‘Father our pain’, they said,
‘Will lessen if you eat us you are the one
Who clothed us with this wretched flesh: we plead
For you to be the one who strips it away’.
… 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
(Canto XXXIII, ln.)
Count Ugolino della Gherardesca was an Italian politician, nobleman and naval commander accused of treason. In Dante’s Inferno (Canto XXXIII, the level of hell where the traitors were punished) he has been described eating the skull of Ruggeri Archbishop, the man who condemned him to die for starving in Muda Tower. According to Dante, during his imprisonment along with his children, he was forced to eat them with great pain, driven by hunger.
Ugolino was born in Pisa into the della Gherardesca family, a Ghibellines clan in Pisa. In the 13th century, Italy was beset by the strife of two parties, the Ghibellines and the Guelphs. The parties had come to be associated with the two universal powers: the Ghibellines sided with the Emperor, while the Guelphs sided with the Pope. Pisa was controlled by the Ghibellines, while most of the surrounding cities were controlled by the Guelphs. Ugolino was appointed governor of Sardinia in 1252 and remained in this position until 1259, when the island was conquered by Genoa. After his term in Sardinia, Ugolino inherited the title of a Count of Donoratico. After a life of intrigues, wars and power, Ugolino felt in disgrace in 1288 when Pisa was hit by a dramatic increase in prices, resulting in food shortage and riots. During one of these riots, Ugolino killed a nephew of the Ruggeri Archbishop, turning the latter against him. On 1 July 1288 Ugolino and his followers were attacked by a band of armed Ghibellines. Ugolino withdrew into the town hall and repelled all attacks. Ruggeri Archbishop, accused Ugolino of treachery, aroused the citizens. When the town hall was set on fire, Ugolino surrendered. While his illegitimate son was killed, Ugolino himself – together with his sons Gaddo and Uguccione and his grand-sons Nino and Anselmuccio were detained in the Muda, a tower belonging to the Gualandi family.
In March 1289, on orders of the Archbishop, the keys were thrown into the Arno river and the prisoners left to starve. Their corpses were buried in the cloister of Saint Francis Church and remained there until 1902, when they were exhumed. The historical details of the episode are still involved in some obscurity, and although mentioned by Villani and other writers, it owes its fame entirely to Dante’s Divine Comedy.
According to Dante, the prisoners were slowly starved to death and before dying Ugolino’s children begged him to eat their bodies.
In 2002, paleoanthropologist Francesco Mallegni conducted DNA testing on the recently excavated bodies of the Ugolino and his children. Mallegni found that Ugolino not only did not eat his descendants, but that he was hardly in a condition to eat anything at all. However in 2008, Paola Benigni, superintendent to the Archival Heritage of Tuscany, disputed Mallegni’s findings in an article, claiming that the documents assigning the burial to Ugolino and his descendants were Fascist-era forgeries.
In Inferno Dante depicted him eating the skull of Ruggeri Archibishop.
Wikipedia, Dante’s Inferno