Becoming an Oak Leaf

Dry, curled oak leaves, 8-10 to 11-95
Oak leaves – Drawing by Mason Hayek
Thanksgiving Day[1]
-Lydia Maria Child (1802-1880)
 Over the river, and through the wood,
To grandfather’s house we go;
The horse knows the way
To carry the sleigh
Through the white and drifted snow.
 Over the river, and through the wood—
Oh, how the wind does blow!
It stings the toes
And bites the nose
As over the ground we go.
 Over the river, and through the wood,
To have a first-rate play.
Hear the bells ring
Hurrah for Thanksgiving Day!
 Over the river, and through the wood
Trot fast, my dapple-gray!
Spring over the ground,
Like a hunting-hound!
For this is Thanksgiving Day.
 Over the river, and through the wood,
And straight through the barn-yard gate.
We seem to go
Extremely slow,—
It is so hard to wait!
 Over the river and through the wood—
Now grandmother’s cap I spy!
Hurrah for the fun!
Is the pudding done?
Hurrah for the pumpkin-pie!

A dear, dear friend—almost a sister—and I celebrated our Thanksgiving at The Gables, a restaurant near famous Longwood Gardens, in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania.  The holiday buffet was pleasing, the waiter entertaining and attentive, and the comfortably crowded setting appealing.  We missed our dear ones who are on the other side, missed them intensely, and also reveled in the warmth of each other’s company and a shared tradition just created.  After eating, we drove for an hour or more in the bright November afternoon, along country roads lined with already-winter trees.

To some extent we are like the brown oak leaves continuing to hold firmly to their branches while the branches of other species are now bare.  We oak leaves are transformed from what we were but are as much a part of the vibrant present and eternal scene as the cloudless sky, the fierce, magnificent sun shining in our eyes as we drive west, the coven of buzzards we see standing together by the side of a Chester County road, the small V of geese heading somewhere in the chilly but welcoming November air.  We are as much a part of it all as are the multigenerational families gathering in homes for turkey and stuffing.

Another deeply dear friend has kindly included me in her family’s holiday gatherings in recent years.  But with her mother’s passing this fall, the center for that family’s gatherings has broken into smaller venues, settings for blood-and-marriage-only participants.  I am grateful to have been included as an almost member of this family.  I cherish their generosity and kindness, especially the warmth of my sweet friend and her husband, also loved.  They are not the reason I always felt a little outside the gathered circle, no matter its members’ friendliness and warmth.  I felt a little outside the circle because I was this from fact, not from any deficiency in my friend.

I will continue from time to time to step into others’ lives with pleasure and gratitude.  Even yesterday I was with the treasured couple just mentioned while they and their son, daughter-in-law, and granddaughters sorted through Christmas decorations brought down from the attic.  And for next month, I have accepted the kind invitation of another friend to attend her family’s traditional Italian Feast of the Seven Fishes.  But in any such cases, I am the outsider invited in.  And I have always craved with all my being to be one of those at home within our circle—rather than privileged sometimes to step across a barrier into theirs.  I crave to be part of the family, my family, a permanent resident rather than a guest.

Mother, Daddy, and I were, to me, the essence of a family who loved each other.  And so I am profoundly blessed to have known such love and belonging.  I am vastly blessed, too, that any of my friends should find me pleasant enough to join their families on special days.  And my blessings extend infinitely.  As my sister-friend and I talked, ate, and gazed at the festive restaurant and our fellow diners, we thought not only of the encircling pleasure of the moment, not only of our loved ones in the air around us, but also of the millions and millions with no meal to sustain them, no peace, no security, no family or close-as-family friends.

But just considering me for the moment, in my life of relative affluence and ease, I now recognize the importance of creating new traditions, new ways of being whole, in spite of the tornadoes of loss and change—in spite of being an oak leaf left on the tree after so much beauty has drifted away.  As my beloved friend and I shared Thanksgiving, we were not visiting others’ lives; we were living our own.

And so I will decorate a Christmas tree this year.  I have not had the courage to do so since losing my mother from this life, and after losing Daddy from our lives, Mother and I only had a tree on our last Christmas together.  I should no more let myself live entirely through Christmases past than try to live entirely through the lives of friends who continue to be part of physically present families.

With my dearest friends of the heart and on my own, I will do my best to find and to create meaningful traditions and ways of being, including reaching out to others, as long as my leaf still clings to the tree.


The Girl in the Leaning Tower – Chapter 13

Arno, Pisa, with Santa Maria della Spina
View of the Arno River from a bridge

Mirella Then and Now

Polly was curious to find out what Mirella would recite this time, so she waited before ascending the San Michele in Borgo steps. But Polly didn’t have to wait long before Mirella rose, followed immediately by Byron, who stood proudly beside his human as she began to speak in her stage voice:

The Arno carries silence to its mouth
Just as summer carries gold;
Flocks of birds cross the river mouth
And bathe their wings in the sea.

Polly heard softly in her ear—proving again that Sofia could be discreet if she chose—“That’s from a poem by Gabriele d’Annunzio. It’s about Pisa, too, the Marina of Pisa, anyway.”

“Who’s Gabriele d’Annunzio?” Polly whispered back but received no answer. The air around her already lacked Sofia’s special energy.

Mirella finished her poem, and she and Byron sat back down. She looked much more cheerful today, in keeping with the more peaceful tone of the poem she had chosen.

It was nice, now that Polly thought about it more, to hear poetry recited in the open air.

Mirella rested in her spot on the church steps and watched the people pass. As Polly began climbing toward her, she avoided looking at Mirella but rather stared down at her own feet. She felt the way she would if she were walking into someone’s house uninvited. When she finally did look up and stop near the cat and woman, Byron said, “Meow,” in a surprised tone of voice—not menacing or showing fright, but simply sounding surprised. Apparently folks who passed them on the steps usually hurried on into the church, as Polly herself had seen people doing.

“Hello, professoressa; I’m Polly. I’m a friend of Sofia’s. She suggested I come visit. Am I interrupting you?”

“Not at all, and call me Mirella; even my students did,” Mirella answered in a friendly, lively manner. “Sofia told me about you. You’re in Pisa for the summer, studying Italian while your parents are in Naples.”

“Yes, they thought I might enjoy a summer on my own.”

“You speak Italian quite well already, young woman. That’s unusual for an American girl—Sofia’s told me you’re American, but I would have guessed that anyway by looking at you. Wouldn’t you like to sit down?”

Sitting down next to Byron, Polly asked, “Why would you have known I’m American? That happened yesterday, too, when I went into a store to buy mineral water. The man spoke to me in English before I even opened my mouth!”

“It’s the way you carry yourself—so confident yet shy at the same time. I can’t really explain it; the reason sounds contradictory, but it’s true, and I’m nearly always right. Italians are confident and not shy. English people are shy and not so confident. Sometimes I’m wrong. I’m not judging people, mind you, and each land has millions of variations—one for every person who lives there—but I get these little impressions. You were confident but shy just now in coming to sit next to me—a brave move because pretty much everyone thinks I’m crazy, but Sofia must have told you I’m not really crazy, just different.”

