Sep 10

Ugolino and his sons

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.

Ugolino and His Sons

Ugolino and His Sons


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.


‘Father our pain’, they said,
‘Will lessen if you eat us you are the one
Who clothed us with this wretched flesh: we plead
For you to be the one who strips it away’.

(Canto XXXIII, ln. 56–59)


… And I,
Already going blind, groped over my brood
Calling to them, though I had watched them die,
For two long days. And then the hunger had more
Power than even sorrow over me

(Canto XXXIII, ln. 70-73)[3]

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.”

The picture above was taken on one a two recent trips to NYC’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. I wrote about each of these visits, here and here.

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.

Follow this link to a 3 minute video that shows the sculpture in finer detail. Here is more info about the piece direct from the MET website.

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.


Permanent link to this article:

1 comment

  1. A regular reader of this blog, too shy to post comment independently and wishing to go by a pseudonym of Susan L., has informed me that Dante’s work, The Divine Comedy was actually part of a trilogy. I was unaware. The First book is titled, Paradise. The next, Purgatory and lastly, Inferno. Inferno is the best known of the three and most often quoted. She continues, “another little postscript on the word “Comedy” as Dante uses the word in his “Divine Comedy” (I think the original Italian is La Divina Commedia): Dante wrote in the 14th century (of the Middle Ages) – at that time the word “comedy” (derived from the Latin “comoedia” and the Greek “komoidia”) did not have the meaning it has today of a funny or amusing work, but simply meant a narrative poem. I remembered this from college and googled “Latin/comedy” and the entry for the word “comedy” in the Online Etymology Dictionary popped up – that’s what I am citing from. Also, it is interesting – and this is from my own knowledge of French – that to this day, the general words for actor/actress in French are “comedien/comedienne” – (masculine and feminine) nothing to do with the genre of comedy, they are just plain (theater or movie) actors, also rendered by acteur/actrice – (again masc. and fem.) If the French want to specify a comic actor, it would generally be “acteur/actrice comique.

    Thank you for adding your comments, Susan! 😉

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.