A Family Gripped by Crisis

"The grip of all of these people, the density of this composition, communicates the crisis."—Sam Pinkleton, theater director

Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (French, 1827–1875). Ugolino and His Sons, 1865–67. Saint-Béat marble. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Josephine Bay Paul and C. Michael Paul Foundation Inc. Gift, Charles Ulrick and Josephine Bay Foundation Inc. Gift, and Fletcher Fund, 1967 (67.250). Learn more about this object.

How does the sculpted body communicate? Hear from Met experts, leading authorities, and rising stars, each with a unique viewpoint on the language of gesture, facial expression, and pose.

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Narrator: This gruesome sculpture depicts a scene from the Inferno by the Renaissance poet Dante. Ugolino, the tyrant of Pisa, is locked in a tower with his sons and grandsons to starve. The boys beg him to eat them so he will live.

Jim Draper: He's just agonizing over this huge quandary. Pretty clearly, the one all the way at the bottom is already dead, and the rest are this sort of contorted pile of bodies around the center part of the pyramid that is Ugolino himself. His fingers—he looks like he's chewing them. He's that hungry. So they express horror and hunger, just as his sons express waning strength. They're sagging.

Sam Pinkleton: Both the tension, the grip of all of these people, as well as the density of this composition, communicates the crisis that is in this moment. On his legs his eldest son is squeezing him so tight that you can actually see the impressions of his fingers, which, if you grab your own leg, that's not accidental.

Alice Schwarz: One thing that I think is so amazing about sculpture is that there is no backdrop. We don't have the scenery around them. An artist like Carpeaux can give us incredible tiny details that give all of that information. Looking down at Ugolino's feet, instantly, that ball and chain sets them in prison. And, instantly, if you start to think what it's like to sit in a stone room, there's this anticipation of doom here.

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