Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino
March 15th, 2011
Reading Italo Calvino is an exercise in personal imagination and understanding. Calvino, with his delicately placed words and punctuation, provide only a single puzzle piece, and yet at the same time outline an entire world of puzzles. His words are, much like the only two characters in this book, Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, everything and nothing at once.
Despite having no predilection towards architecture specifically, many of Calvino’s writings deal primarily with architecture, or the philosophical implications of architecture and urban design on the individual. This particular book, Invisible Cities, can be said to be about the experience of the city – and yet it is about no real city. He outlines a total of 55 different imaginary cities (all with Italian women’s names) throughout the course of the book, all supposedly a grand reference to Venice. So, it is about a specific city. But, it is not at the same time.
“The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning rods, the poles of the flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls.” 11
Ok, let’s get a little more concrete here for a second, because I don’t even know what I’m writing about anymore. In the novel, a fictional Marco Polo and Kublai Khan sit at the Khan’s expansive (yet ambiguous) palace, and Polo regales him with stories of fantastic cities spread all over the world in a strange sort of alternate history. Polo did in fact have a real book where he described many cities he ventured through (The Travels of Marco Polo), and he did in fact meet Kublai Khan. In the book, every city gets about 1-3 pages worth of description. He does not linger too long in any one place, as that would defeat the purpose. The short descriptions lend the book an almost break-neck pace, speeding through many abstract cities at once, seemingly just dropping in for a couple seconds. Laced in between these fantastical descriptions of fictionalized cities, there are breaks where the reader is returned to Polo and the Khan, usually going over some unifying aspects of the tales we have just heard. It is said in the novel, interestingly, that the two do not speak the same language, and that Polo is simply arranging artifacts taken from the various cities in order to describe them. Calvino is constantly rewriting the rules as we’re reading them, showing us something and then immediately proving it can’t exist in the same sentence. He plays with reality, bending and twisting meaning to try and get us to see something we wouldn’t normally see.
“Clarice, the glorious city, has a tormented history. Several times it decayed, then burgeoned again, always keeping the first Clarice as an unparalleled model of every splendor, compared to which the city’s present state can only cause more sighs at every fading of the stars. … Each new Clarice, compact as a living body with its smells and its breath, shows off, like a gem, what remains of the ancient Clarices, fragmentary and dead. There is no knowing when the Corinthian capitals stood on the top of their columns: only one of them is remembered, since for many years, in a chicken run, it supported the basket where the hens laid their eggs, and from there it was moved to the Museum of Capitals, in line with other specimens of the collection. The order of the eras’ succession has been lost; that a first Clarice existed is a widespread belief, but there are no proofs to support it. The capitals could have been in the chicken runs before they were in the temples, the marble urns could have been planted with basil before they were filled with dead bones. Only this is known for sure: a given number of objects is shifted within a given space, at times submerged by a quantity of new objects, at times worn out and not replaced; the rule is to shuffle them each time, then try to assemble them. Perhaps Clarice has always been only a confusion of chipped gimcracks, ill-assorted, obsolete.” 106-8
Calvino uses this abstract method of storytelling to extract something from everyday life that we wouldn’t normally encounter. He is showing us (not JUST architects) that life in a city can be more than just working in office towers, living in clustered row houses, sitting on public transportation or walking through smoggy streets. There is an invisible element of human interaction and understanding that pervades every second of city life. People (not just architects and urbanists) have been trying to decode exactly what it is about living in cities that makes it so special for centuries. Everyone has their own way of describing the city they live in, and usually it makes little to no sense to someone else not from that city. And how could it – everyone has unique experiences, sightings and interactions that could make them fall in love with or turn their back on a city forever. With Invisible Cities, Calvino is hinting at all of these things. As I read it, my first instinct was to visualize these ridiculous cities like sci-fi features – enormous glittering towers and domes, canals and waterfalls, majestic avenues and mysterious alleyways. It all sounded so fanciful – just an artists mind wandering. But every so often I would read something that would sound familiar in some way. In a thematic way, I found myself suddenly drawing a picture in my head a lot more similar to the real city I DO live in. Calvino finds ways of embedding simple principles of city living into otherworldly tales that can both inspire imagination and also remind us of how we live in reality, and hopefully make us question why we do the things we do.
“Also in Raissa, city of sadness, there runs an invisible thread that binds one living being to another for a moment, then unravels, then is stretched again between moving points as it draws new and rapid patterns so that at every second the unhappy city contains a happy city unaware of its own existence.” 149