The Divine Comedy by Dante ALIGHIERI · Digital Dante Edition with Commento Baroliniano · MMXV ·   Columbia University

Inferno 33


Dynastic Wife to Dynastic Wolf

Coordinated Reading: The Undivine Comedy, Chapter 4, “Narrative and Style in Lower Hell,” pp. 94-97; “Dante and Francesca da Rimini: Realpolitik, Romance, Gender,” Speculum 75 (2000): 1-28; “Only Historicize,” Dante Studies, 127 (2009): 37-54 (especially pp. 44, 49); “A Philosophy of Consolation: The Place of the Other in Life’s Transactions,” in Boccaccio 1313-2013, ed. F. Ciabattoni, E. Filosa, K. Olson (Ravenna: Longo, 2015), pp. 89-105; Bàrberi-Squarotti, Giorgio, “L’orazione del conte Ugolino,” Lettere Italiane 23 (1971): 3-28.
  • detheologizing clears the way for historicizing
  • the role of the family in dynastic politics: from Francesca, a dynastic wife, to Ugolino, a dynastic wolf
  • the subordination of love to power
  • cutting family ties: children are not responsible for the guilt of their fathers
  • Sardinia in the Inferno: from the barraters of Inferno 22 to the traitors of Inferno 33
  • the human requirement to use language to console
  • the theologically untenable case of zombies: the sinners of Tolomea remain on earth as animated corpses until their deaths, but their souls are in Hell from the moment that they betray
  • the theme of animated death looks forward to Lucifer and Inferno 34
  • on the suspension of disbelief

While writing the pages on Ugolino della Gherardesca in The Undivine Comedy (1992), my analytical lens shifted from the meta-narrative to include more historicist material (see pp. 96-97). In retrospect I realize that writing these pages was perhaps the first time I experienced in practice how detheologizing clears the way for historicizing, long before I understood in theoretical terms how this is in fact the case. In making the case for historicizing, I do not mean to suggest that history has not been used in considerations of the Commedia, but to indicate that we can see the possibilities for historicist readings in a fresh light once we are less blinkered by an overdetermined hermeneutic template engineered by the author to prescribe our readings.

Thus, in the essay “Only Historicize” (2009), I give the example of the still under-explored historical context of Ugolino, in particular stressing that the Ugolino episode is the Inferno’s most painful and explicit exploration of the role of family in politics: “Dante’s thinking on the role of the casato as a key to the tragedy of Italian history is an unexplored feature of the Ugolino episode” (“Only Historicize,” p. 49).

Inferno 33 and the Ugolino episode are steeped in history: in the people and events that shaped Ugolino’s politics. A central node of Pisan politics (and therefore Ugolino’s politics), was the island of Sardinia, a Pisan possession. I rehearse some of the elements of Ugolino’s Sardinian politics in The Undivine Comedy, along with the Sardinian connections that hail from Inferno 22 (see the Introduction to Inferno 22 for the Sardinian barraters in that canto):

Ugolino was the Sardinian vicar of Re Enzo, son of Frederic II; Ugolino’s son Guelfo married Elena, Enzo’s daughter, and Ugolino's grandchildren inherited Enzo’s Sardinian possessions. Ugolino’s son-in-law, Giovanni Visconti, was also a power on the island as judge of Gallura, as was Giovanni’s son, Ugolino’s grandson, Nino Visconti, whom Dante hails in the valley of the princes by his Sardinian title: “giudice Nin” (Purg. 8.53). These connections begin to manifest themselves in Inferno 33 when Ugolino says that Ruggieri appeared to him, in his dream, as “maestro e donno” (Inf. 33.28]): donno is a Sardinianism that occurs only here and in Inferno 22, where it is used in the description of the Sardinian barraters. One is friar Gomita of Gallura (“frate Gomita, / quel di Gallura” [Inf. 22.81-2]), vicar of Nino Visconti, the lord or donno whose enemies he freed for money. The other is “donno Michel Zanche / di Logodoro” (Inf. 22.88-9), a Sardinian noble who originally sided with Genova rather than Pisa; he was killed by his Genovese son-in-law Branca Doria, either out of greed for his Sardinian holdings or because of his later leanings toward Pisa. Sardinia as a catalyst of greed figures in all these dramas, and indeed frate Gomita, betrayer of Nino Visconti, and Michel Zanche, betrayed by Branca Doria, talk of Sardinia in the bolgia of barratry: “e a dir di Sardigna / le lingue lor non si sentono stanche” (in talking of Sardinia their tongues do not grow weary [Inf. 22.89-90]). Sardinia unites all these sinners as the object of their greed and strife, and Ugolino was as rapacious a player (not for nothing does he see himself as a wolf in his dream) as the others. (The Undivine Comedy, pp. 96-7)

