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The fairest of them all

It’s nice when you idolise a woman who died nearly a millennium ago and still people send you her photograph, writes Umberto Eco.

india Updated: Dec 24, 2007 21:06 IST

Some time ago, in an interview with the Suddeutsche Zeitung, I was asked to consider European art’s most iconic paintings and name the women I admired most. Instead, much more prosaically, I gave the names of those I would like to take to dinner.

I mentioned Leonardo da Vinci’s Lady with the Ermine and also Queen Uta of Naumburg. Since then, many Germans have sent me photos and little books on Uta, and I have to say that it’s nice when you idolise a woman who died nearly a millennium ago and still people send you her photograph.

The statue of Uta (who lived during the 11th century; her image was sculpted about 1250) appears almost in the form of a column in Naumburg Cathedral. It has been reproduced an infinite number of times because it became a kind of icon of neo-romantic pan-Germanism. So powerful was this image (and I confess that I just learned this from the book I am about to discuss) that it was exploited by Nazi propagandists as the prototype of Aryan beauty. And I’m sorry about that.

As a devotee of all things medieval, I love Uta, and I shall continue to love her, because she really does have a very beautiful face. Not much is known about the rest of her body because Uta is not depicted nude like any old Greek Venus — Mediterranean and a bit clammy — but stands chaste and haughty with “her beautiful face framed by a band that enhances its oval form, her lips somewhere between closed and half-open, her diadem with lilies, the flowing cloak with the upturned collar that she clutches to her body with a gesture that seems perhaps more apprehensive than imperious”.

That quote is from a description given by Stefano Poggi, who (perhaps remembering my declaration of love, or at least, dinner invitation) has published La Vera Storia Della Regina di Biancaneve (The True Story of the Queen in Snow White).

This charming, if somewhat ‘errant’ little book starts off as an account of a pilgrimage through lands that were once those of Nietzsche and then — almost by chance — alights in Naumburg. When the author and his companions see Uta, they believe they have found a faithful portrait of Grimhilde, the wicked queen in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

This idea disquieted me. True, Grimhilde is dressed just like Uta, but her beauty is evil: Uta’s beauty may be cold, but it is sweet. For this reason I was consoled when the author mentioned the theory that the inspiration for Grimhilde was Helen Gahagan, an actress of the 1930s who wore a similar outfit (I checked it out on the internet) when she played the legendary ‘She’, the sublime yet accursed beauty from H. Rider Haggard’s celebrated novel. And I wasn’t displeased by this because that same novel inspired a comic strip by Lyman Young published in Italy with the title The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (and some of my handful of readers will know that this strip has a place in my childhood memories).

But Poggi is not convinced by this story. He does some dogged sleuthing to show how Walt Disney, who collected a lot of material for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), knew of the statue of Uta, as his co-workers certainly did. According to this theory, it was Uta who inspired Grimhilde — transforming her from an icon of regal beauty into an image of perversity.

It would appear that this did not escape the attention of Dr Goebbels and his entourage, and this insult to Aryan aesthetics ensured that Snow White was not acquired by German cinema circuits. The Nazis probably suspected that the insult was intentional, given that Hollywood was reputedly controlled by Jews — or at least by communists and anti-fascists.

Poggi is very honest: He provides a substantial bibliography of the sources he consulted, but warns: “Not all the events related here are authentic, or even documented. Some are the result of a kind of rationally fantastic induction that springs from the use of the sources listed above.”

So this book, which starts off like the journal of a pilgrimage along the way to St James of Compostela before continuing as a historiographical reconstruction, is not a work that aspires to be definitive. And since knowing whether or not Uta really inspired Grimhilde seems of scant import, it presents itself as a ‘useless’ book. But it is most pleasingly useless, because it is the story of a kind of obsession, of a mental and archival endeavour aimed at gaining a satisfaction that will strike some as entirely bizarre.

No doubt the reader will follow this foray into the territory of the irrelevant with great enjoyment — the same enjoyment (I think) that the writer experienced during his reverse quest for a Grail. With the suspicion that, at the end of the day, he would have taken Grimhilde to dinner.

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?

(Umberto Eco’s most recent book is On Ugliness. He is also author of the international bestsellers Baudolino, The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum, among others.Translated from the Italian by Alastair McEwen. The New York Times Syndicate)