“You don’t sound at all crazy now.”

“Only now?”

Polly tried to answer carefully but honestly: “I love poetry—I’ve heard a little about Dante and Shelley, and hearing poetry outdoors is nice, but when you recite in such a big voice as you were doing, that’s a little unusual.”

“Lots of things are unusual. Unusual can be interesting. How did you meet Sofia?” Mirella shifted on her step so that she was looking squarely at Polly.

“She spoke to me when I was visiting the Leaning Tower with my parents. Then I met her there again that evening.”

“What did you think when she first spoke to you?”

“I couldn’t believe what was happening! I always suspected there were people like Sofia around, but I didn’t expect to be holding a conversation with anyone like her.”

“And now what do you think?”

“She’s a little wild, and sometimes she’s so bossy, but I do like her. If I told my friends back in New York about her, they’d think I was crazy.”

“Yes, people judge other people as crazy for all sorts of incorrect reasons.”

Polly had not missed the irony in Mirella’s voice. “Oh. I’m sorry.”

“If you hadn’t met Sofia yourself but heard me talking to her or about her, you’d add that to your list of reasons why I must be crazy—right?”

“I’m sorry,” Polly repeated.

“No need to apologize, just a point worth grasping.” Polly, Mirella, and Byron all passed a quiet moment watching a young man on a motorbike swerve around a family of tourists. “More Americans,” said Mirella. “See how the man holds himself proudly, but they’re looking for the Leaning Tower and can’t get up the nerve to stop someone for directions. There, he’s pulled out his map.”

Mirella continued, “But I have the nerve to ask you, why did you agree to come see me?”

“I hope you don’t mind. As I said, Sofia suggested it, but I really did want to meet you. I do love poetry—and lots of other literature, too—and I knew you were a professor. As far as Sofia’s concerned, she has some sort of mission for me to help her with, even though she hasn’t really explained where I come in. She has three people she wanted me to get to know, and you’re one of them, along with a Roma girl, Flora, and a boy from Nigeria named Charles. I also thought meeting you might help me figure out what Sofia has in mind for me. I like her, but I’m a little confused by her, too.”

“Sofia’s headstrong. She’s always been headstrong, and we go way back, believe me. But she’s a good girl. She means well. To tell you the truth, we’re both after the same thing. We both want to protect our Pisa. Sofia tells me you’re staying with Mme Meringue. She, too, is someone with the same goal—protecting Pisa—but she thinks the way to do it is to get rid of the likes of Flora and me, and Charles if he’s not working for her.”

“You sound so nice and interesting. Why don’t you live a more ordinary life so that people wouldn’t say things about you?”

“They don’t really talk about me as much as you might think. Mostly I’m invisible, or people pretend I am. And I have a pretty good life. Sofia may have told you, I live in an old tower just a few blocks from here. Pisa has lots of old square towers, not just the famous round one. Wealthy people incorporated most of them into their palazzi—their homes—during the Renaissance, so you have to be observant to notice them. They usually made the roof lines of the houses level with the tops of the square towers, but mine is still a tower. It’s attached to a lower building on one side, but it’s independent and strong.”

“Like you,” Polly said impulsively.

“Yes, I suppose,” Mirella said without conceit in her voice. “My tower is very pretty. It’s not fancy and frilly like Sofia’s, but it’s very suitable for me. It was built even before the Leaning Tower, and my tower also has lovely bells. I remember they were rung every single day when I was a girl. I have pretty curtains at the windows and a nice, comfortable chair in my little living room where I can look out on the street below and watch the university students coming and going and see the people eating at the trattoria on the corner. They have very good food there.

“One day I got all dressed up and pulled my hair back into a bun. I wore a skirt and sweater I hadn’t worn since I taught literature at the university. There’s no point in wearing something as good as that outfit every single day, when I’m not going anywhere special, just to the church steps to recite for people, but at the university they kind of expected you to look nice, especially if you’re a woman. Anyway, I ate at the restaurant—just a simple pasta and marinated eggplant—but no one recognized me. They thought I was a dignified woman from somewhere else, a professor in Pisa for a program at the university. Well, I am a professor and I am dignified, even if people occasionally talk about me as if I had two heads.”

“Do you miss teaching?”

“Not teaching my classes anymore makes me very sad. I don’t understand why they asked me to leave. I didn’t cause any problems, and I know a lot about all sorts of great writers; everyone agrees that I do, even the rettore—president—who fired me.

“The only thing he objected to—the only thing anyone objected to—was such a little thing, almost like firing me for not liking my name. After all, I really was Beatrice. There’s no question. Why should I doubt what I know? Why should others doubt me?”

Polly felt as if she were running trying to keep up with Mirella’s train of thought. Who—and when—was Mirella talking about?

“My full name was Beatrice Portinari, and I lived in Florence. By then, Pisa wasn’t doing too well, and even though Sofia and I had been neighbors back in Pisa’s heyday, I was willing to put up with Florence during my short life as Beatrice for the sake of inspiring my talented Dante Alighieri. I call him “my Dante” even though I never really did get to know him and was as surprised as anything to come upon his Divine Comedy in this life. Imagine my shock at discovering what an influence I’d had on him! It had been my desire, but who would have thought I’d succeeded so well?”

“You knew Sofia back in the 12th century? And what’s this about Dante? I’ve never actually read him. I just know he wrote a really long poem about hell. Who’s Beatrice?”

“Beatrice was—or rather, I was—Dante’s beloved from afar, his muse, and his guide in heaven in The Divine Comedy. The poem’s about purgatory and heaven, too, not just hell.”

“I see,” said Polly, who didn’t. “You were Beatrice, and now you’re Mirella.”

“Oh I didn’t come here directly. I wouldn’t know as much as I do if that had happened. Most of it’s a blur—just a few memories of this life or that—but I’m also pretty clear on the time right before now because I was so happy then.”

“Who were you?”

“I was myself, of course, but with different details. I lived in Pisa’s rural countryside in a farmhouse with a big oak door that had red bougainvillea growing all around it and drooping over the top so that sometimes the vine got caught in the door.” Polly gave up hope of getting clearer explanations for now, so she tried to tune up her concentration to picture the details as Mirella described them.

Mirella’s expression turned dreamy. “Sometimes in the early morning, I’d sit on a stone bench near the house and hope that my Lorenzo—he had such beautiful blue eyes—and his dog, Giallo, would walk up the long dirt drive. Of all the friends I’ve ever known, I loved Lorenzo most. I still look for him. He must be here again, too, somewhere. On the mornings when our chores allowed, Lorenzo and I sat together on the bench until time for school. The coolness of the stone felt soothing; it was so familiar. We gazed over the fields and olive trees and talked about the day ahead, our families, and the neighbors on the surrounding farms.”