The Guelph Visconti and Ghibelline Gherardesca families, traditionally opposed, became allies to protect their Sardinian holdings. Their alliance led to the ill-fated shared magistracy of Ugolino and his grandson Nino Visconti, the same Nino whom Dante hails as a personal friend in the Valley of the Princes, calling him by his Sardinian title “giudice Nin gentil” (Purg. 8.53). Nino’s title is “giudice” because the provinces of Sardinia were called “giudicati”.

Ugolino’s career was marked by continuous switching back and forth of party allegiance. Originally Ghibelline, Ugolino was exiled from Ghibelline Pisa in 1275. He returned with the help of Florentine Guelphs. In 1284 he became podestà of Pisa. To protect Pisa from Guelph threats he negotiated with Florence and Lucca and ceded three castles to them, an incident that Dante notes in ambiguous fashion:

Che se ’l conte Ugolino aveva voce
d’aver tradita te de le castella,
non dovei tu i figliuoi porre a tal croce. (Inf. 33.85-7) 

For if Count Ugolino was reputed
to have betrayed your fortresses, there was
no need to have his sons endure such torment. 

In 1285 Ugolino’s grandson, Guelph Nino Visconti, was called to share the office of chief magistrate with his Ghibelline grandfather. What happened next is well described by Guy Raffa:

Taking advantage of resurgent Ghibelline fortunes in Tuscany, Ugolino connived with the Pisan Ghibellines, led by the Archbishop Ruggieri degli Ubaldini; Ugolino agreed to Ghibelline demands that his grandson Nino be driven from the city, an order that was carried out—with Ugolino purposefully absent from the city—in 1288. The traitor, however, was then himself betrayed: upon Ugolino’s return to Pisa, Ruggieri incited the public against him (by cleverly exploiting Ugolino’s previous “betrayal of the castles”) and had the count—along with two sons (Gaddo and Uguiccione) and two grandsons (Anselmo and Brigata)—arrested and imprisoned. (

We cannot in fact be entirely sure of what sin Dante has in mind in putting Ugolino here. Nassime Chida, a Ph.D. candidate at Columbia University who is writing her dissertation on Ugolino and who has reviewed all the historical literature, elegantly clarifies the murkiness of the situation:

The sin that puts Ugolino in Antenora is not specified by Dante; this may or may not be because his sin was obvious to contemporary readers, for the early commentators do not all agree on what the sin might be. Ugolino was more of a diplomat than a warrior and his achievements can easily be construed as betrayals: for example the ceding of the castles, a gesture designed to break the alliance between Pisa’s enemies, was in fact a successful act of diplomacy. In other cases, his “betrayal” may seem much more obvious to modern readers if not contemporaries, for example when he went to war against the city of Pisa as head of a group of noble “fuoriusciti” and won (like Farinata). Finally: would his “conversion” to the parte guelfa be considered a political betrayal? It is not clear.

According to all the historical accounts I have read, including relatively recent research (Il conte Ugolino della Gherardesca tra antropologia e storia, ed. Francesco Mallegni and Maria Luisa Lemut, Pisa 2003), Ugolino cannot be said to have “led” the Pisan forces, although he did participate in the battle. However he was later and often blamed for the defeat, considered to be the start of Pisa’s permanent decline. Furthermore, Ugolino was elected because of this defeat, not in spite of it, precisely because the election of a known Guelph would appease Pisa’s Guelph enemies and provide a suitable interlocutor with whom they could negotiate the terms of peace.

There was a rift between Ugolino and Nino, because supporters of the Gherardesca faction and the Visconti faction seem to have come to blows. However the reasons for the rift, to my knowledge, cannot be established for sure since we lack the testimony of the parties involved. It could be because of the ceded castles, but it could also be because of the failed negotiations involving the return of Pisa’s prisoners of war, held captive in Genoa, who happened to include Ugolino’s eldest son. As for his responsibility for Nino’s expulsion from the city, while all the historians I have read do suspect it, and such an expulsion would have been difficult or impossible without Ugolino’s complicity, the details are also difficult to confirm. Nino Visconti in any case did not hold it against Ugolino, whom he tried unsuccessfully to rescue after his downfall. The toppling of the regime of the due signori (Ugolino and Nino) was  a Ghibelline coup and it involved the manipulation of the Pisan crowds. (Nassime Chida, email communication of 11/16/2015)

I agree with the view that the betrayal for which Dante chiefly held Ugolino responsible may be traced back to his treatment of his grandson Nino Visconti during the period in which they shared power in Pisa. I consider the presence of Nino Visconti in Purgatorio 8, and the deep affection displayed between him and Dante in that canto (an affection for which we have no independent verification), a signpost regarding Nino’s importance in recent Pisan history as Dante saw it.

Chiavacci Leonardi too writes that it is implausible that Ugolino’s true betrayal from Dante’s perspective was the ceding of the castles and that it was more likely something to do with his “betrayal” of Nino: “Ma il vero tradimento per cui egli sta nell’ultimo cerchio non sembra poter essere questo, se era solo una voce. Si tratta più probabilmente del suo improvviso voltafaccia quando era signore della città, per cui tradì Nino Visconti accordandosi con l’arcivescovo Ubaldini, secondo una versione da Dante seguita” (The true betrayal committed by Ugolino, for which he is placed in the lowest circle, is most likely not this [the ceding of the castles], given that this was only a voce or rumor. Most likely it was the sudden turnabout when he was lord of the city, whereby he betrayed Nino Visconti and allied himself with Archbishop Ubaldini, according to the version of events that Dante followed [Chiavacci Leonardi commentary to Inferno 33, at verse 86, my trans.).

In Dante’s view, Ugolino used and abused his family members in securing and consolidating power over Pisa. Thus, Dante shows the fictional Ugolino’s willingness to use his children as oratorical pawns in his infernal narrative. However murky the politics and history of the Ugolino episode, the story as Dante tells it is fundamentally about the exploitation of the bonds of family love for political ends. This form of exploitation, while taken to the extreme in Ugolino’s case, was systemic in Dante’s society.

We cannot stress the last point enough: the story of Ugolino is an emblem for the systemic exploitation of family to political ends in Due- and Trecento Florentine society. Such exploitation was built into the dynastic model: families were units of power and governance and Ugolino’s story demonstrates the dire consequences that may result when family ties are systemically subordinated to the requirements of power. The Ugolino encounter foregrounds dynastic power politics and shows how it leads to abuses of all human relationships—even the bond between parent and child.

The Inferno is full of dynastic families, discussed as a historical phenomenon in the Introductions to Inferno 5, Inferno 12, and Inferno 27. Just to focus on two canti that have many internal recalls and links between them, Inferno 5 and Inferno 33, we saw the exploitation of women for dynastic purposes in Inferno 5: Francesca da Polenta was married to Gianciotto Malatesta as a dynastic pawn to consolidate the ruling Polenta family of Ravenna and the ruling Malatesta family of Rimini. In Inferno 33 Dante is again reminding us that all members of a powerful family are usable, including children, and that all members, including children, may potentially suffer.

Antenora is reserved for political traitors while Caina is for traitors of family, but the story of Ugolino and his sons, like that of Francesca da Rimini, indicts Italian politics for not distinguishing between the two—indeed, for using family bonds in order to advance politically, and for abusing family bonds when family is not politically useful.

* * *

Dante’s account of Ugolino della Gherardesca and his sons thus dramatizes the subordination of love to power. In this episode with the last great charismatic sinner of Inferno, we come back to love: paternal rather than romantic, but definitely love.

As occurs in Inferno 5, which moves from its topic (love) to its meta-topic (reading and writing about love), so also Inferno 33 moves from its topic, the family/power nexus, to its meta-topic: the question of communication and language and, most importantly, the question of our responsibility to use language to comfort each other. The Ugolino episode is an in malo expression of the principle, strongly held by the author of the Commedia, that we have an obligation to speak to each other: a sacred responsibility to use the special human birthright of language to help, guide, and console each other.

