Invisible Cities

I have been thinking for a while now about developing a series of prints inspired by Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. Better equipped than before, I am diving into this project head first, with the curse of the pharaohs in mind, and no mention of Venice.

Back in August of last year I shared a preparatory drawing or two, and there was clearly some overlap between these distinct, isolated cities and my prior work on islands.

Those sketches remain pinned up in the studio, a reminder of plans not realised. But that is, in this instance, a good thing.

I am not the first to try their hand at a response to Calvino’s Cities. I’ve enjoyed reviewing interpretations of the brief but deep descriptions Calvino offers. I’ve also tried to locate reviews from the time of the book’s release in 1974, and later responses.

Academic papers on the writing of these works have provided fresh context and insight, and have put flesh on the bones of the author’s concerns. Fellow artists, critics, novelists, linguists, scientists, architects have all found their own fathomless depths in this collection of succinct biographies. Biographies of imagined time as much as imagined place.

Time, and each city’s relationship to it, is the binding theme across the book. There are multiple cities that honour the dead and the unborn in a single present; there are cities apparently long-abandoned, or built as uninhabitable ruins (at least to the eye), and there are cities that destroy and rebuild themselves constantly.

Available academic research puts a particular focus on the author’s non-linear application of time, temporal distortion and ambiguity. Within this common framework though, there’s so much more.

Eusapia is a good example. Here the living and dead co-exist in the same moment in separate halves of the city. As many hope, passing into the afterlife permits a change in fortune:

“Many of the living want a fate after death different from their lot in life. The necropolis is crowded with big-game hunters, mezzosopranos […] more than the living city ever contained”

Invisible Cities – Cities and the Dead 3

In a little over a page and half we learn that the living half of the city is persistently influenced by the reported changes the dead are making down below. Present-time and after-time co-exist. By the end, we’re no longer sure who built which half, perhaps even who is dead and who alive.

My earliest sketches were simplistic – imagining a city of two very similar halves, hints at the differences amidst their similarities. I hoped to present sufficient ambiguity among the distinctions that it might be questionable as to which way up such a picture might be displayed.

But with each reading, I find something new:

The job of accompanying the dead down below […] is assigned to a confraternity of hooded brothers.
No one else has access to the Eusapia of the dead and everything known about it has been learned from them

Invisible Cities – Cities and the Dead 3

Unlike some of his Cities, Eusapia’s collective knowledge of what has gone before is not written in the streets, etched into stone, or marked with strings between each related point. Here the passing of time is a compelling story mediated by a chosen few.

Is Calvino making a blunt statement about organised religion, academic historians, the media? Are we able to understand our own histories (as nations, communities, individuals) without a direct relationship to our past? Is this an inevitable fate for all societies?

The living Eusapia’s appetite for the differences reported from the necropolis have parallels with Western culture’s obsession with Egyptian mummies in the 1920s.

Egyptomania influenced fashion, design, dance, architecture, advertising and every other art form. Initiated by the archaeological finds, and catalysed by a mass media keen to cash in on tales of unimaginable wealth and beauty, curious ritual, invigorating new design styles, and of course, the curse of the mummy.

Was the media frenzy around Egyptomania any way to truly understand the ancient past, and did we have any choice in how anything more than a superficial understanding of it might be applied to our future?

Ironically for a time-distorting work, the passing of linear time without committing to an approach means I can devise better one. An approach that doesn’t seek to represent the outward appearance of, say, a city such as Baucis, built on stilts among the clouds.

Having everything they already need up there, they prefer not to come down

Cities and Eyes 3

Beyond those foundations, we learn little of Baucis‘ outward appearance – there is no ‘golden cock that crows each morning on a tower’, but we do learn what Baucis is about.

As Joel Towers notes: “By giving voice to the condition of dislocation that modern industrial society has produced in relation to nature, Calvino reveals the narrowly constructed paradigm that the inhabitants of Baucis have embraced. The result is that the imagination of its citizens is severely limited by their worldview”1.

Presented with a magical, otherworldly realm, we uncover remarkable parallels with our own place and time; we also find the same dilemmas and angst about how to react to the world we inhabit.

Much as we can chart the early 20th Century obsession with ancient Egypt through the discovery of a relatively small number of relics and a vast range of ephemeral responses, I want to consider the essential signatures these cities might leave behind, how they represent themselves, and how a visitor might represent them to us, upon their return.

I won’t rule out responding to descriptive prose with representative imagery, but there’s a wealth of signs and symbols lying in the gutters and pools of these timeless, timely, nowhere places.

Cited works and further reading

  • Towers, Joel. “Make Them Endure, Give Them Space: Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino.” Social research 89.2 (2022): 469–481. Web.
  • Panigrahi, Sambit. “Postmodern Temporality in Italo Calvino’s ‘Invisible Cities.’” Italica (New York, N.Y.) 94.1 (2017): 82–100. Print.

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