The Castle of Crossed Destinies, by Italo Calvino


Excerpt provenance:

Italo Calvino. The Castle of Crossed Destinies. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers, 1976. Translated from the Italian by William Weaver. Print.


Analysis by Carly Dean

“Calvino was a genial as well as brilliant writer. He took fiction into new places where it had never been before, and back into the fabulous and ancient sources of narrative.” – John Updike

Italo Calvino’s upbringing is routed in amalgamation of influences from living in Fascist Italy, having masonic republican (borderline anarchic socialist) parents, attending a Protestant private school, being apart of the Italian Resistance during which his parents were held hostage by the Nazis, declaring membership to the Italian Communist party, and finally withdrawing from political activism altogether. At the peak of Calvino’s political involvement, under the name of “Santiago” in a clandestine Communist group named Garibaldi Brigades, he spend 20 months  fighting in the Maritime Alps until 1945. Two years later, he completed his Master’s thesis on Joseph Conrad, collaborating with other left-wing intellectuals, and further fostered his preference toward the short-story, the essay, and poetry eventually earning his epithet as a “fabulist” or even the Italian equivalent of the Brothers Grimm. Calvino worked for two years collating over two-hundred collected tales from other languages into Italian, from which his own stories where inspired. His some of his more notable work includes The Baron in the Trees (1957) and Invisible Cities (1972) in which he abstracts his own personal narratives on social and political environments using motives and interweaving elements of the fable and fantasy genres.

In both writing technique and content, Invisible Cities (1972) is highly architectural and has even been adopted as part of urban theory curriculum. Since it was published one year prior to The Castle of Crossed Destinies, or Il castello dei destini, they parallel each other in Calvino’s own cultivation of using structuralism, incorporating intertextual connections or organizing an overarching narrative with recurring patterns or motifs. In Invisible Cities, the introductory premise is a conversation between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, who do not speak the same language. Instead of using speech, Marco Polo has to tell the Khan about his visits to foreign cities through objects and through rough translations and interpretations. The novel is structured into fifty-five chapters bearing the names of fifty-five cities and are organized into eleven thematic groups:

1. Cities & Memory
2. Cities & Desire
3. Cities & Signs
4. Thin Cities
5. Trading Cities
6. Cities & Eyes
7. Cities & Names
8. Cities & the Dead
9. Cities & the Sky
10. Continuous Cities
11. Hidden Cities

Invisible Cities

[SPOILER ALERT] It is only until the last couple pages that the reader realizes that Marco Polo isn’t describing fifty-five different cities but fifty-five interpretations of one city, demonstrating the power of human imagination and the infinite potential of urban space to generate unique interpretations and experience.


In order to contextualize The Castle of Crossed Destinies it is necessary to understand Invisible Cities as both precedent and counterpart. Although The Castle of Crossed Destinies was published in 1973, it was written in two parts, each using a different style Tarot deck as the overarching structural element. In fact, the first part, Tarocchi: Il mazzo visconteo di Bergamo e New York (Tarots: The Visconti Pack in Bergamo and New York) was published prior to Invisible Cities in 1969. The premise in which words fail the communication between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan is extrapolated further in The Castle of Crossed Destinies since all travelers are inexplicitly unable to speak after traveling through a forest. When language fails them, they must speak instead through the use of Tarot cards. The Tarot is a foil for Calvino’s broader quest in how meaning is created without words, rather through image, symbols, and allegories. Each person recounts their tale using cards from the Tarot deck, thus using a finite set of images as parameters to tell stories with infinite interpretations. In Calvino’s epilogue, he describes that, “This book is made first of pictures–the tarot playing cards–and secondly of written words. Through the sequence of the pictures stories are told, which the written word tries to reconstruct and interpret” (Calvino 123).

An analysis of Calvino’s work shows not only architectural elements within the content of the novel, but also in his highly organized, patterned style of writing. Structuralism is an architectural way of organizing text and in The Castle of Crossed Destinies, the organization is hierarchical. Primarily, The Castle of Crossed Destinies is has two parts named after the location in which they take place — The Castle and The Tavern — and secondly, are organizationally structured by their respective tarot card deck: the Visconti Pack and the Tarot of Marseilles. Lastly, an analysis shows that Calvino’s fixation on writing a novel about picture-making and telling stories without words is also contemporaneous to the work of an architect.


The overarching component of structuring The Castle of Crossed Destinies is the setting. The first part of the novel takes place in a castle and the second part, in a tavern. In his epilogue, Calvino admits to having aspirations of writing a third part to take place in a motel.

