David Bruce: Dante’s INFERNO: A Discussion Guide — “Canto 33: Tolomea (Ugolino and Ruggieri)”

“Canto 33: Tolomea (Ugolino and Ruggieri)”

  • Since Canto 31, we have been in the bottom of Hell, the 9thCircle. Here we see complex fraud, fraud directed against those who have a special claim on the sinner, those to whom the sinner owes a special trust. Sinners who commit complex fraud are traitors of various kinds: e.g., traitors to kin/family, traitors to government, traitors to guests, or traitors to benefactors (whether temporal or spiritual).

Now, of course, we get to see the worst of the worst — the bottom two rings of the bottom Circle of Hell. In the 3rdring of the 9thCircle, we see those who betrayed guests, and in the final ring we see those who betrayed their lords, including God. At the very bottom of Hell we see Lucifer, who betrayed God by rebelling against Him.

  • Why do you think Dante uses ice, not fire, at the bottom of Hell?

We have seen fire used in the Inferno; for example, fire was used in a parody of Pentecost as it danced on the feet of the Simonists who were pocketed in holes in the earth.

Both extremes — fire and cold — are painful. Here, some sinners are completely encased in ice, and Dante is not able to speak to them.

We speak of someone murdering someone else in cold blood, so perhaps that is why we have ice here.

  • What is Ugolino doing to the head of Ruggieri?

Ugolino is gnawing on the head of Ruggieri. We see cannibalism in action. The two are frozen in the ice, but their heads are above the ice, thus allowing Ugolino to gnaw on Ruggieri’s head.

  • Like other sinners in Hell, Ugolino commits the fallacy of suppressed evidence. He tells the bad things that Ruggieri did to him, but he leaves out the bad things he did to Ruggieri.

Both people are unrepentant sinners, as we know from the fact that they are in the Inferno. Both betrayed the other. Both did some pretty nasty things to each other.

We do learn that these two sinners are on the boundary between Antenora and Tolomea. In Antenora, traitors to city or country are punished, and Ugolino is punished there. In Tolomea, traitors to guests and associates are punished, and Ruggieri is punished there.

Ugolino is punished because he betrayed his country, Pisa, and Ruggieri is punished because he betrayed his associate, Ugolino.

  • Dante does not just stick his enemies in Hell. He puts Ghibellines andGuelfs in Hell.

Ugolino is a Guelf, while Ruggieri is a Ghibelline.

Dante learns a lot during his journey through the Inferno. He learns that extreme factionalism can be very bad, no matter which side practices it. He learns that innocent people can be killed because of extreme factionalism. Finally, he learns that both Guelfs and Ghibellines are part of the problem of extreme factionalism.

Let me emphasize that there is good factionalism and bad factionalism. People can agree to disagree without killing each other. The kind of bad factionalism that Dante writes about involves power struggles, people being thrown into exile on unjust charges, people being killed in battles, and innocent people dying.

Farinata and Cavalcante illustrated bad factionalism, and Ugolino and Ruggieri illustrate very bad factionalism.

  • What is the story of Ugolino and Archbishop Ruggieri?

Here are a few important facts:

  • Ugolino is Ugolino della Gherardesca, the Count of Donortico, and he is a Ghibelline. Ruggieri is Archbishop Rullieri degli Ubaldini, and he is a Guelf.
  • Pisa was a Ghibelline city that was surrounded by Guelf cities. Often, the Guelf cities tried to take control over things such as castles in Pisan territory.
  • The Archbishop of Pisa, Ruggieri, a Ghibelline, decided that it would be a good idea to hire a Guelf as city manager (podesta). Since the city manager will be a Guelf, he will be able to make better deals with the Guelfs; after all, they are from the same party.
  • Ugolino was hired to be podestaof Pisa.
  • Immediately, Ugolino and Ruggieri began jockeying for power. Ugolino betrayed Pisa by giving good deals to Guelf cities, even giving them castles. Ruggieri was worried because now he had to share power with Ugolino. They worked against each other.
  • Ruggieri locked Ugolino and his progeny in a tower and starved them to death.
  • Ugolino betrayed Pisa by giving good deals and castles to Pisa’s Guelf enemies. Ruggieri betrayed Ugolino by locking him and his progeny in a tower and starving them to death.
  • Only Ugolino speaks. Ruggieri is silent. Ugolino speaks although it hurts him to recount his story.

