The Girl in the Leaning Tower – Chapter 19

Piazza dell'Anfiteatro, Lucca
Piazza dell’Anfiteatro, Lucca

Hope Found, Lost, and Found

It was rainy that evening as Polly, Flora, Charles, signor Luigi, and agente Barto, accompanied by Sofia, ate their pasta slowly and waited for signor Varelli to arrive at the small restaurant where he was known to take his supper nearly every night. On the wall above their heads was one of the Case-Torri Contest posters.

There was still no sign of signor Varelli by the time signor Luigi and agente Barto were asking for a second cup of coffee and the dessert plates had been cleared. “Maybe he’s not coming,” said Polly, feeling disappointed and thinking she was stating the obvious. “I’m going to have to go soon. When I called Mme Meringue to tell her I wouldn’t be home for supper, she made a big thing of being back by dark.”

Agente Barto whipped out his cell phone. “Minou, as you know, Polly is here at the restaurant with me and some friends. Our dinner is taking longer than expected, but don’t worry. I’ll see she gets home safely.” He snapped his phone shut. “Voice mail can be useful,” he said. “Your landlady must not be home herself.”

“I think Mme Meringue is watching her television at this hour,” explained Polly, who thought to herself that long after dark, Mme Meringue would probably still be watching television, but Polly didn’t want to risk any trouble with her landlady now.

The group had finally given up and had just asked their server for the bill when the door to the restaurant opened again. At first Polly didn’t turn around; she’d had so many false alarms already this evening. But Flora, whose back also was to the door, had not given up and so turned and spotted their quarry before the men did. It was Sofia who got the words out first: “Here he comes.”

Signor Varelli chatted briefly with the restaurant owner and then started toward a free table in the back. “Hey, signor Varelli,” called out agente Barto as if he’d spotted his best friend. “I was just thinking about you! Have you signed up for the contest?” He gestured toward the flier on the wall. “The word is, if you enter, you’re a shoo-in to win.”

Signor Varelli took in the composition of the table of diners and then looked suspiciously at the announcement. “What are you trying to pull?” he said unpleasantly, looking into each of their faces by turn.

“Pull?” asked agente Barto, the only one of the group to be able to claim more than a nodding acquaintance with signor Varelli. “I hear Mirella’s done a wonderful job decorating your tower. Did you see that the contest winner will have a permanent bronze plaque mounted on the wall? The plaque will explain that the tower has been judged the most outstanding in Pisa.”

Polly thought she could see signor Varelli trying, but failing, not to be tempted.

“Humph,” he said finally. “We’ll have to see. Humph,” he muttered again as he continued on past them.

“He’s taken the bait,” said Sofia a little too enthusiastically.

“Shh!” Flora said impatiently. “He’ll hear you!”

“He’s too lost in a daydream about winning that plaque.” Sofia did speak at a more subdued volume.

“Now all we have to do is organize the contest for real,” said agente Barto, looking a little worried.

“That won’t be a problem.” Signor Luigi sounded confident. “I have someone in mind who does excellent bronze casting. He’ll do a good job on the plaque, and I have some friends at the university who will help us out. No matter they’re in the chemistry department and have no more knowledge of décor than the rest of us: they’ve got academic titles.”

“It’s pretty late for us to be calling on Mirella now,” said Flora. “She told me she gets up with the birds in the summertime. And I’d better get going.”

Sofia said, “I showed up uninvited about this time of evening once and was told it was too late for guests of any sort. Mirella was playing her harpsichord. She’s touchy about anyone hearing her.”

“I don’t have class tomorrow since our teacher has a family commitment. Do you want to meet me at Mirella’s at nine in the morning?” Polly asked Flora and Charles, and of course Sofia.

“I’ll be there,” Charles agreed.

“Me, too,” said Flora.

“Me, too,” added Sofia.

Signor Luigi and agente Barto kindly paid the bill for the young people, even though Polly, Charles, and Flora all tried to insist on paying their own way.

“Feel like walking?” asked signor Luigi. “Or would you rather take a bus?”

In spite of the drizzle, they walked through the darkening city.

“See you tomorrow,” Flora called as she reached the door leading to her apartment.