Excerpt 1:

In fact, the two contradictory impressions could nevertheless refer to a single object: whether the castle, for years visited only as a stopping place, had gradually degenerated into an inn, and the lord and his lady had found themselves reduced to the roles of host and hostess, though still going through the motions of their aristocratic hospitality; or whether a tavern, such as one often sees in the vicinity of castles, to give drink to soldiers and horsemen, had invaded — the castle being long abandoned — the ancient, noble halls to install its benches and hogsheads there, and the pomp of those rooms — as well as the coming and going of illustrious customers — had conferred on the inn an unforseen dignity, sufficient to put ideas in the heads of the host and hostess, who finally came to believe themselves the rulers of a brilliant court.

These thoughts, to tell the truth, occupied me only for a moment; stronger were my relief at being safe and sound in the midst of a select company and my impatience to strike up a conversation (at a nod of invitation from the man who seemed the lord — or the host — I had sat down at the only empty place) and to exchange with my traveling companions tales of the adventures we had undergone. But at this table, contrary to the custom of inns, and also of courts, no one uttered a word. When a guest wished to ask his neighbor to pass the salt or the ginger, he did so with a gesture, and with gestures he also addressed the servants, motioning them to cut him a slice of pheasant pie or to pour him a half pint of wine.

I decided to break what I believed a drowsiness of tongues after the trials of the journey, and I was about to burst forth with a loud exclamation such as “Health to all!” or “Well met!” or “It’s an ill wind . . .”; but no sound came from my lips. The drumming of spoons, the rattle of goblets and crockery were enough to persuade me I had been struck dumb. My fellow diners confirmed this supposition moving their lips silently in a gracefully resigned manner: it was clear that crossing the forest had cost each of us the power of speech (4-5).

Except 2:

I would like to add that for a certain time it was my intention to write also a third part for this book. At first I wanted to find a third tarot deck fairly different from the other two. But then, instead of going on raving over the same medieval-Renaissance symbols, I thought of creating a sharp contrast, repeating an analogous operation with modern visual material. But what is the tarot’ contemporary equivalent as the portrayal of the collective unconscious mind? I thought of comic strips, of the most dramatic, adventurous, frightening ones: gangsters, terrified women, spacecraft, vamps, war in the air, mad scientists. I thought of complementing The Tavern and The Castle with a similar frame, The Motel of Crossed Destinies. Some people who have survived a mysterious catastrophe find refuge in a half-destroyed motel, where only a scorched newspaper page is left, the comics page… (129).


The Visconti Pack is the oldest one known to exist, dating back to the 15th century and named after the Visconti noble family of Milan. The cards were particularly popular in France and Italy and were used for fortune-telling. “The deck consists of seventy-eight cards. Besides the ten numeral cards and the four court cards (King, Queen, Knight, Page) for each of the four suits (Cups, Coins, Clubs, Swords), there are twenty-one tarots proper (also called the Major Arcana), plus The Fool” (123). The Major Arcana or “Trump Cards” are:

1. The Magician
2. The High Priestess / The Popess
3. The Empress
4. The Emperor
5. The Pope
6. The Lovers
7. The Chariot
8. Justice
9. The Hermit
10. Wheel of Fortune
11. Strength
12. The Hanged Man
13. Death
14. Temperance
15. The Devil
16. The Tower
17. The Star
18. The Moon
19. The Sun
20. Judgement / The Angel
21. The World


The Tarot tradition was introduced to the French when they conquered Milan and Piedmont in 1499, thus generating the Tarot of Marseilles lineage. Rather than being named after a ruling family, the Marseilles pack was named retroactively as a collective name for the French tarot card lineage all produced by a manufacturer located in Marseilles. The Tarot cards were originally printed from a woodcut and colored in later by hand or with stencils, so each deck and variation produces a different interpretation of the 21 “trump Cards.” These cards are the structuring agents of the individual tales:

Excerpt 3:

In The Castle, the Tarots that make up each story are arranged in a double file, horizontal or vertical, and are crossed by three further double files of tarots (horizontal or vertical) which make up other stories. The result is a general pattern in which you can “read” three stories horizontally and three stories vertically, and in addition, each of these sequences of cards can also be “read” in reverse, as another tale. Thus we have a total of twelve stories…

In The Tavern too the sequence of the tarots composes stories, and the seventy-eight card spread out on the table form a general pattern in which the various tales intersect. But whereas in The Castle the cards make up the individual tales are in clearly defined horizontal or vertical rows, in The Tavern they form blocks with more irregular outlines, superimposed in the central area of the general pattern, where cards that appear in almost all the tales are concentrated (124-126).

