Rodin Works: ugolino and his sons
In Book XXXIII of the 'Divine Comedy', Dante presents the story of Ugolino della Gherardesca, Count of Donoratico, head of a faction of the pro-Papal Guelphs in Pisa during the 13th Century. In order to seize power in the town governed by Nino of Gallura, head of the opposing faction, Ugolino had entered a pact with Archbishop Ruggieri degli Ubaldini, leader of the Ghibelline (pro-Holy Roman Emperor) faction. In the summer of the year 1288 Nino and his men were expelled from the city.
When a new Pope appeared on the scene, Ubaldini denounced the alliance and - now that the Guelphs were weakened - accused Ugolino of corruption. Charging the Count for having assisted Florence and Lucca to win back some towns that had previously been conquered by Pisa, he brought up the population against Ugolino. The tyrant along with two sons and two grandsons (or nephews, in other versions) were imprisoned in the Gualandi Tower overlooking Pisa's central Piazza dei Cavalieri. In March 1289, on the arrival of Count Guido da Montefeltro (described in Canto XVII), as Captain of Pisa, they were starved to death. Since then the tower has been called Torre della Fame, the Tower of Hunger.
According to the popular tale, Ugolino, racked with hunger, ate the flesh of his children as last survivor. By now, scientific research, based on excavations in the Gherardesca family tomb, has questioned if the 'Cannibal Count' actually consumed human flesh during his last days [Read more].
In the 'Divine Comedy', Dante meets Ugolino in the lowest region of Hell, gnawing the skull of his former friend, then fiend Ubaldini: because both men were guilty of treachery, they were condemned to eternal punishment in the ninth Circle of Hell, reserved for traitors. Dante hears Ugolino's tragic account how after two days, he had bitten his hands in remorse and despair while his sons - thinking he was doing so for hunger - had offered their own young bodies as a meal to him:
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This is the scene Carpeaux - like other artists before him - had selected for his sculpture 'Ugolino', exhibited at the Salon of 1863. In the same year, Rodin had joined the Union Centrale des Arts Décoratifs and - impressed by Carpeaux's work - had tried to socialize with the successful sculptor, who did not return his sympathy.
Almost surely inspired by Carpeaux's design with a sitting Ugolino, Rodin began his first draft of 'Ugolino and his sons' probably already in 1876. Rodin made over 30 sketches ; two of these drawings, probably dating from 1879-1880, show a seated Ugolino with one of his sons lying across his lap. Claudie Judrin and subsequently Albert Elsen point to Michelangelo's Pietà, viewed by Rodin in 1875, as an art-historical reference and interpret these sketches as evidence of Buonarotti's strong influence. The painting 'Ugolino' (1806) by Johann Heinrich Fussli (1741-1825), now in the Kunsthaus Zürich, proves that at least Rodin was not the only artist recurring to the Pietà concept for a portrait of the starving Count.
After his journey to Italy, where he had seen, among others, the famous 'Laocoon' group in Rome - another work dealing with the cruel death of a father and his two sons - Rodin destroyed the seated version of his 'Ugolino' sculpture; the plaster was reduced to a headless fragment, that survived in this form and was shown again in Rodin's private exhibition pavillon at the Place d´Alma in 1900. This sitting character with its peculiarly crossed legs can be considered the morphological forerunner of the 'Thinker', which Rodin developed around 1880. Other relevant studies of male seated figures can be found in Rodin's 'Vase of the Titans', created during his employment at the Sèvres Porcelain Manufactury.
Whereas the third maquette for 'The Gates of Hell' still shows a seated Ugolino, Rodin's following attempts present the desperate sinner at the climax of the drama as related to Dante:
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Instead of repeating the traditional pyramidal construction, employed by Carpeaux, Rodin around 1881-82 introduced a daring horizontal composition showing the exhausted old man on all fours, blindly groping for his suffering progenity. The plaster in the Musée d'Orsay shows Ugolino still with a raised head; in the final version, included in 'The Gates of Hell', the sculptor goes the last step: the Count is facing down like an animal, no longer able to maintain a reflective distance; as a last human gesture, his left arm is supporting the head of his dying son, the other son still clinging to his father's back.
Trumann Bartlett - a sculptor himself - recognized the radical pathetic quality of this composition:
"Rodin goes at once to the depths of the whole tragedy. The youths have fallen to the ground, and Ugolino, seeing them so, and feeling the full terror of his situation, throws his own emaciated carcass down and crawls over the body of his offspring like a beast benumbed with rage and famine... The impression made by this being is so forcible that it seems more like the half-conscious response of an unburied corpse to the trumpet of the resurrection... It is the horror of the door" [Bartlett]
The group, first placed on the left panel of the 'The Gates of Hell', around 1887 was moved to the right wing, where it remained.
Rodin himself was so convinced of his creation, that he detached the head of one of the sons, and enlarged it seperately in different media; this 'Head of Sorrow' was used for Paolo in 'Fugit Amor'; it also was exhibited as an indepent sculpture and carved in marble.
During the 1890's, Rodin created an assemblage of the 'Ugolino' character with 'The Tragic Muse'.
In 1906, he started with the enlargement of the 'Ugolino' group. René Chéruy related how Rodin had invited Pignatelli, who had been his model for the first version, to come and see him on that occasion. Upon arrival at the Villa des Brillants where Rodin was having luncheon with guests, old Pignatelli announced himself to Rodin's confused housekeeper as 'St John the Baptist'. Rodin, who had forgotten the appointment, understood some mentally insane beggar had knocked on his door and ordered to give the poor man some food, till a persistent Pugnatelli could convince the maid and Rodin he was the sculptor's former model.