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INTRODUCTION Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities is written as a succession of dialog ues between the Tartar emperor, Kublai Khan, and the young, Venetian traveler, Marco Polo. Khan senses the impending demise of his empire, so Polo distracts the emperor with poetic descriptions of the f ifty-f ive cities he’s travelled. The majority of the novel consists of these descriptions, but short dialog ues between the two characters intersperse every f ive to ten cities, discussing a range of cultural topics such as ling uistics and perception. As the novel progresses, the reader becomes aware that Polo is not discussing f ifty-f ive dif ferent cities, but the same city: Venice. Therefore, Venice can be considered the “invisible city” that Calvino alludes to in the novel’s title. Calvino uses manmade objects and structures in his descriptions of cities as metaphors to express larger concepts. I will analyze the manmade structures and objects in f ive points of this novel to demonstrate how they illustrate Calvino’s personal philosophies towards cities. Also in this paper, I will demonstrate how each of the following metaphors represent larger concepts that are relevant to contemporary culture and the urban landscape. This f irst metaphor I will analyze is from one of the dialogs

between Marco Polo and Kublai Kahn, in which Calvino uses the arched bridge as a metaphor to describe the multi-faceted nature that exists in all cities. Also, in the city of Ersilia, Calvino uses string as a metaphor to represent the desire to create original networks with others, whether they be of blood, trade, authority, or agency. In Baucis, ladders are used to symbolize the distances humans negotiate between themselves and nature, and how complete submersion in an urban life can detach one from feeling connected to the natural earth. In Fedora, a museum of crystal balls reinforces the idea the cities are places we can negotiate our imagined futures, and project our aspirations for our environment and ourselves. The signboards of Tamara are metaphors for the bombardment of semiotics in the urban landscape, and the constant act of referencing and signifying other objects, processes, and ideas. Each of these f ive manmade objects will serve as metaphors to of fer insight to how Calvino thinks about the modern urban landscape.


Marco Polo describes a bridge, stone by stone. “But which is the stone that supports the bridge?” Kublai Khan asks. “The bridge is not supported by one stone or another,” Marco answers, “but by the line of the arch that they form.” Kublai Khan remains silent, reflecting. Then he adds: “Why do you speak to me of the stones?

“Without stones there is no arch.”

It is the arch that matters to me.” Polo answers:

As mentioned previously, Polo described visiting f ifty-f ive cities to Kahn so that he could divert the emperor’s attention from the demise of his empire to tales of exploration and greatness. However, it is later revealed that Polo is talking about only one city, Venice. The above excerpt is taken from a dialog ue between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, and metaphorically correlates with this development in the novel’s storyline. The arched bridge serves as a metaphor for the city, while the stones that support the arch are the many dif ferent facets of cities discussed by Marco Polo through his description of his fantasy cities. The stones also represent the fragmented literary nature of Calvino’s writing style, in which many small parts (the tales of Polo’s cities) are that become united with the realization that they are all part of the same bridge (all cities). Even further enhancing this metaphor is the attention to the signif icance of the center stone holding the bridge together, the keystone. This quote is located almost exactly in the center of the book, so in ways, this quote serves as the keystone for the framework of the book. All material discussed in the chapters of Polo’s adventures will refer back to the idea that each story is a metaphor for a what a city is, but is not independent of any other story or city.


spiderwebs of intricate relationships seeking a form.

Marco Polo describes Ersilia as a city saturated with relationships and networks among its inhabitants. The use of string as a metaphor for human networking is relevant because string’s primary purpose is to bond two entities together.

Calvino also touches on how involuntary social networking can be at times, in which our contacts can become exhausted, muddled, and tangled when not properly tended to.

Calvino makes it apparent that residents and the webs of string are dependent on one another, as the refugees consider the abandoned network of relationships Ersilia, while the abandoned “spiderwebs of intricate relationships� seek residents to give them form again (Calvino, 76).

The residents attempt to set up Ersilia in further territories, but always end up abandoning their homes and repeating the process.

A web of string also represents a larger concept of interconnectedness, in which simply being an agent in the urban setting denotes an involvement in the process of negotating environment.

He continues to say that each house in Ersilia is connected by a string, whose color determines the nature of relationship.

It is apparent Calvino intended Ersilia to be built out of string to trace social relationships and comment on how interconnected urban dwellers are simply by living in the conf ines of a city.

The fact that the strings are different colors indicate that this city acknowledges not all relationships are equal, rather, they can be divided into a system of hierarchy.

This interconnectedness branches into the way we behave on an everyday basis, whether it is recycling our trash or saying hello to our neighbors, to preserve a favorable and pleasant living condition.

Similar to the residents of Ersilia, when we feel we’ve exhausted the relationships in our communities, we tend to move to other neighborhoods, cities, and countries to to continue growing and building our social rapport.

