First Edition Provenance

Calvino, Italo. Le città invisibili. Turin: Giulio Einaudi, 1972. Print.


Excerpt Provenance

Calvino, Italo. Invisible Cities, London: Vintage, 1997. Ebook.


Introduction to the Selection – by Helena Daher

“If our thinking manifested itself in the shape of a city, then we should of necessity come to the labyrinth.” Nietzsche 1

“I believe that fables are true” Calvino 2

Calvino rarely discussed his private life or revealed his intimate feelings, he expected to be known through his works and nothing else.

He was born in Cuba but grew up on the Italian Riviera, in the midst of nature under an enlightened scientific atmosphere for his parents were both Botanists. The landscapes of his childhood would become rooted in his imagination, appearing in many of his writings.

When the war reached Italy, he fled military service to join the Communist resistance, experience that would leave indelible mark on his social consciousness.

He decides to abandon the scientific studies to pursue a career as a writer, grounding his first publications on Neo Realism.

During the 50ies his narratives shift towards fantastical novels (still impregnated with his concerns for contemporary social and political issues).

Later on another shift in course is observed with the release of Cosmicomics, 1965 and tzero, 1967. He abruptly pulls away from familiar themes, now making use of modern science as a means of creating illusory circumstances in order to communicate a new vision of reality. This is also the time when his work finds an expanding international audience.

While living in France, joins “Oulipo” (Ouvroir de Littérature potentielle), literary group that explored the potentiality of applying mathematical structures to writing. 3

In 1972, publishes Invisible Cities, an anti-narrative with a non-linear series of short stories about visible cities and their invisible revelations.

Calvino can be considered, what Barthes would call, a writer rather than an author, for the author “just writes”, drawing our attention to the activity itself when the writer writes something that takes us beyond the text, beyond the moment’s pleasure.3

A traveler himself and admirer of Marco Polo and his thirteenth century travelogue, The Travels of Marco Polo, Calvino would write descriptions of cities he had visited on index cards and file them. As a tentative to organize his memoirs came the perception that some of the notes were about cities and desire, cities and signs, cities and death…

This cataloging of cities descriptions, more precisely 55 (imaginary) cities, were put on a framework where a young, vibrant and optimistic Marco Polo enlightens an old skeptical Kublai Khan, giving account of his vast and decaying empire. In an ingenious mathematical order, the cities are organized in eleven groupings (cities and – memory, desire, signs, eyes, names, the dead, the sky as well as thin cities, trading cities, continuous cities and hidden cities) 2. Each group of 5 or 7 cities descriptions are followed by a dialogue between the merchant and the Emperor.

This book is a contemplation of the city, the maximum expression of human civilization and a result of Calvino’s lifelong interest in civic values and urban architecture.5


Architecture plays a role already when Marco Polo, newly arrived and ignorant of the Levantine languages, modifies the space around him to establish communication:

Excerpt 1

“But when the young Venetian made his report, a different communication was established between him and the emperor (…) Marco Polo could express himself only with gestures, leaps, cries of wonder and of horror, animal barkings or hootings, or with objects he took from his knapsacks – ostrich plumes, pea-shooters, quartzes –  which he arranged in front of him like chessmen.” (21)

“But what enhanced for Kublai every event or piece of news reported by his inarticulate informer was the space that remained around it, a void not filled with words. The descriptions of cities Marco Polo visited had this virtue: you could wander through them in thought, become lost, stop and enjoy the cool air, or run off.” (38)


When Kublai meditates about the real importance of travelling and exploring new (or imaginary) cities:

Excerpt 2

“You return from lands equally distant and you can tell me only the thoughts that come to a man who sits on his doorstep at evening to enjoy the cool air. What is the use, then, of all your travelling?” (27)

“Marco Polo imagined answering (or Kublai Khan imagined his answer) that the more one was lost in unfamiliar quarters of distant cities, the more one understood the other cities he had crossed to arrive here; and he retraced the stages of his journeys, and he came to know the port from which he had set sail, and the familiar places of his youth, and the surroundings of home, and a little square of Venice where he gamboled as a child.” (27)