“When was this?” Polly asked before she caught herself.

Mirella merely glanced at her before continuing, “My uncle Giuseppe sang at family dinners on summer evenings after the sun set beyond the olive grove. This zio of mine loved opera and introduced Lorenzo and me to tenor arias sung by Tito Schipa and recorded on old 78s—they were just normal then. A few years later, zio Giuseppe brought us with him to the Teatro Verdi; he had a small role in La Bohème. Together, Lorenzo and I climbed the Leaning Tower.”

“That life sounds lovely.”

“It was. It was.”

Mirella looked a little bit as if she might start crying over her lost past, so Polly asked, “What’s it like living in a tower?”

Mirella snapped back into the present. “I’ve decorated it just the way I like. I love frilly things—lots of lace, silk, and fringe. You’d think someone with my tastes would wear flouncy skirts and ruffled blouses, but I have a practical streak, too. And anyway, I bought all my nicest things when I was teaching classes, not just teaching as I am now, and needed to look professional.

“My bedroom is pink, with purple accents. My dear mother loved purple the way I do, and the bedspread was hers. She did all the embroidery on it—scenes of Pisa when it was a great port, during Sofia’s time, you know. I remember those days, too, though not nearly so well as Sofia does. Coming back tends to obscure the times that came before—even for someone with an excellent memory like mine.”

Mirella talked as if she hadn’t had a chance to share what was on her mind for months. She was like a tipped bucket that had been filled to the brim with words. “I love Pisa so much. Why would I live here if I didn’t, especially after all the trouble I’ve had here over my past—I ask you, why should I be punished for having a good memory? Everyone else has the same sort of past. People just don’t remember, that’s all. I’ve been asked why it is I only remember being someone famous, but that’s not true; I remember being some quite ordinary folks, too, although they weren’t ordinary to me, of course. My life with Lorenzo was ordinary, but it was beautiful. It was so short,” she added, “a blink in time.”

Mirella rallied again from her reflective mood. “I forgot to tell you about my kitchen. That’s the first of the three rooms in my tower—one on each floor: the kitchen, then the living room, and finally the bedroom. There’s also a little bathroom on that floor, of course. My kitchen is white—yes, white. I want lots of color elsewhere but only white in my kitchen, except for plenty of flowers—red geraniums are my favorite—plus Tuscan ceramics with blue backgrounds and yellow sunflowers. Sunflowers are the symbol of faithfulness; I am faithful to my Pisa. I have white cabinets, only white cabinets.”

“It sounds very pretty. I’d like to see it.”

“You will,” Mirella said with assurance.

“I’d like to know more about why you and Sofia love Pisa so much. It’s great here, but why is it so much better than other cities?”

“I will tell you, but not now. Won’t your afternoon class be starting?”

Polly had lost track of the time.

“Can you come see me again this evening before your cena with Minou? I’ll be here. I might even be at the Bar Allegro when you meet the others this afternoon right after your class, but we have more to talk about, just you and me, here on the church steps.”


Hurrying, Polly had reached the river when a big voice said in her ear, “See, she’s not really crazy at all, is she!” This time Polly didn’t even jump.

“I like her,” she said. “She’d be a big improvement over some of the teachers I’ve had. I was hoping you’d turn up. Will you please, please, please tell me what you have in mind for me? I’ve met everyone now. How long do I have to wait to learn what I’m supposed to be doing?”

“You’re doing everything you need to do. Just try to relax. You Americans are so impatient! Did Mirella tell you her landlord is evicting her? See, I was good; I wasn’t eavesdropping.”

“No, she didn’t tell me. How terrible! How is that possible? She loves her tower so much; it would be a sin to make her leave. Is she behind on her rent?” Polly forgot about the need to get to class.

“Not at all. When she was a professor, she saved enough to manage her simple life now. Mirella’s a perfect tenant—quiet, keeps everything nice. Her landlord just doesn’t want a woman with the reputation for being strange living in his property. He said that to her face. Talk about mean! He said he doesn’t want people gossiping that he’s running some sort of asylum. He’s given her until the end of July to move out.”

“Did someone complain or something?”

“No! Everyone likes Mirella—except for the uptight people who think everybody else has to be just as boring and ignorant as they are.”

“We have to do something!” said Polly.

“Exactly,” said Sofia as if Polly had been unusually thick. “This is one place where you come in. As I said, I’ll explain all about it, when the time is right. Don’t forget to meet me at the bar later, after your class. The others will be there, too.”

Mirella also had mentioned “the others.” Polly didn’t bother to ask who “the others” were, figuring as she had before that they’d be Flora and Charles. And she didn’t want to give Sofia another chance not to answer one of her questions. “See you then,” she said.

“If not before.”

After Sofia’s giggle, Polly realized she was once again alone. Only then did she remember she was supposed to be hurrying.

The Girl in the Leaning Tower – Chapter 12

Citizens for a Safe Pisa

Polly used her key, opened the front door cautiously, and then closed it softly behind her. She knew she’d have to face Mme Meringue at cena, but she wanted to put as much distance as possible between the scene with agente Barto and the others and whatever her landlady had meant when she’d said, “I’ll talk to you at home, Polly.”

There was nothing wrong with Mme Meringue’s hearing. She came to the door of the living room and said, “Polly dear, can you come in here for a moment?” Then she went back inside the salotto.

Polly remembered to slip out of her shoes. The “dear” was a good sign. The fact that Mme Meringue seemed to have been listening for Polly’s arrival was not.

Buona sera, signora,” said Polly in what she hoped was a natural tone of voice.

“Have a seat over here next to me.” Mme Meringue had changed out of her wet pink outfit into a staid blue housedress. Its appearance was well suited to the tired look of concern on Mme Meringue’s face. Polly took a seat at the end of a not very comfortable couch with cream-colored upholstery. Her landlady was sitting in a matching armchair, her slippered feet on a large ottoman, also matching. It was no surprise to Polly that Mme Meringue needed to get her feet up.

“Polly dear,” she repeated, “I’m very concerned I’m already shirking my duty toward you. I had hoped a smart girl like you would know how to pick her friends—but then I thought to myself, ‘The poor child is here alone in a foreign country. Of course she wanted to make new friends.’ You were vulnerable to any friendly faces that came along. But Gypsies and extracomunitari! I would have thought—but no,” she argued with herself. “I’m being unfair. You’re just a child, and I imagine you don’t have such elements to contend with at home. Haven’t you met any nice people in your school with whom you could socialize after class?”

Froufrou the spaniel was lying beside the ottoman. To judge by his position, he might have been asleep, but his eyes were open and watching Polly. “Woof,” he said sharply, as if to convey that he shared Mme Meringue’s disapproval of Polly’s companions.

“It’s okay, Mme Meringue,” Polly tried to explain. “Flora’s a good musician, and she and her family are nice people. And Charles even works for you. He’s so kind, and he has a hard life, but it’s really interesting about how he’s helping out lots of people back home by selling their crafts.”