Before discussing Ugolino’s responsibility to his children, I should make clear that Ugolino is correct when he states that Dante cannot have known how cruel his death was:

però quel che non puoi avere inteso,
cioè come la morte mia fu cruda,
udirai, e saprai s’e’ m’ha offeso. (Inf.33.19-21)

however, that which you cannot have heard—
that is, the cruel death devised for me—
you now shall hear and know if he has wronged me.

As Francesca tells of the private romantic moments that led to her falling in love with her brother-in-law, moments that no one else now knows, since the other participant in the event is dead, so Ugolino tells of the private torturous moments that led to his death by starvation, after witnessing the starvation one by one of his children.

There is no denying the horror to which Ugolino was subjected and, moreover, it is impossible for any of us readers to know with certainty how we would behave under such circumstances. Therefore, faced with such a story (the only story in Inferno that focuses at length on the manner of death), a certain moral pudor seems obligatory. But the rules of Dante’s parlor game involve responding to what we see (as the pilgrim does), and participating morally in what we read.

Humans are gifted by their maker with reason, and with reason they were able to create language. In this scheme of things, the scheme of things that Dante posits, language is our fundamental privilege and our fundamental responsibility. As Dante feels obliged to seek heroically to use language to describe the indescribable in the exordium of Inferno 32, so Ugolino was obliged to seek heroically to use language to express the inexpressible to his children.

Instead, Ugolino’s heart turns to stone—“sì dentro impetrai” (within, I turned to stone [Inf. 33.49])—and his tongue dries up, as Dante fears his tongue will do when he first addresses Ugolino (see Inf. 32.139). The verb impetrare, to turn to stone, echoes the rima petrosa that informs Inferno 32, signalling again that the cold and love-denying ethos of the petrose prevails.

How talkative Ugolino is now, to the pilgrim, how willing to communicate his point of view and his sense of his own pain, and how he failed utterly to offer a word of consolation to his dying children! Dante goes so far as to revise the historical record, making Ugolino’s historically grown sons and grandsons into children, in order to generate pathos and reveal the stony-heartedness of the father: the children offer more comfort to the father—they speak more words to him—than the father does to them.

Ugolino’s discourse to Dante is extremely well structured, as Bàrberi Squarotti showed in his classic essay “L’orazione del conte Ugolino,” (cited in Coordinated Reading), and deeply manipulative. I find most chilling the logical connectors with which he indicates that he had no choice but to keep silent, as in “Perciò non lagrimai né rispuos’ io” (Therefore I shed no tears and did not answer [Inf. 33.52]) and Queta’mi allor per non farli più tristi” (Then I became silent, so that I not make them more sad [Inf. 33.64]). But why would words make them more sad? They are humans, not the wolf-cubs of Ugolino’s dream. And, indeed, the children speak their grief to the father. It is the father who does not speak to them.

Ugolino sees himself in dream as a wolf being hunted with its cubs: he is ‘‘il lupo’’ with its ‘‘lupicini’’ (Inf. 33.29). The wolf holds a particular place in Dante’s imaginary, and, by characterizing the Count as a wolf, Dante signals that Ugolino is a figure of rapacious greed, whose hunger for power was his paramount feeling and motivation. The lupa of Inferno 1 is a fearsome figure of lack. As the masculine variant of la lupa, Ugolino is the father who inflicts on his sons fearsome lack: material lack and starvation in the tower, but also spiritual lack of language and comfort and consolation.

Ugolino’s speech is geared to the solicitation of pity: he asks Dante a rhetorical question—“e se non piangi, di che pianger suoli?” (and if you don’t weep now, when would you weep? [Inf. 33.42])—that is in effect an exhortation to weep for him. And yet Dante does not weep for him. He instead explodes into an apostrophe to Pisa, wishing for Pisa’s destruction and excoriating the city for having tortured the innocent sons, who deserved to be treated with compassion:

  Ahi Pisa, vituperio de le genti
del bel paese là dove ’l sì suona,
poi che i vicini a te punir son lenti,
  muovasi la Capraia e la Gorgona,
e faccian siepe ad Arno in su la foce,
sì ch’elli annieghi in te ogne persona!
  Ché se ’l conte Ugolino aveva voce
d’aver tradita te de le castella,
non dovei tu i figliuoi porre a tal croce.
  Innocenti facea l’età novella,
novella Tebe, Uguiccione e ’l Brigata
e li altri due che ’l canto suso appella. (Inf. 33.79-90)
  Ah, Pisa, you the scandal of the peoples
of that fair land where sì is heard, because
your neighbors are so slow to punish you,
  may, then, Caprara and Gorgona move
and build a hedge across the Arno's mouth,
so that it may drown every soul in you!
  For if Count Ugolino was reputed
to have betrayed your fortresses, there was
no need to have his sons endure such torment.
  O Thebes renewed, their years were innocent
and young—Brigata, Uguiccione, and
the other two my song has named above!

Dante’s explicit reference to the sons as innocent on account of their youth—“Innocenti facea l’età novella” (their youth made them innocent [Inf. 33.88])—suggests that he might have altered their actual ages (if he had this information) in order to insist on the innocence of youth. The innocence of youth is not a given in societies that treat all members of a tribe as standing or falling with their tribe.

Once again, as in the Geri del Bello episode in Inferno 29, Dante takes a stand against violence that is justified through family and kinship. In Inferno 29 he rejected the logic whereby he himself had to become a killer to avenge the violent death of his kinsman. In Inferno 33 he rejects the logic whereby Ugolino della Gherardesca’s male sons are killed along with their father.

He will eventually offer the theoretical basis for his rejection of this logic, stipulating in Purgatorio 7 that virtue is given by God and does not flow down the branches of a family tree from father to son:

Rade volte risurge per li rami
l’umana probitate; e questo vole
quei che la dà, perché da lui si chiami. (Purg. 7.121-23)
How seldom human worth ascends from branch
to branch, and this is willed by Him who grants
that gift, that one may pray to Him for it!

By the same token that virtue does not pass down genealogically, neither does sin: Guido da Montefeltro is damned, while his son Bonconte is saved (see Purgatorio 5).

Ugolino’s sins should not have been visited upon his sons. Radically, Dante counters the logic of tribe and family and insists that “Innocenti facea l’età novella”.

After these bitter words, Dante turns his back on Ugolino, and the canto moves onward.

* * *

At the end of Inferno 33 the travelers move on to Tolomea, the third zone of Cocytus, reserved for traitors of guests. The story of Frate Alberigo and his companions in Tolomea is a remarkable one. It is, moreover, theologically untenable.

Dante learns that the souls of Tolomea have a peculiar fate: their bodies still walk the earth while their souls are already dead. Most remarkable is the case of Branca Doria, who did not die until 1325, after Dante himself.

Dante-poet here stages the bewilderment of Dante-pilgrim, who believes he is being deceived when Frate Alberigo points to Branca Doria. How can Branca Doria be here in Hell when he is still alive?

The pilgrim insists to Frate Alberigo that Branca is still alive: “e mangia e bee e dorme e veste panni” (he eats and drinks and sleeps and puts on clothes [Inf. 33.141]). Let us take note of this resume of what it means to be alive:

to live = to eat, to drink, to sleep, and to wear clothing

In The Undivine Comedy, the notes offer a reference to the tradition that grew up, according to which Branca took revenge on the poet by having him beaten (see Undivine Comedy, p. 297, note 45). The existence of such a tradition shows that Dante’s readers were at some level aware of the outrageousness of what Dante does in placing Branca Doria in Hell while he was still alive.

These sinners are medieval versions of the modern “zombie”: their bodies on earth are animated corpses.

The theme of animated death is a governing one in lowest Hell, and it will dominate the treatment of Lucifer in Inferno 34.

Dante ventures onto very thin ice indeed—theologically speaking—when he damns folks who have not yet died in 1300. He has already gone in this dangerous direction in the case of Boniface VIII, whose arrival in Hell is predicted by Nicholas III in Inferno 19, and now he does it again, flouting theology in order to make a dramatic point: certain kinds of iniquity are so great that a soul goes to Hell while the soul’s body is still on earth.

In effect, Dante is saying that some sins cause the sinner to be damned while still alive, despite a theology of repentance that holds that there is never a day before death when salvation is beyond our grasp. So Dante has deprived frate Alberigo and Branca Doria of the fundamental “right” to repent for their sins up to the last moment of life.

