Count Ugolino della Gherardesca

Ugolino della Gherardesca and his Sons in the Tower of His Starvation, Bartolomeo Pinelli, 1830

Ugolino della Gherardesca, Count of Donoratico, was born circa 1220 in Pisa. His prominent noble family were of Lombard origin, dating back at least to the 11th century, and sided with the Ghibellines during the violent Guelph–Ghibelline conflict wracking Medieval Italy. Ghibellines backed the Holy Roman Emperor, and Guelphs supported the Pope.

From 1256–58, Ugolino fought in the war against the Judicate of Cagliari in Sardinia. His riches increased when he won Cixerri, the southwestern portion of Cagliari, full of overflowing silver mines. Ugolino used his money from the mines to found a new city, Villa di Chiesa (now Iglesias). Under his rule, many new buildings were built, and many old buildings were restored.

The della Gherardescas also built the Castle of Salvaterra, a hospital, defensive walls, and an aqueduct.

Copyright Sailko

Trouble began when Ugolino, in the hopes of securing his power against hostile neighbours, arranged the marriage of his daughter Giovanna and Giovanni Visconti, Judge of Gallura. The Viscontis were Guelphs, and in becoming Visconti’s father-in-law, Ugolino thus became allied by association with the Guelphs. Many Ghibellines now looked at him with hostility and suspicion.

The city was beset by riots against the podestà from 1271–74, riots in which both Ugolino and Visconti took part. They were arrested in 1274 and accused of plotting to overthrow the Pisan government and then rule themselves. Ugolino was put in prison, and Visconti was exiled.

In 1275, Visconti passed away. With the younger of the two enemies gone, the older Ugolino was no longer seen as a real threat. His captors released him from prison and sent him into exile.

Ruins of Acquafredda Castle, Copyright Giancarlo Dessì

During his exile, mostly spent in the Acquafredda Castle in Siliqua, Sardinia, Ugolino set to work on getting revenge. Ugolino carried out intrigues against Lucca and Florence, then attacked Pisa with the help of Charles I of Anjou, King of Sicily. The peace which was negotiated was humiliating for Pisa, and included pardoning Ugolino and all other Guelph exiles.

Upon his return to the city, Ugolino continued quietly working behind the scenes to get revenge. He also commanded the maritime fleet and won several minor victories against Genoa in 1284. In that year’s Battle of Meloria, Pisa was crushed in defeat. The city lost a lot of influence and territory.

Florence and Lucca, Guelph strongholds, took advantage of Pisa’s weakened state to attack next. Ugolino, who had fled during the battle against Genoa, was elected podestà and managed to pacify Florence and Lucca by giving them a few castles.

In 1286, Ugolino became Capitano del Popolo (Captain of the People), a position he was soon forced to share with his grandson Ugolino Visconti (Nino). The two didn’t see eye to eye, and began quarreling. Nino, with his eyes on the position of podestà, started negotiating with Archbishop Ruggieri degli Ubaldini of Pisa in 1287, as well as the Ghibellines.

Ugolino wasn’t exactly happy to learn about this, and destroyed the palaces of Nino and several Ghibelline families, expelled them from Pisa, occupied the town hall, and had himself proclaimed lord of the city. Pisan fleets also began attacking Genoese ships.

Then, to try to prevent Nino from becoming a threat again, Ugolino brought back some of the exiled Ghibelline families. Their military alliance with his family earned a partial truce with Ruggieri.

Engraving by Raimbach after Sir Joshua Reynolds

The Pisan cost of living shot way up in 1288, leading to food shortages and riots. Ugolino killed one of Ruggieri’s nephews during a riot, which earned him Ruggieri’s eternal wrath. Not long afterwards, Ugolino and his followers were attacked by Ghibellines.

Ugolino managed to escape into the town hall and repel the attacks, but it wasn’t to last. Ruggieri set the people against Ugolino, and the town hall was set on fire. Ugolino surrendered rather than burn to death.

One of Ugolino’s sons was killed, and Ugolino, two of his other sons, and two grandsons were thrown into the Muda Tower. In March 1289, Ruggieri ordered the keys thrown into the Arno River. Ugolino and his family starved to death.

Ugolino and His Sons, Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, 1865–67

The sole reason Ugolino is so infamous today, let alone remembered at all by anyone but Medieval Italian historians, is because of his appearance in The Divine Comedy. He and Ruggieri appear in the Second Ring of the Ninth Circle of Hell, Antenora, for those who betrayed their country or city.

Ugolino is trapped in ice up to his neck, constantly gnawing at Ruggieri’s skull. His statements have been interpreted to mean he ate his sons and grandsons after they starved to death, but modern forensic evidence has disproven this legend.

