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Experts dig up count to solve mystery
Pisa, Italy - So gruesome is the accusation against the Count of Donoratico, it makes Hannibal the Cannibal's culinary habits in this year's blood-and-gore feature film look like kid's stuff.
Today, Ugolino della Gherardesca, the man who for centuries has been accused of the most macabre of crimes - eating his own children and grandchildren - finally has a chance to have his name cleared.
Experts hope to establish whether the great Florentine poet, Dante Alighieri, was right when he wrote that hunger was more powerful than grief for the count when family expired. His descendants want their ancestor's name cleared after 700 years of ignominy.
Professor Francesco Mallegni is leading a team of experts in search of the count's tomb. It is hoped the professor will find the proof or otherwise for one of Italian history's most ghastly legends.
On Monday, Mallegni found a secret tomb, hidden under the Gherardesca family's tomb inside Pisa's Church of San Francesco.
Inside were a skull and several bones. The team hope they belong to Count Ugolino and his offspring. DNA tests using samples from his living descendants will corroborate or invalidate the hypothesis.
If the bones indeed belong to Ugolino, experts hope to carry out modern tests to find out whether the count had eaten red meat during the days that preceded his death in 1289.
"Some bones, like ribs, preserve the memory of substances that the body nourished itself with during the final weeks, while other, longer, bones have a longer 'memory'," explains Fulvio Bartoli, a palaeontologist and food scientist.
"By comparing them, we could find out whether Ugolino ate meat soon before dying."
Professor Mallegni, the man who claims to have found Giotto's bones and who Italian newspapers refer to as "the professor of excellent cadavers", says establishing whether Ugolino indulged in cannibalism is not the aim of his expedition.
But the count's descendant, who shares his ancestor's name but not his way of dealing with family, wants the truth.
"We want evidence," says Ugolino della Gherardesca, who argues that the bodies of his relatives may have been gnawed by rats while they were locked inside a tower and left to die of starvation.
Count Ugolino, who Dante writes about in the 33rd canto of the Inferno, belonged to one of the most important families of the Tuscan nobility, whose lands included several counties near Pisa.
In the late 13th century, Count Ugolino switched his allegiance from the Ghibellines to the Guelfs and became Pisa's tyrannical master.
In 1288, the nobleman was charged with treason and imprisoned by his friend, Archbishop Ruggieri degli Ubaldini.
He was locked inside a tower, along with his two sons and two of his grandchildren, and was left to die.
According to Dante his children, realising his predicament, offered themselves as food for their father, saying: "Father, much less pain 'twill give us if thou do eat of us."
Dante never explained whether the gruesome meal actually took place. But Professor Mallegni says he has strong doubts.
"We should bear in mind that Ugolino was by then almost 80 years old. He presumably had very few teeth and there were no dentures in the 13th century.
"Even if he had wanted to gobble his sons, he would have only been able to suck on them a little."