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Ugolino and His Sons

Musée d’Orsay, Paris


Frances Yates comments on the popularity and meaning of the Ugolino story in the nineteenth century:

“During the first half of the nineteenth century, and even later, what might almost call an Ugolino fever spread to France, Belgium, Denmark, Switzerland, and other countries. Verse translations of the story, plays on it, poems inspired by it, appeared in various European languages. These literary manifestations are accompanied by an outbreak of pictures of Ugolino-suffering in Ugolino-dungeons….Roughly speaking, it may be said that the European Ugolino craze coincides with the trend of that epoch towards liberalism. The steady stream of nineteenth-century English translations of the Ugolino episode becomes more intelligible when we realize that the Count represented the sufferings of the enslaved under tyrants, with which liberal England must deeply sympathize.

But a new and disturbing twist is given to the political and social applications of the Ugolino symbol by [Thomas] Carlyle. After all, shocking things were happening in free England, and Carlyle claims a ghastly incident of the Hungry Forties as a modern Ugolino story. At Stockport Assizes, a mother and father were found guilty of poisoning their three children in order to get money from a burial society to buy food. ‘A human Mother and Father had said to themselves, What shall we do to escape starvation? We are deep sunk here, in our dark cellar, and help is far. Yes, in the Ugolino Hunger Town stern things happen…’ These were parents forced by social injustice to the crime of eating their children, and Carlyle was right in seeing the parallel with the famous Dantean story.”

Frances A. Yates, “Transformations of Dante’s Ugolino,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol. 14, no. 1-2 (1951): 110-11.

Related Works:

Ugolino and His Sons, clay version, 1873 (Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen)

Similar Subjects by Other Artists:

Joshua Reynolds, Count Ugolino and his Children, 1773 

Heinrich Fuseli, Ugolino and His Sons Starving to Death in the Tower, 1806

William Blake, Ugolino and His Sons (illustration to Dante’s Divine Comedy), 1826

John Flaxman, Ugolino  (illustration to Dante’s Divine Comedy), 1792

Eugène Delacroix, Ugolino 1865 (National Gallery of Denmark, Copenhagen)

Auguste Rodin, Ugolino, 1880s (multiple versions) 

About the Artist

Born: Valenciennes, 11 May 1827
Died: Courbevoie, 11 October 1875
Nationality: French