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A Marvelous Invention - Italo Calvino's 'Invisible Cities'

A Marvelous Invention - Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities

“Of all the tasks, describing the contents of a book is the most difficult and in the case of a marvelous invention like Invisible Cities, perfectly irrelevant.” - Gore Vidal.

There are no massive city centers that do not seduce and feed upon the life force of their residents. Their tangled webs of ancient streets are built upon the shards of broken dreams and haunted by the fleeing spirits of their inhabitants. Nor are there any unconquered cities - they are all colonies of one kind or another. For the obvious reasons of commerce and trade, all of the world's great cities (with the glaring exception of Madrid) have been constructed either near water or on rivers, and all cities built on rivers are bifurcated twice - two parts on either side of the water and two parts on either side of the water’s reflection. Similarly, as Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities (1972) makes abundantly clear, all storytellers resemble the Venetian explorer Marco Polo (1254-1324) recounting his far flung adventures to the fifth Khagan of the Mogul Empire, Kublai Khan (1215-94). All readers constantly reweave their own synchronistic narratives - a second independent strand of thought, running alongside the first, reflecting, interacting, and continually vying for dominance.

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On its twinkling surface, Invisible Cities explores the process of imagination through the descriptions of a variety of fantastic cities supposedly visited by Polo during his commercial expeditions across Asia. The book is framed as a conversation between him and the aging emperor, who constantly invites merchants to describe the places they have visited in his enormous and ever-expanding empire. It is presented in the form of a series of related conversations, told by Calvino's fictitious Polo to his invented Khan. As such, the majority of the book consists of brief prose poems describing fifty-five fictitious cities narrated by Polo, many of which can be read as parables or meditations on culture, language, time, memory, death, and the general nature of human experience. Short dialogues between Polo and the Khan discussing these topics are interspersed between every five to ten cities. These interludes between the two characters are no less poetically constructed than the cities themselves and form a framing device that parallels the natural complexity of language and stories.

Invisible Cities is not exactly a story, but rather an ordering and reordering of the emotional and philosophical reverberations of our civilized world, our human condition. The book itself is rigorously formal - each chapter is a prose poem describing a city. These fabulous cities are grouped into categories according to random patterns: each city has variations; each city is imaginary; and each city is conceptual. As Polo travels round the world on the Emperor’s business, his real task is not to bring back treasure or trade, but to barter in stories - the accumulated wealth of his imagination. He therefore provides descriptions of all the cities ever dreamed of - fat cities and thin cities, cities and desire, cities and the dead, cities and memory, cities and signs. Curiously, all are named after obscure mythological women, such as Raissa, Irene, Phyillis, and Chloe - “In Chloe, a great city, the people who move through the street are all strangers. At each encounter they imagine a thousand things about one another; meetings which could take place between them, conversations, surprises, caresses, bites. But no-one greets anyone; eyes lock for a second, then dart away, seeking other eyes, never stopping.”

Calvino (1923-85) deconstructs Polo's archetypal example of the travel literature genre, The Book of Marvels (aka The Travels of Marco Polo), which described the journey of the famed Venetian merchant across Asia and in Yuan Dynasty China. The British scholar Ronald Latham has demonstrated that The Book of Marvels was in fact a collaboration between Polo and a professional writer of romances, Rustichello of Pisa, who was employed to glamorise Polo's accounts and contributed the more fantastic and romantic elements that turned the book into a medieval bestseller. Another British historian, David Morgan, thought that Polo exaggerated and even lied about his status in China, while the Italian scholar Luigi Foscolo Benedetto has shown that the book was written in the same "leisurely, conversational style" that characterised Rustichello's other works, and that some passages were lifted verbatim or with minimal modifications from other writings by Rustichello. Latham believed that many elements of the book, such as legends of the Middle East and mentions of exotic marvels, may have been entirely the invention of Rustichello, who simply provided what contemporary European readers expected to find in a travel book. For instance, at one point In The Book of Marvels, Polo claimed that he was a close friend and advisor to Kublai Khan who appointed him governor of Yangzhou for three years, yet no Chinese source mentions him at all. Latham believed that such exaggerations were simply embellishments by his imaginative ghost writer.