As the rest of the group walked on with Polly, agente Barto talked about how fond his son had been of Mme Meringue’s husband, Gustavo. “He won’t admit it, but he still has a soft spot in his heart for Minou, too, and she for him. I just wish she—and I—could motivate my Enrico the way Gustavo could. I don’t have the secret.”


The next morning, Flora and Charles were already standing beside Mirella’s door when Polly arrived. “We’ve had five people glare at us when they walked by, and two women clutched their purses. Did they think I was going to spirit them off their arms?” Flora asked mildly.

“Sorry I’m late.”

“You’re not late. It’s only five of nine. The reactions are just business as usual for me—and for Charles, too, I bet.”

He nodded and then said, “I wonder where Sofia is?”

Flora pulled hard on the bell beside Mirella’s door.

They waited a minute, and Flora pulled the cord again. “Mirella never goes to the Borgo Stretto this early.” Flora sounded a little worried, and Polly felt her heart beat faster. “She promised to wait!”

“She promised not to pack up her house,” said a loud voice. “But she didn’t really promise to wait herself, and she’s not here! I saw her on the train to Lucca. She has two big suitcases with her. She wouldn’t even talk to me. She just kept shaking her head. I think I know where she’s going—it’s where she went for a few days after she was fired—but I’ve got to follow in case that changes. Can’t explain now—I’ll be back! Be at the Bar Allegro at noon. We can go to the station from there.”

Polly, Charles, and Flora walked as fast as they could to signor Luigi’s shop to tell him the news. “Signor Varelli has already called to register for the contest,” he reported. “Wouldn’t he be surprised if he knew he was talking to me. Now try not to worry too much. Sofia could locate someone in the middle of the Amazon.”

“I just feel so sorry for Mirella. She thinks no one wants her. I know how that feels.” Flora sounded bitterer than she usually let herself be.


The three young people were seated at an outdoor table at the Bar Allegro and were part way through their focaccia and acqua minerale when the air positively crackled with energy and Polly sensed the chair next to hers was no longer empty. “She’s checked into a convent guest house,” announced Sofia. “The next train to Lucca is in twenty minutes.”

“Let’s go,” said Charles. “I was going to work this afternoon, but I’ll ask Salime if he can watch my stuff, too. He’s a fan of Mirella’s, just like the rest of us.”


Polly would have enjoyed the leisurely ride on the little green local train to Lucca if she hadn’t been so eager to reach Mirella. Sofia had assured them that Mirella had left her home intact, but taking two big suitcases with her suggested Mirella expected to stay in Lucca for some time. Polly didn’t want Mirella to have to wait a minute longer before having her hope renewed. “Why don’t you go on,” she said to Sofia, “and tell Mirella about signor Varelli and the contest.”

“I want you guys to be with me when I do,” said Sofia. “We need to be able to pick up Mirella’s suitcases and take her and them right back with us before she can give up again. And have you ever seen me carrying suitcases? Now stop worrying so much. Mirella’s in a nice place. She’s a tough lady. She’ll be meditating and reading Emily Dickinson. She always reads Emily when she’s feeling alone because Emily was a recluse and considered a bit odd herself. Now let me tell you about Lucca,” and Sofia launched into a description of the tree-lined wall around the city, the bell tower for San Martino—the city’s cathedral—and the cathedral itself. “That campanile was built more than 100 years before I was born, only it was for defense then, not bells. And wait until you see the cathedral! It was built a little after I came along, and of course it’s not as beautiful as our cathedral, but it has some really cool carvings.”

“You should hire out as a tour guide,” said Flora.

“I will,” said Sofia, adding, “just as soon as the world gets over its hang-up about tour guides having bodies.”

Polly had only half listened to Sofia’s commentary, but it had helped to pass the half-hour trip. From the station they needed to go through an opening in the city wall to reach the main part of the city. “Okay, Sofia, where do we go from here?” asked Charles.

“The convent is just beyond the Piazza dell’Anfiteatro,” Sofia said and went on to explain how the piazza had kept the shape of the Roman amphitheater that had once been on the spot. “I’m just as glad I don’t remember anything about those times. At least you don’t have gladiators now, not that there’s been a whole lot of other improvement in how people act.”

“We have some good people now, just the way you did in the 12th century,” Charles pointed out.

