The relief depicts the death by starvation of Count Ugolino della Gherardesca (c. 1220–1289) and his sons, a particularly gruesome episode in Pisan history. Count Ugolino became Podestà of Pisa in 1284 and Capitano del Popolo from 1285. Driven by immoderate ambition, he sought to gain power over the city by means of shifting alliances, but eventually lost the trust of all parties concerned and was deposed by Archbishop Ruggiero Ubaldini in 1289. The latter had him and some of his sons incarcerated in a tower and the keys thrown into the Arno, thus condemning the prisoners to death by starvation.

Dante Alighieri includes this blood-curdling story in the Inferno of his Divine Comedy (XXXII, 124–139 and XXXIII, 1–90) as an example of hatred, perfidy and treason from overweening ambition. Nonetheless Dante’s poem conveys a certain degree of sympathy for the Gherardesca family on account of the cruel punishment inflicted on them, in Florentine eyes proof of what they considered the dubious moral constitution of the Pisans.

Luca Martini dell’Ala (c. 1500–1561), who commissioned the relief, came from a family of low-ranking service gentry in Florence, and as his professional career reveals was not only a trained lawyer but also possessed a sound knowledge of engineering. Financially independent and highly cultivated, he counted among his friends Benedetto Varchi, Annibale Caro, Agnolo Bronzino, Benvenuto Cellini, Niccolò Tribolo and the latter’s pupil Pierino da Vinci, the nephew of Leonardo.

As with many other Florentine artists in the mid-sixteenth century, the influence of Michelangelo is unmistakeable. It is not only in the motifs that one can find obvious echoes of the older master but also quite manifestly in the athletic physicality of the individual figures. Nonetheless, the relief should not be seen as the mere compilation of an imitator. On the contrary, Pierino da Vinci, a pupil of Tribolo, has here produced a major and highly autonomous work. The compositional structure and the physical and psychological interplay between the individual figures are masterly. The same degree of perfection is achieved in the modelling, which pulls out all the stops in both its sculptural and painterly values, from the shallowest rilievo stacciato to high relief. We know that Pierino da Vinci made this relief and that Luca Martini commissioned it from Giorgio Vasari, who not only mentions it in his life of the artist but also adds that the latter modelled the scene in wax before casting it in bronze.

The relief must have been extremely well known at a very early stage both on account of its outstanding artistic quality and because of its subject. It is easy to understand why it was attributed to no less a figure than Michelangelo in the eighteenth century, and also explains the nineteen extant replicas of the work. Nevertheless, it did not give rise to an artistic tradition of its own, perhaps because Pierino died at a young age shortly after completing it but possibly also because it remained in private ownership.
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Pierino da Vinci
The death of Count Ugolino della Gherardesca and his sons, 1548/49
Bronze relief brown patina, traces of blackish-brown lacquer. Apparent casting flaw on lower edge.
height 65,4 cm, width 46,5 cm
On the reverse the arms of the Martini dell’Ala family, an eagle’s wing in an oval shield within a cartouche.
Inv.-No. SK1597
Provenance: Commissioned in 1548/1549 by Luca Martini (c. 1500–1561), afterwards probably in family ownership until the early 18th century. Acquired presumably after 1715 by the English painter Henry Trench (c. 1685–1726) in Florence, sold by him to Richard Boyle, 4th Earl of Cork, 3rd Earl of Burlington (1694–1753), afterwards passing by descent to William, 4th Duke of Devonshire (1720–1764) and his descendants at Chatsworth. Acquired in 2010 by Prince Hans Adam II von und zu Liechtenstein.
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