The original thirteenth-century travelogue shares with Calvino's novel the brief, often fantastic accounts of the cities Polo claimed to have visited, along with descriptions of the city's inhabitants, notable imports and exports, and whatever interesting anecdotes Polo heard about the region. Given the unreliability of Polo's own published account of his time in China, it is hardy surprising that Calvino was drawn to it as a source for his own unstable narrative, but the structuring principle he employed is much more complex. Invisible Cities consists of nine chapters in which Polo describes a total of fifty-five cities divided into eleven thematic groups of five each:

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

While traveling down the list, Polo also moves back and forth between the various groups in a rigorous mathematical structure. In each chapter, there is an opening section and a closing section, narrating dialogues between the Khan and Polo. The descriptions of the cities lie between these two sections and every interlude between the Khan and Polo is also a thought experiment about powerful structures - empires, governments, languages, lands, tales. The intelligence behind the entire construction is evident in its use of meticulous categories - desire, memory, signs, the eyes, the names, the dead. Some of the work is extremely formal - with precision edges and self-contained references - and some of it seems so organic it dampens the page with its dew, heat, and flora.

The matrix of eleven column themes and fifty-five subchapters (ten rows in chapters 1 and 9, five in all others) reveals some interesting properties. Each column has five entries, rows only one, so there are fifty-five cities in all. The matrix of cities has a central element (Baucis). The pattern of cities is symmetric with respect to inversion about that center. Equivalently, it is symmetric against 180 degree rotations about Baucis. Inner chapters (2-8 inclusive) have diagonal cascades of five cities (e.g. Maurila through Euphemia in chapter 2). These five-city cascades are displaced by one theme column to the right as one proceeds to the next chapter. In order that the cascade sequence terminates (the book of cities is not infinite) chapter 9 truncates the diagonal cascades in steps - Laudomia through Raissa is a cascade of four cities, followed by cascades of three, two, and one, necessitating ten cities in the final chapter. The same pattern is used in reverse in chapter 1 as the diagonal cascade of cities is born. This strict adherence to a rigid mathematical pattern is characteristic of the avant-garde Oulipo literary group to which Calvino belonged.

Oulipo was shorthand for the French phrase Ouvroir de littérature potentielle, roughly translated as the 'workshop of potential literature.' Founded in 1960 by Raymond Queneau and François Le Lionnais, it was a loose gathering of mainly French-speaking writers and mathematicians who sought to create works of fiction using constrained writing techniques. The group defined the term littérature potentielle as 'the seeking of new structures and patterns which may be used by writers in any way they enjoy.' Such artificial constraints were employed as a method of triggering ideas and inspiration, most notably Georges Perec's "story-making machine,” which he used in the construction of Life, A User's Manual. The group also devised new compositional methods based on mathematical problems, such as the knight's tour of the chess board. Other techniques included palindromes, lipograms (writing that excludes one or more letters), 'snowballs' (in which each line of a poem is a single word, and each successive word is one letter longer), and univocalism using only one vowel letter. In English and some other languages the same vowel letter can represent different sounds, which means that 'born' and 'cot' could both be used in a univocalism, while words with the same American English vowel sound, but represented by different vowels (such as 'blue' and 'stew') could not. Notable examples of Oulipian writing include Perec's remarkable novel La Disparition, a 300-page mystery in which the absence of the letter 'e' is a central theme (the English translation, A Void, is also a lipogram); Queneau's Exercises de Style (the recounting of the same inconsequential episode ninety-nine times, each account being unique in terms of tone and style); and the same author's Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes, inspired by children's picture books in which each page is cut into horizontal strips that can be turned independently, allowing different pictures (usually of body parts like heads, torsos, waists, and legs) to be combined in many ways. The book also contains ten sonnets, each on a separate page split into fourteen strips, one for each line, with Queneau estimating in his introductory explanation that it would take approximately 200 million years to read all possible combinations.

The influence of Oulipo-inspired techniques on Invisible Cities is clear, since all the cities that Polo describes may also be viewed, in one way or another, as variations on a theme - different versions of Venice. In one key exchange in the middle of Invisible Cities, the Khan prods Polo to tell him of the one city he has never mentioned directly - his hometown. Polo's replies, "Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice." Calvino is concerned with the collapsed, folded, and vanished vision of Venice obscured behind its tourist façade. As the novelist Jeanette Winterson has pointed out, anyone who has visited that sinking city knows that its true life can only be "half-glimpsed or dreamed," as it constantly reconfigures itself, yielding suddenly as we turn into a deserted square, snapping shut as we stroll past San Marco. Venice has not disappeared under the pressure of mass tourism, it is simply dissolving in the mists of time, slowly slipping into the littoral.

