Rodin Works: Paolo and Francesca


Like 'Fugit Amor', this composition is another version of the the love couple Paolo and Francesca, borne through the air by a strong wind in the Second Circle of Hell. The whirlwind that drives them around is like an expression of their unbridled desire and the turmoil of their emotions.

In Canto V of Dante's Inferno, they are drawn to Dante and his guide, the Roman poet Virgil, and Francesca tells them their depressing tale. (See: 'The Kiss' and 'Fugit Amor').

The presentatation of the floating love couple, anxiously clutching to each other, had been a common subject in painting since Dante's 'Divina Commedia' grew popular.

Ary Scheffer, The shades of Paolo & Francesca appear to Dante and Virgil in the Underworld; 1851, oil on canvas, Musée du Louvre

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 
Paolo & Francesca da Rimini, 1855, 
watercolour and gold on carton, Tate Gallery, London

Mosè Bianchi, Paolo & Francesca, 1877c., watercolour and gold on carton, Galleria Civica d'Arte Moderna, Milano

In the final version of  'The Gates of Hell', Rodin's unhappy love couple was placed directly underneath the group of 'Ugolino and his sons'. The way Paolo is grasping Francesca with outstretched arms is like a formal echo of the gesture of Ugolino's son, clinging to his father.

Elsen made the interesting observation that in this composition, the postures of the characters do not really fit together; he supposes Rodin in this case - other than in 'The Kiss' - had simply assembled two disparate figures. Between Paolo's Pelvis and Francesca's tighs is a lump of inspecified material, bridging the gap between the partners. Elsen specifies that this is no textile drapery. Since both are nude, like all sinners in the Inferno, this couldn't be expected anyway. Elsen's observation leaves us with the question how this substance should be understood, if not as clothes. 

Ugolino and his sons as part of the Gates of Hell. Photo: Prof. Howe If we look at the position of the group in 'The Gates', this mass appears as an extension of the plateau, on which Francesca's body is draped. But since the pair is supposed to float freely through the air, it would not be be logical either to assume Paolo and Francesca are firmly resting on the ground. The logic of Rodin's solution must be sought in the properties of the medium he was working in: since the lovers had to be connected to the vertical plane of the door some way, Rodin was forced to create a transitional structure in order to attach and support the group, which in turn allowed him to prop up the empty space between the two bodies. 

If we zoom out from the individual scene, we can see that on the whole surface of the two panels of 'The Gates', there is an ongoing modulation of the background, instead of even planes. Rodin had placed every group on a sort of three-dimensional canvas, that could represent either element - fire, water, ice, wind or solid ground - depending on the perspective and the scene we focus on; through this ongoing wavering swirl of plasma, the sculptor formally connected all the different characters to the totality of the door and evocated an impression of restless movement. Leaving the precise quality of this substance unspecified, the sculptors prevents the attention of the spectator to be distracted from the damned souls and their miserable fate.

As a separate work, the couple was provided with a rudimentary base of irregular shape, as if torn out from the arrangement of 'The Gates'.

Paolo's head is used several times in 'The Gates of Hell' – e.g. in 'Paolo and Francesca' and in 'Ugolino and his sons' - and known as 'Head of Sorrow' as an isolated fragment. 



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