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5. The Complexity of the City: Italo Calvino and Post-War Italian Cityscapes 


Sabrina Pennetta

Undergraduate student, History Honours & Italian Studies


 In this paper, I will argue that the Cuban-born Italian writer, Italo Calvino, created and defined a particular vision of the urban city in his works Marcovaldo and Le città invisibili. Both works, published in 1962 and 1972 respectively, present alternate, but related, ways of viewing the city as a construction of human hands and imagination. In Marcovaldo, the protagonist represents a blue-collar worker in postwar Italy, while in Le città invisibili, the reader is guided by an imagined conversation between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. Calvino constructs an alternative way of seeing the city and how it interacts with reality, or whether it is truly a construct of imagination. I will argue that visions of utopia in Calvino’s postwar Italian literature acted as a form of respite and ultimately created another world, a utopic-otherness, for Calvino, and therefore, for an entire generation of Italians in postwar Italy. The city emerges as a key character in each novel and challenges the human characters through its complexities. Through a literary analysis and close reading of these two novels, I will analyze Calvino’s literary methods in which he revitalized the stagnant industrial city with an imaginative expression of culture and society in a utopic global city.

Keywords / Mots clés

utopia, Italo Calvino, literary analysis, postwar, Marcovaldo, Le città invisibili

Full Text

       The development of the city and increasing urbanization are two of the transformations that make the twentieth century one of the most fascinating in terms of cultural development and globalization. Through the work of Cuban-born Italian writer Italo Calvino, the idea of the city has been shaped and reshaped in the twentieth century by events of war, personal struggles, and capitalism. History and literature are deeply concerned with the idea of the city. Calvino uses the development of the city as a primary character in his literature, as well as charting the relationship between il popolo (the people) and la città (the city). Through a deeper understanding of the mechanisms of the city, Calvino effectively showcases the complexities of urbanization, as well as the dangers that can emerge as societies become over reliant on outside influence. In Calvino’s 1962 work, Marcovaldo, the protagonist represents a blue-collar worker in post war Italy. In this collection of short stories the city emerges as a prominent character. In Calvino’s other famous work, Le città invisibili (Invisible Cities), released in 1972, the idea of the city is expanded into a global form. Calvino uses the city as a symbolic representation of an urban utopia, wherein the citizens occupy space and there is an idea of life together. The selection of four short stories, one from each season, in Marcovaldo helps to emphasize the increasingly industrial world and the disconnect between the city, people, and nature. The selection of certain cities in Le città invisibili helps Calvino express the possibility of creating and constructing the urban centre of cities with creativity. The work of Calvino supports the idea that the city is revitalized through an imaginative expression of culture and society.

       In Marcovaldo, the protagonist by the same name represents a blue-collar worker in post-war Italy, during a time of industrialization and the rise of capitalism. Although the city is never named, it is symbolic of Torino, an industrial centre in Northern Italy. As the Italian economy transitioned from war-time to peace-time, it became more reliant on manufacturing and production in the North, and to upkeep the Italian industrial economy, workers were required at all levels to ensure it ran smoothly. The industrialization of the North is in stark contrast to the impoverished South, which remained reliant on agriculture and saw a loss of population during the post-war years (Weiss 36). The city becomes an urbanized world and Calvino highlights the idea of citizens and citizenship through this new idea of the city. One aspect of Calvino’s life that makes his idea of the city so fascinating is his constant moving and his lack of a stationary writing point. Calvino lived in San Remo, Rome, Paris, and New York, to name a few, and each city, with their differing approaches to urbanism, impacted Calvino’s work (Modena 6-8). Therefore, Calvino’s knowledge of the diversity of the industrialized cities allowed him to construct a conglomeration of the master city in Marcovaldo that stands as a combination of Calvino’s urbanist knowledge.

       In “Funghi in città” (Mushrooms in the City) the idea of foreign influence, the strength and softness of nature is discussed. At the beginning, Calvino describes people “starnutano per pollini di fiori d’altre terre” (“sneezing from pollen of flowers of other lands”) (Marcovaldo 3). Pollen refers to both flower pollen, but also to pollution and is indicative of the industrialization of Italy. The strength of nature is showcased because this foreign pollen can still break through the man-made city structures (Weiss 32). Despite this strength, Marcovaldo also possesses a softness towards nature, which is a reoccurring theme in the collection of short stories.