“I guess you’re right,” agreed Sofia, sounding less than enthusiastic.

The convent doorbell was beside the iron gate in a fence softened by draping vines of pink flowers. A nun opened a second-story window. “Buongiorno,” she called, “un momento.” She was dressed in a long white habit trimmed in black. Polly thought she resembled a movie nun, leaning out of her perfect convent. It was tidy and rectangular, almost like a house drawn by a child but made pretty by the yellow-cream stucco, brown shutters, somewhat battered palms framing the building, and big clay pots holding more pink flowers.

In spite of her eagerness to reach Mirella, Polly felt soothed within the tranquil convent grounds. The nun held the front door for them. “Attenti ai muri”—“Be careful of the walls”—she said. “We can’t repaint often.” She eyed the energetic young people a little nervously but then led her visitors up two flights of carpeted stairs with a polished-wood banister. “Signora, you have guests,” the nun called after rapping on the door to room seven.

Polly heard someone hurry to the door, which opened quickly. “Oh, it’s you!” exclaimed Mirella. Polly thought she looked relieved, as well as pleased. Byron stepped from behind Mirella and gave a friendly meow. Past Mirella, Polly could see a twin bed covered by a blue-plaid spread, a white tile floor, a modern wardrobe and bureau, and a small picture of the Madonna on the wall. After a moment, Mirella told them, “I first hoped you wouldn’t find me, and then I thought I couldn’t stand it if you didn’t. I had faith in our Sofia, but I’m so glad to see you. I’m sorry I put you to all this trouble. Once I got here, I felt like a fool, but then I didn’t have the strength to do anything except sit here and read Emily Dickinson.”

“I’ll leave you now,” said the nun. “If you need anything, please ring the bell in the front hall.”

“I just can’t face getting my hopes up and then having everything fall apart again,” Mirella said after she had been filled in on the contest.

“With signor Luigi and agente Barto involved, you’re bound to have a really good chance,” said Polly.

“They can’t completely rig it because there will be at least a couple of other judges, but they’re friends of signor Luigi’s, and besides, you deserve to win,” said Flora.

“But you haven’t seen the other tower homes,” Mirella observed.

“They’ll make sure your tower wins in some category, even if they don’t award you the very best overall,” Charles assured her.

“Let me get a word in edgewise,” said Sofia. “Mirella, there’s a note on your kitchen table from signor Varelli. It says he has decided to let you stay for three more months—not days, not weeks—if you promise to have your tower in tiptop shape for some special visitors who will be inspecting the tower on July 13. What a creep! He can’t even admit his true purpose.”

“Why didn’t you tell us that on the train?” asked Flora irritably.

“I wanted it to be a surprise,” Sofia said smugly.

“Signor Varelli is not at all a nice man.” Mirella shook her head. “I would feel sorry for him if I possibly could for being such a block of ice. He’s still going to throw me out in three months, and he probably won’t wait that long—just long enough to get his plaque and then decide what new infraction I’ve incurred. He’s pretending to give me three months so I’ll think he’s suddenly being reasonable and then put a lot of effort into spiffing everything up.”

“But it will still give us more time!” argued Flora. “The contest is two weeks away, and we can accomplish a lot in two weeks!”

“I think I’ll just stay here until the contest,” said Mirella. “The apartment is in good shape. I don’t know what else I’d do, except a little dusting. I’ll be too sad at home knowing how inevitable the end is. I’d kept my spirits high, figuring something would happen to let me stay, even though I didn’t know what. I guess I sort of thought signor Varelli was just hassling me to try to make me keep a lower profile, but now I see he really hates me and will find any excuse to make me move.”

“Mirella,” Sofia said sternly, “do you remember the time you told your class the chief lesson from literature is to hold our heads high and express our special qualities and talents, no matter what, no matter how great the scorn?”

Mirella nodded her head slightly.

“Well I remember, too,” Sofia continued in the same authoritative tone. “And how can you express your true gifts and nature hiding here in this convent room, I’d like to ask you!”

“You’ve always been an inspiration to me, Mirella,” Flora said sincerely. “When I sit playing my accordion and passersby make rude remarks about Gypsies, I think of you proudly reciting on the steps of San Michele in Borgo. That picture of you in my mind makes me sit up straighter and play better in spite of the taunts, or even because of them.”

