<p>(by Giancarlo Dessì, CC BY-SA 3.0 Wikimedia Commons)</p>
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  • Sardinia

A truly breathtaking climb to discover a castle shrouded in mystery.

The Legend
"Divine Comedy" painting by Domenico di Michelino (1465)

"Divine Comedy" painting by Domenico di Michelino (1465)

Ugolino was born in Pisa to a family of Lombard origin, the Gherardesca, who, thanks to their connections with the House of Hohenstaufen, enjoyed possessions and titles in Tuscany (then a territory of the Republic of Pisa) and defended the positions of the Ghibellines in Italy. Naturally, this suited the political needs of a city like Pisa, historically a supporter of the Empire and, therefore, Ghibelline.

However, he had switched to the Guelph faction thanks to a series of acquaintances and friendships. 

Friction with Ruggieri Degli Ubaldini (archbishop of Pisa and Ghibelline leader) led Ugolino’s position deteriorating to such an extent that he ended up with some of his sons and grandsons locked up in a tower, where he died of starvation on March 1289.

The archbishop pretended to seek an agreement with Ugolino, but when the count, trusting himself, returned to Pisa, he was captured and condemned for treason because of the castles he had ceded. He was locked up with his sons and grandsons in the Torre Della Muda, a tower belonging to the Gualandi family, so called because it was previously used to keep eagles there during the moulting period. At the behest of the archbishop, orders were given in 1289 to throw the prison key into the Arno River and to leave the five prisoners to starve. 

His figure was depicted twenty years later in Canto XXXIII of Inferno of Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy.

May fasting do more than sorrow“.

These verses by Dante hint at an insane gesture by the count, who would have been guilty of cannibalism. However, this phrase suggests the survival instinct of the count who, starving and locked up in the tower, defeated every ethical principle and went so far as to feed on the corpses of his own family members. Therefore, before dying, he would have been guilty of cannibalism, and Dante’s Inferno punishment was biting the skull of his arch-enemy Archbishop Ruggeri for eternity.

In the absence of evidence, many scholars believe that this is just a legend. In fact, to support this theory, it would be implausible that Count Ugolino’s sons, now weakened and in their eighties, died before him. So the legend that would see him as a cannibal seems to be a metaphorical device of Dante’s to describe the malignant and cruel character of Count Pisano. Other interpretations have suggested that the Count would have died of hardship simply to keep himself alive, though grieved by the loss of his children.

The first option was the one that initially convinced most of the Commedia’s audience: for this reason, Ugolino has passed into history as ‘The Cannibal Count’ and is often depicted in a state of consternation while biting his hands.

In fact, the count’s terrible end, in all its tragic aspects, owes its fame and popularity exclusively to Dante Alighieri, who places him in the Antenora, the second area of the ninth circle of Hell, where traitors to the homeland are punished (Cantos XXXII and XXXIII). Here, Ugolino, immersed in the icy waters of Cocito, appears as a damned avenger. According to Dante, the prisoners, consumed by fasting, died after a long agony, but Ugolino’s sons begged him to eat their flesh before dying. 

After Count Ugolino’s death, the castle first passed to Pisa and then in 1324, after the Aragonese conquest of Pisan Sardinia, to the Aragonese, only to be abandoned probably from 1410 onwards. It was later passed to various Sardinian feudal lords until the King of Sardinia, Vittorio Amedeo III of Savoy, in 1785, redeemed it.

In spite of these cruel events, from the heights of this fort, we are somehow enraptured by the beauty of this horizon and its magnificent lands that have so many other stories to tell.


1. Origins

2. Ugolino Della Gherardesca

3. The stronghold

4. The Legend