“He’s a good boy, but he’s not our type. And no Gypsy, no matter how clever, is suitable company for a respectable girl like you. Now run along and get ready for cena. I’m sorry if I was harsh, but it’s important for you to understand these things. I have a meeting here at the house this evening, so please come right down to the dining room.”

“That was not so bad,” thought Polly. “At least she didn’t make me promise not to see Flora and Charles. Maybe she just assumes I’ll follow her advice. What would she say if she knew about Sofia?”


Polly was propped up in bed working on a verb exercise when she heard the doorbell. She got up and crossed in her bare feet to the open bedroom door, and from there she tiptoed over to the stairs and sat down on the top step to listen to what she could hear from two stories below. The sound of the front door opening was followed by Mme Meringue’s voice greeting what Polly soon sorted out to be three guests, a man and two women. They sounded cheerful enough, to judge by their tone of voice, but Polly kept hearing phrases such as, “We have to do something,” and “It’s disgraceful for a city of this caliber.”

Two more people—a man and a woman—arrived, followed then by a man alone. The group seemed to be settling down in the living room. And then Polly heard Mme Meringue say in a clear voice, “I think we might as well get started. We can catch up Suzanna when she gets here.”

It was difficult for Polly to follow Mme Meringue’s opening remarks, and harder still to follow the discussion as the conversation became more animated, but she had no trouble catching the focus of the evening’s session, especially given the number of times when zingari—Gypsies—and extracomunitari appeared in the discourse. Polly thought she heard Mirella’s name a couple of times, but she couldn’t be sure it wasn’t the name of someone attending the meeting.

Once the tardy Suzanna had been greeted and had joined the others in the living room, Polly took the risk of moving down a full flight of stairs, the better to catch what was being said. She excused her eavesdropping in the name of detective work on behalf of her friends. The infraction in manners seemed essential under the circumstances.

One of the men sounded especially vehement in his complaints about the Gypsies. From what Polly could tell given the distance the words had to travel and the challenge of following Italian spoken rapidly and colloquially, he and his wife had had visitors from Canada come to stay with them only to have one of the guests pickpocketed not once but twice. Polly wondered to herself if she were being unfair to think the visitor might have been a bit careless to have the same thing happen twice.

Another person—a woman this time—was most upset by the street merchants, although those working up near the Leaning Tower seemed to be coming in for her special censure. But then Polly heard Mme Meringue’s voice and picked out the word stazione and the name agente Barto.

“Shall I summarize our decisions?” Polly clearly heard Mme Meringue ask. She made the question more a statement of intention than an inquiry. Polly silently moved down to the second-to-last step.

“Yes, please do,” said one of the other women.

“Reviewing our plans will help strengthen our resolve,” contributed a man.

From this close, Polly found she could hear and understand quite readily.

“We the members of Citizens for a Safe Pisa agree that our first step shall be seeking out and encircling any Gypsy children who inflict their regrettable accordion playing on the pedestrians of the Corso Italia. By so doing, we will prevent their tourist victims from depositing coins in their cups.

“Other steps shall be taken in due course. Roberto recommends we take turns on duty at the spots most frequented by the extracomunitari and distribute cards printed in several languages to the tourists who pause to examine their wares. The cards will explain that the extracomunitari are breaking the law and that each euro paid to the extracomunitari takes a euro from the pockets of lawful merchants working hard to earn an honest living.

“Luisa suggests we confront Mirella Marco to stop her recitations of poetry on the steps of San Michele in Borgo. As she gets up to speak, our delegate, too, would rise and begin reading our prepared statement asking pedestrians to move on in the name of a safe and sane Pisa.”

A woman, perhaps Luisa, added, “We could say, ‘Giving your attention to vagrants is giving license to their delusions.’”

A man said, “These are good ideas for the future, but we’ll begin with the Gypsy children. We’ll give our full attention to one success at a time.”

After general agreement about the correctness and excellence of their plan, the committee members began making farewell small talk. Polly climbed back up to her floor, and shortly the group moved to the front hall. Polly heard one woman say, “I still wish you weren’t so protective of your agente Barto, Minou. If he’d just do his job properly, we might not have to face dealing with the extracomunitari ourselves, and they might not have gotten out of hand in the first place.”

“I stand firm,” replied Mme Meringue. “You know that I promised Gustavo I’d help look after agente Barto’s son. We can continue to try to talk reason to agente Barto, but getting him in trouble with his superiors is out. I won’t allow it.”

“All right, Minou,” said a man. “We’ll abide by your wishes.”

As the front door opened, Polly hurried into her room and gently shut her door.

A few moments later, the house was silent.

The Girl in the Leaning Tower – Chapter 11

Insights and Early Plans

Come on: let’s go tell signor Luigi what happened,” said Flora. “Charles and Henry’s room is over his shop, around the block. He lets the guys live there free—Sofia says it’s a nice big room, with a little bathroom and a hotplate and tiny refrigerator. Charles and Henry can come and go through a doorway off the alley, so then if some busybody like you-know-who asks signor Luigi if he’s seen any street merchants, he can honestly say no.”

Signor Luigi’s repair shop was filled with batteries and gears, and the smell of oil carried out the open door onto the street. Signor Luigi himself, a little man of about sixty, was sitting behind the counter, a disassembled radio in front of him. “Signor Luigi can fix anything!” exclaimed Flora.

“Hi, girls,” he said. “This must be Polly—welcome!” Did everyone in the city know about her, she wondered. “I take it there’s been a little trouble? I heard the boys on the stairs, but it’s early for quitting time.”

“That stupid Mme Meringue is at it again,” Flora said bitterly.

“Flora, sweetie, she’s really not stupid. I know how you feel, but she thinks she’s doing the right thing.”

“She’s a horrible troublemaker. She thinks she’s some kind of savior for our city, but I wish she’d just move back to wherever she came from and bother the French for a while.”

“She means well.”

Beh,” responded Sofia, sounding for all the world like Mme Meringue.

“Hi there, Sofia,” said signor Luigi. “I thought you might be here.”

“What are we going to do? We’ve got to stop that woman!” Flora exclaimed. “Sooner or later she’ll figure out a way to drive every non-Italian street merchant and every single Gypsy from the city.”

Polly surprised herself by deciding to take charge of the situation: “We need to try to be calm. We have to look for an opportunity to change her mind a little about who and what are good and bad for Pisa.”

“By the time we change her mind, it may be too late,” moaned Flora.

Signor Luigi tried to calm her: “We won’t let things get that far. We’ll keep our eyes open, and meanwhile I’ll have a chat with agente Barto and try to learn how much pressure he’s getting to take some kind of action against our friends. I would be surprised if our Sofia didn’t have a few ideas of her own. Am I right, Sofia?”

“I might,” she answered smugly, offering no further explanation.

