Foremost of Noblewomen (Cima delle nobildonne) by Stefano D’Arrigo


Roughly in the middle of Stefano D’Arrigo’s second novel, Professor Amadeus Planika, a Stockholm-based expert in placentology, has a delirious vision. In the glass door of the veranda, he sees the reflection of three Rabbis from a Hasidic legend. There are, in fact, four Rabbis in this legend, but he identifies himself with the fourth one. The three figures reflected in the glass rendered mirror-like by the thick foliage outside, are associated with the chorion frondosum — the foetal part of the placenta, which Planika likes to call “the Tree of Life”. However, soon the benevolent Rabbis give place to a sinister and grotesque trio of doctors whose last names are Volella, Carvella, and Budetta. Each of them is holding a butterfly net. They dexterously jump from the veranda onto the deserted street below and head to the Royal Palace all the while entertaining their only spectator with acrobatic tricks and comedic capers. There is something of the Marx brothers about them. From time to time, the doctors pass to one another a top hat. Stranger still, they share a single suit whose pieces they are wearing beneath their white coats: the first one has the dickey, the second—the swallow-tail coat, and the third—the trousers and the shoes. They have come to Stockholm to receive the Nobel Prize for their apocalyptic discovery which has upturned the steady life of the professor and will soon cause his premature death. The three clowns have discovered that the immaculate placenta, ecstatically venerated by Amadeus Planika, sometimes can turn into a lethal factory producing cancer cells that penetrate into the foetus to bide their time before striking. The three doctors, by publishing the results of their research, have forever shattered the image of Placenta Hatshepsut so cherished by the now-distraught professor, who associated the object of his study with the famed female pharaoh. The translation of her name serves as the title of this remarkable novel. With the modest length of 200 pages, it cannot and must not be regarded as D’Arrigo’s minor work. The Sicilian author saw no point in belaboring further the linguistic excess of Horcynus Orca and chose to write a completely different kind of novel in which the language of science took centre stage.

Although it won two literary awards, Foremost of Noblewomen received rather a lukewarm response from the reading public, who was not prepared for its strangeness. First published in 1985, it was not reissued until 2006. The third edition has come out this year in the prestigious BUR Contemporanea paperback series of Mondadori. The last two editions contain a lengthy introduction by Italian critic Walter Pedullà, who knew D’Arrigo personally. In his prefatory text, Pedullà reproduces some of the talks he had with the author regarding his new book. In one of the conversations, D’Arrigo explains why his sophomore effort will be completely different from the debut novel:

To begin with, I erased the slate of my previous language, and you know how much it cost me to get it to the place where, I hope, it will remain forever. This affair, whether it was historical, social, or linguistic, is over; it is unrepeatable. Horcynus Orca cannot and will not be followed by another work until there is a change that will eliminate the features of the first novel. I laugh at those who tell a new story in the language of the previous work. I only make prototypes. I don’t want to have successors, children, grandchildren.

True to his word, D’Arrigo wrote a novel that is not only radically different from what he had been doing before but also is unlike anything that was being written in Italy at the time. It appears that Foremost of Noblewomen was meant for a different, later period, when Twin Peaks and the movies of Apichatpong Weerasethakul would enjoy mainstream appreciation. (Yes, it reminded me of both).

There are three main stories in the novel: the story of the vaginoplasty surgery performed on a male pseudo-hermaphrodite; the story of the fall from grace of Placenta Hatshepsut; the story of an uncannily intelligent dog of a hospital patient. All these events are united by the involvement of the young Sicilian placentologist Mattia Meli, who is the protagonist of the novel.

We first encounter Mattia as one of the spectators in a busy operation theatre. The momentous event unfolding behind the glass is presented from his point of view. The audience consists of a dozen medical students and a regal family from the fictitious Emirate of Kuneor in the “Gulf of Petroleum”. Like the other observers, Emir Saad Ibn as-Salah and his three wives are engrossed in the spectacle of the gynaecological surgeon Belardo creating a neovagina for Amina, the hermaphrodite platonic wife of the emir. The highlight of this scene is Belardo’s commentary meticulously describing each of his manipulations, full of technical jargon and obviously meant for the students. For Mattia, this performance is redolent of a sacrament for the new age. What he sees is Man daringly usurping the place of the Creator and shoring up the transfiguration of human flesh with a new Word, that of advanced medical science. The Arab prince has high-reaching plans for his homeland. He already has Belardo’s consent to head the projected Institute of Woman’s Health in Kuneor, and one of his goals now is to persuade Mattia to become the director of the Placenta Library for whose construction the emir has already bought a shipload of Carrara marble. Ibn as-Salah envisions a grandiose museum storing thousands of placentas that will be admired by their former owners once they have grown up. This fascination stems from the prince’s belief that he is the present-day reincarnation of Pharaoh Narmer’s father. This anonymous man had the prescience to mummify his new-born’s placenta which, when his son became the pharaoh, would be raised as a royal standard in a triumphal procession.


