Gradara and the story of Paolo and Francesca

Gradara The medieval fortress of Gradara was the background of the love story between Paolo and Francesca celebrated by Dante. The windows of the bedroom of Francesca are almost always closed. Nobody overlooks the underlying landscape while thinking about life. Since 1289, the bedroom of the fortress of Gradara is hidden in the shadows: it is still possible to see the frescos of the walls, the big bed and the bookrest where the book telling the story of Lancillotto and Ginevra was situated. A trap door hides the secret way which allowed Paolo to reach her beloved, even if did not prevent him being murdered by Gianciotto.

The surrounding landscape is reminescent of the fifteenth-century painting. The romantic atmosphere it boasts made it impossible for Francesca to resist temptation.

The ancient medieval village, surrounded by embattled walls, is situated few kilometres far from the Adriatic Coast. The imposing fortress dominates the picturesque houses of the old town, which is still permeated with the atmosphere which won Paolo and Francesca over, thus giving birth to one of the most famous love romance in the world.

In July and August, the main road leading to the castle is crowded with market stalls and the fortress is one of the most visited monuments in Italy. For some years, Gradara has been struggling to defend its legend, threatened by Rimini and other nearby resorts which want to take advantage of the fame of the popular lovers. Unfortunately there are no evidences at all and Canto V of the Hell by Dante did not provide geographical indications.

Disputes still go on, and in Rimini a real process was held to establish which fortress hosted the famous lovers. Doubts still remain. But those flocking to Gradara and walking across the small inner court of the fortress and the outstanding Renaissance loggia are still able to perceive its past fascination.

The story of Paolo and Francesca is very famous. The Malatesta were the lords of Rimini. Malatesta da Verucchio, the father of Giovanni, called Gianciotto, Paolo il Bello, Malatestino dall’Occhio and Pandolfo, was aware of the strategic importance of Gradara and commissioned the building of the fortress. The Malatesta were on the Guelph party, like Guida da Polenta, the lord of Ravenna, and to cement their alliance they decided a marriage between Gianciotto and the beautiful Francesca, the daugther of Guido.

Here story and legend come mixed together: legend has it that to convince Francesca to marry the ugly Gianciotto, she was said his husband would have been the handsome Paolo. The marriage, however, was celebrated in 1275 and Gianciotto became Podestà of Pesaro. A law prohibited the Podestà, who had to be a foreigner in order to be fair, to bring his family with him and so Francesca settled in the nearby fortress of Gradara.

Her solitary life was only allietated by the visits of the brother-in-law Paolo, but one day, while they were reading a book, the kissed each other. Happiness didn't last long since Gianciotto discovered them and murdered them with his sword. Gianciotto threw the body of his brother into one of the traps of the fortress and put the body of Francesca in an ancient sarchopagus. Five centuries later, during some restoration works, the sarchopagus was unearthed.

Since then, Gradara has only hosted unhappy relations. At the end of the fifteenth century, when it was owned by the Sforza, the fortress hosted Giovanni, who in order to welcome the wife Lucrezia Borgia, the daughter of Rodrigo (then pope Alessandro VI), turned the ancient medieval castle into a pleasant place featuring well-lit rooms. Both the ceiling and the walls were embellished by wonderful frescos depicting the beautiful woman painted by Giovanni Santi, the father of Raffaello, who worked in Gradara.

But the efforts by Giovanni Sforza to let his wife enjoy comfort and beauty did not prevent their marriage to fail: Pope Alessandro VI forced him to annull it  and transfer his possessions to his son Cesare Borgia. When the castle became a property of Della Rovere family in 1513, Eleonora Gonzaga, Vittoria Farnese and Lidia Della Rovere made Gradara famous with wonderful parties and sumptuos banquets.

In the following seven hundred years the village was populated by soldiers and noble families who left here coats of arm and ancient weapons. But the fortress is still linked with the myth of  Paolo and Francesca. Their tragic story inspired plenty of painters and literates and in the nineteenth century  it became one of the most important subjects of the Romantic culture. Ingres painted seven different versions of the same painting.

After him, other painters depicted them, such as Giuseppe Bezzuoli, Mosè Bianchi, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Gustave Dorè, Auguste Rodin and Gaetano Previati. Edoardo Fabbri, Silvio Pellico and D’Annunzio wrote about them, using their story as the symbol of a Medieval Age where violence suffocated any human feeling. His Francesca da Rimini, staged for the first time in Rome in December 1901 by Eleonora Duse, was then arranged by Riccardo Zandonai.

The story of Paolo and Francesca was also commuted in a film version by Raffaello Matarazzo in 1949, who recruited Odile Versois,  Armando Francioli and Roberto Murolo.

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