Count Ugolino tells Dante the tragic story of his death. Dante and Virgil encounter more sinners condemned for their fraud and treachery.
(To read a footnote, click the number in the text. To come back from a footnote, click the up arrow at the note number.)
Pausing from his meal of bone and brains, the sinner wiped his smeared lips back and forth on the hair still left on the head he was chewing at so vigorously. Then ready to speak to me he said: “In other words, you want me to recall a story so filled with desperation and grief that the thought of it fills me with pain – not to mention that I must also put it into words. Well, … I’ll do it, even if I weep as I speak. What I say will bring even more infamy on this betrayer whose head is my everlasting meal!“Here begins the story of Count Ugolino, one of the most famous, as well as strongest, episodes of the whole poem. For simplicity and realism, and as a picture of the possibilities of human … Continue reading
“Though I have no idea who you are, and I don’t know why you’re here, one thing is certain: your speech is Florentine. So, to start, let me tell you that I was Count Ugolino and this man who feeds me was the Archbishop Ruggieri. Now I can begin to tell you why he is so hateful to me. I’m sure you already know that I trusted him, and that I was later imprisoned in Pisa because of his nefarious intrigues. And I died there. That much is known. But what no one knows are the ghastly circumstances surrounding my death. These I will tell you, and then you can decide for yourself if this man has done me an injustice.On several occasions during his travels in Hell, Dante has heard “confessions” from many of the sinners. While it’s too late for a “sacramental” confession because Ugolino is dead and his … Continue reading
“High up in what is now known as the Tower of Hunger – named after me (and I won’t be the last one to starve in it!) – there was a narrow window through which I watched the moon for many months.We know from history that this tower was used as a prison until the year 1318. And as Ugolino states, noted also in historical documents of Pisa, it gained its terrible title after his death there. … Continue reading
One night, I had an evil dream that tore away from my future the veil that hid it from me.Ugolino will tell Dante that he had this dream before dawn, and it was not uncommon, as he states here, to think of pre-dawn dreams as being prophetic. Earlier, in Canto 10, Dante was told by … Continue reading In that dream I saw this man I chew on as a fine lord and hunter. With a pack of well-trained bitches, he was chasing a wolf and its cubs up the mountain that separates the territory of Pisa from Lucca. Leading that murderous gang were all my enemies: the Gualandi, the Sismondi, and the Lanfranchi. Well, it wasn’t long before my boys and I grew tired from that chase. And then I seemed to see great fangs bite into us and tear us open!In the symbolic context of a dream narrative Ugolino now recounts for Dante the circumstances of his arrest. He sees Ruggieri dressed in lordly hunting gear. The dogs are his enemies: members of the … Continue reading
“In fright I came awake just before dawn and heard my boys sobbing for bread in their sleep (they were there with me, you see). You’re a cruel man if you don’t have some feeling in your heart for what went through me then. If what I’m telling you doesn’t make you weep, then you’re not human.Count Ugolino’s “boys” are actually his two sons: Count Gaddo, his fourth son and Count Uguiccione, his fifth and youngest son; and his two grandsons Nino, called Il Brigata and … Continue reading
“Soon enough, they all woke up – all of us filled with dread from our dreams. That was about the time when the guards would usually give us something to eat. But instead of food, there was the sound of nails being driven into the door of that fearsome tower. In grim silence I stared at my frightened children. Inside, I turned to stone. They wept. I did not weep. Then my sweet Anselmuccio murmured: ‘What’s the matter, my dear father? Why do you look so serious?’ For the rest of that day, I said nothing, but struggled to hold back my tears. The following morning, a slim ray of sunshine pierced the gloom of our cell. In its light I could see myself reflected in each of their frightened faces, and in my own fear I bit my hand.The level of tension reflected here, fed by fear and dread, now comes to a terrible climax. Dreams give way to the reality of starvation with a special horror – the sound of the tower door being … Continue reading
“Those sweet, innocent boys! Thinking that I bit my hand in hunger, they gathered around me so tenderly, saying: ‘O dear father, you would lessen our suffering if you fed on us. It was you who gave us flesh – here, take it and eat from us!’ What could I say? I did everything I could to make myself appear calm in order to ease their fears. But that day – and the next day – we simply sat there suffering terribly in that woe-filled silence. O cruel earth! Why didn’t you just swallow us up and end our misery!Dante’s genius rises to the heights in this scene of unbelievable generosity and self-giving on the part of Ugolino’s children, and it falls to the depths in their father’s abject failure to … Continue reading
“On the fourth day, my dear Gaddo threw himself before me, whimpering inconsolably: ‘Why, my father? Why won’t you help me? Why?’ With that dreadful question he died right there. And I tell you now, as the fifth day passed, and then the sixth, I watched in helpless horror as each of the remaining three died – one by one.
