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Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino

Le città invisibili, Giulio Einaudi, 1972 (Italy)
Harcourt Trade Publishers, 1974, (US), Translated by William Weaver

Kublai Khan had noticed that Marco Polo’s cities resembled one another, as if the passage from one to another involved not a journey but a change of elements. Now, from each city Marco described to him, the Great Khan’s mind set out on its own, and after dismantling the city piece by piece, he reconstructed it in other ways, substituting components, shifting them, inverting them

If you come to Lumnezia, particularly on a bright summer morning, you will find a sparkling city built entirely of glass and water. The walls of the town are transparent but hollow inside. The floors made of glass but empty underneath. Above the clear roofs and ramparts, high above, rising in the air like obelisks, are see-through towers filled with fresh water caught from the sky. It flows downward in ripples across the panes, through the hollow walls, the glassy buttresses; runs like tears and dripping waves within the block shells, the clear staircases, the solid but transparent beams and studs and lentils, corners and lunettes. All clear. All sparkling. It is all enclosed and all-encompassing and you can see the water but can never feel it. It drains from above like open arteries, like split winter veins through the bowels, through the underground, through the vast terraces and gardens, balconies and awnings. But always enclosed. Nothing is hidden. Everything is naked and observed. Bright. Shiny, and always flowing. If you think hard you can feel as if the water is not moving but the entire city rising up instead through some vast and luscious crystal waterfall.

Those who arrive at Thekla can see little of the city, beyond the plank fences, the sackcloth screens, the scaffolding, the metal armatures, the wooden catwalks hanging from ropes or supported by saw-horses, the ladders, the trestles. If you ask, ‘Why is Thekla’s construction taking such a long time?’ The inhabitants continue hoisting sacks, lowering leaded strings, moving long brushes up and down, as they answer, ‘So that its destruction cannot begin.’

-Cities & Sky 3

The city of Serdun is entirely dark. The houses are built in black marble. The doors. Windows. Steps all covered in black slate, polished opal, chalky coal. The sun never shines as this city is 100 miles deep within the earth. Citizens can not see, but only feel their way through the labyrinthine avenues. There are no fires or flames. No torches, or blacksmiths or furnaces. The city is kept warm by the soft stomach of the earth. People make their way around the narrow streets by touching grooves cut into the sides of the walls. No one knows what the other person looks like and can only touch the person’s face with his or her fingers to imagine or gather any identity. Talk is allowed but only in whispers. No plants or trees or vegetables or fruit or green things grow in the city, but there are night things that flourish in the darkness and provide nourishment to all. There are no books or libraries, papers or magazines. All stories are passed in whispers from one person to the other. Some are scrawled or chiseled on walls. Poetry is passed to loved ones on slabs of stone. Water is scarce and sacred and seeps through the cracks of the rocks surrounding the city.

In Olinda, if you go out with a magnifying glass and hunt carefully, you may find somewhere a point no bigger than a head of a pin which, if you look at it slightly enlarged, reveals within itself the roofs, the antennae, the skylight, the gardens, the pools, the streamers across the streets, the kiosks in the squares, the horse-racing track. That point does not remain there: a year later you will find it the size of half a lemon, then as large as a mushroom, then a soup plate. And then it becomes a full-size city, enclosed within the earlier city: a new city that forces its way ahead in the earlier city and presses it towards the outside.

-Hidden Cities 1

Sometimes on winter nights in Breil you will see a city made entirely of mirrors. But you will not see yourself in the mirrors, only the other side of the mirror as this city is actually two cities, both facing each other but negating everything which is within itself. So the appearance is one of emptiness. There are no people, animals or plants or flowers. No houses or towers or walls or walkways. The roads and streets are empty. It is a cold place, and when it snows the ice disappears like everything else within the two cities. As two mirrors facing each other negate each other. It is a sad, people-less place and best not to stay too long. No one is ever sure if they really exist there, only the breath upon the glass which too disappears without anyone ever seeing it.

Andria was built so artfully that its every street follows a planet’s orbit, and the buildings and the places of community life repeat the order of the constellations and the position of the most luminous stars: Antares, Alpheratz, Capricorn, the Cepheids. The city’s calendar is so regulated that jobs and offices and ceremonies are arranged in a map corresponding to the firmament on the date: and thus the days on earth and the nights in the sky reflect each other.

-Cities & The Sky 5

There have been many cities in my life. Huge towering glass and steel places rising up from an endlessly flat-faced horizon. Green marble and golden art deco monuments bursting up to the endless above. Black foreboding architecture lurking from the sidewalks behind me. Creeping bungalows. Crouching walk-ups. Cobblestone streets and gray sandstone facades. Yellow Jura-stone arches and Romanesque blocks rising up and up to spires and steeples thrusting forever skyward. Grids and circles. Grillwork and swollen balconies. Steps and terraces. Wide Plazas and marketplaces. The cities are vast and numberless and I will never see them all. Never go back to them all. Some are empty on a late winter night. Others are bustling with humanity on a bright summer day. All are crystal clusters hugging terribly to the dark edge of the world. They are built and rebuilt, and they are dismantled and they are built again. Named and renamed. The cities are endless but in the end they are only one.

The Great Khan owns an atlas in which are gathered the maps of all the cities: those whose walls rest on solid foundations, those which fell in ruins and were swallowed up by the sand, those that will exist one day and in whose place now only hare’s holes gape. . . .

And Polo Answers, “Traveling, you realize that differences are lost: 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.’’