HISTORICAL HOMIES: Ugolino della Gherardesca

Most Prof. Prattle posts are freewheeling, digressive, madcap. Once in a while, though, we prefer to temper the tangential tendency and train our eye on a single subject for an in depth analysis of an HISTORICAL HOMIE. The first HISTORICAL HOMIE piece (declared as such retroactively) was the compelling story of that legendary daughter of Poughkeepsie, Lee Miller. Today our insatiable knowledge lust demands we go further afield to bring to you a tale of derring-do and double-dealing. Without further preamble, the legend of Ugolino:

Many great writers have recounted the tale of Count Ugolino della Gherardesca, the 13th century Pisan nobleman who was notable for his treachery and cunning, and above all his ability to overcome the playground nickname “Ugly Ugolino” to reach the very highest corridors of Tuscan power. Ugolino’s place in history was assured by Dante’s inclusion of his story in the Divine Comedy; Ugolino shows up in Canto XXXII when Dante and Virgil are making their way through the lowest circle of hell (reserved for traitors and Rat Cook types). Il Poeta’s account formed the basis upon which most further retellings relied, including Chaucer’s in “The Monk’s Tale”. Other luminaries to have a go at it include Percy Shelley, Jorge Luis Borges, and Seamus Heaney. Now it’s my turn. What follows is mostly factual, though I do take a small measure of artistic license with certain details in order to create a richer sense of the world Ugolino inhabited*.

Despite his noble origins — the della Gherardesca family were among the most important members of the Ghibelline faction in Tuscany, which supported the power of the Holy Roman Emperor in Italy and existed in opposition to the Guelphs, who sided with the Pope’s notion of independent city-states — Ugolino bore more than his share of boyhood torments growing up on the rough streets of 1220s Pisa. The other children created a cruel rhyme, which they would chant in time to a choreographed dance that, in Villani’s telling, seems to have resembled the Macarena. The lyrics were hurtful enough to mark young Ughi for life:

Ugolino, Ugolino, what an ugly boy;
A nasty face like his deserves a life devoid of joy.
When he asked Elena if she might give him a kiss,
She just said “Oh God that’s gross — I’d rather kiss a fish!”
Ugolino, Ugolino, smelly like a sock;
The only thing he ever does is fart around the clock.
Once I dared to ask him if he ever took a bath,
He told me “Twice a year, I think, but I’m no good at math.”
Ugolino, Ugolino, dumber than a goat;
Thinks he’s such a smartie but he only learns by rote.
When the teacher asked him to explain why Pompeii shook,
He pleaded “But Signora, wait, that wasn’t in the book!”

(translated from the Italian by Wentworth Miller)

In this crucible of adolescent cruelty Ugolino’s resolve was forged, and he began to plot his path to power. He took his first major position, as governor of Sardinia, in 1252, and he must have done a pretty good job keeping the place clean and desirable, because the Genoans just couldn’t resist coming through and taking over in 1259. Ugolino returned to the mainland and was rewarded for his able stewardship with the title of Count. At this time he was quite the big dawg in Pisa (okay, I know you’re wondering, so: the leaning tower was under construction at the time — had been since 1173, would be until 1372). Not only was he the head of his family, and indeed all of the Ghibellines, he was also podestà (chief magistrate or administrator) of Pisa. The surrounding cities (including fabulous Florence and jazzy Genoa), however, were Guelph-controlled. In 1271, in order to shore up his power in the face of such unfriendly neighbors, Ugolino arranged for his sister to marry Giovanni Visconti, whose family was the most prominent of the Pisan Guelphs. Naturally, the rest of the Ghibellines were like “Umm, excuse me Ugolino but what’s going on here? I thought we were chill and then you pull a bush league move like that, we are pissed!” and Ugolino was like “Y’all should be honored by my lateness! That I would even –” and the rest of the Ghibellines were like “We’re going to cut you off there to remind you that this dispute has nothing to do with tardiness, though we are a bit peeved that you kept us waiting in the courtyard for twenty minutes before you let us in.”

