Invisible Cities

28 08 2008

I was just introduced a second time to Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, a poetic imagining of Marco Polo’s descriptions to Kublai Khan of the cities he has seen on his journeys. I recall a prof in university suggesting this book to our class as being a really interesting poetic exploration of the city experience. It’s too bad I was so overloaded at that time with ideas about cities that I was required to read that I didn’t find space in my imagination for this book, because it is really beautiful and evocative.

The book is really not so much a description of cities, but it uses the lens of cities to describe other things. Which is what we as people do all the time: look for meaning and explanation through symbols, metaphors and representations.

“Finally the journey leads to the city of Tamara. You penetrate it along streets thick with signboards jutting from the walls. The eye does not see things but images of things that mean other things: pincers point out the tooth-drawer’s house; a tankard, the tavern; halberds, the barracks; scales, the grocer’s. Statues and shields depict lions, dolphins, towers, stars: a sign that something – who knows what? – has as its sign a lion or a dolphin or a tower or a star … If a building has no signboard or figure, its very form and the position it occupies in the city’s order suffice to indicate its function: the palace, the prison, the mint, the Pythagorean school, the brothel. The wares, too, which the vendors display on their stalls are valuable not in themselves but as signs of other things: the embroidered headband stands for elegance; the gilded palanquin, power; the volumes of Averroes, learning; the ankle bracelet, voluptuousness. 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.”




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