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


Arts & Culture

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.

After Ugolino speaks these words, he immediately resumes gnawing on Ruggieri in shameful hunger. But Dante has placed Ugolino in the ninth circle, among the traitors, which means he’s damned for his betrayal, not for eating his children. Dante dedicates several likes to chastising Ugolino’s city for punishing the count’s children. It’s a strange break in the poem—seldom does Dante the poet, in his poet’s voice, openly decry the actions of a particular person, let alone an entire government.

As Dante moves on, he sees sinners hanging upside down with their eyes frozen shut: “their first tears become a crust that like a crystal visor fills the cups beneath the eyebrows.” Dante promises one of the afflicted that he will wipe away his tears if the sinner tells him who he is. And once Dante learns that the sinner is Fra Alberigo, Dante casually walks away, breaking his promise—sort of a jerk move, if you ask me. Alberigo had his houseguests assassinated during an argument. Dante has clearly taken a page out of Virgil’s book, and has taunted this sinner after kicking another in the head.

Something spooky happens—Dante feels a wind and wonders where it comes from, since there is no God in hell, and conventional wisdom at the time held that wind was caused by the sun and God. But Virgil tries to change the subject, perhaps because the wind is coming from Satan, and after all, it would be pretty horrifying to learn that you are about to go meet Satan. Dante, Virgil says, will soon discover the source of the wind himself …

To catch up on our Dante series, click here.

Alexander Aciman is the author of Twitterature. He has written for the New York Times, Tablet, the Wall Street Journal, and TIME. Follow him on Twitter at @acimania.