Tests begin to see if tower captive ate children

September 28, 2001

In Canto XXXIII of his Inferno , Dante tells how in 1289, during political upheavals, Count Ugolino della Gherardesca was imprisoned with his family, and without food, in a tower dungeon in Pisa, today part of the library of the Scuola Normale di Pisa, one of Italy's most prestigious universities.

Dante insinuates that before dying, Ugolino ate the flesh of his sons, Gaddo and Uccione, and of his grandsons, Anselmuccio and Nino, and thus found himself in Hell.

The story has provided a gruesome frisson to generations of Italian schoolchildren, while scholars of Dante passionately wrangled over whether the poet's words were to be taken literally or not.

Scientists in Pisa have now tracked down what they believed to be Ugolino's body and, using the latest techniques, will try to discover if he did eat human flesh.

Masterminding the project is Francesco Mallegni, anthropologist and palaeontologist at Pisa University, who is a specialist in tracking down the remains of historic figures. He made the headlines last year when he found the body of the painter Giotto and re-constructed his face from the skull.

Mallegni has traced what may be the remains of Ugolino, his sons and grandsons to a vault beneath the church of Saint Francis.

Fulvio Bartoli, a nutritional palaeontologist who will analyse the remains, says: "First we will make sure it is Ugolino. We should find the bones of a man in his 80s, two in middle age, and two in their youth. Then we will compare their DNA with that of living members of the della Gherardesca family. They have agreed, and technically there should be no problems."

The next stage will be to discover what Ugolino ate before he died.

"We'll start with ICP plasma tests, a development of spectrophotometry, and XRF florescence," Bartoli says. "We may also use neutronic activation, but this is very expensive and requires a nuclear reactor. People who lived on vegetables, cereal and fish have a prevalence of strontium, magnesium and barium in their bones. While in red-meat eaters we find quantities of zinc and copper."

Bartoli admits that his findings may not be conclusive. "If we find the first situation, we can say Ugolino did not eat his children. But if we find lots of zinc and copper we can say that either he ate his children, or in the tower where he starved to death he somehow obtained some red meat."

Since Ugolino was put in the tower to starve to death, the latter results will undoubtedly delight the pro-cannibalism camp in the ongoing debate among Dante scholars.

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