Baiser was originally intended for La Porte de l'Enfer, a monumental bronze portal based on Dante’s Divine Comedy which was commissioned by the French government and would serve as a centerpiece for the planned national museum of decorative arts (see fig. 1). Rodin began working on the gates in 1880 and the project would occupy him for over twenty years. The present lovers are taken from the fifth canto in which Dante and Virgil encounter the carnal sinners—as multitudinous as starlings—who curse heaven with their “lamentations, moans / And blasphemies” as they are cast around by the perpetually warring winds. The French government commissioned a marble version of the sculpture in 1888, but the muted tones of the bronzes seem more fitting for this second circle of hell, described as “a part where no thing gleams."
The scene in which Virgil learns the tragic story of Francesca and Paolo is perhaps the most memorable of the entire poem. The inward dynamics of the sculpture reference the centripetal forces of the punishing whirlwind and the introversion and self-absorption for which they are damned, and although the composition guides our eye to the locking of the couple's lips, the dramatic moment itself is obscured from several angles—a reminder that this was thought to be a moment of private passion (“Alone we were, and no / Suspicion near us”). The viewer must walk around to peer closer, putting them in the position of Paolo’s murderous brother, Gianciotto Malatesta. Just as Dante chooses Francesca as narrator, in Rodin’s interpretation she is also the more active party and it is her arm which locks the pair together.
But Dante’s account is as much about the power of art as it is about lust. At the end, Virgil is “heart-struck” by the poetic account and “through compassion fainting, seem’d not far from death, and like a corpse fell to the ground.” Contemporary viewers were similarly struck when Rodin exhibited his sculpture at the Galerie Georges Petit and at the Exposition Générale des Beaux-Arts in Brussels. It quickly became one of his signature works and its relevance in today’s visual culture has been cemented by the masterpieces which it has since inspired, from eponymous works by Klimt and Brancusi to Magritte’s Lovers or Lichtenstein’s The Kiss (see figs. 2 & 3).
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