Cannibal(?) Count Ugolino

The world has waited for centuries for modern forensic science to pardon or convict Count Ugolino della Ghererdesca, who was accused of one of the more heinous crimes in Italian history.  The alleged crime took place in the Pisa of 1289, but we all know that Italians and art and literary historians take a longer view.

The known facts are as follows.  The Count was a leader of Pisa's Guelph (pro-Papal) faction in the seemingly interminable internecine battles that consumed all the northern Italian cities in those days.  Ugolino had earlier conspired with the local Archbishop, Ruggieri degli Ubaldini, to come to power in the predominantly Ghibelline (pro-Holy Roman Emperor) city.  But, as might have been expected in times of constantly shifting alliances, and with a change of Popes, Ruggieri had switched sides leaving Ugolino undefended.  The Guelphs were routed, and Ugolino, along with two sons and two grandsons (nephews, in some versions of the story), were imprisoned in Gualandi Tower, one of the medieval towers overlooking Piazza dei Cavalieri, which is still the central Piazza of Pisa.  On orders from the Archbishop, they were all starved to death, and, since then, the tower has been called Torre della Fame, the Tower of Hunger.

Exactly what happened in the tower has never really been known, but it wasn't long before rumors surfaced that, to save his own life, Count Ugolino had devoured the younger men as they died one by one. Dante, in Canto 33 of his Inferno ( meets the Count in the lowest level of hell and discusses the case.  According to Dante, Ugolino explains his presence in this deepest pit:  he admitted that he had eaten his kin, having allowed his own desire to survive to overcome any gustatory scruples.  Dante finds Ugolino gnawing on a skull, and Ugolino says that it is the skull of Ruggieri, the erstwhile friend who had betrayed and imprisoned him.  Based on his own literary admission, Count Ugolino has come down through history as the Cannibal Count.

But now, more than seven hundred years later, he may have been exonerated.  In May of 2001, the head of the University of Pisa Anthropology Department, Professor Francesco Mallegni, found, in a hidden chamber below the Gherardesca family chapel in the Church of St. Francis on that same Piazza dei Cavalieri, five skeletons and a scroll identifying the remains as those of the Ugolino and the others.  The skull of the oldest individual showed evidence of a heavy blow while still alive -- he may have died from the wound.  All five skeletons showed signs of malnutrition.  In January of this year, the bones were turned over to forensic scientists who investigated, using modern methods, to try to sort out the legend.  First, they matched the DNA with that of living members of the Gherardesca family.  If that failed, there would be no point in going further.  The bones seemed to match modern day Gherardesca DNA, and more detailed study was made, especially of the ribs.  By examining traces of rib bone marrow, scientists can tell, even after centuries, whether meat was consumed in the final days and months of an individual's life.  More importantly, they can determine the animal species from which the meat came.  Similar tests have recently proved that ancient native Americans in the American Southwest were anthropophages -- people eaters.

Living members of Ugolino's family cooperated with the investigation in the hopes of removing the stigma of Dante's allegations from the family name, and now Professor Mallegni has announced that his findings exonerate the count.

It is unlikely, however, that Ugolino's bad reputation will evaporate:  other researchers will want to see Mallegni's data.  In addition, too many works of art and literary references have been based on the story.  Auguste Rodin created a gripping free-standing sculpture and a group of figures in his "Gates of Hell" depicting Ugolino crawling over the bodies of his dead children.  Both are in the Rodin Museum in Paris.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has the Jean-Baptist Carpeaux "Ugolino and His Sons", and  a good plaster cast of the Carpeaux Ugolino is on the Paris Musee d'Orsay in Paris.  As a curatorial joke, the Met has displayed the original next to the snack bar in its Petrie European Sculpture Court.

The church of St. Francis and the Gherardesca chapel are open the same hours as most Italian churches -- 9 to 12:30 (or when the sacristan decides to go to lunch) and a few hours before sunset, depending on the season.  The Tower of Hunger was combined with a neighboring medieval tower (into what is now called the Palazzo dell'Orologio) during Giorgio Vasari's renewal of Piazza dei Cavalieri, which was completed in 1607.  The Palazzo now houses the libraries of sciences and letters of the Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa, a small University.  It is not usually open to the public

Internet Links:
The Dante citation link above is:

Media coverage of the discovery of the bones:

Rodin Ugolinos: (free standing) (Gates of Hell)

The Carpeaux Ugolino: and    Note that the Carpeaux Ugolino statue is in the Metropolitan Museum's Petrie Court of European Statuary -- right next to the snack bar.