Narmer Palette (verso)

The prince’s fascination is shared by Amadeus Planika whose unvarying routine during the introductory lecture for his course on placentology is displaying to the students the verso of the Narmer Palette and challenging them to guess what object is raised on the pole carried by the rearmost standard-bearer at the victorious march in Hierakonpolis celebrating the defeat of the Scorpion people. Considering that the other poles are crowned by mummified animals, two falcons and a fox, the medical students believe that the mysterious blob with a dangling tail is also some animal. Happy with the intrigue he has created, the professor reveals the great mystery: it is Narmer’s placenta with the umbilical cord solemnly carried among the dynastic standards, symbolising life itself and serving as a foil to the scene of carnage depicted right next to the procession. The neatly arrayed bodies of the prisoners with their severed heads placed between the feet add the indispensable element of death to the celebration of the monarchic life. The carved scenes also serve as a premonition of what is going to happen to Planika’s idealised image of the placenta: once raised as royal symbol, it is destined to be butchered by the shocking discovery of the three doctors. Unaware of the disaster to come, the professor smugly expostulates his whimsical conflation of the placenta and the female pharaoh Hatshepsut. After reading about the female ruler whose reign was marked by peace, prosperity and the flourishing of the arts, the young Planika became as obsessed with Hatshepsut as with his object of study. Both expressed for him the highest degree of nobility embedded in the very name of the female pharaoh. This merging of the Egyptian ruler and the foetal organ as well as the resultant cult was firmly established after his visit to the Metropolitan Museum in New York, where he “personally” got acquainted with the Foremost of Noblewomen in the form of her life-size statue. This seated statue now adorns the cover image of his projected book with the amusingly Balzacian title Hatshepsut: The Splendours and Miseries of the Placenta. He conceived of this study thirty years ago, but hasn’t written it yet and, most certainly, never will, as he himself acknowledges in front of the students. Placenta Hatshepsut has transcended mere biology and now resides in the sacred realm which defies the mundanity of a scientific monograph.


Seated Statue of Hatshepsut, ca. 1479–1458 B.C.

Upon her death, Hatshepsut was succeeded by her stepson Thutmose III, who, towards the end of his rule, attempted to erase all traces of her reign from history. The image of the female pharaoh was systematically removed from statues and reliefs, and her name was scratched out from cartouches. After learning about Hatshepsut Placenta’s scandalous property to spawn cancer cells, the disillusioned professor performs a similar erasure but on a much smaller scale. He takes down the blow-up photo of the Narmer palette from the wall of his office at the Institute of Placentology and replaces it with a poster featuring the ram-headed creation god Khnum fashioning a man out of clay with the moon-god Thoth standing behind and marking the span of the man’s life on a notched wand. Planika regards the whole image as nothing but a stark representation of life and death. There is no way he can recuperate from the heavy blow delivered by the terrible new knowledge. He falls prey to a string of uneasy dreams and disturbing visions before dying of a heart attack. Mattia, who discovers his body at the Institute, also comes across a hand-written memo stating that the next day Professor Belardo is going to operate on a certain Irina Simiodice. Up until now, Mattia has been a passive observer, but the fateful memo will finally allow him to assume the leading role in the story and embark on a revelatory journey in which he will be guided by a Drever, a small Swedish hunting dog.


Khnum and Thoth. An illustration in Volume II of The Gods of the Egyptians by E. A. Wallis Budge

“What is the name of your dog?” is the unexpected question addressed to Mattia by the heavily drugged Irina Simiodice, lying supine on a gurney, on her way to the surgery. He has run into her by chance in the hospital cargo elevator. Mattia doesn’t have a dog, so he makes a joke by answering that his dog’s name is Melampo, although the mind of the patient is too befuddled by anaesthetics to appreciate the young doctor’s sense of humour. Melampo is, obviously, the name of the dead dog whose place Pinocchio is forced to take by the angry farmer, who catches him trying to steal his grapes. Thus, mentioning that his dog is called Melampo is Mattia’s way of saying that he is not a dog owner. Little does he know that the last joke will be on him, for the half-unconscious woman manages to hand him the key to her house with a tag containing its address, asking the young doctor to take care of her Drever for the duration of her stay in hospital. “Now you have a dog”, is the farewell pleasantry of the woman. Surprisingly enough, the Drever, whose name is Margot, is waiting for Mattia outside the hospital. The enterprising animal volunteers to lead the possessor of the key right to the door it is destined to open, which entails traversing the city on foot all the way to the island of Långholmen, where the woman’s house is situated. What’s going on here? Margot looks at the protagonist “with the eyes of a person who, for some reason, turned into a dog so nobody would recognise them, but now was suffering from that transformation”. Irina’s Drever evokes a multitude of mythological and cultural associations that would require a separate article to disentangle. One of its aspects could be that of a psychopomp accompanying Mattia on a symbolic journey to the afterworld represented by the eerie house of the woman with a secret chamber that holds the solution to the mystery of her relation to the deceased professor.  Another image that immediately comes to mind is that of the morbidly curious canine in TS Eliot’s The Wasteland:

That corpse you planted last year in your garden,

Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?

Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?

Oh keep the Dog far hence, that’s friend to men,

Or with his nails he’ll dig it up again!

In a way, Margot guides the main character to the house of its owner so that it can dig up a kind of “planted corpse” and show it to him. The trip to the haunted house on Långholmen, however, is not the culmination of Matto’s bigger journey, which he started as one of the spectators at the operational theatre witnessing the creation of a woman out of the hermaphrodite. The novel starts and ends at the same hospital, coming full circle, and the protagonist arrives at the end of this circuitous path as a changed and initiated man. No longer a passive contemplator, Mattia is the holder of a mystery and secret knowledge that entitle him to his own transformation. You have to take it from me, Stefano D’Arrigo’s second novel has one of the best final sentences ever written.

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6 Responses to Foremost of Noblewomen (Cima delle nobildonne) by Stefano D’Arrigo

  1. There is much I did not know here. And so a lot of discovery.
    Thank you enormously for this blog post.

  2. languagehat says:

    This affair, whether it was historical, social, or linguistic, is over; it is unrepeatable. Horcynus Orca cannot and will not be followed by another work until there is a change that will eliminate the features of the first novel. I laugh at those who tell a new story in the language of the previous work.

    Sounds like Sasha Sokolov!

  3. josepmitjavila says:

    Another “mustread” in my sack. thanks Andrei for introducing us on all these “phantastic” worlds

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