       This intimate connection that Marcovaldo has with nature is contrasted with the alienated relationship between industry and nature. Marcovaldo notices the mushrooms that have germinated because he pays attention to nature and listens to the “i desideri del suo animo” (“the desires of its soul”) (Marcovaldo 3). These mushrooms represent the “richezze nascoste” (“hidden riches”) of life, which go beyond his salary and wage earnings (Marcovaldo 4). As Marcovaldo works through his industrial job, the cost of living increases, however, his salary does not reflect this change. As a result, taxes, inflation, and loans slowly become too overbearing. To Marcovaldo, these mushrooms symbolize the hope of something better in life. But only for Marcovaldo. He does not wish to share his discovery of the mushrooms with anyone else in his neighbourhood. Marcovaldo does not have the lifestyle, nor the wealth, to obtain this sense of individuality. He is dependent upon society for support, and is of the poorer population, as he requires “un cesto preso in prestito” (“a borrowed basket”) to collect the mushrooms (Marcovaldo 5). His attempt to keep the mushrooms for himself alludes to the privatization of society.

       When the community gathers to take their share of the mushrooms, someone suggests that “sarebbe bello fare un pranzo tutti insieme” (“it would be nice to have a lunch together”) but instead “ognuno prese i suoi funghi e andò a casa propria” (“everyone took their mushrooms and went to their own houses”) (Marcovaldo 6). Despite the small advantage that these people believed they were given, ultimately, the competition in the working class of an industrial society remained relatively the same for the workers. They do, however, meet again at the hospital, as they had been food poisoned by the mushrooms. They were only slightly poisoned because “la quantità di funghi mangiati da ciascuno era assai poca” (“the quantity of mushrooms eaten by each was very little”) and therefore, they are symbolically confined to their own small share of rewards for their labour (Marcovaldo 6).

       One of his autumn selections, “Il piccione comunale” (The Communal Pigeon) further adds to the industrialization of the city and its disconnect with the countryside. Marcovaldo, who is receptive to nature, notices one day that “un volo di beccacce autunnali apparve nella fetta di cielo d’una via” (“a flight of autumn pigeons appeared in the sky”) (Marcovaldo 16). Typically, birds avoided the cityscapes, but as the world becomes more mechanized, the birds lose their space to fly. This supports the theme of the country versus the city. The birds can “seguire la ricurva linea di un fiume” (follow the curved line of the river”) in the countryside, but in the city, it becomes more difficult as buildings and powerplants overtake the skyline (Marcovaldo 16). As the story continues, Marcovaldo decides to capture these pigeons that have been flying over the city. His intention is to roast them for his family and enjoy a hearty dinner. After spreading corn and birdlime on the roof of his apartment, he waits for the first bird. The following day, Marcovaldo discovers his catch. There was “un povero piccione, uno di quei grigi colombi cittadini” (“a poor pigeon, one of those grey pigeon citizens”) (Marcovaldo 18). The use of the word “cittadini” (citizens) is fundamental to understand the impact of industry on both humans and animals. The birds have been tainted by the increasing industrialized world as a result, have become “grigi” (grey) with pollution and the excesses of life. The birds in this story represent the cities of the past, where there was a relationship between humans, animals, and the land. Despite his love of nature, Marcovaldo turns on the animals and the natural world as his own interests are deemed more important, symbolic of the increasing and overbearing cityscape encroaching on the natural world. On the same note, however, Marcovaldo is similar to the pigeon. He has also been caught in the industrialized world and cannot escape it no matter where he goes. This speaks to Calvino’s deep insecurities about the future of the city and his anxiety about how the city will develop. The story concludes with a frantic neighbour complaining about their clothing sticking to the wire on the roof. As a result of Marcovaldo’s self-interest, other’s in his building also have to suffer the consequences.

       A selection from winter, “La fermata sbagliata” (The Wrong Stop) supports the utopian dream and idealism that Marcovaldo possesses. The context of this story is Marcovaldo’s love of the cinema, and in particular, his love of “i film a colori” (“coloured films”) because they “permette d’abbracciare i più vasti orizzonti” “(allow him to embrace the widest horizons”) (Marcovaldo 66). Film is a way for Marcovaldo to escape the everyday stresses of his work and home life, and to experience a different world. These films allowed him to “continua ad abitare quei paesaggi” (“continue to inhabit those landscapes”) in his thoughts (Marcovaldo 66). This reflects how the industrial city has taken away Marcovaldo’s sense of adventure. The only way for Marcovaldo to reclaim it is through watching films.

