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  • Why Dante Damned Francesca da Rimini
  • Peter Levine


The vast majority of Dante’s readers have found Francesca da Rimini an acutely sympathetic figure—a tragic heroine. Yet Dante damned her, pronouncing a stern and challenging moral judgment. His decision to place her in Hell is especially surprising when we consider that she is almost chaste compared to the other souls in the Circle of the Lustful. All she did was to fall in love with her brother-in-law—after being tricked into marriage, if we believe Boccaccio’s commentary—and her husband murdered her before she had a chance to repent. Compare Semiramis, the Assyrian queen, who legalized incest in order to justify her own obsession, or the Paris of medieval legend, who lured Achilles into a temple by arranging a sexual encounter and then killed him.

Dante’s judgment is especially surprising when we learn that Francesca was a real woman, probably an actual murder victim, and that Dante was closely connected to her family. Late in life, banished from Florence, he found shelter in the home of Guido Novello da Polenta, who was a love poet and Francesca’s nephew. Dante thus finished the Divine Comedy in the very household where Francesca was born, as part of her family. In the text, she is portrayed vividly and sympathetically, as if Dante had heard much about her. She even utters a phrase that appears in one of Guido Novello’s sweet, ingenuous love sonnets. We cannot be sure who originally wrote this phrase, but its appearance in the Divine Comedy suggests one of two theories. Either Guido so admired Dante’s portrait of his murdered aunt that he quoted her speech from the Inferno, or else Dante placed Guido’s words in Francesca’s mouth as homage to his friend. 1 [End Page 334]

Why then did Dante damn Francesca? Perhaps he was thinking like a philosopher. Actually, philosophers might reach many conclusions about this case, and few would sentence Francesca to eternal torture. But even though philosophers would reach different conclusions, they would all begin reasoning in the same way. They would first analyze the story of Paolo and Francesca until the particular details of character and situation could be assessed by a general theory. One of Dante’s most important philosophical influences was St. Thomas Aquinas, who argued that adultery was a distinct type of lust, and that lust was a mortal sin (Summa theoligiae, II, ii, 154, 8). In fact, adultery was wrong secundum se or intrinsically, and not merely because of any harm that it might do in a particular case. 2 Did Paolo and Francesca commit adultery? We could apply the definition that Aquinas borrowed from Pope Leo I: “adultery is committed when by impulse of one’s libidinousness or consent of the other party a couple lie together in breach of the marriage vows.” We don’t know from Dante’s account whether Paolo and Francesca “lay together,” but Aquinas quotes the Gospel, “Whosoever shall look at a woman to lust after her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Aquinas adds: “Much [worse], then, are libidinous kisses and suchlike mortal sins” (ibid., 4).

So it seems that Paolo and Francesca were guilty of adultery, and therefore Minos wrapped his tail around himself twice, categorizing them as lustful sinners, and condemned them to the second circle of Hell. Perhaps Dante felt a personal connection with Francesca, but he disregarded this sentiment, because philosophy told him where she belonged. His moral theory could, however, be challenged on purely philosophical grounds. At the most general level, we could object to his habit of judging each person by one deed that reflects his or her eternal character and that is punished retributively in Hell. Again, Dante’s inspiration may be Aquinas, according to whom we develop dispositions (costume, in Italian) that incline us toward particular actions. In turn, all of our acts either reinforce or undermine our existing dispositions, so that our characters develop. In the mature behavior of each soul, Dante finds evidence of its costume.

Francesca professes an alternative philosophy. She never uses the word “adultery,” but explains that...