A beautiful example of art inspired by poetry is Alexander Munro’s ‘Paolo and Francesca’ (1851-2), a marble sculpture which sits in the middle of the Pre-Raphaelite galleries at BMAG. Sculpture is a sadly overlooked aspect of Pre-Raphaelite art, but in many ways it bears the hallmarks of Pre-Raphaelitism (attention to detail, literary inspiration, and so on) as much as any Rossetti canvas.
Alexander Munro (1825-1871) was a friend of Rossetti’s, and was much influenced by him, which perhaps is indicated by his Dantean choice of subject in this work. Apart from ‘Paolo and Francesca’, he is probably most famous for his statues of scientists in the Oxford Museum of Natural History. Those, like this work, are formal, spare, with plenty of attention to detail and a beautiful life-likeness, but nevertheless simple. This sculpture seems to capture a moment in marble, the purity of the white and the beautiful simplicity of the lines of the work contrasting with the subject matter; this isn’t a happy story.
The work is based on Dante’s Inferno. In Canto V, Dante meets those who are being punished for sins of the flesh, and hears the story of Francesca da Rimini, who, married to a man she doesn’t love, falls in love with his younger brother, Paolo. Their love is inspired by reading of the adulterous love of Lancelot and Guinevere in the tales of King Arthur, and this is the moment which Munro depicts, as, with the book open in front of them, Paolo ventures a kiss. There is something very poignant about this moment: they haven’t yet kissed, and they don’t know their eventual fate (death at the hand of Francesca’s wronged husband), so the purity of this moment frozen forever in marble is particularly sad and beautiful.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, painting the same subject (above), begins with a kiss, and shows the plotters who killed the couple and their eventual fate; this circle of hell tosses its inhabitants about with a violent wind representative of the passions which brought them there. Rossetti also translated Dante’s original, and this section is explained by Francesca:
One day we read, for pastime and sweet cheer,
Of Lancelot, how he found Love tyrannous:
We were alone and without any fear.
Our eyes were drawn together, reading thus,
Full oft, and still our cheeks would pale and glow;
But one sole point it was that conquered us.
For when we read of that great lover, how
He kissed the smile which he had longed to win,—
Then he whom nought can sever from me now
For ever, kissed my mouth, all quivering.
The moral dilemma, of love which will bring harm to all concerned but cannot be resisted, is a familiar one from Arthurian myth, being played out throughout the myths, and this moral dilemma, of social convention and morality challenged by great passion, is one which clearly held a great appeal for the Pre-Raphaelites. Christina Rossetti also indicates this story in her poem ‘The Hour and the Ghost’, where a woman who committed adultery is cast into hell:
O fair frail sin, O poor harvest gathered in!
Thou shalt visit him again
To watch his heart grow cold;
To know the gnawing pain I knew of old;
To see one much more fair
Fill up the vacant chair,
Fill his heart, his children bear:—
While thou and I together
In the outcast weather
Toss and howl and spin.
Munro’s sculpture reflects the last moment of genuine purity, then, rather than focusing on the punishment to follow, unlike others. The life-like figures are enticing; if it weren’t for the glass case one would be tempted to reach out and touch them, because this is a very tactile image – and in that it contains something different to the painted image – the three-dimensional, simple lines somehow make it both more and less ‘real’. It’s worth comparing Munro’s ‘Paolo and Francesca’ with Rodin’s ‘The Kiss’ (1888), originally entitled ‘Francesca da Rimini’, which clearly owes a great deal to Munro is conception and form, though here the book is omitted and the eroticism more explicit.