The heavy rain had withdrawn, leaving a light mist, but the girls’ clothes and hair were still soaked from their run to signor Luigi’s shop. As they started back down the street, Polly glanced behind her and saw signor Luigi turning the sign in his window so the “Closed” side faced the street. Around the block, the sidewalk of the boulevard leading out from the train station remained completely empty of its usual street merchants. “It looks so dull this way,” said Polly as they walked along.

“Some people wish it would always be this dull,” Sofia observed.

“Why? Who’s being hurt by Charles and the others?” asked Flora with anger still in her voice. “They’re not really breaking the law, no matter what Mme Meringue insinuates. Ibrahim’s permit should have come by now—he applied weeks ago—and the guys are hardly any big competition for the souvenir sellers up by the Leaning Tower.”

“Some people think that merchants like Charles scare off tourists by being pushy. Can you see any of the guys who work on this block acting pushy?” asked Sofia, her voice oozing disbelief at such a notion.

“Yeah, I’ve heard that intimidating-the-tourists claim a thousand times, but who ever met a tourist who was put off by someone selling souvenirs? Now me—that’s a different story. They’re all scared of us Gypsies, which upsets my parents—and me, too.”

Polly looked at her watch. “I’d better head home. With the state of mind Mme Meringue is in, I’d better not be late for supper.”

“We’ll walk you there,” said Flora, including Sofia in the plan.

“That’s okay, don’t ask me if I want to,” said Sofia, pretending to be miffed.

Polly, Sofia, and Flora turned onto a side street before reaching Piazza Vittorio Emanuale II. “Yesterday I saw a little lizard sunning himself in the piazza. He was so cute,” Flora chatted as they walked along. My favorite place to walk is way on past the Leaning Tower. Have you been out there, Polly, where the city ends?”

“No, so far I’ve only seen the main parts of town.”

“It’s neat how Pisa just stops. The next minute you’re walking past cornfields and those huge wheels of hay. The wildflowers along the edge of the road are so pretty. And the Carrara Mountains seem to be right at the end of the road—and it looks like you could ski in July on those marble summits.”

“That’s what I thought, too—I can see the mountains from my school window. I read that Michelangelo’s carving stone came from them,” said Polly, proud to have this knowledge.

“That’s right,” said Sofia, “and before that, my father and the other stonemasons got their marble there for the Leaning Tower. It was a huge job cutting the stone and transporting it to Pisa.”

When they were two houses away from Mme Meringue’s, Flora said, “Good luck with her tonight. No doubt you’ll hear about what evil creatures Gypsies are. Will I see you tomorrow?”

“Should we meet at the bar again?”

“Yes, let’s. See you in the afternoon—if I don’t decide to see you sooner,” Sofia giggled.

“No spying!” said Polly, softening the order with a smile.

“Hey, before you go, I have an idea,” said Sofia.

“Watch out,” Flora cautioned. “Sofia with an idea is pretty scary.”

“You know I’m the brains here, figuratively speaking. Anyway, Polly, why don’t you go introduce yourself to Mirella tomorrow on your lunch hour. She’ll be in her usual spot.”

“Won’t you introduce me?”

“I think you should go yourself. Mirella will be pleased. She has some fans, as you’ll discover, but most people just look at her as someone to avoid, not get to know, but you’ll like her, and she’ll open right up. You’ll get to know her best that way.”

“What will I say? I can’t just march up the steps and start talking.”

“Sure you can. Try it!”

“Sofia’s right. Mirella’s cool. She’ll be thrilled she’s gotten through to someone instead of scaring her off—that’s how she’ll take it.”

“Plus she’s heard about you from me already,” said Sofia.

“Well,” Polly began.

“Great! We’ll hear all about it tomorrow afternoon.” Sofia closed the discussion.

Polly felt nervous already. These new friends of hers surely did know how to be convincing. “I’ll try. I can’t promise. See you tomorrow.”

Ciao,” called Sofia.

Ciao,” called Flora as she turned to head back with her invisible friend.

La Torre della Fame

The blog entry that follows doesn’t directly include a lesson on aging well (although, as you will see, Ugolino’s story is a cautionary tale).  The entry does, however, help to elucidate the relationship between literature and life.  I’m including this essay not for any moral it may present but for the interest that the subject holds for me as a fan of Pisa and of the Italian language, people, and culture.
I am first giving the essay in Italian, as prepared for a lifelong-learning course, and then giving the same essay in English.  To my Italian friends, I apologize for the deficiencies in my Italian and for any oversimplifications in my statements about Italian history and literature.
Learning languages is purported to be good for the brain.  (I make no claims about my own!)  Any health benefits are a plus, but I love learning languages because they help me to feel connected to the people and ways of thinking and living they represent.
(Some of the information included in this essay appears in my in-progress novel, The Girl in the Leaning Tower.)
(Credito per le fotografie è dopo l’articolo.)

Vorrei parlare della famosa storia della Torre dei Gualandi a Pisa.  I Gualandi erano la famiglia pisana che possedeva la torre nel tredicesimo secolo.  La torre è stata anche conosciuta come la Torre della Muda. (“Muda” – anche detto “muta” – significa “molting”.)  Una volta, le aquile allevate dalla città erano conservate nella torre mentre le loro piume si mollavano.  Ma la struttura è meglio conosciuta come la Torre della Fame, per motivi che diventeranno chiari.  Come vedrete, il disegno qui è fedele alla storia emozionale della torre ma non alla sua realtà fisica.  Innanzitutto, voglio condividere alcune informazioni di base.

Dal dodicesimo secolo, Pisa era una grande repubblica marittima, un potere sulla terra e sul mare che ha commerciato con e ha stabilito qualche colonia in luoghi come Antiochia, in Turchia; Tyre, che è nel Libano attuale; Jaffa, che è ora in Israele; e Nord Africa.  Il declino di Pisa come città-stato proveniva da una combinazione di sconfitte – in particolare da Genova nel 1284 – e cambiamenti nel fiume Arno che hanno portato alla perdita del porto pisano.

Settecento anni dopo – dal 1998 – Pisa è diventata un luogo archeologico spettacolare per la storia marittima. Lavoro su una linea ferroviaria ha portato alla scoperta di 39 navi provenienti da diversi secoli, il più antico risalente a circa il quinto secolo avanti Cristo.  Molti contengono carichi intatti.  Chiamando  Pisa “un Pompei marittimo”, Newsweek spiega che i ricercatori dicono che cominciando in circa il sesto secolo avanti Cristo, circa ogni centinaio di anni nel corso di quasi mille anni, le onde come tsunami hanno inondato violentemente la via d’acqua e hanno capovolto e seppellito navi, il loro carico, ed i loro passeggeri e equipaggio.[1]

Pisa ha avuto la sua parte di residenti interessanti: da Galileo a un conte del tredicesimo secolo: Ugolino della Gherardesca, che è il tema principale della mia storia.[2]  Nel 1284, il conte Ugolino è diventato il magistrato in capo di Pisa, la figura politica più importante.  Ha assunto questa posizione poco dopo la sconfitta decisiva della città da parte di Genova ed in un momento in cui due fazioni politiche – i guelfi ed i ghibellini – erano in lotta per il potere.  I guelfi ed i ghibellini erano un po’ come i nostri repubblicani ei democratici – ma meno educati, se riuscite a crederci.