When the American humourist Robert Benchley first visited Venice, what he found so remarkable about the city that he felt impelled to cable the news to his friends in New York was that the streets are full of water. The lagoon on which the great city was built initially provided shelter for refugees from the mainland when Northern Italy was overrun by Germanic invaders in the fifth century. It soon grew into a center of maritime trade with the Near East and by 1400 had evolved into a vast channel for the goods that Europeans to the north and west demanded as part of their increasingly luxurious lifestyle. The medieval Crusades had shown avaricious westerners the amenities of life in the Levant and the pilgrims who returned inspired a widespread desire in the barbarous Occident not only for gold and silver cloth, but also cotton, silk, and muslin (from Mosul in Iraq); for glassware, porcelain, and swords of Damascus steel; for oranges, apricots, figs, and wine from Cyprus grapes; for rugs, gems, and drugs (Turkish poppies and hashish from Afghanistan); as well as incense, perfume, and imported spices like pepper and cinnamon. Even after the Portuguese discovered an ocean route to the East Indies and Adriatic Venice no longer enjoyed a monopoly on trade, its manufactures were still highly profitable and its naval power remained unbroken for centuries.

For contemporary tourists Venice is a damp chimera, for historians it is a moist museum. The living Venice is the one where every shadowy canal, rotting palazzo, and sun-shy square, with its iron well and unlisted church, has already been been privately mapped. No one can show us Venice, since no such single place exists. The invisibility of Venice is by no means unique. They are the lesser experience of many cities, but in Venice the experience is concentrated. No city is less rewarding, nowhere more maddening, since the 'secret' Venice guidebooks are useless. The facts tell us nothing. Venice itself can only be read as fiction and visiting Venice is, in a sense, to become a part of fiction. It is a cusp city, a kind of marmoreal mausoleum that exists at the intersection of art and life. The only way to discover the 'real' Venice is to use the water (its refractions, reflections, the play of light and shadow) and to re-create Venice where it has always been strongest - in our moldering and mildewed imagination. Venice is a city we must design and build for ourselves.

Reading Calvino reading Venice is a reminder of how often the controlled, measured world of knowledge so frequently fails us, since so much of life resists the 'known' facts. As the Khan soon discovers, imagining Venice is like trying to imagine ourselves as others see us - a highly unsettling, but ultimately rewarding, exercise. For though there is a certain kind of sensory appeal captured in the profusion of descriptive detail, the real beauty of Invisible Cities lies in its unmasking of underlying notions of time, identity, and language that lie beneath these details - a remarkable and intricate achievement that is skillfully accomplished by both Polo and Calvino. In an especially acute analysis, Osman Bari has identified three underlying architectural principles, discernible both behind and beneath the multi-layered narrative texture of Invisible Cities, that are worth quoting at length ...

Visual Specificity As A Cultural Language

Much of the novel's quirky charm can be attributed to the specificity of its writing and its narration. The fifty-five versions or visions of urban life are described with enthralling character, the first of which is Diomira, “a city with sixty silver domes, bronze statues of all the gods, streets paved with lead, a crystal theatre, a golden cock that crows each morning on the tower.” Details such as these constitute the overall visual communication between Polo and us, as we assume the role of the Khan, contributing to the successful creation of fictional cities through typologies and artifacts and demonstrating our inherent reliance on specific imagery to create understanding, a facet that is an integral part of our built environment -

“Now his accounts were the most precise and detailed that the Great Khan could wish and there was no question or curiosity which they did not satisfy. And yet each piece of information about a place recalled to the emperor’s mind that first gesture or object which Marco has designated the place.”