Terza rima

Terza rima (third rhyme), also known as terzina Dantesca, is a style of poetry Dante created to write The Divine Comedy. No earlier examples are known. It’s believed he was influenced by the Provençal troubadours he so admired. They used a form of lyric poetry called sirventes or serventes (service song).

These songs were written from the POV of a sirvent (serviceman), and were usually parodies. They borrowed the metrical structure, melody, and many times even the actual rhymes of famous songs to take on controversial subjects (often current events). A sirventes more often than not was quite vitriolic.

Terza rima, then, is a three-line stanza with the rhyming pattern of ABA BCB CDC DED; i.e., the first and third lines rhyme, and the second line rhymes with the first and third lines of the next triplet. Each section of the poem concludes with a couplet or single line repeating the final tercet’s middle line’s rhyme. E.g., DED E, DED EE.

It’s known as chained rhyme because the second verse hooks each triplet onto the next like a chain. This style makes it easier to memorise than poems and songs with only two rhyming lines. (Though nowadays, many singers and rappers can’t even be bothered to rhyme anything, rhyme words with themselves, or just repeat lines.)

Dante’s one exception is Christ only rhyming with itself in Paradiso. He felt it would be unholy and blasphemous to associate any other words with that name.

This style of rhyming also makes it more difficult for copyists to steal the work, delete some lines, and embellish it with their own lines. The rhyme sequence would be interrupted if anything were taken away or added, and coming up with new rhymes to fit with the overall story and not look like piracy would be a really difficult task,

Terza rima employs the hendecasyllable (endecasillabo) structure, a verse of eleven syllables where the last accent falls on the tenth syllable. This too was influenced by the Provençal troubadours, corresponding to their décasyllabe.

Because of Dante’s acclaim, other Italian poets began using terza rima too. To this day, it remains the most popular metric structure of Italian poetry and song.

Terza rima is very difficult to naturally achieve in English due to the language’s more complex phonology and relative dearth of words to easily rhyme with one another. Even a lot of singers, poets, and rappers just using standard rhyming often employ forced rhyme schemes because the words at the end of those two consecutive lines sound nothing alike, and there were no other words they could think of.

English writers brave enough to use terza rima include Geoffrey Chaucer, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Milton, Thomas Hardy, Lord Byron, W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, and William Carlos Williams. Several translators of The Divine Comedy have also used this metric, among them Laurence Binyon, who did the version I first read. (And yes, it does often employ forced rhyme schemes.)

Translators using terza rima necessarily also take some liberties with the source text. To ensure the English lines all follow that style, there are frequent insertions of words and phrases that appear nowhere in the actual Italian. As pretty as they make it sound, it’s linguistically misleading.

…Tu lascerai ogne cosa diletta
più caramente; e questo è quello strale
che l’arco de lo essilio pria saetta.
Tu proverai sì come sa di sale
lo pane altrui, e come è duro calle
lo scendere e ‘l salir per l’altrui scale…

…You shall leave everything you love most:
this is the arrow that the bow of exile
shoots first.  You are to know the bitter taste
of others’ bread, how salty it is, and know
how hard a path it is for one who goes
ascending and descending others’ stairs…

(Paradiso, Canto XVII, 55–60)

A Symphony to Dante’s Divine Comedy

The great Franz Liszt began pulling ideas together for a symphony based on Inferno and Purgatorio in the early 1840s. During summer 1845, Liszt played an improvised version to French poet Joseph Autran on the empty Marseille Cathedral’s organ at midnight. Liszt later invited Autran to collaborate on an opera or oratorio inspired by Dante, but Autran didn’t follow up on the project.

In 1847, Liszt played a few fragments on the piano to his mistress Princess Karolina zu Sayn-Wittgenstein. Liszt wanted the music accompanied by a slideshow of Divine Comedy illustrations from Italian–German painter Giovanni Bonaventura Genelli. Liszt also wanted to use a wind machine to recreate the winds of Hell as the first movement concluded.

Though Karolina was more than willing to finance this lofty project, Liszt set it aside till 1855.

Franz Liszt, 1858

In June 1855, Liszt went back to work on his symphony with a vengeance, and finished most of it before the end of 1856. Simultaneously, he was working on his famous Faust Symphony. These are the only two known symphonies Liszt ever composed.

Liszt visited Richard Wagner in October 1856 in Zürich, where he played both symphonies on the piano. Wagner wasn’t wild about the conclusion, and told Liszt so in no uncertain language. Liszt agreed with this POV, and said he also had wanted to end it on a “fine soft shimmer,” but Karolina convinced him to end with a huge, dramatic flourish.

