Carpeaux found inspiration in Canto XXXIII of Dante's Divine Comedy which describes the encounter in Hell between the writer, led by Virgil, and Ugolino della Gherardesca. The count recounts the punishment he has suffered.
In 13th-century Pisa, having betrayed the party of the Gibelins who favoured the Emperor in his struggle against the Pope, who was supported by the Guelfes, Ugolino was imprisoned in a tower. His rival, the archbishop Ubaldini, condemned him to starve to death in gaol. According to legend, Ugolino died after eating his own sons and grandsons who shared his cell.
Carpeaux sculpted this group from 1857 to 1861, depassing the limits of his sojourn in the Villa Medicis in Rome. The artist did not respect the academic standards that would have only one or two figures with a subject matter drawn from Antiquity or the Bible. Ignoring reproach, he preferred to "express the most violent passions and blend in the most delicate tenderness", as he put it in a letter to a friend.
Each child represents a stage towards death. The expression of pain and anguish of the father : his tense face, hands and feet, the nervous modelling of his body and in particular of his back, testify to Carpeaux's careful study of the Laocoon of Antiquity, of Michel-Angelo's work and of the Radeau de la Méduse by Géricault.