Francesca da Rimini by Ary Scheffer

Francesca da Rimini by Ary Scheffer (1835)

What is your perception of Hell?  Do you think of it as a huge furnace full of burning souls, or simply a place of deprivation?  We do not know and I don’t believe we will ever know what it is like or whether it or its sister-place, Heaven, really exists and so with this lack of evidence we can then formulate in our own minds what it is all about without fear of contradiction.  One person who did just that was Durante degli Alighieri, better known simply as Dante Alighieri.  In the first part (Inferno) of his epic poem entitled Divine Comedy he tells of his journey he made through Hell with the Roman poet Virgil acting as his guide.  Many artists have painted pictures based on Dante’s Inferno with its concentric circles full of various types of sinners.  To get to the gates of Hell Dante and Virgil had to cross the river Acheron which could only be achieved by being transported by ferry, piloted by Charon.  My Daily Art Display (September 6th 2011) depicts the two men being ferried across the river made famous in the painting,  The Barque of Dante or Dante and Virgil in Hell by Eugène Delacroix.

According to Dante, Hell is situated within the Earth, it is made up of nine circles of torment.  The circles are concentric, and represent a gradual increase in evilness.  The outer circle, or the first circle is the resting place of those who were never baptised, the second circle was for people whose sin was one of Lust.  As Dante and Virgil moved inwards they came across circles which housed the souls who had committed the sins of Gluttony, Greed, Anger, Heresy, Violence, Fraud and Treachery.  It is interesting to note that for Dante, an Italian male, those who committed the sin of Lust were only in the second circle, as presumably in Dante’s mind, Lust was not that bad a sin!  The inner most part of this Hell ends at the centre of the earth, where Satan is held in bondage.   The sinners who populated each of the circles were punished in a fashion fitting their crimes, a system of contrapasso; derived from the Italian words contra and patior meaning  “suffer the opposite” a sort of poetic justice.

My featured painting today is about two lovers from Dante’s Divine Comedy who Dante and Virgil meet, trapped in the stormy darkness of the Second Circle of Hell (Lust)It is here that those overcome by lust during their time on earth have been sentenced to remain. Dante condemns them, and those like them, calling them “carnal malefactors” for letting their sexual appetites affect their reasoning. These hapless souls are blown to and fro by the terrible winds of a violent storm, without hope of rest and this symbolizes the power of lust to blow one about needlessly and aimlessly.  It is here that Francesca da Rimini tells Dante the story of how she and her lover Paolo ended up in this Second Circle of Hell.

Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta are depicted in the 1835 painting by Ary Scheffer, which is entitled Dante and Virgil Encountering the Shades of Francesca da Rimini and Paolo in the Underworld or simply Francesca da Rimini. .    The story goes back to the time when Francesca’s father, Guido I da Polenta was lord of Ravenna but had been at war with a rival  family,  the Malatesta family.  Peace between the two families finally came about and to cement their relationship Guido agreed that one of his daughters, Francesca, should marry Giovanni Malatesta, the son and heir of the Malatesta clan.  Although Giovanni was an able man and would on the death of his father become ruler, he was ugly and deformed.   The friends of Francesca’s father told him that if Francesca was to set eyes on Giovanni prior to the marriage, she would never go through with it. So the two fathers hatched plan and sent Giovanni’s younger brother Paolo to Ravenna with authorisation to marry Francesca in Giovanni’s name.   Paolo, unlike his elder brother was handsome and courteous and Francesca immediately fell in love with him. The marriage took place and the marriage contract signed and bride and bridegroom returned to Rimini, with Francesca still unaware of the deception.

In the morning following the wedding she became aware of the deception.  She was furious that she had been deceived and to make matters worse she realised that she had fallen in love with Paolo.  Giovanni left Rimini on business leaving Paolo and Francesca together and they both realised that they loved each other.   Their lovemaking was witnessed by Giovanni’s servant who sent word to his master, who then secretly returned home.  He went to Francesca’s room in which were the two lovers.  He banged on the door and shouted her name.  They recognised Giovanni’s voice.  Paolo pointed to a trapdoor in the floor that led to a room below. He told Francesca to go open the door as he planned his escape.   However as he jumped through the open trapdoor part of his jacket got caught on a piece of iron.  Francesca, unaware of his Paolo’s predicament, opened the door for Giovanni, believing she would be able to make excuses, now that Paolo was gone. When Giovanni entered the bedchamber he noticed Paolo caught by his jacket on the trap door.   He immediately ran towards the trapdoor and with his rapier drawn thrust it at Paolo intending to kill him. Seeing what Giovanni intended to do, Francesca quickly ran between the two brothers to try to prevent it. But Giovanni’s rapier was already thrusting downwards towards the hapless Paolo but before it struck him the blade passed through Francesca’s bosom. Giovanni was totally distraught by what he had done for he still loved Francesca.  He withdrew the blade of the sword from her body and immediately plunged it into his brother, killing him.  The next morning, amidst much weeping, the two lovers were buried in the same tomb.

In the painting we see Dante and Virgil standing to the right hand side watching as the two, almost-naked, lovers cling to each other.  Art critics at the time praised this exceptional work by Scheffer, and it was to become one of his most famous and most admired works.  Scheffer went on to produce several replicas of it.  The original painting can be found at the Wallace Collection, London.