"Speak would I to those two, who go together"

Dante with Francesca and Paolo
Public DomainDante with Francesca and Paolo - Credit: William Blake

(Canto 5, line 74)

These two are Francesca da Rimini and her brother-in-law Paolo Malatesta. Francesca was the daughter of the lord of Ravenna, Guido da Polenta il Vecchio. In 1275, she was married to Gianciotto Malatesta, son of the lord of Rimini, Malatesta da Verucchio. Gianciotti was a deformed cripple, and the match was in fact a political marriage, with the object of putting an end to the long-lasting rivalry of these two clans of Ravenna and Rimini. Francesca instead fell in love with Gianciotto's brother Paolo, and they started seeing each other secretly. Their affair was discovered by Gianciotto, and in 1285 he had them both killed. Their story is not recorded in any historical work of the period, but the episode was well-known among the people: according to one version, Paolo was required to perform the wedding ceremony with Francesca in place of his brother, letting her believe that she would be married to the handsome Paolo, not the deformed Gianciotto.