The sheer anguish, grieve and the indescribable pain written all over the faces of Ugolino, his two sons and two grandsons in this amazingly sculpted artwork captures your imagination and gets you having a whole lot of questions to ask the first time you set your eyes on this masterpiece at the Metropolitan Museum. It’s location in the hall cannot be missed because it is literally positioned in the center. The “Ugolino and His Sons” master depicts Ugolino grieving in melancholy gnawing on his fingers with his sons and grandsons calmly pleading with him that he eats them instead.
It shows the imprisonment and starvation of Ugolino who according to Dante’s poem Inferno. I chose to write about this masterpiece by Carpeaux because I was very interested and curious to research about the main idea behind it. The mere sight of the artwork tells a lot even though you may not know anything about it. The main idea for this artwork primarily came from a poem composed with Dante Alighieri. Dante was an Italian philosopher, a scholar and a poet best known for his epic poem called “The Divine Comedy” which comprised of the three tiers of Christian Afterlife: Purgatory, Heaven and Hell.
Dante was born in 1265 in Florence, Italy to a family with a history of involvement of complex Florentine political scene. But his mother died a few years after his birth. The “Divine comedy” which is based on the philosophical visions of the eternity of man was considered as a great literature during the medieval period. He was considered the father of Italy. The Divine Comedy was an allegory of human life presented as a visionary trip through the afterlife, which was purposely written to scare corrupt societies into repentance.
The inspiration for the Ugolino and His Sons sculpture was taken from the section of the poem, called Inferno. The subject of this artwork is backed by what transpired in the 32nd canto of his poem the Inferno. Dante describes how he came across two heads trapped in the depths of hell. Among these two men, one was chewing on the other’s skull in what appeared to be an act of cannibalism. It was later revealed in the Inferno that the gnawing sinner was indeed Ugolino and the other was the Archbishop of Pisa called Ruggieri.
In July 1288, Ugolino was imprisoned by the archbishop himself in a tower in Pisa together with his two sons and three grandsons with nothing to eat whatsoever. Archbishop Ruggieri’s main intention was to have Ugolino starve to death with his sons and grandsons. The idea that Dante in his poem encountered both men in hell tells the story about their meeting once again in the afterlife after death. One by one the boys also died. Under normal circumstances, we would agree with the fact that it wasn’t a bad idea on the part of Ugolino gnawing on the head of Archbishop because it was an act of vengeance.
His sons and grandsons seeing their father gnaw on his fingers in agony pleads with him politely to eat them instead. One can only imagine the horrors and torture Ugolino and his sons went through went they were imprisoned in the tower in Pisa. The desire for vengeance is somewhat justified by gnawing on Archbishop Ruggieri’s skull. Dante died on September 13th, 1321 at the age of 56. Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux who is the artist and brains behind “Ugolino and His Sons” was a French painter and sculptor born in Valenciennes in 1827.
He was an exceptional sculptor in the ninetieth century. He moved to Rome for a few years to study the works of Michelangelo, Donatello and Verrocchio. Michelangelo was considered as one of the masters of high classical form of anatomic sculptural figures which is evident in Carpeaux’s Ugolino and His Sons sculpture. Ugolino and His Sons is one of the most famous artwork he is remember by. In 1875, he died in Courbevoie. The Ugolino and His Sons sculpture is found in the gallery 548 section of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It took two years to complete, thus from 1865-1867.
The preferred medium used was Saint-Beat Marble presumably from France. At the first glance, you realize it is set in the middle of the gallery. It is set up on a pedestal. From the back of the sculpture, it can be seen that Ugolino sits on seat rock. There is also a robe placed on the stone seat Ugolino sits on with it draperies. The movement of the muscles at the back is very distinct. His spine is clearly visible running from his upper back to his lower back. His upper body is slight bent forward with his right elbow resting on his left thigh.
Also, He has his left foot resting on his right foot with his left toes firmly pressing down on the right ones. His right foot is set on a small pedestal. He has his right palm supporting his chin in a thinking mood with his fingers in his mouth. One of the children, presumably his grandson stands on his left side of him and is resting his head on Ugolino’s lap supported by two hands. One of his grandson is seen laying on the floor with head supported by Ugolino’s left ankle which is seen to be in a shackle.
From the manner in which his body is positioned on the floor with no particular movement as seen from the other kids, it can be presumed that he is already dead or dying. On his right side, one of his sons is sitting at Ugolino’s feet holding unto his legs together, looking up to his to father with his mouth opened. At the same position we see one of his grandson resting his head at the waist end of Ugolino but with literally no body movement, it seems he to be also dying or already dead. The whole sculpture looks like it was curved out of huge marble.
They are all in the nude. The art of cannibalism associated with the idea behind is very fascinating to behold. The fact that Ugolino yields to the temptation to devour his sons and grandsons is beyond imagination. What really impresses me about this sculpture evidence of Carpeaux’s knowledge of the anatomy of human body and how was able to incorporate those ideas into the sculpting of this piece. I am really happy I got to see this sculpture and the history behind it. I got to realize how vengeance could lead to catastrophic consequences.