The Philosopher’s Madonna — Reviews

Jildy Sauce, 22.9.2011

The Philosophers’ Madonna by Carlo Emilio Gadda

Translated and Introduced by Antony Melville

Atlas Press, 2008


It is the first significant work from an Italian novelist who sought to do justice to the messiness and complexity of the human enterprise, to what some people – who really should know better – call ‘life’.

The Lady referred to in the title is a fresco on a castle wall and the story, from what one can glean, involves a love triangle of a kind: Baronfo, an engineer and an itinerant collector of books, is courting Maria, the daughter of a noble family who is in danger of being left on the shelf.  But this certain Baronfo has also gone with a lass named Emma and maybe he’s even knocked her up (she has a son, a lad called Gigetto, who takes after Baronfo).  Anyway, Emma is not too pleased and she shows it, as you may understand.

What you’ll want to read The Philosophers’ Madonna for, though, are the digressions: the empire fat and nocturnal muscles between the skeleton of the story.  Such as the theories and speculations of a pneumaticist called Ishmael Digbens, for example: pneumatics here being a branch of metaphysics concerned with the soul and spirit, not a branch of physics whose provenance is air and gases.  Or the story of a Marchesi who gives up his noble title – this little tale perhaps being intended as a counterpoint to The Leopard.  There is also a discourse on the different varieties of witches and the reasons thereof.  It is all due, apparently, to the nature of the contract.  In this case the devil is, quite literally, in the detail.  That gallant fellow, the list, also makes a welcome appearance: here a list of subjects that a convivial bookseller might make reference to, in quaint preamble to a hard sell.

A couple of reasons for gratitude, to end.  Firstly to Antony Melville for a superb translation, at once joyfully idiomatic and full of delightfully complex syntax.  The second Thank You is because The Philosophers’ Madonna has been a jaunty stimulus to seek out the work, and explore the worlds, of Carlo Emilio Gadda, a writer hitherto unknown to me.

Within the introduction Melville quotes Italo Calvino‘s appraisal of Gadda:

He tried throughout his life to represent the world as a muddle, a tangle, or a bungle, in fact to represent without dilution the inextricable complexity of life, or rather the simultaneous presence of the most disparate elements which compete to determine each event.

Now who can say that this was not a noble aim?  On completing The Philosophers’ Madonna, first published incidentally as long ago as 1931, I’ve learned that Calvino wrote an essay about Gadda in Why Read the Classics?  That has already been devoured and his other novels await.