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“It was the fast more than the pain”. The Count Ugolino della Gherardesca in Pisa

Find out about the most famous characters from Tuscan history on this itinerary full of history, mystery and local legend

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From "Slowtuscany": Stories about Tuscany by Damiano Andrei

Translation by: Andrea Brown, Giovanna Novelli, Munmun Gosh

In the XIII century Church of San Francesco, in Pisa, some of the most mysterious and debated remains of our history have been exhumed. They are the bones of the Count Ugolino della Gherardesca, supposed to be buried there since 1289, together with the bones of other four people - his children and nephews. In the history, the story of the Count Ugolino is immediately connected to the fall of the Pisa naval strength in the XIII century. In 1284 Genoa defeated the fleet of Pisa, thereby driving it to an absolute decline. At that time, the Count Ugolino, who is already 70, is at the head of a tenth of galleys at the mouth of the Arno river, to prevent Genoa's direct attack to Pisa.

The successful outcome of his defense gains him the appointment of "Podestà" from Pisa town, whose citizens acclaim him as the "saver of their land". Nevertheless Pisa is largely weakened and a few rich families in Pisa, take the opportunity to accuse him of betrayal and take him, after his removal, to the tower of Cavalieri Square, where he will be closed into, together with his children and nephews, condemned to starve inside up to death. Most of us may have forgotten the historical aspect; but the other story, the one nobody could forget - struck with terror and aversion - tells of a further event: Ugolino, during the last days of his life, would feed himself on his children's own meat….. I remember that when I was a child, my friends and I always were afraid of walking by the "Tower of the Hunger".

For seven centuries Tuscan children have been thinking to Ugolino della Gherardesca like to the symbol of cruel monstrousness. How much truth is there? Dante Alighieri, in his "divine" Commedia, tells about his meeting with Ugolino in the deepest meanders of the Inferno.  At the arrival of Dante, he starts telling his story and the latest tragic events of his life: in the extreme filial love they have for their father, who bites his hands for the forthcoming death, the children, who think he is suffering hunger, offer themselves to be eaten by him. Ugolino, to avoid further desperation to them, will no more express his pain and withdraws into his sufferings. After a few days, the children die of starvation, one after the other. The tragic event, that Ugolino tells to Dante, ends with these words: "poscia, più che 'l dolor poté il digiuno" ("then, it was the fast more than the pain"). According to many people, this last verse would hint to a supposed act of cannibalism, the interpretation transmitted since ever.

After said that, Ugolino no longer talks to Dante and gnaws again the skull of his adversary in life, the Archbishop Ruggieri. Reading again and again the verses of the Inferno, that Dante dedicated to his meeting with Ugolino, I feel that in the words of Count Ugolino a strong and despairing tenderness towards his children is rather present, while looking at them dying in an awful and unjust way ("… I have been calling them for days after they died…"). Dante himself, who was contemporary with the Count, appears to feel a deep commiseration to those young people and he only blames their father for betraying Pisa, in giving the castles to the enemy ("aver tradito te [Pisa], delle castella [cedute a città nemiche]"), therefore he believes he may have been condemned to the Inferno just for this reason. "più che il dolore, poté il digiuno…" is the verse that the Count pronounces to mean his death, which arrived, alas, only when the starvation was so stronger than pain, that he had no more strength to call his children. It is to be noticed an eventual hint: is an almost 80 years old man of the XIII century able to chew something harder than a thin soup? Rather, much more easier for rats: they yes, which have strong and sharp teeth… All in all, I think we can have again our calm sleeps.


 damiano.andreini@libero.it - www.intermezzieditore.it/slowtuscany

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