“By that time, I had gone blind. For the next two days, I groped over their lifeless bodies, calling out their names. But then hunger overpowered my grief.”Medical descriptions of starvation, as opposed to malnutrition, are not for the faint of heart. The “helpless horror” Ugolino experiences here, watching his sons starve to death one by … Continue reading
Bringing that tragic secret to an end, he savagely attacked the Archbishop’s skull with his dog-fangs, perfect for gnawing on those wicked bones!As far as a contrapasso is concerned here, Ruggieri stopped food coming to Ugolino and his sons and starved them to death. Now, he is Ugolino’s “food” for all eternity. Again, Musa’s insight … Continue reading
Pisa! Pisa! You mar the beauty of the people who inhabit your land and say “sì”! Since no one rushes in to punish you for your heinous crimes, then let the isles of Capraia and Gorgona move to the mouth of the Arno, dam it up, and drown every last one of you! Let’s be honest here: suppose Count Ugolino was a traitor with your castles. That gave you no right to punish the children for his crimes. You Thebes, Mother of Traitors! Their unsullied youth made them innocent – Brigata, Uguiccione, and the other two gentle boys.The ghastly “secret” story of Ugolino and the circumstances of his death comes to a close here. Both the now-public story is joined with what was, until now, unknown. But this full revelation … Continue reading
And so we moved away from that grisly meal to a different form of icy punishment wherein the sinners’ heads were no longer bent over, but pulled back so that they looked upward. Like the others, they wept continually, but their tears froze into their eye sockets instead of flowing outward, thus increasing their pain. Those frozen tears covered their eyes like a crystal visor.Very quickly, Dante and Virgil have move on into the third region of Cocytus called Ptolomea where betrayers of their guests and friends are punished. Here, as Dante describes them, the sinners’ … Continue reading
The farther along we went, the colder it got and my face felt rough and numb. Soon enough, I felt a breeze, and I asked Virgil: “Master, what’s causing this wind? I didn’t think moist heat could reach so far down into the earth.” He replied: “Pretty soon you’ll be able to answer that question with your eyes, when you see what’s causing it.”As Virgil indicates, soon enough Dante the Pilgrim and the reader will have an answer to this question. It’s cleverly placed here to raise a growing sense of anticipation. And we have a brief … Continue reading
Hearing us talking, one of the frozen sinners there cried out: “O evil souls, whose terrible sins have brought you here to the last circle of Hell! Come here and break away from my eyes this frozen cover of tears so I can have a moment of relief. The pain that fills my heart will soon freeze my eyes with new tears.”
I answered: “If you want me to do you this favor, then tell me who you are. If I don’t help you, then let me sink to the very bottom of this place!”Dante and Virgil are overheard as they walk along the ice, and a sinner mistakenly identifies them as being among the worst of sinners – perhaps newly arrived and on their way to Judecca. … Continue reading
He quickly replied: “I am Friar Alberigo. I’m the one who brought murder to my dinner guests instead of the fruit plate. Here, instead, they serve me rare dates for the figs I once gave!”Alberigo di Ugolino dei Manfredi was a native of Faenza, the Manfredi family being the Guelf lords of that city. Late in his life he also became one of the Jovial Friars, two of whom we met in Canto … Continue reading
But his answer only confused me. “Are you already dead?” I asked him.
He seemed just as confused when he answered me. “I have no idea what my body is doing in the world above. You see, this circle of Ptolomea is different from all the rest. Often, a soul drops down into this icy bath before Atropos has decided it’s life is over. And so that you’ll more quickly break away from my eyes these frozen tears, I’ll tell you more: whenever someone above betrays the way I did, their soul falls straight down to this place in Hell. In the meantime, some devil takes over its body and lives out the rest of its life. I’m pretty sure that soul behind me there is one of them. He’s Ser Branca D’Oria, and he’s been in this ice for a long time.”Alberigo’s quick explanation of something totally unexpected in Hell thus far indicates how much of a hurry he’s in for Dante to fulfill his earlier promise to remove the ice from his eyes. As … Continue reading)
This didn’t make sense, so I pressed him: “You’re lying about that. I know for certain that he’s not dead. He eats and drinks and sleeps and wears his clothes.”One can imagine Dante’s surprise and disbelief on hearing that someone he knows is actually here in Hell already. And Alberigo seems just as confused about his own status. Though, as we’ll see, … Continue reading
“Ah, well,” he said, “I can tell you that Michel Zanche hadn’t yet been flung into the boiling pitch above when Ser Branca’s body had already been inhabited by a demon. Not only that, his kinsman accomplice in treachery came right down here with him! So, now that I’ve told you everything, clear away my eyes as you promised.”It seems that all three traitors arrived in Hell at different times. The murderers, Branca D’Oria and his nephew accomplice arrived first, followed by Michel Zanche whom they murdered. Some … Continue reading
I rewarded him generously – by doing nothing!Ouch! A very different Dante here! But he’s encountering traitors all across the ice lake of Cocytus, and his betrayal of his promise – an act of righteous indignation – is deserved by … Continue reading
What has become of you, O men of Genoa! Your race should be blotted out from the earth because you’re right at home with wickedness. Anything good is your enemy! How embarrassing that I should find one of your ranking citizens in company with Romagna’s worst – a sinner so terrible that his soul is already here in Cocytus while his body walks along among the rest of you!Dante’s crossing from Antenora to Ptolomea was marked by a powerful apostrophe against Pisa. His crossing now from Ptolomea to Judecca is marked by another apostrophe – this time against Genoa. … Continue reading
Notes & Commentary
“Here begins the story of Count Ugolino, one of the most famous, as well as strongest, episodes of the whole poem. For simplicity and realism, and as a picture of the possibilities of human cold-heartedness, it would be hard to find its equal in all literature.”