“I admire you, too, signora,” Charles said shyly, and Mirella began to sit up a little straighter herself.


Polly and Flora took turns carrying one of Mirella’s suitcases while Charles insisted on carrying the other all the way back to the station. Mirella held Byron in a travel case. The cat was heavy, so she kept switching hands, but she wouldn’t allow Charles to relieve her of the burden. “You have a heavy load as it is,” she said. “I had to hire a taxi to take me to the train and then from the Lucca station to the convent. I hated spending the money. You are so kind to help me.”

Sofia kept up a running commentary about the buildings they passed and was disappointed when no one else wanted to stop to visit San Martino’s cathedral. “The luggage and Byron will be okay in the church while we look around,” she urged.

“We’ll come back together soon. How about next Saturday?” Charles asked kindly, and the others agreed.

“I’d like to walk along the city wall, too, and visit Puccini’s birthplace. I’m going to see his opera Madama Butterfly at the end of August,” said Polly.

“Yes, you’ve told us,” said Flora, but not unkindly.

“At least three times,” Sofia added less gently.

They were plenty early to catch the late-afternoon local back to Pisa. But when the time came, they found themselves standing with several other hopeful passengers next to an empty little green train with no engineer. Over the loudspeaker, a woman announced their train as “in partenza,” but it didn’t look in partenza to Polly. Sofia let out a shrill whistle that made the rest of the passengers turn toward their group. The other four hushed her, hoping to discourage a repeat. She didn’t whistle again, but a small dog began barking insistently, throwing in a howl now and then for emphasis. None of the other passengers could find the dog, in spite of a lot of craned necks—not to mention the hisses coming from Byron inside his case—and the level of confusion on the platform rose steadily.

“When did Kinzica show up?” Flora asked softly.

“Just now,” said Sofia. “She missed me.”

“Well, keep her quiet,” Flora retorted.

A young man who turned out to be the conductor hurried toward them and was berated by one of the waiting men for being late. The conductor started to offer excuses but then glanced up and noticed the absence of an engineer. He did a pronounced double take. Much hand waving began among the male passengers together with the conductor, and a half-dozen cell phones appeared.

Ten minutes later, the phones and gestures still had not roused an engineer, so like the other waiting passengers, Mirella, Charles, Flora, Polly, and Sofia resigned themselves to taking the next hour’s local to Pisa.

“On my own, I’d be back there already,” Sofia reminded them.

“Let’s wait inside the station,” Charles suggested. “Maybe we can find a quiet corner. We’ve attracted a bit of attention.”

“Guess whose fault that is,” Flora said snidely. “Big surprise.”


“Maybe there is something I should do to get my tower ready for the contest. What do you think?” Mirella asked as the train was gliding to a stop at Pisa Centrale.

“Nothing!” chorused Polly, Flora, Sofia, and Charles.

“The girls told me all about your tower,” Charles explained.

“You were right: It’s already perfect,” Polly asserted.

Flora nodded. “Just add even more flowers. We’ll get them for you.”

On top of the city wall, Lucca
On top of the wall surrounding Lucca
Duomo, Lucca
San Martino, the Cathedral of Lucca

The Girl in the Leaning Tower – Chapter 18

Mirella’s Tower

On Sunday morning, Flora and Polly pulled the rope hanging from the bell next to Mirella’s ancient-looking and slightly battered front door. Polly soon heard Mirella on the stairs behind the door. She was smiling as she greeted them. “I saw you coming,” she said brightly. “I was out on the balcony watering my flowers. Polly, Flora, Sofia, won’t you come in?” she greeted them all, not even questioning whether Sofia was present. The tiny entrance foyer held a bench with red cushions, a clothes tree, and a brass umbrella stand.

Mirella led the way up the flight of stairs to the kitchen, which was as white and cheerful as she had described to Polly. A large blue plate with a sunflower on it had been mounted on the wall over a cutting board; other blue-and-yellow ceramic plates and bowls and pots of red geraniums decorated the white shelves, counters, and round kitchen table. Byron was crunching cat food in a corner of the room. He looked up briefly to see who had arrived and then went back to his food. Evidently Sofia had not brought Kinzica. Through an open door, Polly could see the small balcony and so many red and purple blossoms that she wondered where Mirella sat.

