OF THE BABY NAME FRANCESCA
Francesca Johnson is the heroine of Robert James Waller’s hugely popular 1993 romantic novel, The Bridges of Madison County, which was made into an equally successful movie of the same name in 1995, starring Meryl Streep. Francesca is a transplanted Italian war bride living a prosaic life as wife and mother on an Iowa farm in 1965, when National Geographic assignment photographer Robert Kincaid enters her life. He is doing a piece on the covered bridges in the county and can use a guide, her husband and children are at the state fair for four days – what do you guess happens? The dutiful Francesca finds herself strongly drawn to the traveler, and Robert is tempted to put down roots for the first time. They suffer through the angst of their conflicting emotions, and Francesca is forced to make a decision that is both heartbreaking and life affirming. While many scorned the novel as mawkish and contrived, its popularity put such criticism on the back burner. When it was translated to film, the luminous Streep made one care deeply about the uplifting power of this unexpected love and its potential power to ruin many lives while saving one.
In Dante Alighieri’s epic early 14th century masterpiece, The Divine Comedy, Francesca da Rimini is consigned to the second circle of hell along with her lover, Paolo Malatesta, for their adultery. Francesca is modeled upon a real-life person, the beautiful daughter of an Italian nobleman, who was said to have been tricked by her father into marrying Gianciotto Malatesta for political reasons, when it was his brother, Paolo, whom she loved. She became Paolo’s mistress and her husband, discovering the deceit, killed them both. In his journey through the Inferno, Dante asks his guide if he may speak to the doomed lovers. Francesca tells him her tale, how they were inspired by reading of the love between Lancelot and Guinievere, and in all innocence, began their affair. As Dante himself remarks: “Such tender thoughts and dear longing led them into this agony! ... While the one spirit spoke all this the other wept, and I fainted with pity as if I were dying.” It is early in Dante’s journey through the Inferno, so we may excuse him for his faint heartedness; after all, he is writing his poem about Divine Love and yet he finds himself overwhelmed with sympathy for an all too exemplary display of human love. How exalted a plane it lies upon, then, in spite of the striver’s endeavors to reach a loftier attainment! In all probability, later generations of so-inclined couples were in turn inspired by reading of the love of Francesca and her Paolo. Certainly countless painters, sculptors, writers and musicians were.