At the very beginning of Canto 33, we read:

His mouth uplifted from his grim repast,

That sinner, wiping it upon the hair

Of the same head that he behind had wasted.

Then he began: “Thou wilt that I renew

The desperate grief, which wrings my heart already

To think of only, ere I speak of it;

But if my words be seed that may bear fruit

Of infamy to the traitor whom I gnaw,

Speaking and weeping shalt thou see together.”

(Longfellow 33.1-9)

Although it hurts him, Ugolino is going to talk about his story. This is similar to what Francesca says back in Canto 5: Although it hurts her, she will tell her story. These sinners are willing to speak so that they can blame someone or something else, and so that they can get revenge on someone. Francesca says that her husband will end up in Hell one day, and Ugolino is here saying bad things about Ruggieri, making him out to be the bad guy while leaving out all the bad things that he (Ugolino) did. Ugolino wants Ruggieri to be remembered on Earth as a great sinner.

Dante believed that sin hurts the sinner, but that doesn’t stop the sinner from sinning. We see that here reenacted in Ugolino’s telling of his story. It will hurt him, but he will tell the story anyway to get back at Ruggieri by casting all the blame on him.

  • Ugolino tells his story, leaving out the parts where he acted badly.

Of course, what Ugolino is doing here is casting the blame on Ruggieri. Actually, both Ugolino and Ruggieri behaved horribly.

  • Ugolino has a forecasting dream before he and his children are starved to death.

Before he hears the door being nailed shut at the time when food is usually brought to them, Ugolino has a dream that forecasts bad things to occur. In the dream a hunter pursues a wolf and the wolf’s cubs. Eventually, the hounds of the hunter bite the wolf and the wolf’s cubs. Of course, the hunter is Ruggieri, and the wolf and the wolf’s cubs are Ugolino and his children. The hounds are people who work for Ruggieri.

  • How do Ugolino and his children die?

After Ugolino says that he and his children were placed in the tower, he focuses on how his children died. It truly is a pathetic story that can arouse the sympathy of the readers. Of course, one theme of the story is that extreme factionalism results in innocent victims: Here the innocent victims are Ugolino’s children who starve to death.

Ugolino and his children are imprisoned in the tower, where apparently they are usually hungry, as his children are “sobbing in their sleep / […] asking for bread” (Inferno33.38-39).

One day Ugolino hears a door being nailed shut. This door had a slot through which food was passed to them, and Ugolino realizes immediately that he and his children are to be starved to death. The children are so young (apparently; see below for their ages) that they don’t realize that they will be starved to death:

“They were awake now, and the hour drew nigh

At which our food used to be brought to us,

And through his dream was each one apprehensive;

And I heard locking up the under door

Of the horrible tower; whereat without a word

I gazed into the faces of my sons.

I wept not, I within so turned to stone;

They wept; and darling little Anselm mine

Said: ‘Thou dost gaze so, father, what doth ail thee?’

Still not a tear I shed, nor answer made

All of that day, nor yet the night thereafter,

Until another sun rose on the world.

As now a little glimmer made its way

Into the dolorous prison, and I saw

Upon four faces my own very aspect,”

(Longfellow 33.43-57)

Ugolino then describes how each of his children died. He would bite his hands in anguish, and his children, thinking that he was biting his hands in hunger, offered to let him kill and eat them:

“And said they: ‘Father, much less pain ’twill give us

If thou do eat of us; thyself didst clothe us

With this poor flesh, and do thou strip it off.’”        

(Longfellow 33.61-63)

His children die one by one, and Ugolino says:

“There he died. Just as you see me here,

I saw the other three fall one by one,

as the fifth day and the sixth day passed. And I,

by then gone blind, groped over their dead bodies.

Though they were dead, two days I called their name.

Then hunger proved more powerful than grief.”

(Musa 33.70-75)        

Ugolino and his progeny were imprisoned in June of 1288, and in February 1289, they died of starvation.

  • What does Ugolino mean when he says, “Then hunger proved more powerful than grief” (Musa,Inferno33.75)?

This line is deliberately ambiguous. It can mean two different things:

1) Grief had failed to kill him, but now hunger killed him — he starved to death, or

2) His hunger overcame his grief, and he fed on his children’s flesh.