Calvino writes, “When the strings become so numerous that you can no longer pass among them, the inhabitants leave: the houses are dismantled; only the strings and their supports remain.� (Calvino, 76)


There are three hypotheses about the inhabitants of Baucis: that they hate the earth; that they respect it so much they avoid all contact; that they love it as it was before they existed and with spyglasses and telescopes aimed downwards they never tire of examining it, leaf by leaf, stone


by stone, ant by ant, contemplating with fascination their own

Bauc i s is a ci ty su spend ed in t he s k y, s u p por te d by st i lt s t h at st ret ch f rom t he e a r th i nto t h e c loud s. To a c c e s s t he e levated c i t y, o n e mu st c li mb la dde r s t ho u sa nd s of fe e t t a l l . None of t he i n h a bit a nt s or a rch itec t u re f ro m Bauc i s i nt e r ve n e w it h t he e a r th b e l o w, c reati ng a cle a n b a r r ier b et we e n t he spr a wl of t he c it y a n d t he de s o late ea r th it re st s on. Ca l v i no w r ite s t h at t he re a re t h re e hy p ot he ses abo ut t he re s ide nt s of Bauc i s , wh ich a re t hat “t hat t h ey hate t h e earth ; t h at t he y re spe c t it so m uch t he y a void a l l c ont a ct, a nd t h a t t he y lo ve it a s it w a s b e for e t he y e x isted a n d w it h spyg la s s es a nd tele sc op es a i me d d ow nw a r ds t he y n e ve r t i re of e x a m ining i t, le a f by le a f , sto ne by s ton e , a nt by a nt , c o nte mpl a ti ng w it h fa scin at ion t h e i r ow n a b senc e .” T he la dder a s a me t aphor c o u ld re pr es e nt hu m a n’s t e ndenc y t o distan ce t he m se l ve s f r o m nat u re , e spec ia l ly whe n s ubmer se d in an e x t reme ly u rba n e nv i r on me nt . T he la dde rs i n Bauc is a re e xt remely ta ll, an d wou ld pre su ma bly t a k e days to c l i mb. This r elate s to rea l c it ie s , be cause it t a ke s a n e x tende d per iod of t i me to a s si mu l ate on es e l f i nt o an u rba n en v i ron me nt b e fore it is ev en not ic e a b le how d i s t a nt one fe e ls tow a r d s t h e ‘g r e at outdoor s .’

ll y, t h e A d d it io n a e m a de la d d e r s a r nat u ra l of wo o d , a s o it is m a t e r ia l, to see hu morou s d is t a n c hu m a n s s t h e m s e lv e in g r e , w it h f rom nat u nat u re. r ld a p A r e a l- w o o f C a lp li c a t io n f ic t io n a l v in o ’s Ne w la d d e r s is crapers. Yo r k s k y s B a u c is , S im il a r t o g spac t h e s e li v in n d it s e s su spe in t h e r e s id e n t s o m li fe s k y, fa r f r e e t le v on t he s t r er tha n e l. R a t h la d d e r s , c li m b in g le v a t o r s w e r id e e r u s fa r t h at u she g e ne r a l f rom t he a nd p o p u la t io n in t o o u r propel u s w o r ld s . p r iv a t e e e ve n T he re a r hy p ot h s im il a r t h e in e se s about of t he se h a b it a n t s d e v e lo p k in d he re a re me nt s a s t , que s in B a u c is he t he r t io n in g w s cho se in h a b it a n t r f rom t o b e s o fa el be g r o u n d - le v y p r e fe r c a u se t he t he mt o e x c lu d e it , o r s e lv e s f r o m r e s e ir because t h t he sk y id e n c e in a more w il l a f fo r d obser b e a u t if u l, e r ie n c e v a t iv e e x p r ld t h a t of t he wo t he m . su r rou nd s


Looking into each globe, you see a blue city, the model of a different Fedora. These are the forms the city could have taken if, for one reason or

another, it had not become what we see today. In every age someone, looking at Fedora as it was, imagined a way of making it the ideal city, but while he constructed his miniature model, Fedora was already no longer the same as before, and what had until yesterday a possible future became only a toy in aglass globe.

