Invisible Cities – Calvino’s Venice

I’ve been having a love affair with Italo Calvino.  Italo who?! Well, he’s a deceased novelist, a fabulist and a magical (and I don’t use that word lightly) storyteller.

His book, Invisible Cities, has been resting at my Reading Shrine (ok, the ledge beside my toilet in bog-boring reality) and I’ve been savouring the pages, rationing them like bittersweet chocolates.

You just have to pick up it up and any random page and read writing like this:

“If you choose to belive me, good. Now I will tell how Octavia, the spider-web city, is made. There is a precipice between two steep mountains: the city is over the void, bound to the two crests with ropes and chains and catwalks. You walk on the little wooden ties, careful not to set your foot in the open spaces, or you cling to the hempen strands. Below there is nothing for hundreds and hundreds of feet: a few clouds glide past; farther down you can glimpse the chasm’s bed.

This is foundation of the city: a net which serves as passage and as support. All the rest, instead of rising up, is hung below: rope ladders, hammocks, houses made like sacks, clothes hangers, terraces like gondolas, skins of water, gas jets, spits, baskets on strings, dumb-waiters, showers, trapezes and rings for children’s games, cable cars, chandeliers, pots with trailing plants.

Suspended over the abyss, the life of Octavia’s inhabitants is less uncertain than in other cities. They know the net will last only so long.”

So what does Calvino have to do with Venice? Well his masterpiece “Invisible Cities” is a tale where Marco Polo has a conversation in a garden with the dying Kublai Khan and tells him fantastic tales about cities that he has seen in his travels around Khan’s empire, where it becomes clear that every city he describes is actually the same city, the most mysterious and improbable city of Venice.

I loved Venice best at dusk, when all the day-tripper tourists disappeared. In Venice, people retire to bed early, nightclubs are non-existent, and the air is cooler while you still feel the residual heat of the paving stones caress your feet while you get lost in its elaborate maze, surrendering to its wicked charm.

The ponte beside our hotel. Don’t you love Mark’s Barney sweater?

The fragrant gardens of Ciprianis, on the Giudecca Island

St Marco’s Square, which Sean informed me, was exactly like the one in Assassins Creed 2, the video game.

Banco Giro, best place for people-watching, sundowners and a casual meal.

Heave ho, the 50-cent traghetto….

The highlight of our trip – when Mark hijacked a delivery goods boat (25 euros an hour, a snip compared to 80 euros for a water taxi) and whizzed us all about Venice avoiding gondolas, traghettos, vaporettos and cornettos….

Lush garden-lined canals, far away from the heaving snake of tourism

When you explore Venice in a boat, surprises await you at every corner, like this submarine in a military base…

Da Fiore – where we had a darkly romantic dinner

Walking back through labyrinthian alleyways to our hotel

And my favourite passage from Calvino:

” In Ersilia, to establish the relationships that sustain the city’s life, the inhabitants stretch strings from the corners of the houses, white or black or gray or black-and-white according to whether they mark a relationship of blood, of trade, authority, agency.

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.

From a mountainside, camping with their household goods, Ersilia’s refugees look at the labyrinth of taut strings and poles that rise in the plain. That is the city of Ersilia still, and they are nothing.

They rebuild Ersilia elsewhere. They weave a similar pattern of strings which they would like to be more complex and at the same time more regular than the other. Then they abandon it and take themselves and their houses still farther away.

Thus, when traveling in the territory of Ersilia, you come upon the ruins of the abandoned cities, without the walls which do not last, without the bones of the dead which the wind rolls away: spiderwebs of intricate relationships seeking a form.”

One thought on “Invisible Cities – Calvino’s Venice

  1. My dear Crystal what a beautiful piece of writing I want to read the book and go to Venice xxx

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