Thus begins Courtney Langdon in his commentary, joining the chorus of others who, over the centuries, have had much information and insight to offer on this famous canto. All seriousness aside for a moment, there is black humor in Dante’s opening here. It both conjures and completes an image from the final note of the previous canto. There, Dante was the intrepid journalist interrupting Tydeus as he chewed on the brains of Menalippus. Here, he walks into a fine restaurant and interrupts the Count who is dining on a plate of brains. Hearing Dante’s question, the count stops eating and politely dabs his mouth with a napkin before replying, invites the Poet to sit and join him, and begins his tale. Musa notes how Dante’s Italian syntax here “separates and contrasts the grotesque and the elegant in Ugolino’s actions.” But putting the humor away now, and recalling the animal comparisons Dante made in the previous canto, it’s clear that the brutally savage “feast” Dante witnesses here is a display of the ultimate depth of animal depravity to which a human can fall.
Having stepped onto the bottom of Hell at the beginning of the previous canto, Dante related that he had difficulty finding the right words to describe a place so terrible and sinners so wicked. He appealed to the Muses to inspire him and what follows in the Count’s story is, without doubt, some of their greatest work among humans. As he begins, Ugolino clarifies Dante’s earlier request by repeating it. At the same time, having been reminded of the episode that led to his death, he lists for Dante the personal cost his request requires: desperation, grief, and pain. And worse, the fact is that he, like Dante, must find words to describe something so terrible – they can only be spoken, let alone written, in tears.
But we must remember that treachery is not something for the faint-hearted. It is cold like the ice here, and calculating. Is it any wonder that Ugolino feasts on brains! A clever contrapasso to match the premeditation and malice aforethought of the treachery highlighted in what is about to be recounted. At the same time, Ugolino understands perfectly the infamy that goes with being discovered as a traitor, and like Camicion de’Pazzi and Buoso da Durea in the previous canto, he’s willing to shine the brilliant light of day on the traitor he gnaws at. And in a wickedly perverse way, this gives him the impetus to continue. He would have the words of his story become “seeds of infamy” that will grow into the foul memory of the man upon whom he feasts.
|↑2||On several occasions during his travels in Hell, Dante has heard “confessions” from many of the sinners. While it’s too late for a “sacramental” confession because Ugolino is dead and his deeds are now public, what is about to unfold is, nevertheless, a confession of the deeply personal, virtually secret, “ghastly” side of a very public story. Noting that Dante is Florentine by his dialect, Ugolino knows that he knows the public story and gives him just a few of the largest details to refresh his memory and to heighten anticipation for the “real story” about to unfold. E.H. Plumptre validates Ugolino’s surmise in his commentary:
“Linguistic commentators point to the fact that the speech of Dante in the last seven lines of Canto 32 contain in the original Italian no less than seven words which distinctly belong to the dialect of Florence.”
Furthermore, at the end of the previous canto, Dante asked Ugolino to trust him to tell his story – the secret, private, ghastly part of the story that no one witnessed. By allowing Dante (and we, the readers) to be the judge in the “case” he is about to present, Ugolino puts his trust in the Poet. In other words, Dante has complete literary license to tell the truth or to fabricate something entirely different. To a certain extent, of course, Ugolino is hoping to win Dante’s sympathy as did Francesca in Canto 5 who, in words not unlike Ugolino’s, told the Poet: “There’s no greater pain than remembering happy times when you’re deep in grief.” In the Italian, both Francesca and Ugolino also refer to their deaths as “offenses” against them as a way to subtly focus their stories on themselves and highlight their innocence. So, who were Ugolino and Ruggieri?
Ugolino della Gherardesca (ca. 1220-1289), the Count of Donoratico (about 40 miles south of Pisa), was a member of a noble Ghibelline family in Guelf-controlled Pisa. From around the time he was 30 years old he played a significant role in the history of Pisa, in and out of the political scene there, and also exiled several times (but returned) for various intrigues involving family, power, and party – not to mention murder. At one point he was appointed as the Podestà of the city. In spite of his family’s Ghibelline tradition, Ugolino was at one time the head of one of the two Guelf factions in the city. His nephew, Nino Visconti, was head of the other faction. (We will meet Nino in Canto 8 of the Purgatorio.) Wanting supreme power for himself, Ugolino apparently conspired with the leader of the Ghibellines, Archbishop Ruggieri (whose brains he here feasts on). Trusting Ruggieri completely, together they successfully drove Nino out of Pisa. But this action weakened the Pisan Guelfs. Seizing upon this opportunity, Ruggieri made the appearance of supporting Ugolino. However, in August 1288 the Archbishop unleashed the pent-up anger of the Ghibellines, and with them orchestrated an attack on Ugolino’s palace joined by the leading Ghibelline families of Pisa, the Lanfranchi, Sismondi, and Gualandi. At that point, Ruggieri betrayed Ugolino, accusing him of treason by engaging in secret negotiations with Pisa’s enemies, Florence and Lucca, and in the process ceding to them certain strategic Pisan castles and strongholds. (Apparently, these transactions were legitimate.) Ugolino was arrested in the uprising along with his two sons and two grandsons. They were ultimately locked in a tower belonging to the Gualandi in the present-day Piazza dei Cavalieri, and the keys were thrown into the Arno River. (The tower is gone, but the building it was attached to, not far from Pisa’s Leaning Tower, is still standing.) In March of 1289 the tower was nailed shut by order of the Archbishop and Ugolino and his sons and grandsons were starved to death. After this, the tower where they died was known as the Torre del fame, Tower of Hunger. One account has it that their bodies were taken out and burned. Another has it that the bodies were wrapped up and hastily buried at the nearby church of the Franciscans. Still another tells us that, seeing its Pisan allies weakened, the Florentine Guelfs, under the leadership of Guido da Montefeltro (see Canto 27), arrived in Pisa at or about the same time Ugolino and the four boys died. He may or may not have known about them and left them to starve nonetheless.
