Francesca Da Rimini

M. CHARLES YRIARTE’S Francoise de Rimini dans la Légende et dans I’Histoire 1 is a valuable addition to Dantesque literature ; giving in a brief and attractive form the results of the efforts made by himself, and others before him, to ascertain the facts concerning the tragedy sketched by Dante in the fifth canto of the Inferno, and the three persons who figured in it.

The author foreshadows his own conclusions at the outset, when he avers that “ the legend, thanks to the incomparable genius of Dante, has acquired a life more real than that of history.” Most of the first chapter, which comprises a somewhat vague description of the state of the Holy Roman Empire in general, and of Italy in particular, during the thirteenth century, is wholly superfluous. The interest begins only with the second chapter, in which Francesca’s story, as given in the Inferno, is criticised, and the dramatis personæ are discussed.

Francesca’s family derived its name from the castle of Polenta, near Ravenna, and first appears in history in 1196. Her father, Guido di Lamberto di Ravenna, called Guido the Younger, was a Guelfic condottiere, and in 1275 Gregory X. rewarded his services to the Papacy by appointing him to rule over Ravenna. It was in this year (1275) that her fatal marriage with Giovanni di Malatesta, nicknamed Gianciotto (Lame John), took place. Giovanni was the son of Malatesta da Verucchio di Rimini, and was not only lame, but ill-favored. At the age of twenty he had already gained a reputation as a military leader, and he is constantly named, between 1278 and 1304, as podestat of Forli, Faluza, and Pesaro. He was probably born about the year 1248, and Francesca between 1255 and 1260.

Paolo di Malatesta, Francesca’s lover, was as handsome as his brother was ugly, — so handsome that he was surnamed II Bello. He was born in 1252, and in 1269 married Orabile Beatrice, daughter of Uberto, Count of Chiaggioli. This marriage was designed to secure the Malatestas in the possession of certain lands which they had coveted and unjustly seized. While all agree that Francesca’s marriage was in the nature of a treaty between the Polenta and Malatesta families, opinions differ as to the moving cause. Some maintain, with Boccaccio, that hostilities had existed between them, and that the marriage was a pledge of peace; others follow the conclusion of Muratori, based on certain chronicles of the fourteenth century, that it was the price paid by the Polentas for friendly services rendered them in time of need by the Malatestas. The fact remains, in either view of the case, that Francesca was sacrificed to political expediency.

M. Yriarte next proceeds to inquire into the circumstances of the tragedy and Dante’s knowledge of them. However he acquired that knowledge, it was not during his residence with the Polenta family, which began in 1317, for the Inferno was written in 1300. The comparison of these dates, moreover, conclusively proves that he did not immortalize Francesca’s story to requite the good offices of her family, as has been asserted, and makes one suspect that, on the contrary, their favor was bestowed in requital of his lines.

Dante was twenty years of age in 1285, when Francesca and Paolo were murdered ; old enough to be in the way of learning all the details of the case.

The current version of the murder is that given by Boccaccio in his lectures upon Dante, delivered in Florence in 1373, nearly a century after the occurrence. He distinctly states that in his opinion Francesca’s guilt “is an invention, based on the possibility of the fact, rather than anything which he (Dante) knew of his own knowledge ; ” but oddly enough he adduces nothing in support of his hypothesis.

According to him, Francesca was the victim of a base deception. Owing to the revolting appearance of Gianciotto, Paolo was sent as proxy to sign the marriage contract, perform his brother’s part at the marriage ceremony, and conduct her to Rimini; and she supposed him to be her husband, until the next morning, when she discovered Gianciotto at her side.

Relations of easy but innocent familiarity were soon established between Francesca and Paolo, and they continued undisturbed, until a servant excited the suspicions of Gianciotto. He was frequently absent, attending to his duties as podestat; but one day he returned secretly, and was informed that Paolo was in his wife’s chamber. Rushing to the door, he found it fastened inside; he exerted all his strength to open it, but in vain.

Paolo begged Francesca to undo the fastening, while he escaped by a secret door leading into another apartment. Unfortunately, his clothing caught in something, as he was passing through the door, and his brother, perceiving it, ran at him, sword in hand. Francesca interposed, and received the full force of the blow intended for Paolo.

Seeing his wife, whom he tenderly loved, lying dead, the desperate Gianciotto killed his brother, and then, leaving the bodies as they fell, withdrew from the palace, and returned to his post.

The lovers were buried the next morning in the same tomb, amid the tears of the people.

Comments upon Dante’s line,

“ Galeotto fu il libro e chi lo scrisse,”

follow the discussion of Boccaccio’s version of the story, and are here made to show that Dante proclaims Francesca’s guilt no less clearly than Boccaccio declares his belief that she was innocent.

Galahad was the book and he who wrote it, says Francesca’s shade; that is, the book (Lancelot of the Lake) which Paolo and I were reading played between us the part of Galahad, who, it will be remembered, fostered Guinevere’s guilty love for Lancelot.

The issue thus raised between Dante and Boccaccio is tried by consulting the chroniclers.

No mention of Francesca occurs in history until long after Dante’s death. Marco Battaglia, in his Latin chronicle known as the Anonymi Itali Historia, which dates from 1354, is the first historical writer who relates her story.

He simply and briefly states that Francesca and Paolo were killed by Gianciotto, “ ex causa luxuriæ commissæ.” Jacopo della Lena is the only other historical authority on the subject that antedates Boccaccio. He asserts that the lovers were killed “ suso el peccato.”

As all subsequent chroniclers sustain this assertion, it is obviously impossible to believe with Boccaccio that Francesca was innocent.

M. Yriarte, however, gallantly gives Francesca the benefit of such doubt as exists by reason of the lack of other contemporary evidence than that of Dante.

The illustrations in this work are not particularly pleasing or well executed. Three of them are from hitherto unpublished drawings of Ingres. The artist has thrice attempted and thrice failed to portray the catastrophe depicted by Dante. The attitudes of the figures are theatrical, and the accessories have all the appearance of stage properties.

  1. 2Francoise de Rimini dans la Legende et dans I’Histoire. Avec vignettes et dessins inédits d’ INGRES et d’ ARY SCHEFFER. Par CHARLES YRIARTE. Paris: J. Rothschild. 1883.