Count Ugolino and the Battle of Meloria in 1284

6 August 1284, 730 years ago in the Ligurian Sea, the war fleet of the maritime Republic of Pisa under Alberto Morsini and Count Ugolino was decisively defeated by a Genoese squadron under Admiral Oberto Doria in the Battle of Meloria.

 Oh thou Pisa! Shame / Of all the people, who their dwelling make / In that fair region, where th' Italian voice / Is heard, since that thy neighbours are so slack / To punish, from their deep foundations rise / Capraia and Gorgona, and dam up / The mouth of Arno, that each soul in thee / May perish in the waters!  What if fame / Reported that thy castles were betray'd / By Ugolino, yet no right hadst thou / To stretch his children on the rack.  For them, / Brigata, Ugaccione, and the pair / Of gentle ones, of whom my song hath told, / Their tender years, thou modern Thebes! did make / Uncapable of guilt” (Dante, “The Divine Comedy”)  

Henry Fuseli’s interpretation of 
 Count Ugolino and his children starving to death in the tower

It was the pope’s bright idea of a possible joint-control over Sardinia and Corsica, wrested from Saracene rule a couple of years before, that finally brought the two thalassocracies Pisa and Genoa at loggerheads. Byzantine influence and a clear preference of Genoa as trading partner did the rest. Not that the smouldering conflict between Ghibellines and the Guelphs and a general rivalry between the two maritime trade cities wouldn’t have sufficed to cause a war sooner or later anyway. Open hostilities broke out in 1282 and two years later, 100 Genoese galleys under the illustrious Admiral Oberto Doria and 120 Pisan warships under Admiral Alberto Morosini and the Count Ugolino showed up off Leghorn near the small island of Meloria where Pisa had defeat the Genoese already once in 1241, albeit in Imperial service, and on August 6th, the feast day of Pisa’s patron saint Sixtus, both fleets met, itching for a fight that would decide matters.

A 19th century depiction of the climax of the Battle of Meloria

Despite the good omens, the day ended in a fiasco for Pisa. After exchanging a few salvoes of arrows and stones, the battle lines closed and the hand-to-hand-fighting began in pretty much the same manner as the Romans fought at sea during the Punic Wars 1,500 years before. Doria, however, had prepared a pincer movement, a reserve hidden behind the island of Meloria took the Pisans in the flank and decided the battle for Genoa. Most Pisan ships were captured and their crews either slaughtered or taken captive and a contemporary conundrum asked: “Where can you find a Pisan?” – “In Genoa”. The Tuscan city state had received a decisive blow. They had committed all their available naval resources and most of their nobility in the battle and all was lost at a single blow. Or almost. Count Ugolino cleared out of the battle with 20 ships before it was too late. Actually, a long time before that.

William Blake's (1757 - 1827) vision of Count Ugolino and his sons in their cells (1826)

And while one Pisan prisoner received later literal fame together with another captive of a battle won by Admiral Doria 15 years later, Marco Polo’s co-author Rustichello da Pisa, Count Ugolino would earn singular prominence as a fictional character. His obvious flight from the Battle of Meloria did not exactly ensure his popularity in Pisa, even though he became podestà, chief magistrate, afterwards, probably due to a lack of alternative candidates. His popularity, low as it already was, decreased even more when he, the Guelph, refused to ransom Ghibelline prisoners from Genoa and a few years later, when prices for food in Pisa were at an all-time high, a mob induced by the Ghibelline archbishop Ruggieri degli Ubaldini took Ugolino and his brood, locked him up in a tower and threw the keys away. Literally. The death by starvation of Count Ugolino and his children was eternalised by Dante in his “Divina Commedia” about 30 years later in tercets regarded by Goethe as ranking among the highest achievements in the art of poetry and influencing artists from Chaucer to Shelley and Blake to Rodin to this day.

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