Ruggieri degli Ubaldini (d. September 15, 1295) was born into a powerful family of Mugello (20 miles NE of Florence). He was the son of Ubaldino della Pila (noted among the gluttons in Purg. 24), brother of Ottaviano (the Younger) Ubaldini, bishop of Bologna, nephew of the influential Ghibelline Cardinal Ottaviano degli Ubaldini of Bologna (most likely “the Cardinal” mentioned by Farinata in Canto 10), and cousin of Ugolino d’Azzo (see Purg. 14). In 1278 he was named Archbishop of Pisa. A staunch Ghibelline, he became the leader of that party and was involved in several of the ups and downs of Count Ugolino’s political career noted above. And, as noted above, he betrayed Ugolino both by pretending to support him and then accusing him of treason which led to his terrible death and that of his sons and grandsons. Following Ugolino’s death, Ruggieri attempted to secure the position of Podestà for himself, but could not overcome the opposition of the Viscontis whom he had earlier connived with Ugolino to banish from Pisa. Following the widespread publication of the manner of Count Ugolino’s death and that of his sons and grandsons, Pope Nicholas IV condemned Ruggieri but he died before the Archbishop could be punished. Other sources note that Ruggieri was stripped of his ecclesiastical office and spent the rest of his life in prison.
|↑3||We know from history that this tower was used as a prison until the year 1318. And as Ugolino states, noted also in historical documents of Pisa, it gained its terrible title after his death there. At the time it was apparently owned by the Gualandi family and known as the Torre dei Gualandi. However, Dante doesn’t actually use the word for tower (torre) here. Instead he calls it la Muda, which was probably the common local name at the time. This is most likely the case because it was a place where sporting birds like falcons, hawks, and eagles were kept in darkness while they were molting (from the Italian verb mudare). Musa captures the deeper significance of this in his commentary:
“The original name for the tower is poetically appropriate to Ugolino’s situation. Like the hunting birds in their mew, Ugolino can be seen as an angry bird of prey, his feathers fallen, his wings useless. Once again both elegance and bestiality are suggested, an eagle-like nobility associated with inhuman cruelty.”
The moon, by which Virgil has marked the passing of time during the journey through Hell, has also become Ugolino’s clock in the Hell of his tower. He and his sons and grandsons were imprisoned in the tower in June of 1288, and their death by starvation came about in February of the following year – after a period of some eight months.
|↑4||Ugolino will tell Dante that he had this dream before dawn, and it was not uncommon, as he states here, to think of pre-dawn dreams as being prophetic. Earlier, in Canto 10, Dante was told by Farinata that souls in Hell had the ability to see into the future, and at several points along the Poet’s journey he has had prophesies addressed to him. In a strange way, Ugolino, who was not in Hell at the time of his dream, nevertheless seems to share in advance this power of foresight with the damned.|
|↑5||In the symbolic context of a dream narrative Ugolino now recounts for Dante the circumstances of his arrest. He sees Ruggieri dressed in lordly hunting gear. The dogs are his enemies: members of the Gualandi, Sismondi, and Lanfranchi families (all Ghibellines like Ruggieri). The murderous gang are the Ghibelline populace roused against Ugolino by Ruggieri. They are chasing a wolf (Ugolino) and its cubs (his sons and grandsons) up a mountain between Pisa and Lucca (some think this is the tower where they are imprisoned). This is Monte San Giuliano, a long, flat mountain upon which, according to Plumptre, were several of the fortresses and strongholds Ugolino was accused of ceding to Lucca. He and his “cubs” may well have been heading toward Lucca where he would have had many allies. Then, in keeping with the bestial imagery used in this part of Hell, the wolf and its cubs tire and are overtaken by the vicious dogs.|
|↑6||Count Ugolino’s “boys” are actually his two sons: Count Gaddo, his fourth son and Count Uguiccione, his fifth and youngest son; and his two grandsons Nino, called Il Brigata and Anselmuccio. His sons, at least, would have been grown adults. And according to most commentators, all of them were innocent – their only “crime” being their relation to Ugolino himself.
Only now are we told that his “boys” were actually there in the tower with him. Having awakened after his unsettling dream and hearing his boys crying for bread in their sleep, Ugolino might have wished he were like Dante at the end of Canto 30 after Virgil reprimanded him for being so engrossed in the fight between Sinon and Master Adamo. Dante said he was like someone dreaming they were in trouble and in the dream wishing that what they were dreaming were just a dream.