“It’s beautiful!” Polly said sincerely.

“Yes,” agreed Mirella. “I love it here. Have a seat, girls; that includes you, Sofia,” she added, gesturing toward the chairs around the table. Polly wondered how often Mirella had even one visitor to use her extra seats.

Polly studied Mirella when she thought the older woman wouldn’t think she was being rude. Mirella’s expression was a mixture of happiness—perhaps at having visitors—and sadness, especially around the eyes, which looked a little puffy to Polly, the way her own did on a morning when she’d had a cry in bed the night before.

A reason for tears was soon clear. “I had a note from signor Varelli. He left it on my kitchen table sometime yesterday.”

“On your kitchen table?” asked Flora in an indignant tone of voice. “He walked right into your home when you weren’t here? Not even our landlord does that. We find stuff taped to our door, but he’s never had the gall to barge right in—at least I don’t think so. If I ever so much as suspected he’d been prowling around!”

“He’s probably too scared you Gypsies would hex him or something,” commented Sofia.

“Gypsies don’t put hexes on people!”

“I wouldn’t mind having signor Varelli scared of me,” commented Mirella. “It is technically his place, not mine, but it always felt like mine. But not so much anymore. Now he wants me out in two weeks.” Before the girls had a chance to express their outrage, she asked, “Do you want to see the other rooms?”

As she stepped aside at the top of a flight of stairs for the girls to enter the living room, Mirella said, “Polly, you can see I meant it about purple being my favorite color!” The wallpaper background was violet, and when Polly examined the embossed design, she saw it depicted peacocks in various poses. Some had their multicolored fantails open. Other birds held their tails closed and long behind them and seemed to strut across the room. A pink fringed throw covered Mirella’s large armchair in front of the window overlooking the street, and similar throws in a half-dozen shades from lightest pink to deepest purple covered the sofa, three more chairs, a small lamp table, and the back of a beautiful harpsichord.

“A harpsichord!” Polly exclaimed. “I didn’t know you played.”

“Just for myself,” said Mirella. “I keep the window closed. I’m not nearly as good as the man who plays Puccini on his piano.”

“It’s so nice in here,” said Flora. “I like it even better than our apartment.”

The bedroom, another flight up, was just as appealing, to Polly’s mind, with a high four-poster bed covered with the pink and purple quilt that Mirella had described when they had first met. Mirella’s mother had been a talented artist. Her embroidered scenes from Pisan history looked almost like miniature oil paintings.

“See the picture of my tower with just three levels done!” Sofia said excitedly. “And there’s Kinzica ringing the bells to save the city!”

The bedroom’s pink walls were decorated with about two-dozen old photographs. The largest was a wedding picture of a handsome young couple. The woman looked almost exactly like Mirella, only younger.

Mirella noticed where Polly was looking. “Those are my parents,” she said. “They were so young and beautiful then. I miss them.”

“Do you have any brothers and sisters?” Polly asked, wondering why she hadn’t thought more about Mirella’s family before.

“I had a sister, but she’s gone, too. Here we are together in this picture.” Two dark-haired girls close in age looked out of a small, faded color photograph. Mirella was unmistakable as the elder. Both were dainty and smiling. Polly was struck by how completely alone Mirella must feel, lying in bed in this little room with her lost family surrounding her.

Mirella seemed to have felt her thoughts. “I miss them so much, but they’re not really gone. I sense them all with me. And I’ll see them again.”

Mirella’s white dresser was similar to the one in Polly’s room at Mme Meringue’s, but here it looked pleasing rather than stuffy. The top was covered with little silver and glass jars and with a delicate garnet-and-pearl necklace laid out carefully.

“That was a present from my parents on our last Christmas together as a family.”

A white wicker rocker with pink and purple cushions sat in the corner next to the larger of the room’s two windows. Polly looked down to see the street that circled the side of the tower; the street then continued almost straight out from near Mirella’s front door.

“The bathroom is in here.” Mirella flicked on a light and stepped back out so the girls could look in at one of the smallest bathrooms Polly had ever seen. The white tiles gleamed, and the white fixtures, while old, shone brightly enough to have just come from the store. The bar of soap on the sink was purple.


