he really “raise his mouth from his savage meal”?
by Gaetano Savatteri
careful reconstruction of the famous episode in the “Tower
of Hunger” casts doubts on the credibility of Dante’s version.
piece of paper, almost illegible. The jumbled bones of five
corpses, found in a church in Pisa.
manuscripts and ultra-modern laboratory tests, DNA analysis
and forensic evidence.
are the main elements of the story.
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.
because we are dealing with a case of violent death. Or rather,
an outright massacre, a terrible case of mass murder.
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.
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”).
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.
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”).
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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”.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
have established that the oldest was over seventy, powerfully
built and of above-average height.
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,
hunger prevailed over grief”? The examination would seem to
exclude this possibility.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
was part of his plan.”
Gaetano Savatteri, journalist and writer