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Paolo and Francesca

Quick Facts

Him: Paolo Malatesta, son of the Lord of Rimini

Her: Francesca da Polenta, daughter of the Lord of Ravenna and wife of Paolo’s brother, Gianciotto

Setting: 13th Century Italy



Background

Paolo and Francesca meet when he is sent by his father to Ravenna in order to marry her on behalf of his ugly, deformed older brother Gianciotto. Francesca falls in love with Paolo immediately and is unaware he is not her husband until afterwards. Ultimately, the two are immortalized in Dante’s Inferno for their adulterous affair and subsequent murder at the hands of Gianciotto.


Story

If there was ever a good example of true love gone awry, it is found in Paolo and Francesca. Much like in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, our two protagonists are on opposite sides of warring families. Guido, Francesca’s father, is determined to cement a new peace between he and the Malatestas by marrying her to the oldest son, Gianciotto.

Though the arrangement is considered a sound idea, Guido’s friends inform him there is no way his beautiful daughter will marry such an unattractive man, regardless of how bright his future is as the head of Rimini. In order to make sure she will go through with the arranged marriage, Guido’s friends and intermediaries agree it is best to send Paolo, the handsome younger brother, to marry her on Gianciotto’s behalf.


When Paolo arrives, Francesca is immediately taken with him. Good looking and charming, he is all she has hoped for in a husband. It is only on the morning after the wedding day, when she awakens in horror to find Gianciotto there, that she is aware of the trickery – and is furious.

The feelings she and Paolo have for each other are unresolved, of course, and come to the fore when Gianciotto leaves Rimini for a neighboring town on business. According to Francesca, she and Paolo became overtaken by their passion while reading the story of Lancelot and Guinevere, consummating their relationship completely unaware Gianciotto’s servant knows what is going on.

Being informed of this betrayal, Gianciotto sneaks back to Rimini. Pounding on Francesca’s door, he calls for her to come out. Paolo, attempting to escape through a trapdoor, has his coat caught on a piece of iron. When Francesca opens the door, believing her lover is gone, Gianciotto bursts into the room holding his knife and intent on killing his younger brother. As he attempts to stab Paolo, Francesca steps between them, receiving the sharp end of the blade and dying. Gianciotto – who loved her deeply – then finishes the job by burying the rapier in Paolo’s chest.

The two lovers, misled from the start, are buried together the following morning.


Reputation


This famous love story is often regarded as a tale of love knowing no bounds, especially when interrupted by deception. As Dante journeys through the several levels of Hell, he is particularly touched by Francesca’s retelling of her love for Paolo, weeping as she closes with the jealous Gianciotto stabbing the two of them to death.



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