Then, to tug at Dante’s sympathies more and keep the spotlight on himself, Ugolino suggests, rhetorically, that Dante would be heartless if, having heard his secret story so far, he didn’t have some compassion on him for what he was going through. Recall that at the beginning of this canto Ugolino told Dante that he would, as it were, weep the words of his sad story. Now, as his sons awaken from their fearsome dreams crying, Ugolino, in another appeal to Dante’s sympathy, suggests that he, Dante, should be weeping if he were at all human. Yet, as we will see, Ugolino has turned to stone. Hollander notes that in the space of 70 lines now, Dante has used 13 different words for weeping and grief. But, of course, Ugolino is getting ahead of himself emotionally. Worse, “cry-able,” things are yet to be recounted.
|↑7||The level of tension reflected here, fed by fear and dread, now comes to a terrible climax. Dreams give way to the reality of starvation with a special horror – the sound of the tower door being nailed shut. To make matters worse, there is no warning, no trial, no formal delivery of a sentence. Just the unmistakable sound of nails being hammered into the door. The inhumanity of this act not only adds to the growing pathos of Ugolino’s narrative, but it also adds to the several animal comparisons Dante has already given us in this place. Frogs croaking, storks clacking, goats butting, dogs barking, a cannibal’s feast of living brains. Recalling the adage that revenge is a dish best served cold, one can imagine Ruggieri’s order: “Nail them in, starve them to death, and don’t give it another thought!”
While his frightened children weep, Ugolino cannot weep, he cannot even feign outrage because he knows he’s guilty. All he can do in his misery is turn to stone – the same stoniness that characterized him as a traitor. Even to Anselmuccio’s inquiry about his father’s well-being, Ugolino remains selfishly mute, selfishly focused on the horror of the slow death that looms before him. Anselm was actually Ugolino’s youngest grandson, about 15 years old at the time. The “-uccio” tacked onto his name is a sign of endearment and affection. Note the irony that Ugolino can refer to him affectionately and yet do nothing for him.
The “slim ray of sunshine” that pierces the gloom of the cell surely represents the light of God, a moment of hope slicing into Ugolino’s hardened heart, where confession and repentance would bring forgiveness and eternal life. But no. He cannot see it. In the ultimate selfishness of sin, all he can see is himself reflected in the innocent faces of his children illuminated by that divine light. The pity in their faces might have saved him. But now, not only is he mute, he has gone deaf and blind. For all the raw courage that he displayed in life, at this moment when he might lift his children’s spirits with some display of strength, or even a prayer, he has nothing to give them. Then in a characteristic Italian gesture, he bites his hand – foreshadowing how he will bite into Ruggieri’s skull and lap at his brains – and soon something more terrible!
Given the piety of the day, it would have been common, as it is today, to give the dying prisoners the consolation of some spiritual accompaniment at the ultimate moment of their lives. All the more wicked is the Archbishop Ruggieri for denying Ugolino at least the invitation to confess and repent, so that in the end he is starved to death both physically and spiritually. Early commentaries like the Ottimo Commento of 1333, suggest that Ugolino did, in fact, ask for a priest but was refused. Acknowledging this, Hollander makes a fascinating suggestion in his commentary: “Had Dante included such a detail, his Ugolino would have seemed a much different man.”
|↑8||Dante’s genius rises to the heights in this scene of unbelievable generosity and self-giving on the part of Ugolino’s children, and it falls to the depths in their father’s abject failure to even try to acknowledge such ultimate love on their part. How could any human father not burst into tears hearing such a tragic request? “What could I say?” is not an acceptable response, except to highlight Ugolino’s continual distancing himself from anything remotely redemptive in this scene. He simply makes himself look calm in order to forestall his children’s further concerns, and then has the gall to tell Dante that they all sat there suffering in silence. The death that will swallow each child one by one will make them heroes and make their father’s death even more terrible than theirs.
Ugolino’s rhetorical outburst here will be echoed by Dante at the end of this story. He may want the stony earth to open and put them out of their misery, but he fails to realize that opening his own stony heart to meet the tender hearts of his children would save him. All through here Dante surely has in mind a passage from Seneca’s tragedy of Thyestes who, unknowingly, ate his children served to him at a banquet by his wicked brother: “Canst thou endure, O Earth, to bear a crime so monstrous? Why dost not burst asunder and plunge thee down to the infernal Stygian shades and, by a huge opening to void chaos, snatch his kingdom with its king away?” (ll.1006-1009).
But we must also take a moment to appreciate the beauty in this scene that Ugolino in his blindness tragically misses – to his eternal regret. Centuries of commentators have pointed to this, and Christian readers can hardly fail to recognize the powerful Eucharistic overtones in this prison scene that beg, in the words of Jesus, to be taken and eaten, because “my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed” (Jn 6:55). When the thin ray of sunlight penetrates the cell, it is like the lighting of a candle at the start of a sacred ritual. There is a congregation of only one, and that is Ugolino. The altar is the floor of the cell, and upon it sits the pure sacrifice of his children’s innocent lives which they willingly offer up in order to literally and spiritually “save” him. The prayer of offering is simply this: “It was you who gave us flesh – here, take it and eat from us.” There is nothing to match the pathos of this moment in Dante’s Inferno, not even the moving story of Francesca da Rimini that caused him to faint at the end of Canto 5. Readers are often fooled, as Dante was, by the “romantic” overtones of Francesca’s story. But here, in his maturity, he presents the starkness of rejection and despair in the face of overwhelming redemption. Here, at the penultimate moment of his life, Ugolino knows he’s going to die, but tragically, willingly, chooses eternal death. Consider at this point the question Jesus puts to his audience in St. Luke’s Gospel: “If a son shall ask bread of any of you that is a father, will you give him a stone?” (11:11). Ugolino gives his children the stone. No soul is in Hell by accident; every one of them is here by choice!
|↑9||Medical descriptions of starvation, as opposed to malnutrition, are not for the faint of heart. The “helpless horror” Ugolino experiences here, watching his sons starve to death one by one is, in many ways, the proximate payment for his treacheries. Soon enough the eternal payment will be collected. Without his mentioning it, that helpless horror was shared by each son as they watched each other die a terrible death. In the end, Ugolino’s literal blindness is almost a blessing because he can no longer see what he has caused. And in keeping with the ritual/sacrificial symbolism noted above, note how Gaddo’s dying words to his father unmistakably echo the opening of Psalm 22 and Jesus’ own dying words: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” (Matthew 27:46).