They had only begun to sip their tea back in the kitchen when the bell at the front door rang, and then rang several more times, as if someone were trying to pull it off its mounting by yanking the rope. Everyone was silent, and Mirella looked frightened. The ringing stopped, and a man’s voice carried audibly through the heavy door and up the stairs: “I know you’re in there. Open up or I’ll come in anyway!”

Mirella chose opening the door to her visitor herself. She ran down the stairs, as light on her feet as a young girl. Mirella must be in great shape, Polly found herself thinking, with a flight of stairs in between every room in her tower.

Polly heard the front door open, and the gruff man said, “It’s about time!” Did he think Mirella should have been waiting on the other side of her door in case he happened to stop by?

“Won’t you come in, signor Varelli,” Polly heard Mirella say in a polite but rather tight voice.

“I’d say so! As if I need to wait to be invited into my own tower.”

Two sets of footsteps sounded on the stairs, Mirella’s light and quick, signor Varelli’s heavy and slower. Mirella appeared several seconds before her guest.

He had yet to take a step into the kitchen when he spotted Flora and Polly. “Students!” he hollered. “Gypsy students!”

“You remember Polly from America,” Mirella said politely, “and Flora—her friend and mine.”

Signor Varelli ignored the social conventions and said harshly, “I’ve come to be sure you received my message yesterday. I gave you two weeks to find new quarters—under the circumstances, a generous offer—but only if,” his voice underscored the word, “you called no new, untoward attention to yourself and you refrained from tarnishing my reputation in any way. And that includes not running a school out of my tower!”

“At the bar with you, we did discuss the possibility of a school,” said Mirella, her voice under control, “but I will take no action without your approval.”

“No action!” signor Varelli shouted. “What do you call having two students seated right here under my nose at the kitchen table?”

“They are not my students,” Mirella said in a patient tone of voice. “They are my guests.”

“Guests! What would a woman of your age be doing entertaining child Gypsies and foreigners?”

“Only one Gypsy and one foreigner,” said Sofia, prompting signor Varelli to whirl toward Flora.

“Don’t contradict me, young lady!”

“No sir,” Flora said meekly. When signor Varelli turned back toward Mirella, Flora gave a glare that was clearly meant for Sofia.

“Because you have blatantly violated my generous terms, I will now expect you out in three days, not two weeks. And if you are still on the premises in four days’ time, I will have you arrested for trespassing.”

“But I am not running a school!” Mirella said with some desperation in her voice. “The girls just came to visit me. You don’t see any books or papers, do you? How could I be conducting a class?”

“Do you take me for a fool?” At the sound of fake coughing, he stopped and whirled on Flora again. She had an angry expression on her face, but Polly knew she hadn’t made the noise.

Flora took the blame anyway, which told Polly a lot about her desire to help Mirella. Usually Flora wasn’t the type to take the blame for anybody’s sake. “Sorry,” she said softly. “I swallowed wrong.”

Signor Varelli glared again and then continued. “I will not be hoodwinked. Do you think I haven’t heard you shouting poetry at the top of your lungs over at San Michele in Borgo? ‘Isn’t that your tenant?’ someone asked me just this week when you were up there hollering something about standing and waiting, or whatever foolish lines you were quoting from that idiot Dante you like so much. How do you think I felt? It was the last straw. I will not be made a laughing stock!”

“You were listening,” said Mirella with a little smile. “Just a couple of points: First, Dante is sometimes wrong, but he wasn’t and isn’t a fool by any measure. Second, I wasn’t reciting Dante at the moment you mention; it was Milton—‘They also serve who only stand and wait.’ I wish I could serve by doing more than standing and waiting for people to listen to our great authors,” she added to herself.

“Whatever.” Signor Varelli’s voice was still twice as loud as it needed to be. “Don’t try to change the subject. The point is, why would you need books and paper for teaching when you must have about a hundred books memorized, the way you go on day after day?”

“It’s nice you are a regular, coming to hear Mirella,” Sofia said quietly in a good imitation of an American accent.

Signor Varelli responded by glaring at Polly this time. “Don’t be an idiot. People tell me what she’s up to. I try to avoid the Borgo Stretto completely as much as I can. How do you think it makes me feel?” he asked again. “My valuable and historic tower is inhabited by a woman so crazy she was fired by that hotbed of radical academics, the University of Pisa. Even they wouldn’t put up with her, but you think I should?”

