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.
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.