Count Ugolino della Gherardesca. Does this name sound familiar? Probably not and neither would for most Italians if it wasn’t for Dante Alighieri’s masterpiece The Divine Comedy.
As most people know, the Divine Comedy narrates Dante’s journey through Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise. In the deepest circle of Inferno, Dante and his guide Virgil, stumble upon two souls immersed in ice: one is obsessively gnawing on the skull of the other.
In Dante’s words:
I saw two shades frozen in a single hole
packed so close, one head hooded the other one;
the way the starving devour their bread, the soul
above had clenched the other with his teeth
where the brain meets the nape.
Ugolino is the soul feasting on the skull of Archbishop Ruggieri, who imprisoned him and let him starve to death, together with his children.
In 1288, Pisa was hit by a dramatic increase in prices, resulting in food shortages and riots among the bitter populace. During one of these riots, Ugolino killed a nephew of the Archbishop, turning the latter against him. Eventually Ugolino was captured, together with his sons Gaddo, Uguccione, his grandsons Nino and Anselmuccio. They were all detained in the Muda tower.
In March 1289, on orders of the Archbishop, the keys of Ugolino’s cell were thrown into the Arno river and the prisoners left to starve.
This is where Dante’s poem hits a peak of subtle ambiguity. Ugolino in his own words:
… And I,
Already going blind, groped over my brood
Calling to them, though I had watched them die,
For two long days. And then the hunger had more
Power than even sorrow over me.
Here is where the mistery lies.
“And the hunger had more power than even sorrow over me”.
For centuries, Dante has left us wondering if this last verse should be interpreted as Ugolino succumbing to his death due to hunger rather than sorrow or, as others have suggested, that his starvation overcame his paternal principles and forced him to cannibalise his children.
Either way, Ugolino’s Inferno, started way before his death.
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