It must be one of the frankest – and most popular – images of carnal love in the history of art. With sleek and supple bodies, which provide a striking contrast to the roughly chiselled rock on which they sit, Rodin’s sweethearts appear timeless and idealised, a universal representation of sexual infatuation, oblivious to all else.
The Kiss originally represented Paolo and Francesca, two characters borrowed, once again, from Dante’s Divine Comedy. 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.
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 tantalising 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.
So who were Paolo and Francesca ?
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.
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 …
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 of him 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?
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.
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 got away 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 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.