Gustave Doré, Canto XXXIII
We’re recapping the Inferno. Read along! This week: a Sophie’s Choice in medieval Pisa.
Here we meet the last great sinner of the Inferno: Count Ugolino. Like the others, he’s a historical figure remembered today chiefly for his appearance in Dante’s poem; and in spite of everything he confesses in these few verses, we inevitably pity him.
At the end of canto 32, Dante finds Ugolino gnawing violently at the head of another sinner, Archbishop Ruggieri. Ugolino tells Dante that he will describe his own crime, and allow Dante to determine which of the two of them is the greater sinner.
Ugolino, a magistrate, was charged with betraying the city of Pisa—he gave three of their fortresses to a neighboring town—and for this he was locked, along with his four children, in a tower there (not the one you’re thinking of). One night, he dreamed that he and his young children appeared as wolves; they were hunted and torn to shreds. He awakes to find his children crying in hunger for food, but when mealtime in the tower arrives, Ugolino hears the doors being nailed shut.
He understands that he and his children will starve to death. Seeing them in agony, he begins to gnaw at his own hands, and his sons say, “Father, we would suffer less if you would feed on us.” Ugolino composes himself and watches his children die slowly of hunger over the course of the fourth, fifth, and sixth days. For two days, Ugolino, who has gone blind from hunger, wails over his children, speaking to them as though they were still alive. And then he speaks one of the most haunting and also perhaps most memorable lines in the Inferno: “Then fasting had more power than grief.” This line has been interpreted variously; some believe it means that he continued to starve, whereas others contend that Ugolino ate his dead children.
After Ugolino speaks these words, he immediately resumes gnawing on Ruggieri in shameful hunger. But Dante has placed Ugolino in the ninth circle, among the traitors, which means he’s damned for his betrayal, not for eating his children. Dante dedicates several likes to chastising Ugolino’s city for punishing the count’s children. It’s a strange break in the poem—seldom does Dante the poet, in his poet’s voice, openly decry the actions of a particular person, let alone an entire government.
As Dante moves on, he sees sinners hanging upside down with their eyes frozen shut: “their first tears become a crust that like a crystal visor fills the cups beneath the eyebrows.” Dante promises one of the afflicted that he will wipe away his tears if the sinner tells him who he is. And once Dante learns that the sinner is Fra Alberigo, Dante casually walks away, breaking his promise—sort of a jerk move, if you ask me. Alberigo had his houseguests assassinated during an argument. Dante has clearly taken a page out of Virgil’s book, and has taunted this sinner after kicking another in the head.
Something spooky happens—Dante feels a wind and wonders where it comes from, since there is no God in hell, and conventional wisdom at the time held that wind was caused by the sun and God. But Virgil tries to change the subject, perhaps because the wind is coming from Satan, and after all, it would be pretty horrifying to learn that you are about to go meet Satan. Dante, Virgil says, will soon discover the source of the wind himself …
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Alexander Aciman is the author of Twitterature. He has written for the New York Times, Tablet, the Wall Street Journal, and TIME. Follow him on Twitter at @acimania.
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Artist: Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1827-1875) was an outstanding exponent of 19th-century academic sculpture, bringing to public commissions a lively individuality - sometimes too much individuality for his own good. His masterpiece, La Danse, commissioned for the new Paris Opera, was reviled as an "ignoble saturnalia" when unveiled in 1869.
Carpeaux is no Rodin. His art is by no stretch of the imagination an equivalent to the new painting of Manet and his followers, and yet he was pushing for a realism and vitality in genres that had become cold and formal. In portrait sculptures such as The Imperial Prince and His Dog Nero (1865), Carpeaux is a flowing, lively, three-dimensional Van Dyck.
Subject: In the 32nd canto of his poem Inferno, Dante Alighieri describes how he came across, deep in hell, two heads, all that was visible of two sinners trapped in ice, one chewing on the other's skull "and the other things". In the next canto, the gnawing sinner reveals he is Count Ugolino, and the other Archbishop Ruggieri. In July 1288, the duplicitous Pisan Archbishop Ruggieri imprisoned Ugolino, himself a double-dealing politician, with his two sons and two (or three) grandsons in a tower in Pisa, known afterwards as Hunger; they probably died in March 1289.
In Dante, Ugolino has good reason to chew on the archbishop's head. He and his sons were starved to death. Seeing him gnaw his hands with rage, the sons innocently begged that he eat them. One by one, the boys died. Dante leaves it to the reader's imagination what happened next: "Then hunger proved more powerful than grief."
This punishment - of Ugolino for his cannibalism, of Ruggieri for his cruelty - makes it clear what horrors transpired in the tower. The desire for vengeance is its own hell in the image of Ugolino chewing on his persecutor's skull. Yet Dante himself shares Ugolino's vengefulness, concluding the tale with an invocation to the river Arno to flood shameful Pisa.
Distinguishing features: In 18th- and 19th-century art, Ugolino is a man oppressed by power, like the prisoners in the Bastille; he is noble, tragic, utterly empathetic in his suffering. In Carpeaux's sculpture, he is a Romantic hero. His chin rests in his hand in melancholic thought, like the figure of Lorenzo de'Medici on his tomb by Michelangelo, but he is gnawing on his fingers, surrounded by the dying boys whose suffering drives him to distraction. Carpeaux has illustrated the moment when the boys see Ugolino chew his hands in rage and believe it is from hunger, the moment when they plead that he eat them - the moment when they put this fatal possibility in his mind.
This is also a study in the tense depiction of an intertwined group. Carpeaux began it at the traditional training ground of French artists, the Villa Medici in Rome. As well as the Medici tombs, Ugolino's pose imitates one of the damned in Michelangelo's Last Judgment, not to mention the definitive image of the sublime in classical sculpture, the Laocoon group in the Vatican.
Inspirations and influences: William Blake and Joshua Reynolds made Ugolino an icon of humanity born free but everywhere in chains. Rodin sculpted him in his final madness, groping for his dead sons. The story still has resonance: Seamus Heaney included a translation in his 1979 anthology Field Work, which you can't help reading as about communal hatred, the endless cycle of violence.
Where is it? Musée d'Orsay, Paris.