It takes two more days (eight days in all) for Ugolino to die, but not before he ends his story with an enigmatic statement: “…hunger overpowered my grief.” Scholars and readers alike have struggled over this line. Is he saying that his grief was ended by his hunger – meaning that he died of hunger? Or is he saying that his hunger was stronger than his grief, and he ate from his children’s bodies? For sure, he does not mean to suggest that he died of grief. The fact that Ugolino was eating Ruggieri’s brains when Dante interrupted him to tell this story might lead one to think that he resorted to cannibalism at the end, stacking one horror upon another. Instead, Dante leaves the matter to our imagination while, as we shall see, Ugolino immediately resumes his eternal “meal”! Some of this controversy, of course, centers around Dante’s actual words. In this instance he uses the word digiuno, which means “fasting,” not hunger. In his commentary, W.W. Vernon writes: “Digiuno is not hunger, it is ‘abstinence from food,’ which impairs the strength, rather than the desire for food which impels a man to seize even upon that from which nature revolts.” Musa, on the other hand, offers a brilliant defense of the cannibal theory in his commentary:
“Almost all the early commentators agree with Benvenuto that this line refers to Ugolino’s death—that hunger killed him as grief could not. Several more recent commentators, however (myself among them), see the line as meaning that hunger brought Ugolino to cannibalize his sons. According to Moliterno (1984, 1989), the key to understanding the perfidy and blasphemy perpetrated by Ugolino lies in his degradation of the “natural” functions of the human mouth. The explicit cannibalism of the next lines takes place just a short distance from Lucifer’s giant mandibles and eternally perverts the positive eating function of the mouth, degrading humanity to the level of fang and claw. It operates as an infernal parody of community and communion, which is the perfect expression of the mouth’s functions. Moreover, Ugolino’s speech inverts the communicative function of the human mouth in an implicit parody of the Pater Noster, the communion prayer which both thanks God for his paternal care and affirms human solidarity through mutual forgiveness. Thus, far from being a father much wronged, Ugolino is depicted as a rapacious monster, the ultimate emblem of politics as infanticide.”
Yet, we do know from historical records that five dead bodies were removed from the tower – one suggests that they were taken away and burned, another tells us that they were buried in a nearby church, and another notes having seen chains on their legs. No one, at the time, mentions what would have been sensational – that there was evidence of chewing on the bodies. Dante plays his cards close to his vest. In the early 2000s, a Pisan anthropologist discovered the five bodies in a church that are most likely Ugolino and his sons and grandsons. Tests suggest that they may not have actually starved to death, but may have died from several months of malnourishment. Some signs on the skeletons seem to indicate that Ugolino may have sustained a blow to the head, but it is not certain that it was fatal. And there is tenuous evidence that some or all the boys may have been killed as an act of mercy.
A final note: Dante’s Commedia has generated a virtual ocean of great art on almost every canto in the poem – this one included, and a search for images on the Internet will reward one with enjoyment and much food for the imagination.
|↑10||As far as a contrapasso is concerned here, Ruggieri stopped food coming to Ugolino and his sons and starved them to death. Now, he is Ugolino’s “food” for all eternity. Again, Musa’s insight here is worth pondering: “For all eternity, Ugolino punishes himself and Ruggieri by repeating the horrifying circumstances of his imprisonment, punishing his and Ruggieri’s sins of brutality with brutality….Ugolino both consumes and is consumed by Ruggieri because of his sins of hatred and brutality.”|
|↑11||The ghastly “secret” story of Ugolino and the circumstances of his death comes to a close here. Both the now-public story is joined with what was, until now, unknown. But this full revelation elicits a strong apostrophe from Dante the Poet, who uses both his role as a poet and his creation, the Commedia, to condemn the city of Pisa – not for punishing Ugolino – which he deserved, but for killing his innocent children. In the Poet’s estimation, after hearing Ugolino’s story, Pisa now shares an infamous reputation for hideous crimes with ancient Thebes, and it should be wiped off the face of the earth in order not to taint the rest of Italy – where honorable people say “sì.” To this effect, Dante wishes that the mouth of the Arno be blocked by the two islands that lay off the coast of Pisa, thus drowning the city and its wicked inhabitants. He has in mind here another famous curse – this one against Egypt in Lucan’s Pharsalia (VIII:827ff):
“What curse can I invoke upon that ruthless land in reward for so great a crime? May Nile reverse his waters and be stayed in the region where he rises; may the barren fields crave winter rains; and may all the soil break up into the crumbling sands of Ethiopia.”