The unrest bubbled for three years until Ugolino and Giovanni were BOTH arrested for “conspiring to foment Guelphiness”; Giovanni was exiled, while Ugolino sat in a cell until he himself was exiled upon Giovanni’s death in 1275. The Pisans shoulda known better than to let a tiger free, though. At this point, Ugolino was full-blown Guelph and began plotting his long con; apparently he got really into The Sting at this point (and who can blame him!). He bought a few fedoras and started calling himself “The Grifter”. More helpfully to his cause, he also cultivated some strategic alliances (including with Florence and Lucca) and when the time was right attacked Pisa, winning pardon for him and his fellow Guelph exiles.

He played it cool once he was back in the city, but when Pisa went to war with Genoa in 1282 old Ughi was ready to join the fray and prove his mettle to his former homies. In the Battle of Meloria, though, Ugolino surrendered his division after witnessing the heavy beatdown that the Genovese had administered to the rest of the Pisan forces, including the humiliating capture of the then-podestà Alberto Morosini. With Morosini out of the picture, Ugolino resumed his old post and ceded Pisan Guelph castles to the opportunistically belligerent Florence and Lucca, who had brought some heat themselves after recognizing Pisa’s weakened state**. Genoa was also willing to negotiate terms of peace, but Ugolino was less keen to parlay with them, as return of Ghibelline prisoners would undermine his power in Pisa.

Ugolino, now sharing power (rather uneasily) with his nephew Nino Visconti (son of Giovanni, the exiled, then dead, co-fomenter who you’ll recall brought Ughi to the Guelph side) continued to string along negotiations, reportedly using the classic “Now’s really not a good time, my in-laws are in town” excuse forty-five times on the Genovese. The Guelphs, including Nino, were smarting a bit from the whole ceding-of-the-castles bit, and Ugolino, recognizing how tenuous was his grip on power, conspired with archbishop Ruggieri degli Ubaldini, leader of the resurgent Ghibelline factions within the city, to drive Nino and his allies out of the city. With this betrayal accomplished, and in a fit of nomenclatural hubris unsurpassed for some six centuries (until the Kims of North Korea came through and changed the whole game***), Ugolino declared himself Lord of the City, Straightener of the Crooked Tower (it wasn’t called “Leaning” until the 15th century), and The First Iron Chef. Meanwhile the captive Pisans whom Ugolino had abandoned at Meloria weren’t exactly coming around to his point of view. They were, the historical record shows, still pretty steamed at him.

Peeved Pisan P.O.W.s Ugolino could handle, but unfortunately for him things were about to get somewhat out of hand on the home front as well. The year 1288 brought a food shortage and widespread discontent among the populace. In stark contrast to today’s leaders, who seek safety at the merest hint of of civil unrest (think Dick Cheney in his underground bunker, which I heard was seriously stocked with Nutella and crepe-making supplies), Ugolino really got into the thick of the riots that seized Pisa that summer. Not only was he an active participant, he went Brick Tamland style and killed a guy. And not just any guy — the nephew of Archbishop Ruggieri!^

The comeuppance came later that summer when Ugolino and his retinue were set upon by angry Ghibellines (incidentally, I used to play bass in a hardcore band called Angry Ghibellines) and retreated into the town hall, which was then set on fire by the enraged citizenry (who were encouraged by the vengeful archbishop). At that point Ugolino was like “Aight chill I’ll come out, jeez”; he surrendered and was immured, along with two sons and two grandsons, in the Muda, a tower belonging to the Gualandi, a prominent Ghibelline family aligned with the archbishop.

In March of the following year, Archbishop Ruggieri, by now the city’s podestà, ordered that the keys to the tower be thrown into the river Arno and Ugolino and his sons be left to starve. The monologue Dante ascribes to Ugolino describing his misery in the tower has informed artistic representations of the event. This is Ugolino speaking to Dante and Virgil as the visit him in hell. “They” in the second line refers to his grandsons:

          […]                              on either hand
Through agony I bit; and they, who thought
I did it through desire of feeding, rose
O’ the sudden, and cried, ‘Father, we should grieve
Far less if thou wouldst eat of us: thou gavest
These weeds of miserable flesh we wear;
And do thou strip them off from us again.’
(Canto XXXIII, lines 55-61)

Yup, that’s Ugolino gnawing on his own hands and his grandsons offering up their own flesh instead. The great French sculptor Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux captured the agony in his momentous Ugolino and His Sons, the original marble version of which is in the Met Museum:


Auguste Rodin also had a go at it:

Ugolino (Rodin)

It doesn’t happen often, but in this case Rodin was bested, as Carpeaux’s extraordinary facility with the grotesque lends itself much more readily to this particular subject. It was in fact an encounter with Carpeaux’s extraordinary work that led me to write this post.