       In the story, Marcovaldo watches a film which took place in an Indian forest with a wide array of animals. This film is contrasted with the nothingness which Marcovaldo sees when he exits the theatre. Marcovaldo “non vedeva niente” (“does not see anything”) because “la nebbia aveva invasa la città” (“the fig had invaded the city”) (Marcovaldo 66). This fog is important in two ways. First, it symbolically represents the wariness of industrialism and capitalism that has conquered cities. The fog “involgeva le cose e i rumori” (“consumed things and sounds”) – it slowly takes away the ways of the past. Secondly, this fog represents the disconnect between Marcovaldo and the city, and more generally, between humans and the constructed city. Marcovaldo is immersed in the fog and fills the void of space with his own creativity and his imagination, but when the smog clears, the city is restored and his life continues to follow the routine of the capitalist system. Through this story, Calvino calls for the imagination and creativity to return to urban planners, and to emerge from the fog with new and innovative ideas (Modena 14). Marcovaldo “si sentiva protetto da ogni sensazione esterna” (“he felt protected by every external sensation”) which further supports that Calvino saw the fog as an expression for the possibility of the future city (Marcovaldo 67). The fog is an antithesis to the city which provides Marcovaldo with the respite and possibility to construct his own city. As Marcovaldo tries to find his way home, he continues to travel within the heavy fog until it leads him to a man dressed in yellow waving his arms. Marcovaldo is then lead into what he believes is a bus, only to discover he has boarded a plan heading for Bombay. This unbelievable change in environment speaks to the industrial city paving the way for globalization. This story features a surrealist approach to the idea of the city as Marcovaldo believes he is getting on a bus, when in fact he is boarding a plane to India (Weiss 35). Through the creation of cities, industrial capacities, and capitalist economies, nations became increasingly reliant on each other, and so globalization enabled the connection of international markets. The ending of this story is more than just economics, however. The city is redefined by Calvino in this story as he tries to come to terms with what is happening in Italy socially and culturally during this time (Modena 11). The transition between the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s was marked by social change, an economic miracle followed closely by a recession, as well as changes to body and marital rights. The city represented these changes on a larger scale. With these changes, Calvino saw the possibility to remake the city through literature as an effective form of literary imagination.

       Perhaps one of the most obvious examples of Calvino’s desire to remake the city is found in the story, La città tutta per lui (The City All to Himself). This story describes Marcovaldo’s wanderings through the empty city in August, during the nation holiday ferragosto. The story begins with the description of what the citizens loved about their city, “i grattacieli, i distributor di sigarette, [e] i cinema a schermo panoramico,” (“skyscrapers, cigarette vendors, [and] the widescreen cinemas”) however, as soon as it is August, “alla città non voleva bene più nessuno” (“no one loved the city anymore”) (Marcovaldo 108). The city that people love for eleven months of year becomes “antipatici e irritanti” (“unpleasant and irritating”) and they crave leaving the industrial cityscape (Marcovaldo 108). Marcovaldo is the exception. He is “l’unico abitante a non lasciare la città” (“the only habitant to not leave the city”) and he enjoyed the freedom of wandering through the empty city streets (Marcovaldo 109). Marcovaldo realizes that “il piacere non era tanto il fare queste cose insolite, quanto il vedere tutto in un altro modo” (“the pleasure was not in doing these unusual things, but in seeing everything in another way”) (Marcovaldo 109).

       Marcovaldo was accustomed to seeing the city as an industry when the city is really a living organism itself, with “cortecce e squame e grumi e nervature” (“cortexes and scales and lumps and nerves”) that are hidden by buildings and artificial materials (Marcovaldo 109). This raises the theme of visibility versus invisibility. Once the city is left empty, Marcovaldo sees a “mosaic of empty spaces” which had been previously shadowed by buildings (Jeannet 91). What Marcovaldo witnesses is the “l’affiorare d’una città diversa,” (“blossoming of a different city”) and although it only lasts while people are away, it serves as a reminder of the true beauty of the city (Marcovaldo 109). Marcovaldo values his time alone in the city and connects with the earth in a more profound way without the excess of consumer goods and industry. As Marcovaldo strolls along the empty sidewalks, a question emerges from his sight of animals and plant life. Marcovaldo asks if “esisteva ancora la città?” (“the city still existed?”) (Marcovaldo 110). The city does in fact still exist; however, it is no longer reliant upon its capacity to produce consumer goods; the city in La città tutta per lui exists in its purest form.