Liszt rewrote the ending music, but for the printed score, he gave conductors the option of following the pianissimo coda with the fortissimo one.

Richard Wagner, 1855

Though Liszt planned to add a third movement for Paradiso, and make it choral, Wagner convinced him it was impossible for any mortal composer to possibly come even close to accurately depicting Paradise. Liszt instead added a choral Magnificat at the conclusion of the second movement.

By not going all the way, some listeners and critics alike feel the symphony is unbalanced and ends on an unfinished note and unnecessary cliffhanger. Liszt scholar Humphrey Searle also argued that translating Paradise into music wouldn’t have automatically been a task too great for him.

Franz Liszt, 1856, by Wilhelm von Kaulbach

Liszt completed and polished the symphony in autumn 1857, and it premièred at Dresden’s Hoftheater (later destroyed by fire and rebuilt as the Semperoper) on 7 November 1857. Due to not enough rehearsing, it didn’t go very well, and Liszt, who conducted, was publicly humiliated. Despite this, he soldiered on and conducted it again in Prague on 11 March 1858, with two of his other works.

Karolina drew up a program for the audience, so they could more easily follow along with this unusually-structured symphony.

Interior of the old Hoftheater

Some people classify A Symphony to Dante’s Divine Comedy (better-known simply as The Dante Symphony) as more of two connected symphonic poems than a true symphony in the classical sense. As the genre’s name suggests, a symphonic poem musically evokes the mood of a poem, artwork, novel, landscape, short story, play, or other non-musical subject.

This symphony is one of the very first pieces of music using progressive tonality, wherein a composition doesn’t finish in the key it began, but rather progresses to something entirely different. It also contains many other musical innovations, like fluctuating tempi, wind effects, atonality experiments, and unusual time and key signatures.

Liszt scored it for one English horn, two oboes, two flutes, two clarinets, one bass clarinet, one piccolo (doubling as a third flute in the second movement), two bassoons, two tenor trombones, one bass trombone, two trumpets, four horns, one tuba, two harps, two sets of timpani, a tamtam, a bass drum, cymbals, a harmonium (pump organ), strings, and a women’s choir with sopranos and altos.

Ravenna, Italy

Basilica di San Vitale, Copyright Waspa 69 at WikiCommons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Ravenna, the northern Italian city where Dante was invited to live in 1318 and ended his days in three years later, has a long, rich history stretching back to the Roman Empire. Historians and archaeologists disagree on just which tribe settled Ravenna—Etruscans, Thessalians (from Thessaly, Greece), or Umbrians. There’s also a theory that the city’s name comes from Rasenna, or Rasna, the word Etruscans called themselves.

The Senones, a Gallic tribe, later settled in Ravenna, and laid it out very similarly to Venice, on a series of small islands in a lagoon. Initially, the Roman conquerors ignored Ravenna during their campaign in the Po River Delta, but eventually made it a Roman town in 89 BCE.

Ruins of Port of Classis, Copyright Trapezaki, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

In 49 BCE, Julius Caesar gathered his troops in Ravenna before they crossed the Rubicon, and in 31 BCE, Octavian established a military harbour with defensive walls in nearby Classis. This harbour was an important part of the Roman Imperial Fleet.

Ravenna continued to go from strength to strength under Roman rule, and had a population of 50,000 by the time it became capital of the Western Roman Empire in 402. The Western Roman Empire fell in 476, and Ravenna became capital of the Ostrogothic Kingdom in 493. In the sixth century, it was chosen as the seat of the Exarch, Italy’s Byzantine governor. The Archbishop of Ravenna was second only to the Pope in Italy.

Porta Serrata gate, Copyright Ludvig14, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Apse mosaic of San Michele in Afrisco Church

Byzantine rule of Ravenna ended in 751, and gradually came under Papal authority. The city suffered a terrible loss when Pope Adrian I let Charlemagne rob Ravenna of anything he pleased, and an unknown amount of Roman mosaics, statues, columns, and other treasures were taken to Charlemagne’s court in Aachen.

In 1198, Ravenna led other cities in the Romagna region against the Holy Roman Emperor, but the Pope put down their rebellion. The noble Traversari family ruled the city from 1218–40. In 1248, Ravenna rejoined the Papal States, and later was returned to the Traversaris.

Finally, in 1275, the da Polenta family established their rule, which lasted till 1441. That year’s Treaty of Cremona annexed Ravenna to the Venetian territories.

