Dante’s Inferno: Canto 33 Retelling — Tolomea (Ugolino and Ruggieri)

Chapter 33: Tolomea (Ugolino and Ruggieri)

I know the story of these two sinners, Virgil thought. They are Ugolino and Ruggieri. Ugolino is Ugolino della Gherardesca, the Count of Donortico, and he is a Ghibelline. Ruggieri is Archbishop Ruggieri degli Ubaldini, and he is a Guelf. Their story took place in Pisa, a Ghibelline city that is surrounded by Guelf cities. Often, the Guelf cities triedy to take control over things such as castles in Pisan territory.

The Archbishop of Pisa, Ruggieri, a Ghibelline, decideds that it would be a good idea to hire a Guelf as city manager, aka podesta. Since the city manager would be a Guelf, he would be able to make better deals with the Guelfs; after all, they would be from the same party. Therefore, Ugolino wais hired to be podesta of Pisa.

Immediately, Ugolino and Ruggieri begain jockeying for power. Ugolino betrayeds Pisa by giving good deals to Guelf cities, telling them, Go ahead and take over thateven giving them castles. Ruggieri wasis worried because now he hads 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 and Ruggieri are actually in two different rings in Circle 9. Ugolino betrayed Pisa by giving good deals and good castles to Pisa’s Guelf enemies; therefore, he is a traitor to country and is punished in Ring #2: Antenora. Ruggieri betrayed Ugolino by locking him and his progeny in a tower and starving them to death; therefore, he is a traitor to guests or associates and is punished in Ring #3: Tolomea.

The sinner who was cannibalizing the head of the other sinner wiped his bloody mouth on the other sinner and then said, “You want me to tell a story that will cause me grief, but I am willing to tell it in order that this sinner’s deeds be known and remembered.

“Know that I am Count Ugolino, and the head I am biting belongs to Archbishop Ruggieri. You probably know much of my story already — but not the heartbreaking details.

“I trusted Archbishop Ruggieri, and because I trusted him, my children and I ended up in prison. Listen, and you shall learn why I make his head my never-ending meal!

“In the tower where we were imprisoned was a window that consisted of a narrow slit. Through it I saw the moon wax and wane many times until one night I had a dream that revealed our evil future.

“I dreamed that Archbishop Ruggieri was a hunter, and he was hunting a father wolf and his wolf cubs. The hunting dogs found the weary father wolf and his wolf cubs and ripped them to pieces.

“When I woke up, I heard my children, still asleep, crying out in their dreams for food.

“If you do not cry at what I am telling you, do you ever cry?

“My children awoke, and I heard nails being pounded into the door through which our food was pushed. I knew then that we would die of starvation. I did not weep, for inside I was stone.

“My children wept, and Anselmuccio said to me, ‘What is wrong, father?’

“I did not cry. We were not fed. As days passed by without food, in anguish I bit my hands.

“My children thought that I was biting my hands because of hunger, and they said, ‘Feed upon us, father. You gave us our flesh; now take our flesh from us!’

“On the fourth day without food, my Gaddo fell to the floor, crying, ‘Help me, father!’ Then he died.

“My other three children died in the following days, and for two days I called their names. Then I learned which is more powerful: grief or hunger.”

And then you ate the flesh of your children, Virgil thought. But like other sinners in the Inferno, you have told a self-serving story. Both you and Archbishop Ruggieri are unrepentant sinners, as we know from the fact that both of you are in the Inferno. Both of you betrayed the other. Both of you did some pretty nasty things to each other. You have told us the nasty things that Archbishop Ruggieri did to you, but you have left out the nasty things that you did to Archbishop Ruggieri.

“Also, you have been misleading in your story. You make it sound as if the four members of your family were all very young sons of yours. Actually, you were imprisoned with two sons and two grandsons. Three were adults; only one was a minor of 15 years old. Still, they were innocent, while you were guilty. Extreme factionalism results in the death of innocents.

Your punishment in the Inferno is fitting. This punishment reenacts your final act on Earth: eating the flesh of your children and grandchildren. You are condemned to reenact this forever.

Ruggieri, of course, placed you in a position where you were so hungry that you starved to death, so it is fitting that he is the object of your cannibalism here.

You, Ugolino, are getting what you want here: You want to eat Ruggieri’s flesh, and you are doing exactly that.

And Ugolino, you asked Dante, “If you do not cry at what I am telling you, do you ever cry?” But then you said that you did not cry. Why not? You are an evil man. You have been involved in devious political manipulations and betrayals. At this point, your heart has turned to stone. In the future, a translation of Ezekiel 36:26 will say, “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.” (King James Version).

You, Ugolino, have not done the things that would get earn you a heart of flesh. You have done, however, the kind of things that have earned you a heart of stone.

You two sinners have engaged in extreme factionalism. You two sinners have gotten innocents killed. You two sinners have not had the proper relationship between church and state government.

Having finished speaking, Ugolino returned to his meal, and Dante and Virgil walked on. Dante mourned the death of the innocents, but he did not mourn the punishment of Ugolino and Ruggieri, who were two very evil sinners.

Dante noticed wind now, and he asked Virgil what was its cause. Virgil replied, “You will soon see for yourself what is causing this wind.”

In Ring #3, which is named Tolomea, the faces looked up rather than down. The icy tears of the sinners froze their tear ducts, denying them the luxury of crying more tears.

A sinner frozen in the ice saw Dante and Virgil and thought that they were sinners destined for the final ring of the final Circle of the Inferno. The sinner called out, “Oh, wicked souls who are so evil that you have been sentenced to that part of the Inferno that punishes the very worst sinners, break the frozen tears off my eyes so that I may cry some more until the new tears freeze.”

“Tell me your name, and I will either do what you request or go beneath this ice,” Dante replied.

You, Dante, are torturing this sinner, Virgil thought, and this sinner deserves to be tortured. You, Dante, know that you will go beneath this ice. Once we reach the very center of the Earth, we must climb upward to the other side of the world, and to do that we must go underneath this ice.

The sinner replied, “I am Friar Alberigo, and I betrayed my guests. I invited a close relative named Manfred and Manfred’s son to supper, and then I had them murdered. I called for fruit to be served, and ‘Bring in the fruit’ was the prearranged signal for my men to murder my guests. However, I am being punished worse than I deserve.”

No, you are being punished exactly as much as you deserve, Virgil thought. God does not make mistakes. You are not actually dead yet, for your body will die in 1307, and the year now is 1300. But since you are here before you are dead, you deserve to be here.

“I am surprised to hear your name,” Dante said. “I thought that you were still alive.”

“This section of Tolomea is special,” Friar Alberigo replied. “Some sinners here were so evil that their souls came here before their body died. In the Land of the Living, a demon is inside my body, doing with it I know not what.

“Other sinners here are in the same fix. Another sinner who has sinned so badly that his soul ended 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 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.”

“That can’t be right,” Dante said. “Branca D’Oria is still alive, eating and drinking and sleeping.”

“It is as I have told you,” Friar Alberigo replied. “The soul of Branca D’Oria is here, while a demon inhabits his body in the Land of the Living.

“But do as you promised, and break the frozen tears from my face so that I may cry some more.”

Dante ignored the request. Friar Alberigo was a sinner. He did not deserve even to cry.

Dante thought, How sinful men can be. They can be so sinful that their souls are already in Hell although their body seems to be alive on Earth.

Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce

This is an excerpt from Dante’s Divine Comedy: A Retelling in Prose by David Bruce, available here:






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11 Responses to Dante’s Inferno: Canto 33 Retelling — Tolomea (Ugolino and Ruggieri)

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