In Western classic literature, a well recognized masterpiece is a work titled, The Divine Comedy (also known as The Inferno). In it, Dante Alighieri gave us an imaginative view into what awaits those sinners condemned to the fires of Hell. In Dante’s depiction of Hell there are varying degrees of damnation for varying crimes/sins.
During the 12th and 13th Centuries, much of Europe and especially Italy was rife with civil unrest. The opposing dominant factions usually represented the Pope, on one side and the Crown or local politicos on the other.
Count Ugolino della Gheradesca was a petty despot who ruled over Pisa in the 12th Century. For the crime of treason, he was sentenced to a most cruel and barbaric punishment. He, along with his sons and grandsons were imprisoned together. Legend tells us that Ugolino eventually ate his own children. In Dante’s “Inferno” (Circle 9, Cantos 33), the story says that they all starved to death after the door to their cell was nailed shut and the key was thrown into the River Arno.
From Wikipedia we learn that, “According to Dante, the prisoners were slowly starved to death and before dying Ugolino’s children begged him to eat their bodies.
Ugolino’s statement that hunger proved stronger than grief, has been interpreted in two ways, either that Ugolino devoured his offspring’s corpses after being driven mad with hunger, or that starvation killed him after he had failed to die of grief.”
Ugolino and His Sons– by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1827 – 1875) is a frightening depiction of this historical figure, his sons and the anguish they face.
The irony of the punishment is that, Ugolino, was by all accounts a scoundrel. He used his connections and political influence for personal gain. His decisions were made for reasons of political expediency and self interest. He lacked integrity and the political choices he made throughout his career were always about himself. He abused his authority and betrayed the trust of those he was sworn to serve. His punishment was to have a small number of choices, all of which would have tragic and grisly consequences culminating in the demise of himself and his entire blood line! …He could watch his children perish as they all starved. Or, he could allow his children to eat his cadaver so that they might survive. Of course his other choice is too gruesome to mention and ultimately results in the same end. This type of horrific punishment is spiteful, vindictive and malicious. It is rooted in revenge and demeans anyone who would impose it. In a most graphic manner it demonstrates that dark tendency of men toward inflicting vengeance, in very creative ways, upon their enemies.
Scoundrels in office. Abuse of authority. Does it sound familiar? History certainly repeats! Surely there must be a fitting form of retributive justice for traitors and those engaged in political treachery, but to punish the guilty party’s progeny for the crimes of the father is especially depraved.