Marco Polo describes Fedora a s a “g ray stone metropolis” (Ca lvino, 32) w ith a “a meta l building w ith a cr ysta l globe in ever y room.” Inside these globes a re dif ferent models of Fedora, that correlate w ith a ll the dif ferent ways the cit y could have g row n if it had not developed in the way it developed. The meta l building beca me a museum for the globes, where inhabita nts ca n v isit and choose which cit y corresponds to their idea lized Fedora. As inhabitants created their idea l cit y in their head, and projec ted their fanta sies a nd daydrea ms onto the globe, the cit y wa s a lready cha ng ing a round them. This constant evolutionar y process ca nnot be haulted by mere fanta sy, a s Ca lvino w rites, “the one contains what is accepted a s necessar y when it is not yet so; the others, what is imag ined a s possible a nd, a moment later, is possible no longer.” The cr ysta l ba ll is a sy mbol of foresight, a tool for the clair voyant, so it ma kes sense that Ca lv ino would choose this manmade objec t to be the metaphor for indiv idua lly imag ined f ut ures. The concept of imag ining one’s ow n per fec t Fedora is reminiscent of one fa nta sizing about Utopia. Both w ith Utopia and the “ idea l Fedora ,” the imag iner ha s the understanding that a per fec t place cannot ex ist outside of itself. Therefore, the residents of Fedora w ill carr y their imag ined idea l Fedora w ith them in their heads a long side the ac t ua l Fedora , each equa lly deser ving an ex istence in the world. A lso, the concept of a model cit y inside a cr ysta l ba ll is quite similar to the snow globe, a souvenir item of ten sold to capt ure the spirit of a cit y. It is possible Ca lvino wa s describing a cit y in which its inhabita nts can create their ow n snow globes, essentia lly bot tling their subjec tive spirits of the cit y. The scene of a Fedora inhabitant at the center of the cit y, gla ncing into a replica of the cit y inside itself connotates a mis en aby me ef fec t. By the inhabitants projec ting their imag ination onto the miniat ure models of Fedora, they consequently projec t them onto the cit y itself. Fedora becomes a cit y that encourages its inhabitants to negotiate their idea l f ut ures and urban a spirations, while recog nizing that the cit y is genera lly incapable of requesting or dismissing the individua ls’ drea ms. Rather, the inhabita nts’ fa nta sies remain w ith them a s a second cit y, of equa l impor ta nce to the g ray, disma l one that they reside.


Your gaze scans the streets as if they were written pages: the city says everything you must think, makes you repeat her discourse, and while you believe you are visiting Tamara you are only recording the names with which she defines herself and all her parts. However the city may really be, beneath this thick coating of signs, whatever it may contain or conceal,

you leave Tamara without having discovered it.

In Tamara, “you penetrate it along streets thick with signboards jutting from the walls,” (Calvino, 13) and images “of things that mean other things.” Some forms of signage direct wanderers to locations, like the tavern, grocery, or barracks. Other signs, such as statues and shields adorned with a coat of arms refer to societal status. There is signage that warns wanderers what is forbidden in certain areas (i.e. urinating in public, f ishing on the bridge, entering an alley with a wagon), while other signage refers to what is allowed (watering zebras, cremation, games). More sculptural signif iers are the temples of gods, created to provide Tamara’s inhabitants with the proper environment to pray. Then there are invisible signs, in which a location’s name is represented merely by “its very form and the position it occupies in the city’s order” (Calvino, 13). Calvino also describes how manmade objects like kale bracelets and embroidered headbands stand for elegance and voluptuousness. In this city, the gaze is not only the inhabitant’s tool for observing the plethora of information around them, but it is trained to respond with associations to the visual discourse that surrounds them. Calvino writes, “the city says everything you must think, makes you repeat her discourse, and while you believe you are visiting Tamara you are only recording the names with which she def ines herself and all her parts.” (Calvino, 13) These signs are metaphors for the bombardment of semiotics in our urban landscapes. Take for example a neighborhood like Times Square, where virtually every inch is saturated with f lashing LED signage, massive marquees with ticket sale prices, and a countless street signs that assist navigating around for residents and visitors. The super-saturation of semiotics in cities is very characteristic of modern urban space, and is one of Calvino’s strongest assertions in universally addressing the city. The chapter makes a point to state that “beneath this thick coating of signs, whatever it may contain or conceal, you leave Tamara without having discovered it.” (Calvino, 14) Jean Baudrillard, in his essay on Simulacra and Simulation, claimed that “modern society has replaced all reality and meaning with symbols and signs, and that the human experience is of a simulation of reality rather than reality itself.” We see this belief prove evident in the city of Tamara, as Calvino even goes so far to say that you can experience Tamara without even discovering it. In reality, it is quite possible to leave a space like Times Square without feeling like you have seen anything more than a heap of signif iers and imaginary signif ieds. The inhabitants of Tamara can be compared to the inhabitants in many modern-day cities, as we have grown dependent on semiotics to establish rank, direction, and most importantly, order. Some entire systems are based on the universal understanding of certain symbols, such as the traf f ic system, in which we associate red with ‘Stop’ and green with ‘Go.’ Many of Baudrillard’s arg uments can be discussed in context of Tamara, and it would be interesting to see if the citizens of Tamara ever devise tactics to overcome the government’s control over symbols, signs, and ultimately behavior.

CONCLUSION In conclusion, it is evident that Ita lo Ca lv ino employed the metaphor dev ice quite of ten in his novel. By exa mining the manmade objec ts Ca lvino used for metaphors, we ca n see that a lthough the novel is more tha n thir t y yea rs old, the way cities are discussed is still ver y releva nt. The most pa ra mount metaphor, the a rched bridge, not only responds to the idea that cities a re dependent on the ba la nce of its ma ny sma ller pa r ts, but it ack nowledges Ca lvino’s literar y layout. Discussing cities like Ersilia , Baucis, Fedora , a nd Ta ma ra prov ide metaphors that address facets of cities like socia l net work ing, dista ncing onesself f rom nat ure, negotiating imag ina r y f ut ures w ith one’s environment, and ex isting in a world chock f ull of sy mbols a nd sig nif iers.


draft 2 fiction invisible cities