“Amor, ch'al cor gentil ratto s'apprende,
prese costui de la bella persona
che mi fu tolta; e 'l modo ancor m'offende.
Amor, ch'a nullo amato amar perdona,
mi prese del costui piacer sì forte,
che, come vedi, ancor non m'abbandona.”
“Love, that can quickly seize the gentle heart,
took hold of him because of the fair body
taken from me-how that was done: still wounds me.
Love, that releases no beloved from loving
took hold of me so strongly through his beauty
that, as you see, it has not left me yet.”
-Dante, Inferno, Canto 5.100-103
With those words, I begin my seminar on Dante.
Students enrol in my seminar for various reasons – some choose it because it fits their schedule, some choose it because they can spell the title. Many students expect the class to be uninteresting because it’s about a dead poet.
Then I start talking about sex.
Talking about sex isn’t as exciting as, say, having sex. When you talk about sex, your heart doesn’t pound, your breathing doesn’t speed, your skin doesn’t heat.
But talking about sex can leave you wanting more. That’s why I direct my students’ attention to Canto 5 of Dante’s Inferno, where he encounters the Lustful.
Most university students are familiar with lust. I simply expose them to aspects of lust that they’ve never encountered before.
During his journey through the Second Circle of Hell, Dante meets Paolo and Francesca. Their story has the makings of a dramatic film – two lovers separated by deceit and a political marriage. Their adulterous affair was precipitated by mutual attraction and story of Lancelot and Guinevere, another pair of adulterous lovers. But Paolo and Francesca’s romance came to a tragic end when they were discovered by Francesca’s husband, who killed them both. (Parenthetically, it should be noted that Dante places Gianciotto, the husband, amongst the murderers in Hell.)
Paolo and Francesca are captured by Rodin in his famous sculpture, The Kiss, which depicts them engaging in a provocative embrace. Notice how Francesca’s body is bent back with passion, while Paolo’s hand rests tantalizingly on the flare of her hip. You’re meant to feel their desire. You’re meant to feel as if you’ve surprised the naked lovers just as they are about to recline on the bed and make love.
My favourite painting of the couple is The Ghosts of Paolo and Francesca Appear to Dante and Virgil by Ary Scheffer. But if you look at the painting, you’ll notice that the artist has taken license with the text. Part of the lovers’ punishment, according to Dante, is being prohibited from touching one another for eternity. Scheffer has ended their physical separation.
Notice the desperation with which the beautiful Francesca clings to the naked body of her lover. Both Scheffer and Rodin emphasize the beauty of her back. Scheffer makes the image more provocative by wrapping the lovers in a bed sheet, but he reveals less of Francesca’s body than Rodin.
Students will have to attend the next class if they want to hear more about the connection between the hidden and the erotic.
By the time I speak those words, I’ve persuaded most of the students that Dante is worth studying. And it’s only the beginning of the semester …
-Professor Gabriel O. Emerson
Department of Italian Studies
University of Toronto.
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