Slow Tuscany - travel stories of Tuscany

Tuscany according to Damiano Andreini - in your own time
Travelling towards...
Pisa Florence Lucca Siena Grosseto Arezzo Massa-Carrara 100% Tuscany Accommodation

In Viaggio verso...








Pistoia & Prato


Tuscany - 100%


 Slow Tuscany > Tuscany > Pisa > Count Ugolino
Count Ugolino: «It was the fast more than the pain...»

Damiano Andreini

Count Ugolino
Usually the space of these articles is never concerned with topical news, but this is the case in which the opportunity is too appetizing (excuse me the phrase…): just a few days ago, in the XIII century Church of San Francesco, in Pisa, some of the most mysterious and debated remains of our history are being exhumed.

They are the bones of the Count Ugolino della Gherardesca, supposed to be buried there since 1289, together with the bones of other four people - his children and nephews. In the history, the story of the Count Ugolino is immediately connected to the fall of the Pisa naval strength in the XXXIII century, when its fleet was at his highest splendor and it was present in all the Mediterranean ports, from Provence up to the farthest and richest Palestinian towns. From the half of the century his supremacy was threatened by the near powers of Genoa (the second naval power), Florence (just at the beginning of his splendorous growth) and Lucca. In 1284 Genoa defeated the fleet of Pisa, thereby driving it to an absolute decline. At that time, the Count Ugolino, who is already 70, is at the head of a tenth of galleys at the mouth of the Arno river, to prevent Genoa's direct attack to Pisa.

The successful outcome of his defense gains him the appointment of "Podestà" from Pisa town, whose citizens acclaim him as the "saver of their land". Nevertheless Pisa is largely weakened. He therefore decides to give some castles to the two close rival powers - Florence and Lucca, so as to maintain quite their aggressive intentions. The event is badly welcomed by a few rich families in Pisa, who take the opportunity to accuse him of betrayal and take him, after his removal, to the tower of Cavalieri Square, where he will be closed into, together with his children and nephews (just at a walk from the famous Leaning Tower).

Once the doors are crudely closed from outside, the Count Ugolino and his heirs will starve inside up to death. Most of us may have forgotten the historical aspect; but the other story, the one nobody could forget - struck with terror and aversion - tells of a further event: Ugolino, during the last days of his life, would feed himself on his children's own meat….. I remember that when I was a child, my friends and I always were afraid of walking by the "Tower of the Hunger". For seven centuries Tuscan children have been thinking to Ugolino della Gherardesca like to the symbol of cruel monstrousness. How much truth is there? Dante Alighieri, in his "divine" Commedia, tells about his meeting with Ugolino in the deepest meanders of the Inferno (Inferno, XXXII - XXXIII cantos) while Ugolino gnaws the skull of his political enemy in life, the Archbishop of Pisa, Ruggieri, who contributed to make him shut up into the tower.

Such is his eternal torment, but at the arrival of Dante, he starts telling his story, his sin (the betrayal of Pisa) and the latest tragic events of his life: in the extreme filial love they have for their father, who bites his hands for the forthcoming death, the children, who think he is suffering hunger, offer themselves to be eaten by him. Ugolino, to avoid further desperation to them, will no more express his pain and withdraws into his sufferings. After a few days, the children die of starvation, one after the other. The tragic event, that Ugolino tells to Dante, ends with these words: "poscia, più che 'l dolor poté il digiuno" ("then, it was the fast more than the pain").

According to many people, this last verse would hint to a supposed act of cannibalism, the interpretation transmitted since ever. After said that, Ugolino no longer talks to Dante and gnaws again the skull of his adversary in life, the Archbishop Ruggieri. Reading again and again the verses of the Inferno, that Dante dedicated to his meeting with Ugolino, I feel that in the words of Count Ugolino a strong and despairing tenderness towards his children is rather present, while looking at them dying in an awful and unjust way ("… I have been calling them for days after they died…").

Dante himself, who was contemporary with the Count, appears to feel a deep commiseration to those young people and he only blames their father for betraying Pisa, in giving the castles to the enemy ("aver tradito te [Pisa], delle castella [cedute a città nemiche]"), therefore he believes he may have been condemned to the Inferno just for this reason. "più che il dolore, poté il digiuno…" is the verse that the Count pronounces to mean his death, which arrived, alas, only when the starvation was so stronger than pain, that he had no more strength to call his children.

On the other hand, the torment suffered by his rival Ruggieri is certainly worse than his own: as Dante says, Ruggieri was really responsible of a true mean act, so that he was to pay for ever for the heavier consequences. It is to be noticed an eventual hint: is an almost 80 years old man of the XIII century able to chew something harder than a thin soup? Rather, much more easier for rats: they yes, which have strong and sharp teeth… All in all, waiting to know the outcome of the on going exhumation in Pisa, I think we can have again our calm sleeps.

Damiano Andreini
About me Itinerary Characters Events Art Flavours Proverbs
This work is protected by Copyzero Copyzero © Copyright Damiano Andreini. Any reproduction of part of whole of the text and photos is not permitted without the express permission of the author