Skip to main content

Paolo and Francesca—The Love Story That Inspired Rodin's 'The Kiss'

Paolo and Francesca discovered ...

Paolo and Francesca discovered ...

Who were Paolo and Francesca?

Paolo and Francesca were illicit lovers in 13th century Italy, and they have left us a story that, like all good love stories, ends in tragedy.

Paolo Malatesta was the third son of the lord of Rimini, Malatesta da Verrucchio and accounts of his personality vary. He was deemed by some to be a romantic sort, a man not really interested in the world around him but there is evidence that he was indeed involved enough with the politics of the day to lend his sword arm in support of his father and his allies when needed. What is beyond dispute is that he was a handsome man with a winning nature. He was also married with children.

Francesca da Polenta (later Francesca da Rimini) was the beautiful young daughter of Guido I, Lord of Ravenna and as such, she was a valuable diplomatic pawn in the power games of Italian noblemen of the 13th century.

Marriage by trickery ...

When Guido I eventually found it expedient to make peace with his enemy, Malatesta da Verucchio, Paolo's father, he decided to seal the deal by marrying his daughter, Francesca, off to one of Malatesta's sons as a cunning political tie.

Unfortunately his choice of husband had to be Malatesta's eldest son, Giovanni (aka Gianciotto), who has been variously described as uncouth and deformed or crippled. This has come down to us via his nickname, lo Sciancato, which can mean crippled or lame. It may simply be that he had a slight limp as his condition did not seem to impair his ability to be a fearless soldier on behalf of his father.

Whichever was the case Guido was perceptive enough to realise that his romantic young daughter would not welcome such a man as her husband so the handsome Paolo was invited to stand proxy for his brother at the wedding. Unfortunately it would appear that no-one told Francesca that Paolo was only the proxy ...

Paolo and Francesca by Lajos in 1903

Paolo and Francesca by Lajos in 1903

Waking up to the ugly truth.

Francesca had fallen instantly in love with the dashing Paolo and must have thought herself the luckiest girl in the world, so we can only imagine her feelings of horror when she awoke on the morning after her wedding night to find herself lying beside the 'deformed' Giovanni instead. Presumably it had been possible for the brothers to switch places in the darkened bedroom and the innocent Francesca had been cruelly duped.

But surely there are other emotional casualties here? How must Giovanni have felt when he saw his new wife's repulsion at the sight of him? How hurtful her rejection must have been as it is thought that he did, in fact, love Francesca very much. And what about Paolo? Even though he knew he was only the proxy for Giovanni, how did he actually feel at having to collude in this trickery and hand the beautiful Francesca over to his older brother? He may have already been a married man but when has that ever stopped men wanting women who should have been unattainable?

Paolo makes his move.

Conversely, we can never know if Paolo really loved Francesca. In the time-honoured way of the typical Italian male it could be that his brother's wife represented a challenge he simply could not resist. But history tells us that they did indeed become lovers and that Francesca's husband, Giovanni, almost caught them in the act.

The ghostly lovers captured in verse by Dante Alighieri in his epic poem the 'Divine Comedy'.

The ghostly lovers captured in verse by Dante Alighieri in his epic poem the 'Divine Comedy'.

The lovers discovered ...

Whatever the truth of this love affair, Giovanni did not stop to ask questions. It is recorded that he found his wife's bedroom door locked and demanded to be admitted. He had been told of the affair by his servant and was determined to catch the lovers in flagrante. Paolo leapt towards a trapdoor in the floor as Francesca went to open the door and make her excuses for locking it.

However as she went to unlock the bedroom door she omitted to check that Paolo had actually made a clean getaway and closed the trapdoor behind him. Unfortunately his jacket had caught on the catch and he had been unable to free himself.

As soon as Giovanni came through the door he saw Paolo and ran at him with his rapier, despite the fact that it was his brother that he was about to kill. Francesca in a frenzy to save her lover threw herself in front of Giovanni's sword and was fatally stabbed. Giovanni, in his despair at inadvertently killing the woman he loved, withdrew his sword from her chest and then ran Paolo through with it, killing him instantly. It is said that the lovers were buried together.

Giovanni was never held accountable. Presumably such a crime of passion was thought excusable at that time. He had been cuckolded and had endured intolerable dishonour and his reaction was perhaps deemed acceptable; either that or he was too powerful to be prosecuted.

He went on to capture Pesaro and lived there as its highest official until he died in 1304 ... 19 years after he had murdered his wife and his brother.

A love immortalized in word and stone.

But the love story of Paolo and Francesca was far from forgotten. The poet, Dante Alighieri, a contemporary of Paolo and Francesca, took their story and wove it into his famous poem, Divine Comedy. Although it is not know whether or not Dante actually knew them personally their tragedy had certainly caught his imagination.

