On an uncertain date in March 1289, fallen nobleman Ugolino della Gherardesca was immured in a Pisan tower with two sons and two grandsons — all doomed to starve to death and land in the Inferno.
In the dangerous Guelph vs. Ghibelline political landscape, Gherardesca had a knack for switching sides.
Originally a Ghibelline, he was banished once for plotting but returned with the support of Guelphs, and was made podesta to negotiate with Pisa’s Guelph enemies, Florence and Lucca.
Having made the unpopular but perhaps politically necessary decision to buy peace with Florence at the expense of territory and castles, Ugolino schemed to extend his own authority in Pisa, only to find himself hoisted on his own petard when onetime plotting-partner Archbishop Ruggieri Ubaldini had Ugolino and descendants seized for (wait for it) … treachery.
Months later, Archbishop Ruggieri ordered the keys to their dungeon thrown into the Arno and left them to starve to death.
Ugolino’s fate is mostly remembered by way of Dante, who places both Ugolino and Ruggieri deep in hell — where the treacherous noble has at least the satisfaction of gnawing vengefully on the treacherous cleric, but detaches his maw long enough to deliver himself the poem’s longest speech by any of the damned.
Here’s Dante’s Ugolino, from the tail end of Canto XXII through most of Canto XXIII.
I beheld two spirits by the ice
Pent in one hollow, that the head of one
Was cowl unto the other; and as bread
Is raven’d up through hunger, th’ uppermost
Did so apply his fangs to th’ other’s brain,
Where the spine joins it. Not more furiously
On Menalippus’ temples Tydeus gnaw’d,
Than on that skull and on its garbage he.
“O thou who show’st so beastly sign of hate
‘Gainst him thou prey’st on, let me hear,” said I
“The cause, on such condition, that if right
Warrant thy grievance, knowing who ye are,
And what the colour of his sinning was,
I may repay thee in the world above,
If that, wherewith I speak be moist so long.”
HIS jaws uplifting from their fell repast,
That sinner wip’d them on the hairs o’ th’ head,
Which he behind had mangled, then began:
“Thy will obeying, I call up afresh
Sorrow past cure, which but to think of wrings
My heart, or ere I tell on’t. But if words,
That I may utter, shall prove seed to bear
Fruit of eternal infamy to him,
The traitor whom I gnaw at, thou at once
Shalt see me speak and weep. Who thou mayst be
I know not, nor how here below art come:
But Florentine thou seemest of a truth,
When I do hear thee. Know I was on earth
Count Ugolino, and th’ Archbishop he
Ruggieri. Why I neighbour him so close,
Now list. That through effect of his ill thoughts
In him my trust reposing, I was ta’en
And after murder’d, need is not I tell.
What therefore thou canst not have heard, that is,
How cruel was the murder, shalt thou hear,
And know if he have wrong’d me. A small grate
Within that mew, which for my sake the name
Of famine bears, where others yet must pine,
Already through its opening sev’ral moons
Had shown me, when I slept the evil sleep,
That from the future tore the curtain off.
This one, methought, as master of the sport,
Rode forth to chase the gaunt wolf and his whelps
Unto the mountain, which forbids the sight
Of Lucca to the Pisan. With lean brachs
Inquisitive and keen, before him rang’d
Lanfranchi with Sismondi and Gualandi.
After short course the father and the sons
Seem’d tir’d and lagging, and methought I saw
The sharp tusks gore their sides. When I awoke
Before the dawn, amid their sleep I heard
My sons (for they were with me) weep and ask
For bread. Right cruel art thou, if no pang
Thou feel at thinking what my heart foretold;
And if not now, why use thy tears to flow?
Now had they waken’d; and the hour drew near
When they were wont to bring us food; the mind
Of each misgave him through his dream, and I
Heard, at its outlet underneath lock’d up
The’ horrible tower: whence uttering not a word
I look’d upon the visage of my sons.
I wept not: so all stone I felt within.
They wept: and one, my little Anslem, cried:
“Thou lookest so! Father what ails thee?” Yet
I shed no tear, nor answer’d all that day
Nor the next night, until another sun
Came out upon the world. When a faint beam
Had to our doleful prison made its way,
And in four countenances I descry’d
The image of my own, on either hand
Through agony I bit, and they who thought
I did it through desire of feeding, rose
O’ th’ sudden, and cried, ‘Father, we should grieve
Far less, if thou wouldst eat of us: thou gav’st
These weeds of miserable flesh we wear,
‘And do thou strip them off from us again.’
Then, not to make them sadder, I kept down
My spirit in stillness. That day and the next
We all were silent. Ah, obdurate earth!
Why open’dst not upon us? When we came
To the fourth day, then Geddo at my feet
Outstretch’d did fling him, crying, ‘Hast no help
For me, my father!’ There he died, and e’en
Plainly as thou seest me, saw I the three
Fall one by one ‘twixt the fifth day and sixth:
“Whence I betook me now grown blind to grope
Over them all, and for three days aloud
Call’d on them who were dead. Then fasting got
The mastery of grief.” Thus having spoke,
Once more upon the wretched skull his teeth
He fasten’d, like a mastiff’s ‘gainst the bone
Firm and unyielding. Oh thou Pisa! shame
Of all the people, who their dwelling make
In that fair region, where th’ Italian voice
Is heard, since that thy neighbours are so slack
To punish, from their deep foundations rise
Capraia and Gorgona, and dam up
The mouth of Arno, that each soul in thee
May perish in the waters! What if fame
Reported that thy castles were betray’d
By Ugolino, yet no right hadst thou
To stretch his children on the rack. For them,
Brigata, Ugaccione, and the pair
Of gentle ones, of whom my song hath told,
Their tender years, thou modern Thebes! did make
Uncapable of guilt.
Dante’s quite understandable speculation that Ugolino might have been driven to cannibalize children has been recently disputed by scientists examining the apparent remains of this unfortunate bunch. But it hardly matters now … and Dante was sure right about the cannibalism scene’s dramatic potential.
On this day..
- 1916: Benjamin Argumedo - 2020
- 1771: Edmund James and Joseph Jordan, runaway slave aides - 2019
- 1888: Oscar Beckwith, the Austerlitz Murderer - 2018
- 1852: Samuel Treadway - 2017
- 1562: The Massacre of Vassy - 2016
- 1996: Antonio James, final judgment - 2015
- 1837: The slave Julius, property of John and Rebecca Matthews - 2014
- 2013: Naw Kham, Mekong drug lord - 2013
- 1864: Martin Robinson, treacherous guide - 2012
- 1951: The Mokotow Prison executions of Cursed Soldiers - 2011
- 2004: Ibtisam Hussein, child-murderer - 2009
- 1877: Jack McCall, Wild Bill's murderer - 2008