Tuscany, Ugolino – a Gruesome Tale

by Samuele Sodini

In Lucca it’s a common joke that the mountains between Lucca and pisa keep the people from having to see each other. A tunnel now leads to the Pisa side but the ideological separation is still felt by football fans, graffiti artists and ordinary citizens. In Lucca e read Dante’s story about Count Ugolino della Gherardesca as the potrait of a power-hungry Pisan at his worst. Dante froze Ugolino within the deepest circle of Inferno because he betrayed his homeland and his political party.
In Italy, where peope identify with their hometown very strongly, this story’s theme is not at all archaic.
According to popular legend, Ugolino cannibalized his children.
Archbishop Ruggieri locked the father and sons in the Torre della Muda ( forever after known as Famine Tower ), leaving them to starve to death.
Part of the tower still stands on the northen side of Piazza dei Cavalieri. This is one of Pisa’s most beautiful piazzas and site of Pisa University’s Scuola Normale, where the brightest students are admitted to study.
A corner of the original tower is within Palazzo dell’ Orologio and a plaque on the wall refers to Ugolino. However, scientific literalism demolished the legend in 2002.
A Pisan paleoanthropologist excavated Ugolino’s body and examined some DNA from his ribs which showed he had not eaten meat ( let alone human flesh ) before dying. However, ” truth ” should never get in the way of a good story from history…
Ugolino belonged to an important Ghibelline family. The Ghibellines supported Papal authority, unlike the Guelph city-states Florence and Genoa which favored more local control.
Ugolino was both Podestà ( supreme civil authority ) and Ghibelline leader. During Pisa’s battles with Genoa and other Guelph states, Ugolino aligned with Giovanni Visconti, a Guelph.
The alliance was discovered, Ugolino imprisoned and Visconti exiled.
With the help of Florence and Lucca, however, Ugolino escaped and become a Guelph, again betraying the Ghibellines! In 1284, he returned as head of a Pisan fleet. He again betrayed his countrymen when they were at war with Genoa, feigning surrender and causing their defeat.
When Ugolino returned to power, he gave away Pisan castles to Lucca and Florence as a political expedient. Ghibelline fortunes improved, and Ugolino, then a Guelph, allied with the Ghibelline Archbishop Ruggieri degli Ubaldini. Ugolino exiled his Guelph grandson in 1288 and consolidated his relationship with Ruggieri. Soon Ruggieri betrayed Ugolino by inciting the public against him and then ordering the imprisonment of Ugolino, his two sons and two grandsons.
Finally the Archbishop threw away the key and left him and his children to starve to death.
In Canto XXXIII, Dante has Ugolino gnawing on the Archbishop’s head for all eternity. ” You are to know I was Count Ugolino, and this one here, Archbidshop Ruggieri; and now I’ll tell you why I am his neighbor.” For Dante, the concept of neighbor becomes an unholy alliance in the depth of Inferno!
With ambiguous words, Dante ha Ugolino say, ” After they were dead, I called them for two days; then fasting had more force than grief.”
This line may be interpreted in two ways: either Ugolino devoured his offspring’s corpses after being driven mad with hunger, or starvation killed him before he died of grief.
The more ghastly interpretation is more popular and Ugolino was sometimes known as the ” Cannibal Count “. The corpses were buried in Pisa at in the Church of San Francesco.
For Dante, however, eating one’s children may have served an anagogical ( religiously – significant ) purpose.
All the happenings in the Inferno are reverse-images of happenings in Paradiso. The Eucharist ( celebration of the Mass ) thus becomes a horrific reverse Eucharist in the Ugolino scene.
Soon we will visit also Dante’s Paradiso to present a more positive character – Matilde the Church-Builder, Contessa of Tuscany, famous in Lucca for having built the Ponte della Maddalena ( also know as the Devil’s Bridge ) during the Middle Ages.

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