Il conte Ugolino era un guelfo, ma Pisa era piena di ghibellini, quindi Ugolino aveva molti nemici.  Ha fatto pace con alcuni dei vicini guelfi di Pisa, città come Firenze, Lucca, e persino Genova – e ha dato via diversi castelli nel processo, che certamente non ha gradito la gente affatto.  L’errore più grande del conte Ugolino era cercando di collaborare con l’arcivescovo ghibellino Ruggieri degli Ubaldini, che voleva anche lui essere il numero uno a Pisa.  L’arcivescovo ha sparso la voce che Ugolino era un traditore, e nel 1288 l’ha rinchiuso nella Torre dei Gualandi con i suoi due figli, Gaddo e Uguccione, e due nipoti, Nino e Anselmuccio.

Ugolino ed i suoi figli e nipoti hanno affrontato la fame, e tutti sono morti in prigione.  Da allora, la Torre dei Gualandi è stata conosciuta come la Torre della Fame.
Adesso è il lato destro di un palazzo, il Palazzo dell’Orologio.  La torre sul lato sinistro di questo palazzo è conosciuta come la Torre della Giustizia.  È stato all’inizio del diciassettesimo secolo che la Torre della Giustizia e la Torre dei Gualandi – la Torre della Fame – si unirono per creare il Palazzo dell’Orologio.

Il palazzo è uno degli edifici della Piazza dei Cavalieri, che contiene anche il Palazzo della Carovana, sede della Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa, la più prestigiosa università italiana.  La Piazza dei Cavalieri, non lontana dalla Torre Pendente, era il centro della vita politica nell’epoca quando Pisa era una grande potenza.

Da giovane, Dante Alighieri viveva a Firenze – sessantanove chilometri ad est di Pisa in linea d’aria – all’epoca del potere politico di Ugolino e della sua incarcerazione.  Dante ha iniziato a scrivere la sua poesia di 14.233 righe, La Divina Commedia, nel 1308.  La poesia racconta il viaggio di Dante attraverso i tre regni dei morti.  Il poeta romano Virgilio guida Dante attraverso l’inferno ed il purgatorio. Poi Beatrice – una fiorentina che Dante aveva ammirato da lontano – lo guidava attraverso il paradiso.  Dante ha completato La Divina Commedia nel 1320, un anno prima della sua morte.  La Divina Commedia ha contribuito a stabilire il dialetto toscano come la lingua dominante in Italia.  “Cantiche” è la parola letteraria per le tre parti del poema.  Nella prima cantica, Inferno, Dante mette molti dei suoi contemporanei nei nove cerchi dell’inferno, dove affrontano punizioni molto inventive.

Secondo Dante, nella sua scalata al potere a Pisa, il conte Ugolino ha abusivamente approfittato dei membri della sua famiglia.[3]   Come vedete sulla diapositiva, Dante incolpa anche Pisa per il destino che i figli ed i nipoti di Ugolino hanno subito.  Dante mette Ugolino nel nono circolo dell’inferno, riservato a coloro che hanno commesso il peccato di tradimento.  Per la sua punizione, Ugolino è intrappolato in ghiaccio, fino al collo, nello stesso buco dove il suo traditore, l’arcivescovo Ruggieri, si trova. Dante descrive Ugolino come costantemente rosicchiando il cranio di Ruggieri.

Vediamo questa situazione nella metà inferiore di questo quadro.  Virgilio e Dante guardano la scena.  Nel Canto 33 di Inferno, Dante ci dà la sua versione del tempo di Ugolino nella Torre della Fame, prima di morire e di andare all’inferno.  Nel dire che Ugolino ed i suoi figli e nipoti hanno affrontato la fame, Dante riflette la vera storia.  Anche nella versione di Dante, i figli ed i nipoti affrontano tanta miseria che chiedono al conte di mangiare i loro corpi.  Implorano – per parafrasare le loro parole nel poema di Dante – “Padre, ci sarà molto meno penoso se tu mangi i nostri corpi: tu ci hai dato queste misere carni”.[4]  Dopo la loro morte, le parole di Ugolino, secondo Dante, sono le seguenti:
“ . . . ond’io mi diedi,
già cieco, a brancolar sovra ciascuno,
e due dì li chiamai, poi che fur morti.
Poscia, più che ‘l dolor poté ‘l digiuno”. [5]
Per parafrasare queste righe di poesia: “ . . . allora io, già cieco e moribondo, andai brancolando sopra i loro corpi, e li chiamai per due giorni dopo la loro morte.  In seguito, più che il dolore, mi uccise la fame”. [6]
Non è certo qui se il conte fosse così affamato che il dolore della fame ha sopraffatto la sua pena per i morti o se, come l’interpretazione più popolare e duratura pretende, il conte ha placato la sua fame mangiando la sua prole prima della sua propria morte.

La storia del conte Ugolino ha ispirato numerosi artisti, come vedete in questi tre esempi:

Anche il poeta inglese Percy Bysshe Shelley è stato ispirato dalla storia.  Shelley ha vissuto a Pisa per più di due anni a partire dall’inizio del 1820.  È interessante notare che Pisa ha anche attratto il poeta Lord Byron: è arrivato a Pisa alla fine dell’anno successivo.  Nella sua poesia “Ugolino”, Shelley ripercorre il racconto di Dante su di Ugolino nella Torre della Fame.  Poi nella sua poesia intitolata “The Tower of Famine”, Shelley inizia così (scrivendo in inglese):
Tra la desolazione di una città
Che era la culla ed ora è la tomba
Di una gente estinta, in modo che Pietà
Piange sui naufraghi dell’onda dell’oblio,
Là si trova la Torre della Fame.[7]
Così Shelly festeggia l’orrore ed il mistero della Torre della Fame e dei suoi detenuti più famosi, ma non rende più chiaro la verità.

Pertanto, per più di 700 anni, Ugolino è rimasto sospettato per le sue disgustose abitudini alimentari nella Torre della Fame.
Ma infine, nel 2001, abbiamo avuto la scoperta delle ossa del conte Ugolino e dei suoi figli e nipoti – proprio dove ci si aspetterebbe, nella cripta della famiglia Gherardesca, che si trova nella Chiesa di San Francesco a Pisa.  Le ossa erano di “un uomo di 70-75 anni, due fratelli sui 45-50 anni e altri due fratelli di 20-30 anni”.[8]  Un professore all’Università di Pisa, antropologo Francesco Mallegni, ha condotto i test del DNA sulle ossa. Secondo il professor Mallegni, “Ugolino era un uomo molto anziano per l’epoca ed era quasi senza denti quando fu imprigionato, il che rende ancor più improbabile che sia sopravvissuto agli altri e abbia potuto cibarsene in cattività”.[9]  Conclude, ” Possiamo dire che tutti sono morti di fame. Nel caso di Ugolino, abbiamo anche scoperto che il suo cranio era in parte sfondato, per cui non si può dire per certo la causa della morte”.[10]

Nell’estate del 2016, all’interno del Palazzo dell’Orologio, è stata aperta la Torre del Conte Ugolino, uno spazio museale.

