New Humanity Movement


Invisible Cities (1972) - Italo Calvino, Einaudi Press.  English Translation (1974)


Since I read this book a few years ago, it’s become almost a game to recognize, at least in some characteristics, the invisible cities: A tunnel of pipes, dark and dim, or bright and perfect rooms, cities with those names of a woman to welcome the visitor who lives his life and expresses his own existence in the city.

citt_invisibili_1“Personally, in the mosaic of the various timeless emblems of the city, none struck me particularly, but in each one I found a part of myself, an emotion, a state of soul, something special belonging to my city and those I’ve visited up to now.”

These lines, noticed by a visitor to a literary blog site, can be used to sum up the thoughts of many readers who have found in these pages something of themselves. So, let’s go, at least a little, and on tiptoe, to discover these cities which the author tells us about and which, invisible to human eyes, still strike an inner chord with everyone. Maybe this is because, in the end, the pages speak of our places which, small or large, are worth our attention and recall to mind a history which, whether long or short, is fascinating because it belongs to everyone.

It’s autumn of 1972. A very strange little book, both in its narrative form and its content, comes out from the Einaudi printing press—yes, Invisible Cities. At that time, Italo Calvino, its author, wasn’t yet considered an important writer whose books sold well in bookshops, and the book didn’t have the impact that perhaps it deserved. Still, slowly and stubbornly the word spreads and it enters into the houses and hearts of many readers, who still today, like the present writer, love it and return to leaf through it from time to time.

It’s a book written one little piece at a time, following the author’s inspiration focused on filing cards, maybe interrupted by long periods of silence. They’re memories of trips, notes in prose or poetry about cities or places visited, ‘aware’ of the artistic and human experience their author was going through. As a result, they’re shot through with doubts, sensations that unfold in cities on the one hand dirty and weighed down with uncleanness: sad cities and cities that are content, creative or limited. All those pages, however, don’t amount to a book. What was needed was a frame, a context that would bring together the various moments and the various cities, so that they could express to every reader a coherent and wide-reaching message regarding the wonders of our places.

The ingenious idea was: to call on the greatest traveller of all times, Marco Polo, and have the city presented to him, in the form of an account of a voyage, each one introduced by a dialogue in italics between him and the Tartar emperor, with whom he shares what he has lived. In this way, the structure of text takes shape, including 11 thematic descriptions, of each of five places, amounting to 55 general descriptions of the cities, each of which bears a woman’s name. These are true and correct reports, at times going into great detail, at other times more generalized, which indicate what you don’t see in a city, like the network of pipes, or the people who live behind closed windows or the bricks underneath the plaster. But he especially writes of the city that is within each person. A city that is invisible because, due to stress and a continuous race to achieve our end, we’re no longer able to appreciate these prophetic signs that living together can lead us to share with each other, and to make each one’s life better.
The story touches so many burning issues which are still relevant today: the relationship between the ‘stranger’ and the land that receives him, communication and language in the city, democracy and the role of the ruler. One issue in those prophetic times in particular is a denunciation of the relationship between the media and citizens which gives rise to suspicion and fascination. The emperor himself, even if rendered enchanting through Marco Polo’s manner of narration, doesn’t know whether or not to believe him when he speaks of places and times, the medieval period, or inconceivably, of an airport or the city of Los Angeles in the USA, which the Venetian explorer has certainly not known.

It has a complex literary nature that is marked by the author’s time in Paris where, in the shadow of Notre Dame he fully experienced ’68, with its destruction of values and symmetry, its contestation, and drew from it a creative impulse bearing fruit in these pages which are profoundly relevant.

Relevant, because Calvino in this untypical and marvelous text, doesn’t concentrate on the actual details of the cities, but at one moment links them with memory, at another with desires, with signs, dramas, leading us ‘to seek and learn how to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, isn’t inferno, to make it last, and give it space' 1.  That’s the strong symbolic impulse of this text, leading the reader to ask himself the reason why it’s necessary to live and live well—both strictly connected with each other—and to trust that together both these kinds of living lead to generation.

Because it’s true, at the end of the book it is possible to think like Marco Polo, who in discussion with the emperor says this: “Even the cities believe they are constructions of the mind or of chance, but neither one nor the other is enough to safeguard their walls. Don’t rejoice in the seventh or seventy seventh wonder of a city, but in the answer that they give to one of your questions"2.


Paolo Balduzzi, 30.XI.2009

1 Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities (Turin: Einaudi, 1972).
2 Ibid., frame III-A.

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