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
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.