An early literary description of emotional syncope in the Fifth Canto of Dante Alighieri's Commedia: ‘E caddi come corpo morto cade’

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Dante's Divine Comedy is universally acclaimed as one of the great masterpieces in world literature. It is written in first person singular and this gives an intimate acquaintance with the vision of the poet. In the Fifth Canto, he exquisitely describes the story of Paolo Malatesta and Francesca da Rimini, illicit lovers killed by Francesca's husband, Gianciotto Malatesta. The story, dramatically told by Francesca, deeply moves the poet, who suddenly faints. In the words of Dante himself: ‘E caddi come corpo morto cade’ (And fell, even as a dead body falls). This probably is the first literary description of an emotional syncope in world literature. We found that three great plastic artists (John Flaxman, William Blake and Gustave Doré) captured the crucial moment of the syncope in three extraordinary images left for posterity.

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