The forbidden love of Francesca da Rimini and her brother-in-law Paolo Malatesta is one of the great love stories of European literature. Dante encountered the souls of the two lovers in Hell, and fainted with compassion upon hearing their tragic story. This watercolour depicts the fateful moment when

One day

For our delight, we read of Lancelot,

How him love thrall’d. Alone we were, and no

Suspicion near us … then he, who ne’er

From me shall separate, at once my lips

All trembling kiss’d. The book and writer both

Were love’s purveyors. In its leaves that day

We read no more …

—Dante, Divine Comedy, Inferno, canto V

Just as the story of the illicit love between the knight Lancelot and King Arthur’s wife, Guinevere, inflamed the passion of Paolo and Francesca, so the subject of romantic love in medieval literature captured the imagination of writers and artists of the Victorian period. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, one of the founding members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and a poet himself, was fascinated with the story of Paolo and Francesca, having grown up immersed in the work of Dante, after whom he was named. His father, a professor of Italian, Rossetti’s siblings and he himself published translations and commentaries on Dante’s writings.

This watercolour, which glows like a medieval stained-glass window, is an elaborated version of the left-hand panel of a triptych painted in 1855 (now in Tate, London). The central panel of the Tate triptych depicts Dante and Virgil gazing in distress towards the right panel, in which the intertwined lovers float through the flames of Hell, their eternal punishment following their murder by Francesca’s enraged husband, Paolo’s brother. The National Gallery of Victoria’s watercolour shows the lovers seated in an alcove before a bottle-glass window. The illuminated book slips, unnoticed, off Paolo’s lap as he embraces red-haired Francesca, who is modelled on Rossetti’s deceased wife and muse, Elizabeth Siddal. The watercolour was originally considerably smaller and was attached to another larger sheet, which allowed for the embellishments of the roses at their feet and side, and the coat of arms and draped ceiling above.

Text by Alisa Bunbury from Prints and Drawings in the International Collection of the National Gallery of Victoria, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2003, p. 93.


  • Title: Paolo and Francesca da Rimini
  • Creator: Dante Gabriel Rossetti
  • Creator Lifespan: 12 May 1828 - 09 April 1882
  • Creator Nationality: English
  • Creator Gender: Male
  • Creator Death Place: Birchington-on-Sea, England
  • Creator Birth Place: London, England
  • Date Created: 1867
  • Physical Dimensions: 43.7 x 36.1 cm (Sheet)
  • Type: Watercolours
  • Rights: National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Felton Bequest, 1956, © National Gallery of Victoria
  • External Link: National Gallery of Victoria
  • Medium: watercolour, gouache and gum arabic over pencil on 2 sheets of paper
  • Provenance: Collection of William Graham (1817–85), Glasgow, by 1883; Graham sale, Christie's, 3 April 1886, no. 110; W. R. Moss, Lancaster; Colonel W. E. Moss; Mrs Stolterforth; Mrs Compton; Leicester Galleries, London, by 1956; from where purchased for the Felton Bequest, 1956
  • Catalogue raisonné: Surtees 75 R2

Get the app

Explore museums and play with Art Transfer, Pocket Galleries, Art Selfie, and more

Flash this QR Code to get the app
Google apps