Credito per le fotografie:
1.  La Torre della Fame, Giovanni Paolo Lasinio: Public Domain,
2.  Mappa dell’Italia: By TUBS – Own work. This vector graphics image was created with Adobe Illustrator. This file was uploaded with Commonist. This vector image includes elements that have been taken or adapted from this: Trentino-Alto Adige in Italy.svg (by TUBS). This vector image includes elements that have been taken or adapted from this:  Map Region of Trentino Alto Adige.svg (by Gigillo83), CC BY-SA 3.0,
3.  Ritratto di Ugolino, Johann Caspar Lavate:
4.  Dante, Luca Signorelli: Public Domain,
5.  Dante, Sandro Botticelli: telegraph, Public Domain,
6.  (Racconto di Ugolino) Conte Ugolino, Giovanni Stradano: Stradanus [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons,
7.  Ugolino ed i suoi figli: By Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux – This file was donated to Wikimedia Commons as part of a project by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. See the Image and Data Resources Open Access Policy,
8.  Ugolino ed i suoi figli in prigione: By William Blake – Public Domain,
9.  Ugolino ed i suoi figli morendo di fame nella torre: By Henry Fuseli – Public Domain,

Le note:
[1]Barbie Nadeau, “A Maritime Pompeii,” Newsweek 1 November 2007,  “Researchers say that starting around the 6th century B.C. . . . Every hundred years or so over the course of nearly a thousand years, tsunami-like waves violently flooded the waterway and capsized and buried ships, their cargo and their passengers and crew.”

[2] Per una sembianza migliore di lui (una ricostruzione), cfr. ad esempio la fotografia che accompagna questo articolo: Guglielmo Vezzosi, “Il conte Ugolino tra storia e leggenda,” La Nazione 9 luglio 2016,

[3] Barolini, Teodolinda. “Inferno33: Dynastic Wife to Dynastic Wolf.” Commento Baroliniano, Digital Dante. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2017,


[5] Divina Commedia/Inferno/Canto XXXIII,


Amid the desolation of a city
Which was the cradle and is now the grave
Of an extinguished people, so that Pity
Weeps o’er the shipwrecks of oblivion’s wave,
There stands the Tower of Famine.

[8] Guglielmo Vezzosi, “Il conte Ugolino tra storia e leggenda,” La Nazione 9 luglio 2016,

[9] “La tomba del Conte Ugolino Della Gherardesca,” Parrocchia San Francesco di Pisa, 21 febbraio 2015,

[10] “Dante and The Cannibal Count,” Newsweek 20 November 2002, “It’s pretty safe to say that they all died of starvation.  In Ugolino’s case we also discovered that his skull was partly smashed, so the cause of death can’t be said for certain.”

(Credit for the photographs is after the article.)

I would like to tell you about the famous history of Pisa’s Torre dei Gualandi—Tower of the Gualandi.  The Gualandi were the Pisan family that owned the tower in the 13th century.  The tower has also been known as the Torre della Muda.  (“Muda”—also spelled “muta”—means “molting.”)  At one time, eagles raised by the city were kept in the tower while their feathers were molting.  But the structure is best known as the Torre della Fame—the Tower of Famine—for reasons that will become clear.  As you will see, the picture above is faithful to the emotional history of the tower but not to its physical reality.  First I want to share some background information.

By the 12th century, Pisa was a great maritime republic, a land and sea power that traded and established colonies in such places as Antioch, in Turkey; Tyre, which is in present-day Lebanon; Jaffa, which is now in Israel; and North Africa.  Pisa’s decline as a city state came from a combination of defeats—particularly by Genoa in 1284—and changes in the Arno River that led to the loss of the Pisan port.  (“Fiume”—in the PowerPoint slide below—means “river.”)

Seven-hundred years later—since 1998—Pisa has become a spectacular archeological site for maritime history.  Work on a train line led to the discovery of 39 ships from different centuries—the earliest dating from about the fifth century B.C.  Many contain intact cargo.  Calling Pisa “a maritime Pompeii,” Newsweek reports, “Researchers say that starting around the 6th century B.C. . . . Every hundred years or so over the course of nearly a thousand years, tsunami-like waves violently flooded the waterway and capsized and buried ships, their cargo and their passengers and crew.”[1]

Pisa has had its share of interesting residents—from Galileo to a 13th-century count by the name of Ugolino della Gherardesca, who is the focus of my story.[2]  In 1284, Count Ugolino became Pisa’s chief magistrate, the top political figure. He rose to this position shortly after the city’s decisive defeat by Genoa and at a time when two political factions—the Guelphs and the Ghibellines—were vying for control.  The Guelphs and the Ghibellines were a little like our Republicans and Democrats—only even less well mannered, if you can believe that.

Count Ugolino was a Guelph, but Pisa was full of Ghibellines, so he had many enemies.  Ugolino made peace with some of Pisa’s Guelph neighbors—city-states like Florence, Lucca, and even Genoa—and gave away a number of castles in the process, which certainly didn’t please the folks at home.  Count Ugolino’s biggest mistake was trying to team up with the Ghibelline Archbishop Ruggieri degli Ubaldini, who also wanted to be numero uno in Pisa. The archbishop spread the word that Ugolino was a traitor and in 1288 had him locked up in the Torre dei Gualandi along with his two sons, Gaddo and Uguccione, and two grandsons, Nino and Anselmuccio.

Ugolino and his sons and grandsons faced starvation, and all eventually died in their tower prison.  Ever since then, the Torre dei Gualandi has been known as the Torre della Fame.
It’s now the right-hand side of a palazzo, the Palazzo dell’Orologio (Palazzo of the Clock).  The tower on the left side of this palazzo is known as the Torre della Giustizia (Tower of Justice).  It was early in the 1600s that the Torre della Giustizia and the Torre dei Gualandi—the Torre della Fame—were joined to create the Palazzo dell’Orologio.

The palazzo is one of the buildings in the Piazza dei Cavalieri (Piazza of the Knights), which also contains the Palazzo della Carovana, the site of Pisa’s Scuola Normale Superiore—the most prestigious university in Italy.  (“Carovana” means “caravan” or “convoy.”)  The Piazza dei Cavalieri, which is not far from the Leaning Tower, was the center of political life during Pisa’s era as a great power.

