The Cannibal Who Inspired Dante

Count Ugolino della Gherardesca was an Italian politician, nobleman and naval commander accused of treason. In Dante’s Inferno (specifically in Canto XXXIII, the level of hell where the traitors were punished), Ugolino, along with his sons are condemned to death by starvation in Muda Tower by Archbishop Ruggeri. According to Dante, Ugolino becomes mad driven by dire hunger causing him to eat the head of Archbishop Ruggeri – and the bodies of his own children.

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 intrigue and power, Ugolino fell from grace in 1288 when Pisa was hit by a dramatic increase in prices, resulting in food shortages and riots. During one of these riots, Ugolino killed a nephew of the Ruggeri Archbishop, turning the latter against him.

On July 1, 1288, Ugolino and his followers were attacked by a band of armed Ghibellines. Ugolino withdrew into the town hall and repelled all attacks. Archbishop Ruggeri accused Ugolino of treachery, which aroused the citizens and caused them to wreak havoc in the city. 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 grandsons Nino and Anselmuccio, were detained in the Muda, a tower belonging to the Gualandi family.

In 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. According to the great Italian poet, 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 Dante was indeed mistaken, as tests proved Ugolino did not eat his descendants. In fact, the poor soul was not 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. It seems that the truth about Count Ugolino della Gherardesca and his final meal will forever remain a mystery.

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