DNA test results could rewrite history
SCIENCE may rewrite history if bones found under an Italian church prove to be those of Cannibal Count Ugolino, one of the darkest historical figures to make an appearance in Dante's Inferno.
An Italian palaeontologist says his work will show that Ugolino was not slowly starved and driven to eat the flesh of his own dead sons as Dante wrote, but killed by a blow to the head after five months in prison.
Professor Francesco Mallegni found five skeletons buried in a crypt under a church in the central Italian city of Pisa last year along with a scroll saying they were the bones of the Ugolino clan.
Initial bone and soil studies led him to believe that the skeletons do indeed belong to the count and his family, but Mallegni is awaiting the results of DNA testing early this year before announcing a final conclusion.
"I am 98 per cent certain they are the bones of the Ugolini since the time period and number and sex of the skeletons is correct and the scroll identifies them as belonging to Ugolino," Mallegni said.
"But with the DNA tests, science will finally rewrite history and show that Dante may have produced beautiful poetry, but historically he was wrong," he added.
In one of the most chilling passages of Dante Alighieri's Inferno, Count Ugolino is described as eternally gnawing at the brain of Archbishop Ruggieri, the man who had him imprisoned for treason along with his sons and grandsons.
He interrupts his gruesome meal to tell the story of how he and his offspring were slowly starved to death. Famished, the count says he was driven to eat the flesh of his own sons and grandsons who died before he did.
"For three days (I) called them, after they were dead; then fasting had more power than grief," the fictitious Ugolino tells Dante who then writes: "When he had said this, with eyes distorted he seized the wretched skull again with his teeth, which as a dog's were strong upon the bone."
But Mallegni said Dante's tale, which has been adopted as an accurate historical account, is full of literary licence.
Mallegni's studies show that the oldest of the skeletons was a man in his late 70s who was killed by a blow to the head, "a coup de grace," as he describes it.
"Even if Ugolino had wanted to eat the flesh of his offspring, he couldn't have because he didn't have any teeth," Mallegni said.
All five men suffered from malnutrition during the last months of their life, indicating they were ill-fed in prison, but they were killed long before they could starve to death.
Mallegni, a palaeontology professor at the University of Pisa who started the Ugolino project at the bidding of a private collector, has had a reconstruction of the count's head made, based on the bones he found. The wizened, fine-boned face sits on a shelf in front of his desk.
Mallegni won a name for himself by identifying the skeleton of the Italian artist and architect Giotto di Bondane, who lived from 1267 to 1337, and is betting the Ugolino find will be even more important.
DNA tests will show whether the five skeletons were related and will compare them to the DNA of living relatives of the Ugolino family, "providing conclusive evidence", Mallegni said.
Ugolino and his offspring were imprisoned in 1289 in the tower of the white stone Clock Palace that still overlooks one of Pisa's Romanesque piazzas just a couple of blocks from the city's most famous site, the Leaning Tower.
The tower has since been named the Tower of Hunger although the bones were transferred to the San Francesco church where Mallegni found them.
Dante is thought to have started the Divine Comedy, a masterpiece of mediaeval literature comprised of the Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso, in 1307.
(Agencies via Xinhua)