Dante Alighieri was a young man living in Florence—sixty-nine kilometers east of Pisa as the crow flies—at the time of Ugolino’s political power and imprisonment.  Dante began writing his 14,233-line poem La Divina Commedia (The Divine Comedy) in 1308.  The poem narrates Dante’s journey through the three realms of the dead.  The Roman poet Virgil guides Dante through hell and purgatory.  Then Beatrice—a Florentine whom Dante had admired from afar—guides him through heaven.  Dante completed La Divina Commedia in 1320, a year before his death.  La Divina Commedia helped to establish the Tuscan dialect as the dominant Italian language.  In the first of the poem’s three canticles—Inferno—Dante places a number of his contemporaries in the nine circles of hell, where they experience highly inventive punishments.

In Dante’s view, in securing and consolidating power in Pisa, Count Ugolino abusively took advantage of his family members.[3]  As you can see in the PowerPoint slide above, Dante also blamed Pisa for the fate that Ugolino’s sons and grandsons suffered.  The quotation on the slide (also given in modern Italian) means, “Ah, Pisa, even though Count Ugolino betrayed you and your castles, you should not have condemned his sons to such a fate.”  Dante places Ugolino in the ninth circle of Hell, which is reserved for those who have committed the sin of treachery.  For his punishment, Ugolino is trapped in ice up to his neck in the same hole with his betrayer, Archbishop Ruggieri.  Dante describes Ugolino as constantly gnawing on Ruggieri’s skull.

We see that situation in the bottom half of the painting above.  Virgil and Dante are looking on.  In Canto 33 of Inferno, Dante gives us his version of Ugolino’s time in the Torre della Fame, before he dies and goes to hell.  Dante mirrors history by showing that Ugolino and his sons and grandsons faced starvation.  In Dante’s version, the sons and grandsons become so miserable that they beg the count to eat their bodies.  They plead—to paraphrase their words in Dante’s poem—“Padre, ci sarà molto meno penoso se tu mangi i nostri corpi: tu ci hai dato queste misere carni.”[4]  The meaning in English is, “Father, it would be better if you ate our bodies: you who have given flesh to this misery.”  After they die, Ugolino’s words, according to Dante, are as follows:
“ . . . ond’io mi diedi,
già cieco, a brancolar sovra ciascuno,
e due dì li chiamai, poi che fur morti.
Poscia, più che ‘l dolor poté ‘l digiuno”.[5]

Here are Ugolino’s supposed words in English as translated by the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1867:
“ . . . whence I betook me,
Already blind, to groping over each,
And three days called them after they were dead;
Then hunger did what sorrow could not do.”[6]
It is not certain here whether the count was so hungry that the pain of starvation overwhelmed his grief or if—as the more popular and enduring interpretation has been—the count assuaged his hunger by eating his offspring before he, himself, died.

The story of Count Ugolino has inspired numerous artists, as you see in these three examples:

The English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley was also inspired by the story.  Shelley lived in Pisa for more than two years beginning in early 1820.  Interestingly, Pisa also attracted the poet Lord Byron, who arrived in Pisa late the following year.  In his poem “Ugolino,” Shelley retells Dante’s account of Ugolino in the Torre della Fame.  Then in his poem entitled “The Tower of Famine,” Shelley begins:
Amid the desolation of a city
Which was the cradle and is now the grave
Of an extinguished people, so that Pity
Weeps o’er the shipwrecks of oblivion’s wave,
There stands the Tower of Famine.[7]
So Shelley celebrates the horror and mystery of the Tower of Famine and its most famous inmates, but he doesn’t clarify the truth.

Therefore for more than 700 years, Ugolino remained under suspicion for his rumored vile eating habits in the Torre della Fame.
But finally, in 2001,  the bones of Count Ugolino and his sons and grandsons were discovered—just where you’d expect, in the Gherardesca family crypt, which is in the Chiesa (Church) di San Francesco in Pisa.  The bones were of “a man 70-75 years of age, two brothers of 45-50, and two other brothers of 20-30.”[8]  A professor at the University of Pisa, anthropologist Francesco Mallegni, conducted DNA testing on the bones.  According to Professor Mallegni, “Ugolino was a very old man for the era and was almost toothless when he was imprisoned, making it even more improbable that he would have outlived the others and would have been able to eat them in captivity.”[9]  He concludes, “It’s pretty safe to say that they all died of starvation.  In Ugolino’s case we also discovered that his skull was partly smashed, so the cause of death can’t be said for certain.”[10]

In the summer of 2016, a museum—called the “Torre del conte Ugolino”—opened within the Palazzo dell’Orologio.

Photo Credits:
1.  La Torre della Fame, Giovanni Paolo Lasinio: Public Domain,
2.  Mappa dell’Italia: By TUBS – Own work. This vector graphics image was created with Adobe Illustrator. This file was uploaded with Commonist. This vector image includes elements that have been taken or adapted from this: Trentino-Alto Adige in Italy.svg (by TUBS). This vector image includes elements that have been taken or adapted from this:  Map Region of Trentino Alto Adige.svg (by Gigillo83), CC BY-SA 3.0,
3.  Ritratto di Ugolino, Johann Caspar Lavate:
4.  Dante, Luca Signorelli: Public Domain,
5.  Dante, Sandro Botticelli: telegraph, Public Domain,
6.  (Racconto di Ugolino) Conte Ugolino, Giovanni Stradano: Stradanus [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons,
7.  Ugolino ed i suoi figli: By Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux – This file was donated to Wikimedia Commons as part of a project by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. See the Image and Data Resources Open Access Policy,
8.  Ugolino ed i suoi figli in prigione: By William Blake – Public Domain,
9.  Ugolino ed i suoi figli morendo di fame nella torre: By Henry Fuseli – Public Domain,

[1]Barbie Nadeau, “A Maritime Pompeii,” Newsweek 1 November 2007,

[2] For a recent reconstruction of Ugolino’s features, see the photograph with this article: Guglielmo Vezzosi, “Il conte Ugolino tra storia e leggenda,” La Nazione 9 luglio 2016,

[3] Barolini, Teodolinda. “Inferno33: Dynastic Wife to Dynastic Wolf.” Commento Baroliniano, Digital Dante. New York, NY: Columbia University Libraries, 2017,


[5] Divina Commedia/Inferno/Canto XXXIII,



[8] Guglielmo Vezzosi, “Il conte Ugolino tra storia e leggenda,” La Nazione 9 luglio 2016,  Original: “. . . un uomo di 70-75 anni, due fratelli sui 45-50 anni e altri due fratelli di 20-30 anni”.

[9] “La tomba del Conte Ugolino Della Gherardesca,” Parrocchia San Francesco di Pisa, 21 febbraio 2015,  Original: “Ugolino era un uomo molto anziano per l’epoca ed era quasi senza denti quando fu imprigionato, il che rende ancor più improbabile che sia sopravvissuto agli altri e abbia potuto cibarsene in cattività”.

[10] “Dante and The Cannibal Count,” Newsweek 20 November 2002,