The “invention” of the already-dead-while-still-apparently-alive is also a neat rhetorical trick, within the context of what I call the “mirror games” that the author of the Commedia plays with us, his readers. In this episode, Dante tropes his master fiction, as I explain in The Undivine Comedy, offering us dead living people in the place of the customary living dead people:

Dante is here troping his master fiction: instead of living dead people, we now must contend with the idea of dead living people. As the outlines of the fiction become harder to hold onto, we succumb to it more readily, especially when the text reproduces our relation to it within itself, as occurs in the ensuing dialogue between the pilgrim and Alberigo: it seems that Branca Doria, a Genovese nobleman condemned to the ninth circle for the murder of his father-in-law, Michele Zanche (a Sardinian whom Dante has placed among the barraters), is in fact dead. The pilgrim is incredulous; Alberigo must be lying: “‘Io credo’, diss’io lui, ‘che tu m'inganni; / ché Branca Doria non morì unquanche, / e mangia e bee e dorme e veste panni’” (“I believe”, I said to him, “that you deceive me, / for Branca Doria has not yet died, / but eats and drinks and sleeps and puts on clothes” [Inf. 33.139-41]).

When the pilgrim disbelieves what he is told, essentially saying that he cannot sustain disbelief to such a degree, frate Alberigo, the fictional character, appeals to the “reality” of the virtual world Dante has witnessed. In order to persuade the pilgrim, frate Alberigo refers to the contents of Dante’s Inferno, name-checking the Malebranche, Michel Zanche (one of the Sardinian barraters whom Dante saw in the sticky pitch of the fifth bolgia), and the “tenace pece” itself:

«Nel fosso sù», diss’el, «de’ Malebranche,
là dove bolle la tenace pece,
non era ancor giunto Michel Zanche
che questi lasciò il diavolo in sua vece
nel corpo suo, ed un suo prossimano
che ’l tradimento insieme con lui fece. (Inf. 31.142-47)
“There in the Malebranche’s ditch above,
where sticky pitch boils up, Michele Zanche
had still not come,” he said to me, “when this one—
together with a kinsman, who had done
the treachery together with him—left
a devil in his stead inside his body.”

I analyze this truth claim in The Undivine Comedy:

So the pilgrim is now in the reader’s position, faced with an unbelievable truth, a “ver c’ha faccia di menzogna” (as earlier, in canto 28’s version of this mirror game, the sinners played the reader’s role). How does Alberigo—the creature in the fiction—persuade the pilgrim to believe him? By appealing to “reality”, namely the fiction to which he belongs. His reply is one of the most remarkable intratextual moments within the Commedia, as the text buttresses the text, the fiction supports the credibility of the fiction: “‘Nel fosso sù’, diss’el, ‘de’ Malebranche, / là dove bolle la tenace pece, / non era ancora giunto Michel Zanche, / che questi lasciò il diavolo in sua vece / nel corpo suo’” (“In the ditch of the Malebranche above”, he said, / “there where boils the sticky pitch, / Michel Zanche had not yet arrived / when this one [Branca] left a devil in his place / in his own body” [Inf. 33.142-46]). With these references to the text of the Inferno—to the Malebranche and the boiling pitch of the bolgia of the barraters—the pilgrim is convinced; and the poet, who has mirrored and thereby mounted a sneak attack on the reader’s reluctance to believe, concludes the canto by stating as simple fact what he learned from Alberigo: in this place he found—“trovai” (155)—a spirit whose soul was in Cocytus, while his body was on earth. Now that the fiction has been accepted as reality, reality—in a typically Dantean inversion—can be revealed to be a fiction: “e in corpo par vivo ancor di sopra” (and in body he still appears alive up above [Inf. 33.157]). (The Undivine Comedy, pp. 94-5)

At the end of Inferno 33, after having dramatized the scene in which a sinner had to persuade him to believe what he saw, the poet is able to state simply and categorically that in the ninth circle he found—“trovai” (155)—a spirit whose soul was in Cocytus, while his body was on earth. This passage is thus a master class on how to manage and massage the reader’s suspension of disbelief.

Recommended Citation

Barolini, Teodolinda. "Inferno 33 : Dynastic Wife to Dynastic Wolf." Commento Baroliniano, Digital Dante. Center for Digital Research and Scholarship. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2015.

Coordinated Reading