On the first weekend in May, Cedric, Nick and I visited The Wallace Collection to round off a
happy weekend in London. Like many museums in London, The Wallace Collection is free and
very much worth a visit. Once again, I had the delight of finally seeing in person many paintings
I had admired for years, although I was sad that Fragonard’s playful rococo masterpiece Les
hasards heureux de l’escarpolette, commonly known in English as The Swing, was in a separate
exhibition at the time of our visit. The sumptuous collection of paintings, sculptures, exquisite
porcelain and much more is set in the former townhouse of the Seymour family, and the rooms
are just as much art as the works held within them.
One of the paintings that stood out to me on our visit to The Wallace Collection was an
enormous and striking depiction of Paolo and Francesca observed by Dante and Virgil, taken
from Dante’s Inferno. The painter, Ary Scheffer, painted several versions of the picture with
various titles, and the one held in The Wallace Collection is simply called Francesca da Rimini.
I had wanted to see this painting for years, having grown fond of Dante during my two years of
Italian at university. It depicts Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta, the lovers who end up
in the second circle of Hell as Dante imagines it in his Inferno. This second out of nine circles is
reserved for the lustful. Francesca, both in real life and in Dante’s Inferno, was married to
Giovanni Malatesta but had an illicit relationship with his younger brother, Paolo. Giovanni was
filled with rage on discovering them in flagrante delicto and murdered them both. Without the
opportunity to go to confession before dying, they are cut off from God for eternity.
Dante’s couple has inspired many other works of art, and artists have chosen different moments
in Paolo and Francesca’s affair. Many paintings show their first wild abandon to passion while
reading the story of Lancelot and Guinevere:
‘We were reading one day for fun
How Lancelot was seized by love:
we were alone, but didn’t suspect.
Several times the book made us pale,
making us look in each other’s eyes,
But only once it became too much.
When we read of that adorable smile
And how the great lover kisses it,
This man, who’ll always be by me,
He kissed my mouth all quivering.
Both book and author were panders:
we didn’t read any more that day.’ (Inferno, V.III, ll. 127-138)
Scheffer, instead, has chosen the moment that Virgil shows Dante what has become of Paolo and
Francesca. Dante and his poet guide can be seen on the right of Scheffer’s painting, lingering in
the shadowy background. The chiaroscuro in the painting is ironic, given the moral overtones of
the poem and painting; Paolo and Francesca are milky white in contrast to the darkness of the
background. Francesca’s mouth is slack with sorrow, Paolo swoons as Francesca clings to him,
and they both bear stab wounds. Tangled in bedsheets, they are buffeted about by the wind, just
as they allowed themselves to be swept up by lust during their earthly lives; Dante describes
them as ‘like doves summoned by desire, [who] sweep across the sky on impulse, gliding
towards their happy nest’ (ll. 82-84).
I do not think the morality behind this painting’s story is the reason for my liking it and, indeed,
suggesting it. Its sensuality is infused with a delicate pathos, and its scale is impressive, too, like
the painting of Isabella and the Pot of Basil I discussed in a previous post. Scheffer’s painting
reminded me of my love of Dante, whose writing I have neglected for several years now. I highly
recommend London’s Wallace Collection, one of many (free!) gems in our great sprawling
capital, as I also recommend Dante’s Divine Comedy. Don’t be intimidated by its status as a
towering epic; Professor Steve Ellis’ translation (used in this post).