Of course, most people think that the second meaning is the true one. Why? For one thing, we will see a form of cannibalism at the very deepest part of the Inferno. For another, we see cannibalism here as Ugolino eats away at Ruggieri’s head.

  • Ugolino’s eating of his children’s bodies is a negation of the pietasthat Virgil’s Aeneas was famous for.

We know what Aeneas is famous for: staying loyal to his family, and taking his father and his son out of Troy when it fell — and attempting to take his wife out of the city, but failing.Pietasis giving respect where respect is owed: to one’s country, to one’s father, to one’s wife, and to one’s son.

Here we have Ugolino doing the opposite of what he should be doing. Instead of taking care of his children, he is feeding on their flesh. The best way for him to have taken care of his children was to have avoided engaging in extreme factionalism.

  • Of course, this is a story that should make people weep. So why doesn’t Ugolino weep? Instead of weeping, he “turned to stone inside” (Musa, Inferno33.49).

While telling the story of his children begging for bread, Ugolino tells Dante,

“When I before the morrow was awake,

Moaning amid their sleep I heard my sons

Who with me were, and asking after bread.

Cruel indeed art thou, if yet thou grieve not,

Thinking of what my heart foreboded me,

And weep’st thou not, what art thou to weep at?”  

(Longfellow 33.37-42)

However, a few lines later, he says, “I did not weep, I turned to stone inside” (Musa, Inferno33.49).

Why doesn’t Ugolino weep?

Ugolino is an evil man. He has been involved in devious political manipulations and betrayals. At this point, his heart has turned to stone. In Ezekiel 36:26, we read (King James Version):

“A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh.”

Ugolino, of course, has not done the things that would earn him a heart of flesh. He has done, however, the kind of things that earn him a heart of stone.

  • Why is the punishment of Ugolino and Ruggieri fitting?

This punishment reenacts Ugolino’s final act on Earth: eating the flesh of his children. He is condemned to reenact this forever.

Ruggieri, of course, placed Ugolino in a position where he was so hungry that he starved to death, so he is the object of Ugolino’s cannibalism here.

Note that Ugolino is getting what he wants here: He wants to eat Ruggieri’s flesh, and he does exactly that.

  • Does Ugolino change anything in his telling of the story to make the story more sympathetic?

When we read what Ugolino says, we get the impression that his children are very young. Here, “children” means children and grandchildren. Historically, only one grandchild was a minor. The others imprisoned — two sons and another grandchild — were adults. These are the progeny imprisoned with Ugolino:







Anselmuccio was the youngest imprisoned and starved to death; he was 15 years old and the only minor.

  • In the Inferno, is it possible that the sinners are getting basically what they want, at least in some cases?

Francisca and Paolo wanted to be together.

The Wrathful wanted to harm each other.

The Heretics thought that they would be in a tomb forever.

The Hypocrites wanted to be golden on the outside and base on the inside.

The Fortune Tellers wanted special sight, and now that their heads are on backwards, their view is different from our view.

The Thieves wanted to steal.

Ulysses wanted to experience everything, good and bad, and now he is experiencing the bad in the Inferno.

Ugolino wants to feed on Ruggieri’s flesh forever.

  • Of course, in other cases, the sinners get the opposite of what they wanted.

The sinners in the Vestibule of Hell did not want to feel anything strongly, and now insects continually sting them. They did not want to follow a banner, and now they continually follow a banner.

In the Ninth Circle, the sinners wanted to actively harm other people, and now many of the worst sinners are completely encased in ice, rendering them immobile and inactive.

  • What are some themes that we see in this story?

One theme that we see is that church and state need to have the proper relationship. Ugolino is a state official (city manager), while Ruggieri is an archbishop. The two engage in a very destructive power struggle. If church and state were to stay in their respective proper spheres of influence and power, neither would interfere destructively with the other.

Another theme that we see, of course, is how bad factionalism can be. For example, we see that the innocent are harmed and killed because of factionalism. Anselmuccio is only 15 years old when he is starved to death with Ugolino and the three others in what became known as the Tower of Hunger.

Dante may be saying that two things can really mess up the world:

1) an incorrect relationship between church and state, and

2) extreme factionalism.

The image of ultimate evil that we see here is cannibalism.

  • How far can factionalism be pushed?

What if the only things you care about are stuff (material things) and power? How would you view the world? What if you did not see spiritual things? What would the world look like? Suppose you saw no good deeds and only a struggle for stuff and power. What would the world look like?

