Paolo and Francesca: Words of Desire (Inferno 5)

Paolo and Francesca: Words of Desire (Inferno 5)

Dante and his guide Virgil are in the second circle of Hell, where lust, one of the sins of incontinence, is eternally punished in the 'hellish squall.' Here, the two poets meet Dido, the Carthaginian queen who loved Aeneas, and Paolo and Francesca, two contemporary lovers.

"What’s wrong with this picture?" Paolo and Francesca

Presented by Theodore J. Cachey Jr.

This video introduces the “What’s wrong with this picture?” method of reading Dante’s Hell. The focus is on Francesca’s second speech, vv. 127-142.

Paolo and Francesca: Words of Desire. Introduction to Inferno 5

Presented by Chiara Sbordoni

Jean August Dominique Ingres, Paolo et Francesca, 1819.

Having left behind the dark wood (cantos 1-2), passed through the gate and the vestibule of Hell where the uncommitted run in circles, crossed the Acheron river on Charon’s boat (canto 3), and visited the Limbo located in the first circle of Hell where the souls of those who didn’t receive baptism dwell, including the great poets and philosophers of antiquity (canto 4), Dante-pilgrim and his guide, the poet Virgil, reach the second circle of Hell.

Here, lust is punished, the first of the sins of incontinence, that can be defined as an irrational lack of control over an excess of wrongly directed love and bodily appetites for ephemeral goods. Incontinence characterizes also the following three circles where gluttony (third circle, guarded by Cerberus, canto 6), avarice, and prodigality (fourth circle, guarded by Plutus, canto 7), and anger and sullenness (fifth circle, cantos 7-8, punished in the river Styx that Dante and Virgil cross on Phlegyas’s boat) are respectively condemned in eternity. The structure of Hell will be described by Virgil in canto 11 and defined according to Aristotle’s “Nicomachean Ethics,” filtered through Thomism, a Medieval philosophy conceived by Dante’s contemporary St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274). Crime and punishment are in a relation of either analogy or opposition called contrappasso.

A deformed version of the classical figure of Minos, here represented as a beast with a long tail, presides over the passage into Hell proper. Minos is here as an infernal judge and assigns each sinner to their own eternal destination. In the second circle, the lustful who in life let passion and sexual desire overtake reason, are carried around by the hellish squall, a terrible storm that bellows in this ‘place mute of all light.’ Dante-pilgrim asks about a group of sinners, and Virgil points to several historical and literary characters whose stories had been told by some of the most important historians and poets from antiquity. This is ‘the troop where Dido is,’ the queen of Carthage, loved and then abandoned by Aeneas whom she had welcomed and protected in her kingdom as Virgil recounts in the fourth book of his poem, the “Aeneid.” Dido commits suicide, and Aeneas will see her shade taking refuge in her husband’s shade in the Underworld in the Mourning Fields that the hero visits in the sixth book of the same poem.

What follows in canto 5 of Inferno, is Dante-poet’s own response to Virgil’s Dido and more comprehensively to medieval love literature founded on the idea of courtly love, an extramarital kind of love inspired by the nobility of knights and ladies and chivalric ideals of quest and service that had been celebrated in the literary cycle known as the Matter of Britain focused around King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table in the kingdom of Camelot. Dante-pilgrim talks to Francesca, the damned soul of a contemporary woman, who is punished in the second circle with her silent lover and brother-in-law Paolo. The two had fallen in love reading one of the romances from the cycle of King Arthur, which tells the story of the love affair between Queen Guinevere, Arthur’s wife, and Arthur’s best knight, Lancelot. The various love stories alluded to and recounted in Dante’s canto 5 mirror each other, and the canto keeps refracting the same love theme over and over again in a climax that culminates with Dante-pilgrim fainting overwhelmed by pity for the two contemporary lovers.

Such is the deceitful and annihilating power of passion and of the literature inspired by that kind of love. One of the purposes of Dante the poet will be defining a new kind of love and establishing a new genre of love literature in the course of the journey of salvation and of the poem, leaving behind the old literary tradition once he has appropriated it and regenerated it in new contents and forms and in a new literary language, his own Florentine vernacular.

Aeneas and Dido

Presented by David Lummus

The lovers punished in this circle are literary characters from both the classical and vernacular traditions. Among them, Dido, the queen of Carthage who had met her tragic destiny in Aeneas’s arms, stands out.

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Presented by Theodore J. Cachey Jr.

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Featured Speakers: 

  • Theodore J. Cachey, Professor of Italian and the Albert J. and Helen M. Ravarino Family Director of Dante and Italian Studies, University of Notre Dame; Co-Director, University of Notre Dame Center for Italian Studies 
  • David Lummus, Visiting Professor of Italian and Co-Director, University of Notre Dame Center for Italian Studies
  • Chiara Sbordoni, Adjunct Professor of Italian, University of Notre Dame Rome Global Gateway

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Prepare for Next Week

Presented by Theodore J. Cachey Jr.

Read Inferno 13.

Reading Questions:

1.   Read the prelude: vv. 1-54.  Where are we located? What’s the sin? Give an account of the contrapasso. How are the landscape and punishment appropriate?

2.  What do you make of all the allusions to Virgil’s “Aeneid” in the prelude? What is their significance, singly and taken together?

3.  How are vv. 22-27 describing Dante’s state of mind reflective of his personal situation in the context?

4.  Who was Pier delle Vigne and what’s important about him?

5.  Read Pier delle Vigne’s speech, vv. 55-78. What’s wrong with this picture? Be specific.

6.  What is Dante’s attitude toward Pier delle Vigne, the pilgrim’s vs. the poet’s?

7.   What is the sin in the second part of the canto and the punishment? Who are the damned, and how is the treatment of them different from the first part and why?

Additional Resources

Presented by Theodore J. Cachey Jr.

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