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Recapping Dante: Canto 33, or History’s Vaguest Cannibal

June 23, 2014 | by

Gustave Doré, Canto XXXIII

Gustave Doré, Canto XXXIII

We’re recapping the Inferno. Read along! This week: a Sophie’s Choice in medieval Pisa.

Here we meet the last great sinner of the Inferno: Count Ugolino. Like the others, he’s a historical figure remembered today chiefly for his appearance in Dante’s poem; and in spite of everything he confesses in these few verses, we inevitably pity him.

At the end of canto 32, Dante finds Ugolino gnawing violently at the head of another sinner, Archbishop Ruggieri. Ugolino tells Dante that he will describe his own crime, and allow Dante to determine which of the two of them is the greater sinner.

Ugolino, a magistrate, was charged with betraying the city of Pisa—he gave three of their fortresses to a neighboring town—and for this he was locked, along with his four children, in a tower there (not the one you’re thinking of). One night, he dreamed that he and his young children appeared as wolves; they were hunted and torn to shreds. He awakes to find his children crying in hunger for food, but when mealtime in the tower arrives, Ugolino hears the doors being nailed shut.

He understands that he and his children will starve to death. Seeing them in agony, he begins to gnaw at his own hands, and his sons say, “Father, we would suffer less if you would feed on us.” Ugolino composes himself and watches his children die slowly of hunger over the course of the fourth, fifth, and sixth days. For two days, Ugolino, who has gone blind from hunger, wails over his children, speaking to them as though they were still alive. And then he speaks one of the most haunting and also perhaps most memorable lines in the Inferno: “Then fasting had more power than grief.” This line has been interpreted variously; some believe it means that he continued to starve, whereas others contend that Ugolino ate his dead children. Read More »

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