Paradoxically, the impact of this highly visual culture sometimes seem to go unnoticed. Polo describes the city of Tamara, laden with signs of all sorts, where “the eye does not see things but images of things that mean other things.” This relates to our current over-reliance on distinct symbolic communication and a reduction of the image to encompass certain connotations. Though architecture is fundamentally a visual field and medium, it is important to allow for an unintentional evolution of meaning and understanding through our own sensory experiences, as a result of the slightly passive hand of the architect. Polo himself resorts to a more abstract identification of cities, providing genuine translation not possible through the specificity of visual wordplay -

“So, for each city, after the fundamental information given in precise words, he followed up with a mute commentary, holding up his hands, palms out, or backs, or sideways, in straight or oblique movements, spasmodic or slow.”

Architecture’s Reliance On Nature’s Omnipotence

Nature plays a key role in many of the cities that Polo describes, at times dictating with a certain omnipotence the very functioning of architecture and the behavior of its inhabitants. One example is that of Isaura, a “city of the thousand wells” built over a deep lake, where “the inhabitants dig long vertical holes in the ground and succeed in drawing up water, as far as the city extends.” Water, as a vitality of life, is a major driving force behind the formation of a necessary architectural typology (in this case, the dam) as well as the relationship between the city and its people. The importance of water is further embodied in the inhabitants' shared cultural understanding. Its importance both as a substance and in formulating a kind of landscape architecture contains elements of the divine -

“The city's gods, according to some people, live in the depths, in the black lake that feeds the underground streams. According to others, the gods live in the buckets that rise, suspended from a cable, as they appear over the edge of the wells …”

Given our drastic alteration of the natural world in the Anthropocene Age, a process in which architecture itself is complicit, our definition of what constitutes the 'natural' is more varied than before. In order to mediate this and assume a coexistence with its landscape global, environmental change will dictate architecture’s role more than ever. This notion is apparent in the city of Thekla, which is constantly under construction “so that its destruction cannot begin”. When one asks if stopping the construction will cause the city to fall to pieces, the reply is - “not only the city.” Soon, it is made apparent that this constant work is being ordained by the cosmic order of the stars. Although this does not directly compare to the threats of global warming, both are natural conditions that call for architecture to abide by them, to prevent Thekla’s demise -

“What is the aim of the city under construction unless it is a city? Where is the plan you are following, the blueprint? We will show it to you as soon as the working day is over … they answer. Work stops at sunset. Darkness falls over the building site. The sky is filled with stars. There is the blueprint, they say.”

The Timelessness Of The City

In Laudomia, the city is composed of three identically named sides - that of the living, the dead, and the unborn. As the living city increases in population, so does the periphery of the tombs of the dead and the realm of the unborn, both of which serve the living as they “visit the dead and decipher their own names on their stone slabs” and “frequent the house of the unborn to interrogate them” on their own lives, not the ones yet to come. Such is the nature of the existence of cities and architecture in general. There is a form of the present that precedes its arrival and, likewise, a future state that will take its place. A city identity is molded by both past and present, constantly creating multiple potential futures that simultaneously become possible pasts. The result is a sort of timelessness with which any city can identify -

“The living Laudomia has to seek in the Laudomia of the dead the explanation of itself, even at the risk of finding more there or less: explanations for more than one Laudomia, for different cities that could have been and were not.”

In another sense, Calvino argues that all cities stem from one prototype. In the case of Marco Polo, that city is his native Venice, but the overall idea is that all variations are multiple faces of the singular city - a product of timeless constructs “made of desires or fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules absurd, their perspectives deceitful.” When the Khan begins to describe his own constructed city, Polo replies: “This is precisely the city I was telling you about when you interrupted me,” thus alluding to the notion of interconnected identities that are shared by all cities and stem from our collective knowledge -

“Each city takes to resembling all cities, places exchange their form, order, distances, a shapeless dust cloud invades the continents. Your atlas preserves the differences intact: that assortment of qualities which are like the letters in a name.”

These three principles are interrelated throughout Invisible Cities. The identity of any city is ultimately expressed and translated most frequently through our culture of visual specificity, and it is determined by the constraints of landscape and nature that envelope it. In our current era, the urban landscape is also over-determined by architecture’s imposition on it, which in turn is influenced by typological and visual precedents for form and function. Perhaps the true value of Calvino's novel is that he offers us a means of exploring architecture beyond what it presents at face value, inviting us to indulge instead in the potential of future histories and timeless pasts in the face of our present, 'modern' civilization. Invisible Cities invites us to look beyond the blunt technicalities and to wait for darkness to fall, so we too can see our blueprint in the stars.

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