He paused for a moment, during which the others remained silent. “Anyway, I don’t owe you any explanation. Be out in three days or you’ll be doing some explaining yourself—to the law!” He rose, stomped out of the room, and started down the stairs.

“Goodbye, signor Varelli,” Sofia called cheerfully.

As soon as they heard the front door bang closed, Flora said angrily, “Sofia, stupida! You just made things worse for Mirella.”

To Polly’s surprise, Mirella said cheerfully, ”You kept him on his toes, Sofia.” She giggled for a moment, but then her expression sagged and the giggle became a sob. “He wouldn’t have changed his mind no matter what we said or didn’t say. Even after yesterday’s note, I still had a little hope something would work out, but that’s gone. I have to start packing—but how can I bear it? Will you girls help me? I know I couldn’t stand it alone.” Another sob escaped. The tears were flowing freely now. “Where will I go? This is my home. It’s so perfect here.”

“Don’t start packing yet,” Flora said resolutely. One reason we came is to tell you signor Luigi and agente Barto are still trying to figure something out. They’re getting together this morning to talk over ideas.”

“I don’t think anything will work now,” said Mirella. “You heard him. He doesn’t care about facts or human decency. All he knows is I might sully his sterling reputation.”

“Some reputation,” said Flora. “I vote for him as the meanest man in Tuscany. But promise you won’t start packing until signor Luigi and agente Barto or one of us comes back to talk to you. It’ll be by tomorrow, at the latest. Promise me you’ll wait.”

“And try not to worry too much,” Sofia added kindly. “Just because you can’t see a way out doesn’t mean there isn’t one.”

“I’ll wait to pack,” said Mirella. “But it won’t work. I was naïve to think I could just be myself the way I wanted to be as long as no one was employing me and I didn’t break any laws or hurt anyone.”

Polly said, “We’ll stick by you. Please don’t give up. Try to keep busy meanwhile, to keep your mind off it all.”

Mirella nodded, but Polly thought she looked more discouraged than ever.


Late that afternoon, the signs went up all over Pisa:

Contest Sign

Tower Home
Three stories of a casa torre


The Girl in the Leaning Tower – Chapter 17

Arno River at Sunset
Arno River, Pisa, at sunset

Beatrice at Dante

As soon as he saw them, the barman called, “Ciao, professoressa! How’s the poetry these days? Ciao, Byron!” It seemed that inside the bar, at least, Mirella was both known and liked. Polly was especially surprised to have the cat so welcome at this establishment, whose walls were filled with posters of quotations from Dante’s Divine Comedy.

“And whom do we have here? A young niece of yours, professoressa?” Finally someone—besides Mirella’s mean landlord—who didn’t already know about Polly before she’d been introduced.

“Signor Dante, this is Polly. She’s from America. The poor girl is staying with Minou Meringue for the summer.”

“Oh she’ll be fine there; don’t worry. Mme Meringue is a nice enough lady—if you’re not a Roma, or a street merchant, or. . . .”

“Or a little defiant of expectations,” Mirella finished the sentence for him.

“That’s a good description. I like it—it’s classy, like you, Mirella. And now what can I get for you ladies? It’s on the house to welcome our American visitor. Will you each have a grilled-egg-and-cheese panino?” To a young barista he said, “Laura, get a saucer of cream for Byron, will you?” Knowing that in little more than an hour she’d be sitting down to cena with Mme Meringue, Polly reluctantly declined the panino.

When they had taken their tea and Mirella’s sandwich to a table and Byron had settled underneath with his special treat, Mirella said to Polly, “This is one of my almost-favorite places in Pisa.

“My favorite place is obviously the Leaning Tower, but I have several co-almost-favorites. First is the tiny balcony outside my kitchen—lots of red geraniums out there, too, and purple bougainvillea; I don’t hold with purple and red being clashing colors. I have only just enough room on the balcony for my flowers and a tiny glider. I sit there, gliding back and forth and watching the sky spread evening across the city. A man on my street plays the piano. He always plays behind closed shutters, but I know who it is because I overheard someone who pointed to him and said, ‘That’s the man who plays so beautifully.’ From my balcony, I can hear the arpeggios of ‘Musetta’s Waltz’ and pieces like that. He loves Puccini best; I can tell; I love Puccini best, too.” If she hadn’t been unwilling to interrupt, Polly would have said that Puccini was also her favorite. “When my pianist plays his opera arias, the vocal parts sing through the keys.”

