In Canto 33 of Dante’s Inferno, the Pilgrim enters Antenora and sees the sinner, Ugolino, frozen in a hole and feasting on the head of his nemesis, Ruggieri. Although the reason for his damnation in the realm of Antenora is the sin of political treachery against Pisa, there seems to be something else he grieves and feels the need to explain to Dante: while Ruggieri locks Ugolino and his sons in a tower with no food, Ugolino bites his hand out of sheer rage.
This gesture and the actions of the sinner divesting of his enemy’s head signifies Ugolino’s hunger for vengeance against Ruggieri; yet his children mistake this gesture for hunger: “’Father, it will be much less pain for us if you eat of us: you clothed us with this wretched flesh, so do you divest us of it. ’ I quieted myself then, so as not to make them sadder; that day and the next we were all mute: ah, hard earth, why did you not open?
After we had reached the fourth day, Gaddo threw himself stretched out at my feet, saying: ‘My father, why do you not help me? ’” (Inf. 33. 61-69) Gaddo’s words echo some of the last words of Christ according to Mark and Matthew in the Bible: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? ” The son’s offer of flesh to the father is a Biblical reference to the book of Job and the Eucharist: “You clothed us with this wretched flesh, so do you divest us of it” (Inf. 3. 62-63). These lines are similar to the speech of Job: “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return tither: The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away. ”
The reference to the Eucharist is drawn where Ugolino’s sons offer their bodies as food, much as Christ offers his disciples bread at the last supper, saying: “This is my body. ” In fact, the poet compares Ugolino’s eating of the head “as bread is eaten by the starving” (Inf. 2. 127). Ugolino even mentions that his sons were “crying in their sleep and asking for bread” (Inf. 33. 37-38). It is highly likely that Ugolino ate of his son’s flesh, although Dante and Ugolino don’t speak of it directly. This is because the horror of the suffering and eating of the sons flesh is almost too terrible to put into words: “for two days I called then, after they were dead. Then fasting had more power than grief” (Inf. 33. 74-75).
This implies that Ugolino had no choice but to eat of his sons after they died in order to survive (but only for a few more days). This is reflected in the act of revenge Ugolino has on Ruggieri in Antenora. Ugolino’s speech ends the same way it began, and he proceeds to eat the back of Ruggieri’s head. Dante concludes Ugolino’s tragedy with an invective against Pisa, calling it the new Thebes, the city famous for tragedy: “You should not have put his son on such a cross” (Inf. 3386-87).