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La Fame di Mimì Posted by on Oct 21, 2011 in History, Literature

Povera Mimì la Gatta, ha un po’ di problemi digestivi e l’ho messa a dieta stretta di riso e tonno, ma lei è molto schizzinosa e vuole solo i suoi croccantini. Resiste per quasi un giorno e “poscia, più che ‘l dolor, potè ‘l digiuno”! (Dante) = Poor Mimì the Cat, she has a few digestive problems and I’ve put her on a strict diet of rice and tuna, but she is very fussy and only wants her dried food. She resists for almost a day and “Then hunger did what sorrow could not do”!

As I watched Mimì overcome her qualms and begin to nibble tentatively at the rice, this famous line from Dante’s XXXIII Canto dell’Inferno came to mind. The quote seemed to fit the situation. However, like much of Dante’s writing, the meaning of this phrase is open to interpretation.

The quote refers to Conte Ugolino della Gherardesca, who ‘betrayed’ his native town of Pisa by helping the Guelfi to gain power in 1275, and then again in 1284-85 by allying himself with Lucca and Firenze, Pisa’s arch-enemies. In 1288, when the Ghibellines retook power in Pisa, Ugolino was imprisoned in a tower overlooking Piazza dei Cavalieri together with two of his sons and two of his nephews. After some months of imprisonment all five were left to die of hunger.

The quote has two main interpretations: the most popular of these is, as usual, the most grizzly. The theory is that Ugolino, driven to starvation by hunger, ate the flesh of his own children. In this case “poscia, più che ‘l dolor, potè ‘l digiuno” is interpreted as “the desperation of hunger was greater than the pain of consuming his own children”. This was the interpretation that I applied as I observed Mimì the cat come to terms with the loathsome bowl of rice and tuna: “Her hunger was greater than the pain of eating something that she didn’t like.”

The second, older, interpretation, which is more compassionate towards Ugolino, is accepted by modern critics as being the true one. In this version “poscia, più che ‘l dolor, potè ‘l digiuno” = “Then hunger did what sorrow could not do”  is interpreted as meaning that although the pain of seeing his own children die was very great, emotional pain alone doesn’t kill, and Ugolino had to await his own  painful death by starvation.

If you visit Pisa, and you are one of the brave handful of tourists who venture more than 20 metres from the Campo dei Miracoli, the lovely Piazza dei Cavalieri is well worth a visit. You will find La Torre della Fame (Hunger Tower) to the left of the arched exit which leads from the piazza into Via dei Mille, named after Garibaldi’s famous 1,000 ‘red shirts’ – but that’s another story!

Here is an extract from the XXXIII Canto dell’Inferno, concluding with the famous quote:

e disser: "Padre, assai ci fia men doglia
se tu mangi di noi: tu ne vestisti
queste misere carni, e tu le spoglia".

Queta’mi allor per non farli più tristi;
lo dì e l’altro stemmo tutti muti;
ahi dura terra, perché non t’apristi?

Poscia che fummo al quarto dì venuti,
Gaddo mi si gittò disteso a’ piedi,
dicendo: "Padre mio, ché non m’aiuti?".

Quivi morì; e come tu mi vedi,
vid’ io cascar li tre ad uno ad uno
tra ’l quinto dì e ’l sesto; ond’ io mi diedi,

già cieco, a brancolar sovra ciascuno,
e due dì li chiamai, poi che fur morti.
Poscia, più che ’l dolor, poté ’l digiuno».

And said they: ‘Father, much less pain ’twill give us
If thou do eat of us; thyself didst clothe us
With this poor flesh, and do thou strip it off.’

I calmed me then, not to make them more sad.
That day we all were silent, and the next.
Ah! obdurate earth, wherefore didst thou not open?

When we had come unto the fourth day, Gaddo
Threw himself down outstretched before my feet,
Saying, ‘My father, why dost thou not help me?’

And there he died; and, as thou seest me,
I saw the three fall, one by one, between
The fifth day and the sixth; whence I betook me,

Already blind, to groping over each,
And two days called them after they were dead;
Then hunger did what sorrow could not do."

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  1. GJ Lanzarotti:

    Thanks for all the interesting items you cover in your blog.
    With my meager knowledge of la bella lingua, I am proud to have noticed that in the last verse of the Dante translation I picked up a slight error in the translation i.e. due di vs three days. I know, you just wanted to see if we pay close attention.

  2. Serena:

    Thanks GJ Lanzarotti, It’s not my translation,I copied and pasted it, and although I read it through before posting I missed that strange mistake. Probably ‘Ye Olde English’ style of writing confused me! You did well to spot it.

    Grazie tanto, Serena

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