With a distant look in her eyes, Mirella stood. Byron took his cue, as well, and walked out from beneath the table to stand beside her. The other patrons turned to listen and watch as Mirella began: “Walking in Pisa, I am the phantom girl in the Leaning Tower grown old, but not beyond redemption. I am a temporarily embodied spirit, still barely visible, visiting the places of the heart.

“From behind a shuttered window comes piano music. As I listen, I dream your music and I are within my home: in time I rise and, passing through the cool white kitchen, step onto the balcony, fragrant in the early evening with the bitter scent of geraniums, their colors sweetness to the eyes as your melodies are to my ears, my soul and mind.

“To my right is the graceful Arno; the hills toward Florence fade to silhouettes in the sunset sky. And your music holds me to the balcony when I would otherwise float among the scenes and vapors, the soft evening sighs of the city.”

The patrons applauded as Mirella and Byron sat down again. “Beautiful, just beautiful, Mirella,” called a grandfatherly man.

“Brava, brava!” agreed a young woman holding a toddler on her lap.

Bis, professoressa!” a handsome man in a business suit cheered, calling for an encore.

Polly glanced at Mirella’s face and saw joy in her eyes. “These people love you. Why don’t you always perform here where people like hearing what you recite? That was so pretty just now. It was your composition, too, I think?”

Mirella nodded but didn’t answer Polly’s other question for several seconds. Finally she said, “I’d like to recite here all the time. It’s nice to be welcomed instead of scorned, but these patrons already love literature and the world of ideas. That’s why this is their regular bar. Signor Dante holds book discussions one night a week, and sometimes poets give readings here. It’s others I need to reach.”

“But surely new customers come in from time to time, and you’d become famous for your recitations, especially your own compositions. You’d be the star attraction. This could be your literary salon!”

“Signorina Polly, you paint a pretty picture, but I think I would feel limited here, just waiting for someone new to wander in and stay to listen. The regulars already hear me plenty. I’ll give it some more thought, though. The idea has certainly crossed my mind, but it sounds too easy. Let’s see if Sofia has any luck for me. Teaching eager young people would always make me feel my days matter.”

The trio sat silently, the two humans sipping their tea, Mirella finishing her sandwich, and Byron still making small lapping noises under the table. Outside the Borgo Stretto swirled with the early evening passeggiata—the nightly outing for pedestrians, bicyclists, and riders steering their motorini around the tourists. Well-dressed Pisans mingled, called to friends, cut their bella figura—wearing their style and good looks with pride—and streamed on to leave space for the next wave of revving motors, exuberant youth, and forceful age.

Eventually Mirella said quietly, “Shelley once lived upstairs in a palazzo at the end of the Borgo Stretto, and he looked down on a passeggiata like this one. It was the tradition then, too. Perhaps it brought to mind a skylark, the West Wind, and the consolation of solitude within the company of many. Beyond the Borgo Stretto, as for us, the tower held itself outside gravity’s grasp, leaning toward the soaring earth of marble mountains.”

“You are a great artist, too, Mirella.”

“Thank you, my dear.”

“I need to go now to get to cena on time. May I come visit with you again?”

“I will expect it. Perhaps you and Sofia and Flora will stop by to see me in my tower. Come, Byron; we also need to be getting home.”

Polly walked with Mirella and Byron as far as the Piazza Vettovaglie. The fruit and vegetable sellers in the piazza were chatting with their friends at the neighboring stands as they closed them for the evening. A teenaged boy with a guitar sat on a wall by the square, strumming and singing in a rough, earnest voice—obviously admired by the three girls sitting at his feet. “Silly girls,” Polly said to herself as she returned to the Borgo Stretto and turned toward the bridge and home. She contrasted the girls’ fawning look with the love in Mirella’s face when she’d spoken of her lost Lorenzo.

Piazza Vettovaglie
Piazza Vettovaglie


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,