The Torre dei Gualandi, formerly known as the Muda Tower, is a short stroll from the Leaning Tower. It’s not open to the public, but the piazza it’s in, Piazza dei Cavalieri, and the story the former tower has to tell are both worth the walk. Dante wrote about a ghoulish episode that happened here in 1289 in his masterpiece, The Divine Comedy.
Count Ugolino della Gherardesca was born in Pisa in 1210 and lived a life of deceit and treachery. He started out a Ghibellino, on the Holy Roman Emperor’s side, but flip flopped and became a Guelph, on the Pope’s side, when he thought it would be to his advantage. He was arrested and exiled from Pisa by the city’s Ghibelline government but conspired with nearby Guelph cities like Florence and Lucca to attack Pisa. Pisa was defeated and had to re-admit della Gherardesca and all other banished Guelphs. But he still had some betrayals up his sleeve.
In the year 1284, hostilities between the powerful maritime city states and archenemies Pisa and Genoa once again came to a head. Della Gherardesca was put at the command of a large part of the fleet from Pisa, but his ships cut and run after the Genovese made their first advances in the battle of the Meloria. Pisa was trounced by Genoa in this famous naval battle, never to recover its wealth, power or status. (See Cassandra’s post on the Leaning Tower of Pisa for more news on the surprising consequences of this battle and its prisoners of war.)
The scene of a crime so terrible that people are still talking about it six hundred years later
Della Gherardesca was accused of deserting but nevertheless was named Podesta’ of Pisa for a year. He proceeded to pay off Florence and Lucca by giving them many castles that Pisa owned. Della Gherardesca was less eager to make a deal with Genoa because they were offering to return Pisa’s political prisoners, most of whom were Ghibellines and none too fond of della Gherardesca.
Ugolino became capitano del popolo for ten years but had to share power with a nephew. When Ugolino caught the upstart negotiating for more power with the Archbishop of Pisa and the Ghibellines he drove him out of Pisa, destroyed his palazzi, and declared himself Podesta’ for good.
A little while later Pisa was hit by a food shortage. Riots ensued and during one Ugolino accidentally on purpose killed one of the Archbishop’s nephews. His fate was sealed, or rather walled up. The Archbishop gathered an army of Ghibellines and went after Ugolino who barricaded himself in the town hall, only surrendering when the Ghibellines set it on fire.
The Archbishop gave orders to immure, that is to wall up, Ugolino, his sons and his grandsons in the Torre della Muda and to throw the key into the Arno. The prisoners were left to starve. Some say that Ugolino saved his bloodline by having his family substituted by the family of a maid. Others say that he died last after eating the flesh of his progeny.
This beautiful building houses Pisa’s top university, the Scuola Normale
In Dante’s Inferno you’ll find Ugolino in the second ring of the lowest circle of hell, the place reserved for betrayers of family, country, guests and benefactors, gnawing eternally on the Archbishop’s head. Strangely enough, Ugolino della Gherardesca’s descendants have a sculpture of their great-great-great-etc-grandfather, captured in the act of voraciously devouring his children and grandchildren, in a flower bed right in front of their family seat. Because there’s no such thing as bad publicity, especially if it’s Dante who’s dissing you.
Suggested reading: Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy