Week 8: Dante's Inferno

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Canto 32-33: Ugolino

Reading time: 5 minutes. Word count: 900 words.

Dante sees two spirits trapped together, one gnawing the head of the other one. This is Count Ugolino of the city of Pisa. In 1288, Ugolino made a pact with the Archbishop Ruggieri but the Archbishop betrayed him and had Ugolino imprisoned in a tower with his sons and grandsons. The keys to their prison were thrown into the Arno river (which runs through both Pisa and Florence). They had no food of any kind: the tower became known as the Torre della Fame, the "Tower of Famine." As Ugolino tells the story, his children offered their bodies up as food. He refused this horrifying offer, and he watched as they died, one by one. Some people have interpreted Ugolino's words to mean that he finally broken down and ate from their corpses. That is not clear - but what is very clear is that Ruggieri, who had starved Ugolino to death in the tower, now becomes his food in hell.

Ugolino and Ruggieri

I saw two spirits frozen in a hole, so close together that the one head capped the other, and the uppermost set his teeth into the other, as bread is chewed, out of hunger, there where the back of the head joins the nape. Tydeus gnawed the head of Menalippus, no differently, out of rage, than this one the skull and other parts.

I said: 'O you, who, in such a brutal way, inflict the mark of your hatred, on him, whom you devour, tell me why: on condition that, if you complain of him with reason, I, knowing who you are, and his offence, may repay you still in the world above, if the tongue I speak with is not withered.'

Count Ugolino's story

That sinner raised his mouth from the savage feast, wiping it on the hair, of the head he had stripped behind. Then he began: 'You wish me to renew desperate grief, that wrings my heart at the very thought, before I even tell of it. But if my words are to be the seed, that bears fruit, in the infamy, of the traitor whom I gnaw, you will see me speak and weep together. I do not know who you are, nor by what means you have come down here, but when I hear you, you seem to me, in truth, a Florentine.

'You must know that I am Count Ugolino, and this is the Archbishop Ruggieri. Now I will tell you why I am a neighbour such as this to him. It is not necessary to say that, confiding in him, I was taken, through the effects of his evil schemes, and afterwards killed. But what you cannot have learnt, how cruel my death was, you will hear: and know if he has injured me.

'A narrow hole inside that tower, which is called Famine, from my death, and in which others must yet be imprisoned, had already shown me several moons through its opening, when I slept an evil sleep that tore the curtain of the future for me. This man seemed to me the lord, and master, chasing the wolf and its whelps, on Monte di San Guiliano, that blocks the view of Lucca from the Pisans. He had the Gualandi, Sismondi and Lanfranchi running with him, with hounds, slender, keen, and agile.

'After a short chase the father and his sons seemed weary to me, and I thought I saw their flanks torn by sharp teeth. When I woke, before dawn, I heard my sons, who were with me, crying in their sleep, and asking for food. You are truly cruel if you do not sorrow already at the thought of what my heart presaged: and if you do not weep, what do you weep at?

'They were awake now, and the hour nearing, at which our food used to be brought to us, and each of us was anxious from dreaming, when below I heard the door of the terrible tower locked up: at which I gazed into the faces of my sons, without saying a word. I did not weep: I grew like stone inside: they wept: and my little Anselm said to me: 'Father you stare so, what is wrong?'

But I shed no tears, and did not answer, all that day, or the next night, till another sun rose over the world. When a little ray of light was sent into the mournful gaol, and I saw in their four faces, the aspect of my own, I bit my hands from grief. And they, thinking that I did it from hunger, suddenly stood, and said: 'Father, it will give us less pain, if you gnaw at us: you put this miserable flesh on us, now strip it off, again.'

'Then I calmed myself, in order not to make them more unhappy: that day and the next we all were silent. Ah, solid earth, why did you not open? When we had come to the fourth day, Gaddo threw himself down at my feet, saying: 'My father, why do you not help me?' There he died, and even as you see me, I saw the three others fall one by one, between the fifth and sixth days: at which, already blind, I took to groping over each of them, and called out to them for three days, when they were dead: then fasting, at last, had power to overcome grief.'

'When he had spoken this, he seized the wretched skull again with his teeth, which were as strong as a dog's on the bone, his eyes distorted.

[... Virgil and Dante now reach the Judecca, in the depths of the ninth circle, where Satan himself is found. ...]

Questions. Make sure you can answer these questions about what you just read:

  • what was Ugolino doing when Dante first saw him?
  • what did the sons of Ugolino do when they realized there was no food to eat?
  • what happened to Ugolino's sons?

Source: Dante's Inferno, translated by A.S. Kline (2000). Website: Dante and Others.

Modern Languages MLLL-2003. World Literature: Frametales. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:48 PM