In Matthew 26:26-28, we read (King James Version):

26:And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body.

27:And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of it;

28:For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins.

What would your view of this be if you could not see the spiritual meaning of the Last Supper? You would see cannibalism, and that is what we see at the very bottom, both here with Ugolino and Ruggieri, and later with Lucifer.

  • How did Tolomea get its name?

Tolomea is where traitors to guests are punished; it gets its name from a story told in 1 Maccabees 11-17. Here is the King James Version:

11:Moreover in the plain of Jericho was Ptolemeus the son of Abubus made captain, and he had abundance of silver and gold:

12:For he was the high priest’s son in law.

13:Wherefore his heart being lifted up, he thought to get the country to himself, and thereupon consulted deceitfully against Simon and his sons to destroy them.

14:Now Simon was visiting the cities that were in the country, and taking care for the good ordering of them; at which time he came down himself to Jericho with his sons, Mattathias and Judas, in the hundred threescore and seventeenth year, in the eleventh month, called Sabat:

15:Where the son of Abubus receiving them deceitfully into a little hold, called Docus, which he had built, made them a great banquet: howbeit he had hid men there.

16:So when Simon and his sons had drunk largely, Ptolemee and his men rose up, and took their weapons, and came upon Simon into the banqueting place, and slew him, and his two sons, and certain of his servants.

17:In which doing he committed a great treachery, and recompensed evil for good.

In the story, Ptolemee kills his guests: the Jewish high priest and his sons.

The sinners here lie on their backs, and they can’t cry because their tears freeze as soon as they weep.

  • How are the sinners in Tolomea punished?

Like the other sinners in the 9thCircle, these sinners are frozen in the ice, but they face upward. This results in their tears freezing over their eyes, forming a kind of crystal visor that prevents them from crying any more (Musa, Inferno33.94-99). These sinners are denied even the comfort of crying.

Another punishment is that a wind is blowing. In Canto 34, we shall see that the wind arises from the futile beating of Lucifer’s wings as he struggles to free himself from the ice. However, the beating of his winds only freezes the ice harder, imprisoning him more securely. (people in the Middle Ages believed that wind froze ice more solidly.)

  • Who is Friar Alberigo?

A sinner asks Dante to remove the frozen tears from his eyes so that he can cry. Dante asks him for his name, promising him, “if I do not help you, / may I be forced to drop beneath this ice!” (Musa, Inferno33.116-117). The sinner believes that Dante and Virgil are sinners who have been sentenced to a lower part of Hell than he has (Musa, Inferno33.110-111).

The sinner is Friar Alberigo, who betrayed his guests. He invited a close relative named Manfred and Manfred’s son to supper, then had them murdered. He called for fruit to be served, and “Bring in the fruit” was the prearranged signal for his men to murder his guests (Ciardi, Divine Comedy, 263).

Like other sinners in the Inferno, Friar Alberigo thinks that he is being punished too severely for his sin. He says that “here dates are served me for the figs I gave” (Musa, Inferno33.120). Dates are more valuable than figs, so Friar Alberigo is saying that his punishment (the dates) is greater than his sins (the figs).

Actually, Friar Alberigo’s body is on Earth moving around, but it is a devil that is wearing the body. Because of Friar Alberigo’s enormous sins, he has been sent to the Inferno before his body died.

  • Which trick does Dante play on Friar Alberigo?

As I wrote above, a sinner asks Dante to remove the frozen tears from his eyes so that he can cry. Dante asks him for his name, promising him, “if I do not help you, / may I be forced to drop beneath this ice!” (Musa,Inferno33.116-117).

Dante, of course, knows that he is going to go beneath the ice. It is part of his journey through the Inferno and up to the Mountain of Purgatory. He has no intention of removing the ice from Friar Alberigo’s eyes.

We are meant to applaud this. Dante is treating these sinners badly, just as they deserve.

  • Which other people have sinned so badly that their souls end up in the Inferno while a demon inhabits their body until the body’s death?

Another sinner who has sinned so badly that his soul ends up in the Inferno while a demon inhabits his body until the body’s death is Ser Branca D’Oria. A third sinner in the same situation is a “close kinsman” (Musa,Inferno33.146) of Ser Branca who helped him commit his crime: Ser Branca invited his father-in-law, Michel Zanche, to dine with him, and then murdered him.


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