“Arriving at each new city, the traveler finds again a past of his that he did not know he had: the foreignness of what you no longer are or no longer possess lies in wait for you in foreign unpossessed places.” (27)


Polo reveals himself an architect of invisible cities, and he models for Kahn and the work’s readers, how to become architects of their own invisible cities:

Excerpt 3

“Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.” (43)

“Cities also believe they are the work of the mind or chance, but neither the one nor the other suffices to hold up their walls. You take delight not in a city’s seven or seventy wonders, but in the answer it gives to a question of yours.” (43)

“And yet I have constructed in my mind a model city from which all possible cities can be deduced, Kublai said. ‘It contains everything corresponding to the norm. Since the cities that exist diverge in varying degree from the norm, I need only foresee the exceptions to the norm and calculate the most probable combinations.’” (72)

“I have also thought of a model city from which I deduce all the others, Marco answered. “It is a city made only of exceptions, exclusions, incongruities, contradictions. If such a city is the most improbable, by reducing the number of abnormal elements, we increase the probability that the city really exists. So I have only to subtract exceptions from my model, and in whatever direction I proceed, I will arrive at one of the cities which, always as an exception, exist. But I cannot force my operation beyond a certain limit: I would achieve cities too probable to be real.” (72)


Polo’s exploration of the city shifts between a subjective approach and objective references to living in the modern metropolis: 5

Excerpt 4

“Now many seasons of abundance have filled the granaries. The rivers in flood have borne forests of beams to support the bronze roofs of temples and palaces. Caravans of slaves have shifted mountains of serpentine marble across the continent. The Great Khan contemplates an empire covered with cities that weigh upon the earth and upon mankind, crammed with wealth and traffic, overladen with ornaments and offices, complicated with mechanisms and hierarchies, swollen, tense, ponderous.” (73)

“ (…) the exhalations that hangs over the roofs of the metropolises, the opaque smoke that is not scattered, the hood of miasmata that weighs over the bituminous streets. Not the labile mists of memory nor the dry transparence, but the charring of burned lives that forms a scab on the city, the sponge swollen with vital matter that no longer flows, the jam of past, present, future that blocks existences calcified in the illusion of movement: this is what you would find at the end of your journey.” (98)

“The catalogue of forms is endless: until every shape has found its city, new cities will continue to be born. When the forms exhaust their variety and come apart, the end of cities begins. In the last pages of the atlas there is an outpouring of networks without beginning or end, cities in the shape of Los Angeles, in the shape of Kyoto-Osaka, without shape.” (139)


Polo about cities, memory and places of affection:

Excerpt 5

“There is still one of which you never speak.”

Marco Polo bowed his head

“Venice,” the Khan said.

Marco smiled. ”What else do you believe I have been talking to you about? “

“Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice.”

“To distinguish the other cities’ qualities, I must speak of a first city that remains implicit. For me is Venice.” (85)

“Memory’s images, once they are fixed in words, are erased,” Polo said. “Perhaps I am afraid of losing Venice all at once, if I speak of it. Or perhaps, speaking of other cities, I have already lost it, little by little.” (87)


Kahn enquires why Polo had not spoken of the Utopian cities later concluding that in fact, destiny is taking us inevitably to the infernal city. In a final shed of optimism Polo concludes:

Excerpt 6

“The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.” (163)





1. Baratloo Modjdeh, Balch J. Clifton. ANGST: Cartography”. New York: Lumen, 1989.

2. Bloom, Harold. Italo Calvino. Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publishers, 2002. Print.

3. Breno. Understanding Italo Calvino. South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 1993. Print.

4. Ricci, Franco ed. Calvino Revisited. Ottawa: Dovehouse Editions, 1989. Print.

5. Modena, Letizia. Italo Calvino’s Architecture of Lightness. The Utopian Imagination in an Age of Urban Crisis. New York: Routledge, 2011. Print.

Images by René Magritte (top) and Giovanni Battista Piranesi (bottom).

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