Auguste Rodin’s famous 1882 marble sculpture Le Baiser (The Kiss) was originally entitled Francesca da Rimini, and depicts Francesca and her lover Paolo Malatesta. Paolo was Francesca’s brother-in-law. Their story is one of the most well-known in The Divine Comedy.
Francesca, born 1255, was the daughter of Guido da Polenta I, lord of Ravenna. Around 1275, she married Giovanni Malatesta, whose father Malatesta da Verucchio was lord of Rimini. Though Giovanni had been born with a physical deformity causing a limp, he nevertheless bravely fought in several battles.
Their marriage was a political alliance designed to end their family feud.
Paolo e Francesca, Giuseppe Poli, ca. 1827
Francesca fell in love with her brother-in-law Paolo, one year younger than Giovanni. Though Paolo was married too, they began an affair which lasted an entire decade. Tragedy struck when Giovanni caught them being amorous in Francesca’s bedroom sometime between 1283–86, and murdered both of them with his bare hands.
Instead of being arrested and sentenced to death himself for such a cruel crime, Giovanni went on to become a five-time podestà in Pesaro. He held that position till his 1304 death.
Dante and Virgil meet the lovers in the Second Circle of Hell, occupied by the lustful. The couple are trapped in a perpetual whirlwind, eternally swept through the air because they let themselves be swept away by their illicit passion.
Dante calls to them, and they come to a brief pause while Francesca vaguely provides a few details about herself. Since their affair was so well-known, and they were Dante’s contemporaries, he correctly states Francesca’s name. Dante asks why they’re being tortured like this, and their story so moves him, he faints.
Rodin’s sculpture was originally part of a group of reliefs decorating his massive bronze panel The Gates of Hell (La Porte de l’Infer), which was commissioned in 1880 by the Directorate of Fine Arts. Its delivery date was set for 1885, but the Decorative Arts Museum it was intended for was never built.
Not one to let a good idea go to waste, Rodin worked on this bronze panel on and off for 37 years, until his 1917 death. Prior to the commission, Rodin, a fellow Dantephile, had made some sketches of Divine Comedy characters for potential future artworks.
Late in life, Rodin donated his sculpture and drawings, along with reproduction rights, to the French government. Two years after his death, in 1919, the Hôtel Biron where he’d worked on the panel became the Musée Rodin.
Rodin made large sculptures with the help of assistants who copied smaller models made of materials easier to work with than marble. When they were done, Rodin made finishing touches to the full-size master sculpture. For this sculpture, he made small-scale models in plaster, bronze, and terracotta.
When people first saw the sculpture in 1887, they suggested the less specific name Le Baiser (The Kiss).
The French government ordered the first large-scale marble version go on display at the 1889 Exposition Universelle, but it didn’t come to pass. The sculpture’s first public display was delayed till 1898, in the Salon de la Société des Beaux-Arts. So popular was it, the Barbedienne company offered Rodin a contract to make a limited supply of smaller bronze versions.
In 1900, the sculpture went to the Musée de Luxembourg, and was taken to its current home, the Musée Rodin, in 1918.
Unusual for the era, Rodin sculpted his women as full, equal, receptive partners in romantic and erotic acts, not submissive, passive puppets with dominant men. Because of the sculpture’s overt eroticism, it was very controversial. A bronze version was refused public display at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and hidden in an inner chamber accessible only after personal application.
Paolo has an erection in the original life-sized sculpture, which made it even more controversial.
Copyright Jean-Pierre Dalbéra
Francesca and Paolo have been depicted in countless paintings, sculptures, operas, plays, songs, symphonic poems, and other works of art and music over the centuries.