Recall how he called for the destruction of the city of Pistoia at the beginning of Canto 25 after his encounter with Vanni Fucci, who made the “figs” at God.
|↑12||Very quickly, Dante and Virgil have move on into the third region of Cocytus called Ptolomea where betrayers of their guests and friends are punished. Here, as Dante describes them, the sinners’ pains are increased as their heads look upward and their tears freeze within their eye sockets. Earlier, we encountered sinners with their heads down, and later with their heads facing forward. The fact that these sinners can’t cry because their tears freeze immediately is clever, following immediately on the “hardened” Ugolino, who couldn’t cry over the plight and pleas of his innocent children. In his commentary, E. H. Plumptre captures the symbolism here: “The blindness of the ice-closed eyes is obviously the symbol of the hardening of feeling and of conscience which the traitor’s act brings with it as its natural consequence, and therefore its punishment.”|
|↑13||As Virgil indicates, soon enough Dante the Pilgrim and the reader will have an answer to this question. It’s cleverly placed here to raise a growing sense of anticipation. And we have a brief glimpse of Dante the meteorologist. In his time, winds were thought to be caused by differences of temperature in the atmosphere, particularly by the action of the sun’s heat. Here, of course, we are not only deep within the earth, but it’s relatively dark, and we’re walking on ice – all of which should preclude wind. Symbolically, of course, one might expect all manner of cold winds in Hell, symbolizing the turning of the soul from the warm saving light of God’s love to the coldness of sin – particularly in this place where the sin is treachery. Looking back on the journey, this isn’t the first time that Dante has not “gotten it right” the first time (e.g., the Giants were “towers” in Canto 31). Recalling the great wind manifesting the outpouring of God’s Spirit in the Acts of the Apostles, Virgil’s “wait and see” portends something equally great as the cause of the wind here.|
|↑14||Dante and Virgil are overheard as they walk along the ice, and a sinner mistakenly identifies them as being among the worst of sinners – perhaps newly arrived and on their way to Judecca. Since they are at the third region of Hell’s lowest circle, there isn’t much farther they can go, but Dante takes advantage of the remaining space left to their journey and subtly “participates” in the sin here by cleverly tricking (betraying?) the sinner into revealing his identity. This is also a devious (treacherous) way to suggest a contrapasso: those who betrayed their friends and guests and are thus frozen into the icy lake are forced to ask (befriend?) those who pass by for help in relieving their suffering.
Now that we are virtually at the bottom of Hell, it may be worth pausing for a moment to review or reconsider exactly how the damned actually get from Minos, the judge in Canto 5, to their assigned places in one of the nine circles. In Canto 5:15, we read that, after hearing and judging each sinner, Minos “throws,” “hurls,” “casts,” “whirls,” “flings,” “pitches,” or “casts” each sinner down. However, Dante’s exact words for this action are rather opaque, and translators choose many different verbs to render what seems in the end to be a rather mechanical process. There’s hearing, judging, and then…some form of hurling down. But Dante never tells us how that works. With the central well of Hell generally somewhere within view at various times throughout the journey, one might expect to see sinners falling down within it from above. But we don’t seem to be told much about this. Although, in Canto 31:94 Master Adamo, in describing how he arrived in the bolgia of the counterfeiters uses the word piovvi (rained), as in “I rained down into this ditch.” In the end, Dante seems to he happy enough to leave this detail to the reader’s imagination.
|↑15||Alberigo di Ugolino dei Manfredi was a native of Faenza, the Manfredi family being the Guelf lords of that city. Late in his life he also became one of the Jovial Friars, two of whom we met in Canto 23 among the hypocrites, and he was alive in 1300, the year in which Dante sets his Poem. In 1286, Alberigo and his younger brother, Manfredo, got into a violent argument, during which Manfredo struck him in the face. Apologies were made and calm was restored. Later, to celebrate their reconciliation, Alberigo invited Manfredo and his son, Alberghetto, to a banquet honoring the occasion. However, he had not forgotten the injury to his person and to his pride. When, during the meal, Alberigo called for the fruit – the signal – assassins rushed from behind the drapery and murdered his guests there at the table. With a bit of black humor, Alberigo actually jokes with Dante as he identifies himself. In those days, figs were cheap, but dates were costly, so “To get a date for a fig” meant to get more than you bargained for. Deservedly so: the Ottimo Commento reports that Alberigo did the same thing a year earlier! Musa adds: “Alberigo was notorious for his brutal cynicism and treachery, and according to Lana, the expression ‘bring the fruit’ became proverbial as an allusion to treachery and murder.”|
|↑16||Alberigo’s quick explanation of something totally unexpected in Hell thus far indicates how much of a hurry he’s in for Dante to fulfill his earlier promise to remove the ice from his eyes. As noted above, Fra Alberigo was definitely alive in the year 1300, the year Dante sets the Poem. There is further documentary evidence of a will signed in Ravenna in 1302, and a few indications that he died in 1307. So, he was certainly “alive” when Dante encountered him here at the bottom of Hell – thus Dante’s confusion, and that of Alberigo, for that matter. One has to admit that of all the clever, unique, and fascinating punishments we’ve encountered in the Inferno this is the most unique, as Alberigo claims. Is it any wonder that he called Dante and Virgil “evil souls,” guilty of “terrible sins” when he saw them?
To murder members of one’s own family, as Alberigo the traitor admits, is such a terrible form of treachery that, once committed, the soul of the murderer dies and drops to the bottom of Hell forever! But the body of that murderer continues to live – possessed by a devil – until Atropos determines the time of its natural death. Atropos was one of the three Fates in classical mythology. The first of the three was Clotho, who held the distaff on which the thread of life was wound. Lachesis was the second Fate. She spun the thread of life that was then wound onto the distaff. And the third Fate was Atropos who, with her scissors, cut the thread.
