When it comes to the museums and galleries of London, I tend to be pulled towards The British Museum, The V&A, and The National Gallery. When London reopened after lockdown, I decided that – after reacquainting myself with my ‘old life’ through these Big Three – I would start visiting collections around the city I’d not yet seen.
First on my life: The Wallace Collection.
From paintings by the old masters to arms and armour, porcelain to fine arts, decorative arts to furniture, there’s something for everyone beneath the roof of Hertford House. It was a truly overwhelming experience – similar, I would say, to the first time I stepped into the Château de Versailles, though without the exoticism – but it was worth every second I spent there, and I’m already looking forward to returning for round two.
Unfortunately, some of the rooms were closed to the public when I visited. As I was walking past one of the closed rooms to get to the stairs again, something caught my eye. A painting I’d never seen before. Dark in colour, with a wide, golden frame, hanging behind a table of busts.
My eyes drifted along the pale figures of two lovers, wrapped in a white shroud, to a man standing at the very edge of the painting. His red clothes were instantly recognisable: Dante Alighieri. A huge inspiration of mine (enough so, that one of my main protagonists is his namesake). And just behind his shoulder, the Roman poet, Virgil, who wrote the epic, Aeneid.
The pieces began to fit together in my head, and I became mesmerised, standing behind the tape that cornered off the room from the stairs, staring.
This was Canto V from Inferno; the first part of Dante’s epic poem, The Divine Comedy. Here, Dante journeys through Hell with Virgil, and in the second circle, reserved for the lustful, amongst the likes of Helen of Troy and her lover, Paris, Dante sees Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta.
The Malatesta were a condottiere (mercenary) family who would go on to rule Rimini from 1295 to 1500. Like many families of the time, their history is filled with drama and intrigue. Sigismondo Malatesta, for example, was the first (and currently only) person to be canonised to Hell. In the same way a person can be declared a saint and go straight to Heaven, Pope Pius II declared Sigismondo a heretic, excommunicated him and sent his soul straight to Hell. That, however, is a story for another time.
In the 1200s, the Malatesta and the Polenta family of Ravenna were at war with one another. In order to broker peace between the two families, Guido I da Polenta offered Giovanni Malatesta the hand of his daughter, Francesca. Giovanni was known to be a brave man and would go on to capture Pesaro where he ruled until his death in 1304, but he was horribly disfigured and known throughout Italy as ‘Giovanni the Lame’. The marriage went ahead, and Francesca moved to Rimini. There, she fell in love with Giovanni’s younger (and also married) brother, Paolo. For ten years the couple carried out an affair. Eventually Giovanni caught them. He stabbed and killed them both.
Dante sees all three figures in Inferno. While Giovanni is in the lowest circle of Hell, Paolo and Francesca are doomed to the second where they are swept away by wind in the same way they allowed themselves to be swept away by their love for one another. They will never change, never cease to love each other, and therefore will never be redeemed. What was once their Heaven, is now their eternal Hell in death.
Francesca and Paolo’s story has captivated artists across the world, including the sculpture Auguste Rodin. It was Rodin who created The Gates of Hell which depicts various moments in Dante’s Inferno, including the story of Paolo and Francesca. In fact, he includes Paolo and Francesca’s story in numerous places: Fleeting Love (Fugit Amor) is located on the right door pane, and Paolo and Francesca is on the left. It’s also believed that the male figure, The Prodigal, is part of this series. Originally, Rodin also included what we now know as The Kiss (Le Baiser), but Rodin removed the figure because he believed it conflicted with the other suffering figures on the gates.
This particular painting, Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta Appraised by Dante and Virgil (simply dubbed Francesca da Rimini in The Wallace Collection) is by the Dutch-French Romantic painter, Ary Scheffer. I had never heard of Scheffer before this moment, but research shows that he was well known for his paintings based on the works of Dante, the German writer Goethe (who wrote Faust) and the English writer Lord Byron (who wrote Don Juan). Scheffer produced many versions of this painting (though the Wallace Collection’s Francesca da Rimini is the first). So far I’ve found others online in galleries in Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Hamburg and the Louvre, all which appear to be only marginally different from one another.
In each, there’s an incredible illusion of movement created, not just by the two figures slicing through the canvas in a diagonal shape (which also gives the image a sense of instability) but through the white shroud that covers the lovers, mirroring the movement of Francesca’s flowing hair. I love the way Paolo turns away in anguish, covering half his face, while Francesca clings to him quite sorrowfully. Unlike some of the versions I’ve found, there are wounds visible on Francesca’s back and Paolo’s chest in The Wallace Collection’s version, showing the fatal blow of Giovanni’s sword.
Scheffer painted another scene from Canto V, this one entitled Dante and Virgil with Paolo and Francesca. Having heard Francesca’s story, told to the melody of Paolo’s weeping, Dante faints from pity. In this, for me at least, the figures seem more content in their Hell. Their torment isn’t felt quite as tangibly.
Like Dante himself, Scheffer makes us sympathise with the lovers. Or at least, with Francesca. She clings to a man unable to look at her, having been murdered by another to whom she was quite literally sold to. Her crime was to feel an emotion society had forbidden her to feel, and her punishment is to be eternally tortured by it.
Head over to the Wallace Collection, West Gallery III to see the original painting.