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Did he really “raise his mouth from his savage meal”?
by Gaetano Savatteri

Versione Inglese

A careful reconstruction of the famous episode in the “Tower of Hunger” casts doubts on the credibility of Dante’s version.
Afaded piece of paper, almost illegible. The jumbled bones of five corpses, found in a church in Pisa. Ancient manuscripts and ultra-modern laboratory tests, DNA analysis and forensic evidence. These are the main elements of the story. Like clues scattered here and there by an ingenious thriller writer to clear up an unsolved mystery dating from seven hundred years ago, or perhaps to confuse it even more. Yes, because we are dealing with a case of violent death. Or rather, an outright massacre, a terrible case of mass murder. The investigation concerns the death of Count Ugolino Della Gherardesca who ended his days in the “Torre della Muda” together with his two sons and two grandsons. Not surprisingly, an expert from the “Carabiniere” forensic department has been called in to give evidence. A key witness is Dante Alighieri, born in Florence, poet by profession. But his testimony is ambiguous, perhaps one-sided, not always reliable. Be that as it may, his word carries considerable weight in this inquest. Because Canto thirty-three of the “Inferno” in his “Divine Comedy” opens with a spine-chilling scene where Count Ugolino is gnawing at the head of his executioner, archbishop Ruggieri: “La bocca sollevò dal fiero pasto/quel peccator, forbendola a’ capelli/del capo ch’elli avea di retro guasto” (“Raising his mouth from his savage meal, the sinner wiped his lips upon the hair of the head he had shattered from behind”). Famous opening lines, with their sonorous weight. Vittorio Sermonti in his commentary on Dante’s work compares them to a piece of music where “the cello introduces the theme of an unforgettable melody.” The verses unfold, laden with pain and suffering, and filled with monstrous cruelty. Ugolino is eating his executioner - archbishop Ruggieri of Pisa who, during the winter of 1289, finally slammed the door of the prison into which Count Ugolino had been thrown together with his sons Gaddo and Uguccione, and his two grandsons, Nino (nicknamed the Brigand) and Anselmuccio, condemning them to death by starvation. Ugolino shudders with despair at seeing his heirs die before his eyes, until “poscia, più che ’l dolor, potè ’l digiuno” (“Then hunger prevailed over grief”). This line too is ambiguous, full of sinister meaning, with its allusion to cannibalism - yet another mystery that was to fire the imagination of the writer Jorge Luis Borges. Pisa is the setting for the tragedy of Ugolino, and the episode closes with Dante’s invective against the city, “vituperio de le genti” (“shame of all people”), a den of traitors and ferocious murderers, for whom the poet augurs the fate of being drowned and submerged by the waters of the river Arno. All said and done, the impression is that the entire canto, and the whole creation of the figure of Ugolino served only to enable Dante Alighieri to unleash his malediction against Pisa and its inhabitants. About ten years ago, the citizens of Pisa brought Count Ugolino to trial in order to decide if he really was the victim described by Dante. “At the end of the trial, the accused was half absolved, half condemned,” says Maria Luisa Ceccarelli Lemut, lecturer on medieval history at the university of Pisa. “Count Ugolino was no saint. But Dante’s poetic account does not mention that the Count was seventy years old, that his sons were adults, that his twenty-five-year-old grandson Nino the Brigand (note the nickname) had already committed a murder. And Anselmuccio was twenty, a fully-grown man at that time. The death of Ugolino, Count of Donoratico, and his heirs was atrocious, but there’s no doubt that he was as guilty as he was innocent.” The historical reconstruction, based on documents from the period, gives us the figure of a haughty and arrogant aristocrat, head of a powerful clan. He had fought against Pisa, perhaps he had even speculated on the lack of corn by supplying the city from his granaries in the nearby Maremma region. He was accused of having helped Genoa to defeat Pisa in 1284, then getting himself elected governor of the city, turning it into his personal feud. So, rightly or wrongly, hate and resentment on the part of the citizens of Pisa led to his being condemned to die by starvation in the “Torre della Muda”, since then known as “Tower of Hunger”. He was a product of his time with its bitter and violent political battles, its conspiracies and betrayals, not to mention the long-standing antagonism between the Guelph and Ghibelline factions. Ugolino della Gherardesca was certainly not an innocent victim; on the other hand, Dante knew full well the darker side of the Count’s past when he included him and his executioner in the Inferno. But there’s still some doubt and suspicion. To the point where we might ask ourselves whether Count Ugolino and his heirs really did end their days as recounted by Dante. If it was multiple murder, then it’s only right to investigate. And in the winter of 2001, a team of experts from the University of Pisa did just that, led by Francesco Mallegni, lecturer in archaeological science. They started searching for the bodies, or what was left of them. The historical and scientific investigation began, backed by the Pisa City Council and the Provincial authority, and eventually led to the discovery of the remains of the bodies in a chapel forming part of the church of St Francis in Pisa. But were the bones and skulls really those of Ugolino, Gaddo, Uguccione, Nino the Brigand and Anselmuccio? Inside a metal box there was a faded piece of paper dated 1928. Almost illegible. But a journalist managed to find a copy of the text which had been published in a magazine during the Fascist period in 1928, when the remains were examined and replaced in their resting place. Where it was decipherable, the text coincided. It described a previous occasion when the bones were moved, in 1899, and confirmed the authenticity of the remains: “The bones enclosed here belong without doubt to the bodies of Count Ugolino with his sons and grandsons who died in the Tower of Hunger…” For two years, experts and scientists have studied and measured every detail of the bones, in order to be sure. They have established that the oldest was over seventy, powerfully built and of above-average height. The same features can be seen in two of the others - probably Ugolino’s sons - aged between 45 and 50, both of whom were giant figures. The two other sets of bones belong to younger men. This would be enough to confirm their authenticity. But the experts went further. DNA analysis, carried out with the help of an expert from the “Carabiniere” scientific department, established without a doubt that the remains belong to people who were related by family affinity. Yet another confirmation. What other information can be deduced from the remains? Fulvio Bartoli examined the teeth and maintains that these five men lived on a very poor diet during the last years of their lives. In other words, the typical prisoners’ diet - bread and water. And what about the idea that Ugolino might have eaten his sons’ flesh, as Dante suggests, “Then hunger prevailed over grief”? The examination would seem to exclude this possibility. The condition of Ugolino’s remains suggest that he was the first to die, and his teeth were in such a bad state that it is highly unlikely that he could have become a cannibal. And there’s another doubt: signs of sword or knife cuts on the bones give the impression that someone hacked at the bodies. Perhaps after death, perhaps not. The doubt remains that a charitable executioner may have given the coup de grace to the five prisoners who by that time were at the limit of their endurance. The results of the investigation were published in 2003 by Edizioni Plus-University of Pisa under the title “Il conte Ugolino della Gherardesca tra antropologia e storia”, edited by Francesco Mallegni and Maria Luisa Ceccarelli Lemut. It is clear from these findings that the real key, the number one suspect, is Dante Alighieri. Did he give false testimony? Not really, not altogether. But that verse alluding to a father devouring his children is subtly perfidious. Perhaps the Argentinean writer Borges is right. After examining the evidence, he concluded: “Did Dante want us to think that Ugolino (the Ugolino of his “Inferno”, not the historical figure) ate the flesh of his children? I would hazard a guess: Dante didn’t want us to think so, but he wanted us to suspect it. Uncertainty was part of his plan.”

Gaetano Savatteri, journalist and writer


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