, not Gianciotto's?
That brings us to the second version. In this one, Ramberto is indeed Gianciotto's son, and history repeats itself when he slays his cousin Uberto, who was Paolo's son, at a banquet.
The first version comes from Wikipedia. The second comes from Dr. Teodolinda Barolini, Lorenzo Da Ponte Professor of Italian at Columbia University, multiply-published and distinguished Dante scholar.
Guess which one I'm going to believe?
This picture is here because the instrument at Francesca's feet is a portative organ, or organetto. I play one of those too, so I couldn't resist. I will, however, resist the temptation to discuss which of the brothers has the longer, um, sword.
|Francesca's organetto/my organetto|
Love, which is swiftly kindled in the noble heart,
seized this one for the lovely person that was taken
from me; and the manner still injures me.
Love, which pardons no one loved from loving in
return, seized me for his beauty so strongly that, as
you see, it still does not abandon us.
… There is no greater pain than to
remember the happy time in wretchedness.
All images in this post are in the public domain.