Over the centuries, some commentators have questioned Dante’s orthodoxy in proposing such a bold (heretical?) punishment, while others find a place for it within Christian doctrine. But Dante is a Poet, we must remember, and when he puts theological considerations into poetical language they take on fascinating qualities the purist might not see (or agree with). Without a doubt, Dante doesn’t shy away from making his companion, the reader, cringe for a moment here and (re-)consider what a terrible sin treachery is. At the same time, there is a thread of scriptural evidence for what he proposes in the Gospel of John (13:2, 27) where we read first that “the devil had already induced Judas, son of Simon the Iscariot, to hand [Jesus] over,” and then that “Satan entered him .”
Like other traitors before him in this ninth circle, Alberigo “betrays” the identity of another nearby traitor, Branca D’Oria. Branca was a rich and powerful Ghibelline of Genoa who committed an identical treachery to Alberigo’s. In 1275, he invited his father-in-law, Michel Zanche, and several of his companions to a dinner during which he had them all butchered! Branca, who lived into his nineties, “died” four years after Dante, in 1325. One wonders what he may have thought about reading Dante’s Inferno and finding himself featured at the bottom of Hell. (Michel Zanche was mentioned in Canto 22 as being down under the boiling pitch talking with a friend about Sardinia.
|↑17||One can imagine Dante’s surprise and disbelief on hearing that someone he knows is actually here in Hell already. And Alberigo seems just as confused about his own status. Though, as we’ll see, he seems to know about a few others. Note that Dante mentions nothing spiritual about Branca. He simply lists a series of physical, material things that a soul-less body might do. One might almost think of Ugolino as similarly soul-less in his inability to show any emotion or offer any comfort to his innocent and dying children.|
|↑18||It seems that all three traitors arrived in Hell at different times. The murderers, Branca D’Oria and his nephew accomplice arrived first, followed by Michel Zanche whom they murdered. Some commentators suggest that this difference in time is due to the fact that their souls may have dropped to Hell the moment they conceived of their heinous crime, not when they actually committed it. So, the murderers are here in Ptolomea along with Friar Alberigo, and Michel Zanche, the murdered man, who was a grafter, was sent to the boiling pitch in the fifth bolgia above.
All of these men, of course, end up in Hell. While one might be inclined to think – and probably rightly so – that the murderers got what they deserved, the murdered man, though he was a mortal sinner and deserving of Hell, might have had a later conversion of heart and sought forgiveness for his crimes if he had lived longer. We will encounter this issue early in the Purgatorio. There are sobering stories from Dante’s time, and later, of murderers who knew that their victims had committed mortal sins and deliberately killed them before they had a chance to confess so that their souls would go to Hell. All of this points to the fragility and tenuous nature of human existence, of sin and forgiveness, of Hell and Heaven – a theme that runs all through both the Inferno and the Purgatorio.
|↑19||Ouch! A very different Dante here! But he’s encountering traitors all across the ice lake of Cocytus, and his betrayal of his promise – an act of righteous indignation – is deserved by Alberigo. In an interesting contrast, the traitor Ugolino refused to see what was right in front of him the whole time of his imprisonment. Yet a worse traitor, Alberigo, wants to see, but Dante keeps him in the dark.
In her commentary at this point, Dorothy Sayers writes about the loud “chorus of indignant comment about Dante’s behavior…,” and there are definitely differences of opinion about what Dante does here. But much of this might also be attributed to a misunderstanding of how Hell works. Souls in Hell are precisely where Dante finds them because they have chosen to be there by means of their sin. Having lost of the “good of the intellect” (Canto 3: 19), they forever see themselves in light of their sin. It is no longer possible for them to feel any sense of good. This is sometimes difficult for readers who are overcome with pity at various points as was Dante. In Canto 16:15, for example, Virgil curbs Dante’s affection for the three noble sodomites but still urges him to be courteous to them. Yet we must recall Virgil’s rebuke in Canto 20:28 where he tells Dante: “In this place pity lives when it’s quite dead! Who could be more wicked than he who feels sad seeing God’s Divine Judgment?”
Finally, we want to note that Dante never tells Alberigo that he’s actually alive. If he had, the sinner would surely have refused to share any of the startling information that makes the latter part of this canto almost as interesting as the first. Not only that, Dante would have reported that Alberigo was a fool in divulging so much information about himself and others, which, of course, he does! Furthermore, since he is still “alive,” he’s actually betrayed himself!
|↑20||Dante’s crossing from Antenora to Ptolomea was marked by a powerful apostrophe against Pisa. His crossing now from Ptolomea to Judecca is marked by another apostrophe – this time against Genoa. And recall, as noted above, his apostrophe against Pistoia at the beginning of Canto 25. As a matter of fact, his outcry that he should find one of Genoa’s great citizens here virtually mirrors his outcry at the beginning of Canto 26 where he expresses his chagrin at finding five notable Florentines among the thieves in Hell. Add to this Dante’s shock in finding one of Geno a’s leading citizens (Branca D’Oria) in company with Romagna’s worst sinner – Friar Alberigo. Why did our mothers warn us about “bad companions?”|