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Count Ugolino and his Children

Collection: 
Private collection

 

 

Frances Yates notes that Ugolino was the first Dante subject translated in English: 

“The object in marshalling all these dates is to demonstrate the curious fact that before any complete translation of Dante exists in English [1814] there are already three verse and three prose renderings of the Ugolino episode, and a picture of the subject by one of the greatest of English artists [Reynolds]. Dante seems to make his entry into eighteenth-century England in the form of Ugolino.” 

“Ugolino is thus, I would suggest, for the eighteenth century, not only the father over whose sorrows one must weep. He is also the Count, the man of rank oppressed by a priest. He has stepped right out of the Divine Comedy and become an emotional and liberty-loving English lord. This development becomes even more pronounced in what one may call Ugolino’s Byronic phase….[Percy Bysshe] Shelley says that ‘Byron had deeply studied this death of Ugolino, and perhaps but for it would never have written The Prisoner of Chillon.’ The Prisoner of Chillon, chained for many years in a dungeon of the castle on Lake Geneva, watched – not his children, like Ugolino – but his brothers die one by one beside him.” 

“In the catalogue of the exhibition at which the Reynolds picture was first exhibited some verses from Dante are printed with the title which prove that it is intended to represent the moment when the prisoners hear the locking of the door of the tower, Ugolino realized the truth in stony silence, and the youngest child asks apprehensively ‘You gaze so, father, what ails you?’ Reynolds chose this moment, when the family is not yet in an advanced state of starvation, rather than the more dreadful later episode when the father bites his hands and the children offer themselves for food….A valuable opportunity for overhearing what was said about this picture when it was first exhibited is provided by Giuseppe Baretti’s Easy Phraseology for Young Ladies, published in 1775... In one of the dialogues a Dog and a Cat, having paid a visit to the Royal Academy, discuss…the impression made upon them by Sir Joshua’s picture of Count Ugolino…These remarks show that at this time, in the full heat of the bid for independence of the American colonies (the year in which the picture was exhibited was the year of the Boston Tea Party)…visitors to the Royal Academy connected Ugolino with Liberty --- a connection which the later history of the theme…was to emphasize more and more. And there is some evidence that Reynold’s friend [Edmund] Burke, who was at this time making his famous speeches in favor of American independence, took an interest in the Ugolino picture. Indeed [James] Northcote says that it was Burke who suggested the subject to Reynolds, and he mentions that Burke visited the studio whilst Reynolds was painting it.”

Frances A. Yates, “Transformations of Dante’s Ugolino,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, vol. 14, no. 1-2 (1951): 94, 99, 108-9.


Nathan Drake, a contemporary of Reynolds, praised Count Ugolino and his Chidren:

“A whole family perishing from hunger in a gloomy dungeon, would appear to partake too much of the terrible for either poetry or painting, yet has Dante, by the introduction of various pathetic touches rendered such a description the most striking, original, and affecting scene perhaps in the world, and Sir Joshua Reynolds by his celebrated picture of Ugolino has shown that through the medium of exaulted genius, it is equally adapted to the canvas. Michel Angelo, too, an enthusiastic disciple of Dante and possessing similar powers, has likewise executed a Bas-Relief on the subject.”

Nathan Drake, Literary Hours (London, 1798), pp. 247-8.

Related works:

mezzotint of Reynold’s Ugolino by John Dixon, published by John Boydell in 1774

Other artists depicting similar subjects:


Heinrich Fuseli, Ugolino and His Sons Starving to Death in the Tower, 1806

William Blake, illustrations to Dante’s Divine Comedy, 1824-27

John Flaxman, illustrations to Dante’s Divine Comedy, 1792

Eugène Delacroix, Ugolino, 1865 (National Gallery of Denmark, Copenhagen)

Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, Ugolino and His Sons, 1863

Auguste Rodin, Ugolino,1880s (multiple versions) 

Auguste Rodin, The Gates of Hell, 1880s (multiple versions)

About the Artist

Born: Plympton, England, 23 July 1723
Died: London, 17 February 1792
Nationality: English