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The Story of Francesca and Paolo

It seems we could spend the rest of our lives decoding Dante, but will have to be content to contemplate a few isolated fragments. The study of brahmavidya, the Science of the Absolute, provides a key to understanding, and it is very likely that much of what has survived the ages has persisted due to its profundity. If we approach these stories with respect and avoid the modernist disdain for the past, they may yield up their meanings. In reading about hell, it is helpful to translate the term to apara prakriti. The experience of hell only SEEMS eternal. When we're caught in misery, time slows to almost a stop. But "eternal damnation" is nonetheless a temporary condition, correctable by patience and insight.


The story of Francesca and Paolo, culled from the website danteworlds:


“Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta are punished together in hell for their adultery: Francesca was married to Paolo's brother, Gianciotto ("Crippled John"). Francesca's shade tells Dante that her husband is destined for punishment in Caina--the infernal realm of familial betrayal named after Cain, who killed his brother Abel (Genesis 4:8)--for murdering her and Paolo. Francesca was the aunt of Guido Novello da Polenta, Dante's host in Ravenna during the last years of the poet's life (1318-21). She was married (c. 1275) for political reasons to Gianciotto of the powerful Malatesta family, rulers of Rimini. Dante may have actually met Paolo in Florence (where Paolo was capitano del popolo--a political role assigned to citizens of other cities--in 1282), not long before he and Francesca were killed by Gianciotto.


“Although no version of Francesca's story is known to exist before Dante, Giovanni Boccaccio--a generation or two after Dante--provides a "historical" account of the events behind Francesca's presentation that would not be out of place among the sensational novellas of his prose masterpiece, The Decameron. Even if there is more fiction than fact in Boccaccio's account, it certainly helps explain Dante-character's emotional response to Francesca's story by presenting her in a sympathetic light. Francesca,according to Boccaccio, was blatantly tricked into marrying Gianciotto, who was disfigured and uncouth, when the handsome and elegant Paolo was sent in his brother's place to settle the nuptial contract. Angered at finding herself wed the following day to Gianciotto, Francesca made no attempt to restrain her affections for Paolo and the two in fact soon became lovers. Informed of this liaison, Gianciotto one day caught them together in

Francesca's bedroom (unaware that Paolo got stuck in his attempt to escape down a ladder, she let Gianciotto in the room); when Gianciotto lunged at Paolo with a sword, Francesca stepped between the two men and was killed instead, much to the dismay of her husband, who then promptly finished off Paolo as well. Francesca and Paolo, Boccaccio concludes, were buried--accompanied by many tears--in a single tomb.


“Francesca's eloquent description of the power of love (Inf. 5.100-7),

emphasized through the use of anaphora, bears much the same meaning and style as the love poetry once admired by Dante and of which he himself produced many fine examples.”


The lines in question are:


Love, that can quickly seize the gentle heart,

took hold of him because of the fair body

taken from me—how that was done still wounds me.


Love, that releases no beloved from loving,

took hold of me so strongly through his beauty

that, as you see, it has not left me yet.


Love led the two of us unto one death.

Caina waits for him who took our life.


So, lo and behold, this passage begins to make sense. I think we are all—as is often the case journeying through the Inferno—sympathetic to these souls consigned to hell. It seems so unfair! Francesca was tricked, and because of her love consigned to eternal damnation with no chance of parole?! But the symbolic interpretation yields gold.

  The subject here is interpersonal love, which is different from Absolute love in being ego-based rather than selfless. When we fall in love we have in our minds an idealized image of what we wish the other person to be like. We are all tricked just as Francesca was, by loving the image, the handsome “brother” of the actual partner. Our mate with all flaws resembles the twisted and shrunken, “disfigured and uncouth” fellow. It is often the case that we refuse to EVER allow ourselves to be held in the arms of this disgusting actuality, and maintain our relationship to the idealized image through thick and thin. We are “blatantly tricked” not so much by the other person as by the selectivity of our egotistical desires. We are all princes and princesses in the worst sense of the words.

  When the other person’s ugly ego confronts this “adultery,” this disconnect between fantasy and reality, we may hide our “true love” image out the back window on the ladder, but  since it is our own creation it gets stuck trying to escape. We can’t let it get away, because we are so in love with it. If our partner tries to do away with this image and bring us down to earth, we may step in front of the sword and be killed instead, such is our identification with this beautiful image and our desire to defend it. With the blast of rage from thwarted actuality, both the ego and the image die. They never had any real validity to begin with, and so become one of the examples of the lost in hell.

  If you look closely at the lines above, Francesca fell in love based on appearance, the enchantment of beauty of her idealized image. Her love held fast to fantasy rather than facing crude and deformed actuality. This kind of love “releases no beloved from loving”—it clings, holds on tight. It is certain to end tragically. Unfortunately no 18-year-old lovers are going to understand this mystical tale until it’s too late….

  Crippled Gianciotto is also destined for hell because he didn’t understand that this is a universal problem and should be handled delicately. We can’t rip our lover out of their dream world; they must be wooed gently. Instead, furious, he attacked head on, and the situation blew up into a disaster. Some intelligent contemplation might have shown a more successful strategy. When we act out of hurt feelings we generally aren’t going to improve things. On the contrary, actions based on selfish desires and inner wounds lead us into a living hell of pain.


         Curiously, this tale does have a precedent, one that I missed at first by not being much of a Bible reader. The story of Rachel and Leah in Genesis 29 and 30 is a sexually-reversed version of the same idea. Jacob falls for his beautiful niece Rachel, and works for seven years for his brother, her father Laban, in exchange for her. On the wedding night there is a big feast, and presumably lots of drinking. The next morning, lo and behold! Rachel’s ugly sister Leah is in the bed instead. Dad cons another seven years hard labor out of Jacob for the pretty sister, who turns out to be barren, while the ugly one cranks out boys like clockwork. A couple of maids are knocked up on the side to produce more boys. Traditional marriage at its best!

         The tale goes on and on, with karmic paybacks and everything, but doesn’t appear to overlap further with the one related by Dante.

Scott Teitsworth