In the lines after the finger-gnawing, Ugolino watches his brood perish, until finally, as he tells Dante from the afterlife, “più che ‘l dolor, poté ‘l digiuno” — hunger did what grief could not. This line is very important so I’ll throw out a couple other translations: “fasting got the mastery of grief”, “hunger had more power than even sorrow over me”, and “fasting, at last, had power to overcome grief”. There are a couple of ways to interpret this. The more reasonable (in my view) is that Ugolino means to say that, having survived the great pain of watching his four male heirs perish in front of him, he finally died of starvation — his grief wasn’t strong enough to kill him, but hunger was. The sensational interpretation is to take this line to mean that his hunger was so powerful that it overwhelmed even his state of mourning and led him to consume the boys in desperation.

Naturally, the latter explanation has enjoyed a much stronger hold on the popular imagination. The image of the “Cannibal Count” is a powerful one, and it dovetails neatly with the punishment that Dante described for him in Canto XXXII, in which the author comes across Ugolino gnawing at the skull of Archbishop Ruggieri, who is himself being punished for his betrayal of Ugolino (he is the gnawee and Ugolino the gnawer because of the cruelty with which he punished Ugolino, and for his inclusion of the latter’s sons and grandsons in the sentence). An easy way to perpetuate the lazy but sensational reading is to quote the sons asking Ugolino to eat them and then skip right to the part where grief is overpowered by hunger (Wikipedia does it, as does this Weird Italy site. Admittedly, I did only directly quote those two parts, but I at least mentioned what came between.) This omits an essential part of the poem, which is the description of Ugolino’s witnessing his family die. Not only do these lines illustrate the “dolor” that Ugolino posits as a would-be killer, their very existence ruins the juxtaposition between his children’s request and that final line, which juxtaposition is the most compelling reason to believe the cannibal hypothesis.

In any event, DNA evidence  suggests that Ugolino hadn’t eaten any meat at all in his last months, which is fine validation for my interpretation of the Canto, and for skeptics everywhere of the lurid unbelievable.


* By which I mean the childhood trauma first paragraph is utter fabrication, so don’t go referring to the “Ugly Ugolino” at cocktail parties. Or actually please do, because unless you’re mingling with scholars of literature or Italian history no one is likely to challenge you on it.

** Dante would later finger these concessions as the cause of Ugolino’s being sentenced to the Antenora, the section of the ninth (i.e. lowest) circle of hell reserved for traitors of country. He had originally mentioned all the other betrayals of which Ugolino was guilty, but cut them on his editor’s orders. To be honest, it’s a stronger piece for the omissions.

*** Highlights — the Block That Metaphor!-worthy “The great sun of mankind without an equal on our planet”; the distinguished, formal “Dear Leader, who is a perfect incarnation of the appearance that a leader should have” and the admirably straightforward “Superior Person”

^ While researching to verify that Ugolino did in fact do some murder, I came upon this tome in Google books. Take a look at the top of the page: “At present Pisa and the United States are equally formidable as maritime powers”. Take a second and let that sink in (no pun intended).

^^ The Musée Rodin, on the page for this sculpture, erroneously attribute Ugolino’s eternal damnation to the crime of his eating his children. A rather egregious misreading (or, more likely, non-reading, of Dante). You would think that an institution prestigious enough to hire the First Lady of France as a tour guide would have its facts straight.


– “[C]onspiring to foment Guelphiness” is a very loose translation.
– Ugolino never saw The Sting, as it was not released until 1973 (he would’ve loved it, though).
– Nor is there any solid evidence of a fedora collection or ‘grifter’ phase.
– I made up the in-laws excuse thing, obviously.
– This part: “Straightener of the Crooked Tower (it wasn’t called “Leaning” until the 15th century), and The First Iron Chef.” is all nonsense.
– “Accidental deathing” is a term coined by Desus and Mero as a proposed renaming of “manslaughter”, and I don’t think 16th century Pisa had plea bargains.p.s. If anyone ever finds one of these tee shirts, please buy it for me. I’ll pay you back.

Gotta have it


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