Paolo and Francesca da Rimini

Paolo and Francesca da Rimini is a watercolour by British artist and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti, painted in 1855 and now in Tate Britain.

Paolo and Francesca da Rimini
ArtistDante Gabriel Rossetti
Typewatercolour triptych
Dimensions25.4 cm × 44.9 cm (10.0 in × 17.7 in)
LocationTate Britain, London


Rossetti's real name was Charles Gabriel Dante Rossetti, but his admiration for the great Florentine poet led him to change it to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and he proceeded to sign all his work so. In the specific, the very subject of this painting is taken from Dante Aligheri's Inferno, Canto V – it is a small watercolour triptych executed in the archaic, medievalising style of this period in Rossetti's art, and was never painted in oil. Although the artist had been sketching the subject for many years, the watercolour took him just one week to complete. The buyer was the writer and critic John Ruskin.[1] The drawing is simple and the colours generally muted. Only Francesca's long golden hair looks forward to the more sensuous creatures of Rossetti's later works. The picture was originally planned as a triptych in oil, with the same scenes as in the watercolour, but with the lovers kissing as the central motif.

The Triptych and the inspiring Canto

Francesca was the sister-in-law of Paolo Malatesta, and both were married, but they fell in love. Their tragic adulterous story was told by Dante in his Divine Comedy, Canto V of the Inferno, and was a popular subject with Victorian artists and sculptors, especially with followers of the Pre-Raphaelite ideology, and with other writers.

The triptych has several inscriptions taken from Canto V, with Rossetti bringing the story to life by writing relevant quotations in the original Italian around the edge of the composition.[2] Its three parts read from left to right. The left-hand panel shows the adulterous kiss that condemns the lovers: staying faithful to Dante's poem, Rossetti depicts them reading about the Arthurian knight Sir Lancelot who also suffered for his forbidden love (his figure can be seen on the book's open page, dressed, like Paolo, in red and blue). The scene illustrates the following lines from Dante's text:

One day we read, to pass the time away,

of Lancelot, of how he fell in love; alone we were, and no suspicion near us ... then he, who never from me shall separate,

at once my lips all trembling kissed.

Divine Comedy, Canto V, vv.127–136 (free transl.)

The central panel depicts two of Rossetti's literary heroes crowned with laurel: the Roman poet Virgil and the much-revered Dante himself – they regard with concern the two lovers on the right, who appear to float like wraiths in each other's arms, amid the flames of hell. Their adulterous relationship uncovered, they were murdered by Francesca's husband and Paolo's brother, Giovanni Malatesta, and banished to the second circle of hell.

In the final panel of the triptych, the lovers are being blown about violently with the wind, as described by Dante's verses:

The infernal storm, eternal in its rage, sweeps and drives the spirits with its blast.

Divine Comedy, Canto V, vv.31–32

See also


  1. The subject was commissioned by Ellen Heaton, but John Ruskin, who had requested five watercolours from Rossetti, bought it for 35 guineas and offered it, along with another picture, to Miss Heaton. He described the picture to her in a letter as 'a most gloomy drawing – very grand – but dreadful – of Dante seeing the soul of Francesca and her lover!' Not surprisingly, Heaton was dissuaded from buying the picture, which Ruskin kept for himself. Cf. V. Surtees, The Paintings & Drawings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828–1882): A Catalogue Raisonné, vol.1, Oxford 1971, p.37. See also the Tate's ref.
  2. The top of central panel has the inscription O lasso! ("Alas!"). At bottom left, another continues the same verse, quanti dolci pensier, quanto disio... ("how many sweet thoughts, how great desire"), Inferno, Canto V, vv.112–113.

Further reading

  • Ash, Russell. (1995) Dante Gabriel Rossetti. London: Pavilion Books.
  • Doughty, Oswald (1949) A Victorian Romantic: Dante Gabriel Rossetti London: Frederick Muller
  • Fredeman, William E. (Ed.) (2002–08) The correspondence of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. 7 Vols. Brewer, Cambridge.
  • Hilto, Timoth (1970). The Pre-Raphelites. London: Thames and Hudson, New York: Abrams.
  • Hollander, Robert and Jean (2000). The Inferno. Anchor Books.
  • Dinah Roe: The Rossettis in Wonderland. A Victorian Family History. Haus Publishing, London 2011.
  • Rossetti, D. G. The House Of Life
  • Singleton, Charles S. (1970). The Divine Comedy, Inferno/Commentary. Princeton University Press.
  • Surtees, Virginia. (1971) Dante Gabriel Rossetti. 2 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Treuherz, Julian, Prettejohn, Elizabeth, and Becker, Edwin (2003). Dante Gabriel Rossetti. London: Thames & Hudson.
  • Todd, Pamela (2001). Pre-Raphaelites at Home, New York: Watson-Giptill Publications.
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