In Canto V of the Inferno (Hell) section, Dante, accompanied by the Roman poet, Virgil, meets the spirits of Paolo and Francesca as they are swept about by eternal winds, punished forever for their sin of uncontrollable lust.

Dante seemed to want to mitigate the blame for their crime somewhat so he originates the story that the couple were influenced by the reading of the adulterous romance of Lancelot and Guinevere. A compassionate thought but it is unlikely that they needed any such encouragement. Love, infatuation, lust is universal and usually just too overwhelming for most humans.

Rodin's The Kiss.

The original title for Rodin's famous sculpture 'The Kiss' was 'Francesca da Rimini' before he was persuaded to change its name. The subject matter of this brave piece made it controversial for many years as Rodin intended to show that women were not just passive subjects when it came to sexual relations. He wanted to show that women also had sexual desires but the prevailing prudish attitudes of the time meant that his statue was often concealed from view.

There is one other tantalizing aspect about this statue, the lips of the lovers are not actually meeting in a kiss ... almost as if he is implying that Francesca and Paolo were killed before they could consummate their love.

Rodin's The Kiss ... this once-controversial sculpture was finished in 1882 and was originally entitled Francesca da Rimini.

Rodin's The Kiss ... this once-controversial sculpture was finished in 1882 and was originally entitled Francesca da Rimini.


anna koltai on November 21, 2018:

The artist "Lajos" is not his second name but first. He is from Hungary, we write names in the opposite order. His family name is Gulácsy.

John Hansen from Australia (Gondwana Land) on October 12, 2015:

Yes they are Ian. She was a very talented writer and I feel unfortunate that I didn't know her before now while she graced these pages. Bless her indeed.

Twilight Lawns from Norbury-sur-Mer, Surrey, England. U.K. on October 12, 2015:

They all are, aren't they, Jodah?

She was, not only very deep, but had a very entertaining sense of humour. She created a wonderful character for me for a story I wrote.

Bless her.

John Hansen from Australia (Gondwana Land) on October 11, 2015:

Wonderful hub.

Angie Jardine (author) from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ... on February 24, 2012:

Hi cookingrecipes, thanks for dropping by to comment on this hub ... and many thanks for the follow.

Welcome to HubPages!

Angie Jardine (author) from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ... on February 20, 2012:

Jolie? I wish ... :x

diogenes from UK and Mexico on February 20, 2012:

That's it! Jolie good idea!

Roberto x

Angie Jardine (author) from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ... on February 20, 2012:

Hello dear heart ... I was just thinking about you!

I am more likely to be a sauce than a source ... (chortle!) but I appreciate your kind words. I know you, like me, are a hopeless romantic.

Keep well ...

Twilight Lawns from Norbury-sur-Mer, Surrey, England. U.K. on February 19, 2012:

What an beautifully written history, Angle. It is so elegantly put together... but that is what one expects from you. Learned, yet interesting and captivating. Thank you, you are such a wonderful source (Oops! I didn't mean you... You know what I mean) of interesting hubs.

Angie Jardine (author) from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ... on February 19, 2012:

@WOL - thanks for taking time to comment on this. It always amazes me the tragic ends folks have ... just through having a bit of illicit hows-your-father. Had they lived to be 63 like me they would have realised it doesn't compare to a cup of tea and a big piece of chocolate cake! Just loved the Michelangelo quote ...

@diogenes - oh, I dunno ... perhaps if it were Angelina and Roberto?

diogenes from UK and Mexico on February 19, 2012:

For this to have garnered all the interest it has, they had to have Italian names, didn't they?

Wouldn't have that ring if they were "Angie and Bob," would it.


writeronline on February 18, 2012:

What an entrancing story. Nice work, Angie, I was spellbound. Having no idea at all of history, it was for me, a mystery. And I enjoyed the reveal very much. (More than can be said for poor Francesca..)

Also had no idea of the link between this story, and 'The Kiss'. But looking at your pic of Rodin's masterpiece I was, as I always am, struck by the amazing ability of sculptors to not only see what the block of stone contains, but to bring it to virtual life. I read that somebody (Aexander Pope?) said that sculpting was just about 'getting a block of marble and knocking off the bits I don't need'.

Good description, but I prefer this:

'The best artist has that thought alone

Which is contained within the marble shell;

The sculptor's hand can only break the spell

To free the figures slumbering in the stone'


Angie Jardine (author) from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ... on February 18, 2012:

Well thank you, Xenonlit ... I appreciate your kind comment. I'm a sucker for a bit of romance ...

Xenonlit on February 18, 2012:

Brilliant! This was a mesmerizing and well written historical tale.