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May 05, 2003

why Dante damned Francesca da Rimini

I looked at statistics for this site recently and was surprised to see that the most popular search terms that take people here include "Dante," "Paolo," "Francesca," and "Inferno." I am surprised because I think of myself as a civics, democracy, and political-reform guy; I have not contributed much to the study of Dante, and this website certainly doesn't offer much on the topic (beyond the one page about my ongoing Dante project). Today, however, I posted one of my published Dante articles, and I will add more soon—all in the interests of serving my audience.

In "Why Dante Damned Francesca da Rimini," I argue that there are two explanations for Dante's decision to place Francesca in Hell (even though her real-life nephew was his patron and benefactor). First, he may have sympathized with this fellow lover of poetry who tells her own sad story so movingly, but he realized that she had committed the mortal sin of adultery. Thus he damned her because his philosophical reason told him that she was guilty, and he wanted to suggest that moral reasoning is a safer guide than stories and the emotions that they provoke. For the same reason, the whole Divine Comedy moves from emotional, first-person, concrete narrative toward abstract universal truth as Dante ascends from Hell to Heaven.

But there is also another, subtler reason for his decision. Francesca loves poetry, but she reads it badly. Her speech is a tissue of quotations from ancient and medieval literature, but every one is inaccurate. In general, she takes difficult, complex texts and misreads them as simple cliches that justify her own behavior. Meanwhile, she says nothing about her lover or her husband—not even their names—which suggests that she cannot "read" them well or recall their stories. Her failure as a reader suggests that Dante was not necessarily against poetry and in favor of philosophical reason. Instead, perhaps he wanted to point out some specific moral pitfalls involved in careless reading.

Posted by peterlevine at May 5, 2003 11:25 AM