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The hungry sinner raises his mouth from the bleeding skull, wipes his lips on his victim’s hair, and begins to speak.
He says that reliving his story causes him pain. But if it’ll shed light on the truly nasty nature of his betrayer, he’ll be happy to talk. And cry. At the same time.
He tells Dante he doesn’t know who Dante is, but according to his accent, he sounds Florentine.
Finally, he starts his story. His name, by the way, is Count Ugolino—which already sounds like a sinister name—and his meal here is named Archbishop Ruggieri.
We find out Ugolino isn’t a very good storyteller because he ruins the ending before even beginning. So it seems this Archbishop tricked him into something and later killed him. According to Ugolino, this is common knowledge.
But what people don’t know is just how cruel and premeditated his murder was.
Here's Ugolino's story:
As a magistrate of Pisa, Ugolino is forced into some tough decisions. One of them is ceding three of Pisa’s fortresses to hostile neighboring cities, a move which many consider a betrayal.
Later, political reasons force Ugolino to be exiled from Pisa. Then the trap is set and the two-timing Archbishop Ruggieri invites Ugolino back into the city, and then betrays him.
Ugolino is locked away in a Pisan tower (no, not the leaning one) called the Eagles’ Tower, but— after his death—known by the nickname of the Hunger Tower.
Well, our Count is locked away there for "several moons" when he has a dream. And because dreams suddenly become important when you’re scared and hungry, this is what happens:
Archbishop Ruggieri appears as a lord and master of the hunt, riding with his allies Gualandi, Sismondi, and Lanfranchi (all Ghibelline families) and hunting down a lone wolf and his poor pups from a Pisan mountain with a bunch of hounds. After only a short flight, both father and son wolves are attacked by the hounds. The wolves represent Ugolino and his sons.
When Ugolino wakes up in the morning, he hears his sons (yes, who are there with him) crying in their sleep and begging for some bread.
Here, Ugolino stops his story to ask for Dante’s pity, telling him he should already be crying at his sad plight.
Back to the story. As the day goes on, the boys expect the food that is usually brought to them.
But instead of food comes the sound of people nailing up the doors of the tower.
Upon hearing his doom, Ugolino turns silently to his sons. He’s curiously quiet; he doesn’t cry, doesn’t say a word, and inside he "turned to stone."
But his four sons cry and little Anselm asks his father what’s wrong. But Ugolino doesn’t answer and he refuses to speak or weep the whole day and night.
When the first ray of the new dawn touches him, Ugolino sees his sorry self reflected in his sons’ gazes. He can’t take it anymore and snaps; he starts biting his hands out of grief.
His sons mistake his behavior for hunger and tell him, heartbreakingly, that it would be better if their good father ate them instead. Their reasoning? "You clothed us, father, in our miserable flesh [a.k.a. gave birth to us], so you should be able to strip us down too."
At this, Ugolino grows calm and falls silent for the next two days. Notice that he doesn't say anything to comfort his kids.
On the fourth day, Gaddo (a son) throws himself at his father’s feet, begging for help. Then he dies.
Throughout the next two days, the remaining three sons resign themselves to the same fate, and Ugolino goes blind. But he’s still silent.
Finally, after all his sons are dead, he gropes around blindly. In the moment of truth, he breaks his silence, calling after his sons. They’re dead.
He ends his story with a really cryptic line: "then fasting had more force than grief." Which could mean that a) he kept not eating despite his grief or b) he ate his dead sons.
Back in the present: Ugolino goes wild with grief and bites down on Ruggieri’s skull again.
Dante is as horrified as we are, but he expresses it rather differently. He curses Pisa, wishing that the neighboring islands of Caprara and Gorgona would dam up the river Arno so that all Pisan citizens would drown.
So goes his thought process: even if Ugolino were guilty enough to deserve death by starvation, his sons were innocent. It’s so unfair..
They move on, passing into the third ring, where they find sinners, not bent in the ice, but lying flat on it. It’s so cold there that they are not even allowed to weep because their tears immediately freeze into a sort of "crystal visor" over their eyes.
Dante, too, is feeling the effects of the cold; he’s going numb.
But, against all odds, he feels a wind against his skin. Strange. So he asks Virgil about it. (Note: medieval thinkers assume that the heat of the sun causes wind, so in this cold dark place, Dante wouldn’t expect any wind.)
Virgil, in his maddeningly mysterious way, answers that Dante will soon see for himself the source of this wind.
Suddenly, one of the sinners cries out to them. He mistakes them for fellow sinners and implores them to remove the veil of frozen tears from his face, so he can have a moment of relief before his tears begin freezing again.
To which Dante replies that he’ll grant him this boon in exchange for the sinner’s name and story. Interestingly, Dante promises to do this on pain of banishing himself to Hell. Ooh.
So the sinner starts: his name is Fra Alberigo and he claims to have nurtured fruits in a bad garden, for which he’s now being punished. No, that doesn’t mean he’s a terrible horticulturist, but is symbolic for his crime. Alberigo invited his relatives over for dinner, then had them assassinated. The assassins’ signal? Fruit.
Alberigo claims that his punishment is too severe for his crime.
But Dante’s doing some math in his head and because things don’t add up, he asks Alberigo if he’s already dead. What an interesting question.
Alberigo answers that he doesn’t know. Because Ptolomea (this place) is special: it has the power to take a soul to Hell (via a demon) before the sinner has even died.
To illustrate his point, Alberigo points out the sinner behind him, a guy named Branca Doria.
Dante accuses Alberigo of lying because he knows that Branca Doria is still living.
But Alberigo insists that Branca’s been his neighbor for while, even before the other sinners Dante saw earlier arrived in Hell.
Here's the big question: how can a soul be in one place and the body in another? Here’s how it works, according to Alberigo: once a traitor commits a crime against his guest, a demon from Ptolomea possesses the sinner’s live body on earth and hurls the sinner’s soul down to Hell. So a demon-possessed Branca is still living on earth.
Now, Alberigo calls in his favor, asking Dante to relieve his eyes. But Dante refuses. Even after promising to do so on pain of eternal condemnation.
Dante is even proud of his refusal, calling it a "courtesy" to the sinner.
He proceeds to curse the Genoese (because apparently both Alberigo and Branca were from Genoa) as a people so corrupt that their souls can be in Hell while they’re still living.