The Tarot cards are thus their own language, transcending word and picture to create a new poetic, semiotic narrative:

Tarot card spread from The Castle. 

Tarot card spread from The Tavern. 

Excerpt 4:

“The world does not exist,” Faust concludes when the pendulum reaches the other extreme, “there is not an all, given all at once: there is a finite number of elements whose combinations are multiplied to billions of billions, and only a few of these find a form and a meaning and make their presence felt amid a meaningless, shapeless dust cloud; like the seventy-eight cards of the tarot deck in whose juxtapositions sequences of stories appear and are then immediately undone” (97).

Excerpt 5:

Now that we have seen these greasy pieces of cardboard become a museum of old masters, a theatre of tragedy, a library of poems and novels, the silent brooding over down-to-earth words bound to come up along the war, following the arcane pictures, can attempt to soar higher, to perhaps heard in some theatre balcony, where their resonance transforms moth-eaten sets on a creaking stage into palaces and battlefields (113).


Beyond just the “Trump Card” titles e.g. The Hermit, The Lovers, etc., the cards are multi-dimensional and can be interpreted based on their appearance but also can be based on their relationship to each other. This analysis is the most relevant to Invisible Cities where Marco Polo tells dozens of wildly diverse stories all based the same city; here, rather than the city being the subject of interpretation it is the Tarot. One card played by a traveler could have a drastically different meaning than that of the person sitting next to them. Some cards are pictorially highly architectural:

Excerpt 6:

The Ace of Cups portrays, in fact, a city with many towers and spires and minarets and domes rising above the walls. And also palm fronds, pheasants’ sings, fins of blue moonfish, which certainly jut from the city’s gardens, aviaries, aquariums, among which we can imagine the two urchins, chasing each other and vanishing. And this city seems balanced on top of a pyramid, which could also be the top of the great tree; in other words, it would be a city suspended on the highest branches like a bird’s nest, with hanging foundations like the aerial roots of certain plants which grow at the top of other plants (58).


Other Tarots are architectural in their spatial implications:

Excerpt 7:

The Moon…which would allow us to indulge in the old fancies of an upside-down world, where the ass is king, man is four-legged, the young rule the old, sleepwalkers hold the rudder, citizens spin like squirrels in their cage’s wheel, and there are as many other paradoxes as the imagination can disjoin and join (38).

The yellow and stunted grass and the sand of the desert cover the asphalt and the sidewalks of the city, jackals howl on the dunes, in the palaces abandoned beneath The Moon the windows stand open like hollow eye sockets, rats and scorpions spread from basements and cellars (69).


Calvino is an architect of text. In his epilogue he confesses to struggling with the undertaking of this set of rules that he set up for himself; “I publish this book to be free of it: it has obsessed me for years. I began by trying to line up Tarots at random to see if I could read a story in them… I realized the Tarots were a machine for constructing stories; I thought of a book, and I imagined its frame: the mute narrators, the forest, the inn.. I thought of constructing a kind of crossword puzzle made of tarots instead of words… And so I spent whole days taking apart and putting back together my puzzle; I invented new rules for the game, I drew hundred of patterns, in a square, a rhomboid, a star design; but some essential cards were always left out, and some superfluous ones were always there in the midst. The patterns became so complicated (they took on a third dimension, becoming cubes, polyhedrons) that I myself was lost in them” (126-7). Sounds a lot like architecture; no?

Text sources & references:

Calvino, Italo. Castle of Crossed Destinies. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers, 1976. Translated from the Italian by William Weaver. Print.

Moakley, Gertrude. The Tarot Cards. Painted by Bonifacio Bembo for the Visconti-Sforza Family. An Iconographic and Historical Study. New York: P.L. publishing, 1966. Print.

McLaughlin, Martin. Italo Calvino. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998.

Weiss, Beno. Understanding Italo Calvino. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1993.

Weaver, William. Italo Calvino, The Art of Fiction No. 130. The Paris Review: Fall 1992, no. 124.

Picture sources:

The compiled image of the Tarot card trump cards are from Jean Dodal’s Marseilles deck, dating to 1701-1715.

Calvino, Italo. Castle of Crossed Destinies. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Publishers, 1976. Translated from the Italian by William Weaver. Images scanned, pp. 20, 23, 40, 80, 98.

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