Dante’s tomb, Copyright Congolandia.g at WikiCommons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Vault interior of Archbishop’s Chapel, Copyright Anelhj at WikiCommons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Venetian rule lasted till 1509, when the region was invaded during the Italian Wars. The French sacked Ravenna in 1512 during the Holy League Wars. Yet another period of Papal States rule followed, interrupted by another brief Venetian rule from 1527–29.

A huge flood severely damaged the city in May 1636. To prevent such a tragedy from recurring, authorities spend the next 300 years draining swamps and redirecting rivers.

Ravenna Art Museum, Copyright Mac9 at Italian Wikipedia

Banca di Romagna, Piazza del Popolo, Copyright Marie Thérèse Hébert & Jean Robert ThibaultCreative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

In 1796, the Cisalpine Republic, a French puppet state, annexed Ravenna. Predictably, it returned to the Papal States in 1814. Piedmontese troops occupied the city in 1859. Ravenna didn’t win her freedom till the unified Kingdom of Italy was created in 1861.

Miraculously, Ravenna suffered very little damage during WWII.

Arian Baptistry, Copyright Georges Jansoone, Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license.

Biblioteca Classense, Copyright Domenico Bressan at WikiCommons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Ravenna is gut-loaded with beautiful historic buildings, including many churches and tombs from the Early Middle Ages. Eight of its churches are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The city also has many museums, art galleries, theatres, gates, and towers, as well as two amusement parks.

Dante’s tomb was built in 1780–81 at the Basilica di San Francesco. The Supreme Poet’s bones are in a Roman sarcophagus which was embellished with a bas-relief in 1483.

Florence (Firenze) has been begging for the return of their illustrious native son’s remains since 1396, but Ravenna has continually refused to send them home. Several times, the bones have been hidden to prevent this. Dante’s empty tomb in the Basilica di Santa Croce is still patiently waiting to be occupied.

Copyright Opi1010 at WikiCommons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Vegetation mound which protected Dante’s bones from 23 March 1944–19 December 1945, © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro / CC BY-SA 4.0

Quartan fever

Quartan fever is one of the five forms of malaria which infect humans, caused by one of six parasites in the Plasmodium malariae species. It gets the name quartan from the fact that fever comes 3–4 days after being bitten. Only female mosquitoes transmit this particular strain.

When an Anopheles mosquito punctures human flesh, uninucleate sporozoites from the salivary glands enter the bloodstream. The sporozoites then attack and occupy the liver’s parenchymal cells (called hepatocytes). Upon maturation, the sporozoites become uninucleate merozoites.

Their next stage of development is as schizonts, or infected erythrocytes (i.e., red blood cells), which contain more merozoites. The schizonts rupture and release their merozoites, causing more and more infections in the human’s red blood cells.

Uninucleated merozoites can also become uninucleated gametocytes, which turn back on their creators, the mosquitos. If other mosquitos feed on this infected human, the merozoites in turn invade, occupy, and infect them, thus leading to even more sickened humans.

Image courtesy Wellcome Images

Afflicted patients have fevers at 72-hour intervals, whereas sufferers of other types of malaria have fevers every 48 hours or only sporadically. Fevers range from 104–106º F (40–41º C).

Signs of quartan fever include burning skin, welts, irritated spots, and hives. Some people may not display such symptoms, owing to built-up tolerance to mosquito bites. Welts in particular generally only appear if someone has severe allergic reactions.

In the modern era, quartan fever can be diagnosed through various types of blood tests and analyses under a microscope, as well as polymerase chain reactions. Treatments include chloroquine and hydrochloroquine. Pregnant women are given sulfadoxine-pyrimethamine.

Quartan malaria parasites are pictured under Figure 1

Dante contracted quartan malaria in the marshy Comacchio Valleys in September 1321, while returning from a diplomatic mission in Venice. Once back in Ravenna, where he’d lived since 1318, he was nursed by his children Pietro, Jacopo, Antonia, and Giovanni.

Given the state of Medieval medicine, there were no antimalarial drugs. Dante may have been bled by doctors, or had leeches applied. He soon succumbed to the fevers wracking him, and passed away on 13/14 September 1321.

While churches did keep death certificates for their records, they didn’t record the exact time of death as they do now. Since Dante passed so late at night, there may have been confusion about which date it was. I like to think it was close to the time the 13th and 14th changed places, the veil between the two days.

Dante got a huge funeral, attended by Ravenna’s highest authorities and their families. He was mourned by the entire literary world, though Bertrand du Pouget (nephew of Pope John XXII) shamefully sought to burn his bones at the stake.

Though Dante’s native city has now rescinded the criminal charges against him and come to deeply regret exiling him, Ravenna still refuses to give back his bones.