       These four short stories highlight a number of issues that arise with the industrialization of the cityscape. They also express how Calvino saw the city in the 1950s and 1960s. The demands of a consumer society weigh heavily on the mind of Marcovaldo, hence his passion for nature and his enjoyment of the being alone in the city (Modena 10). Calvino saw the city as man-made, and therefore, humans were directly responsible for its maintenance. As a result, Calvino saw citizens as ethically and morally responsible of the city (Modena 12). Marcovaldo must bridge the gap between capitalism and reintegrating humans and nature into the new reality (Ricci 34). However, Marcovaldo cannot build a bridge between nature, man, and the city, all by himself. With the help of Marco Polo and Kublai Khan in Le città invisibili, the possibility of a renewed integration of the city with its organic components becomes a more realistic possibility.

       In Le città invisibili, the idea of the city is expanded into a global form. Calvino uses the city as a symbolic representation of an urban utopia, wherein the citizens occupy space and there is an idea of life together. Le città invisibili was championed by post modernists and was seen as a contemporary perspective on the global understanding of the city and how it connects through networks rather than a single strand. The discussion of a multiethnic and multicultural society also speaks to the urbanization of the city and its more sophisticated status. Throughout the book, Polo describes fifty-five different cities, which Kublai initially believes are truly within his empire. The cities are not discussed in terms of the racial or gendered makeup of its inhabitants, but rather through descriptions of urbanist construction and the identification of the city as a leading character. Therefore, the personification of the city provides a centre for the possibility of a renewed connection with its inhabitants. Professor Daniele Fioretti argues that Calvino’s works demonstrate that utopia could only be achieved as a mental construct, where one’s reality would be untouched by their thoughts (Fioretti 119). Whereas Professor Letizia Modena argues that Calvino’s utopianism involved the training of the imagination and requires an ethical and social stance, but still saw the possibility of a utopia (Modena 63). Through Le città invisibili, the idea of a utopia is created, but it is not absolute. Rather it exists as a possibility of the future, based on increased engagement and creativity by its citizens. This questions the balance between reality and creativity. Calvino saw the consequences of an increasingly mechanized world and the displacement between humans, nature, and the city. Rather than representing either a complete utopia or not one at all, Le città invisibili stands as an interpretation of the creativity and imagination needed to redefine humanity’s connection with the city.

       Calvino believed that the historical, literary, and artistic worlds had suffered a “trauma” since the Industrial Revolution (Ricci 33). Calvino was able to combat his anxiety with the creative approach to structuring the city as he saw it. Calvino became concerned with the increasingly industrialized world and the role of man in connection with the city (Ricci 33). Calvino defied the typical structured novel form, rather opting for a more open, mathematically crafted novella. The opening up of Calvino’s work is mirrored in his post-modernist approach to writing (Pilz 79). The structuring of the cornice (frame narrative) is as important as the book itself and is pivotal to understanding Calvino’s work. All nine chapters are preceded and followed by an exchange between Polo and Kublai Khan (Weiss 146). The dialogues between Kublai and Polo act as a “microcornici” (micro-frame narratives) that serves as an internal structure to the grander organization of the book (Pilz 112).

       Ultimately, the city has a distinct identity that was developed after the fall of fascism and through increased globalization and internationalism. The expansion of cultures and languages also plays a pivotal role in the understanding of the city and its connection to citizenship. The fifty-five cities represent the multitude of interpretations that one can have of the city. The “invisible” cities become “visible” and modern through words and language (Weiss 146). Calvino’s openness and fluidity of his writing allows for the reader to be swept away into the court of Kublai and immerse themselves in the conversations between Polo and the emperor.

       Of the fifty-five cities described by Polo, certain ones stand out as utopian visions for the future. The names of each of the cities speaks to the personification of the city. The first city, Diomira, is the first city of memory. It opens the novel and introduces the reader to the complex storytelling of Calvino. One will not find a simple description of a city in Le città invisibili, but rather a complex and unexpected description of what constructs the city (Modena 92). It is fitting to begin with a city about memory, as Polo is recollecting his memories (although they are not real) to Kublai. Diomira also represents the lasting memories of a city, as the traveller “arriva una sera di settembre, quando le giornate s’accorciano e le lampade multicolori s’accedono tutte insieme” (“arrives one September night, when the days shortened and the multicoloured lights come together”) (Le città invisibili 15). In Polo’s discourses, he makes special use of the presence of humans and their cultural impact in the cities (Modena 105). The theme of memories is again used in Zirma, where memory “ripete i segni perché la città cominci a esistere” (“repeats the signs because the city starts to exist”) (Le città invisibili 27). Calvino uses memory not to construct a person, but to create an urban structure. However, Le città invisibili is not about real memories, as Polo is creating these cities in his mind to satisfy Kublai. They are modelled on Venice, Polo’s city. This creation of a city built on memory forms the foundation of its lasting impact.

       It becomes increasingly evident that through Polo’s discussions with Kublai about the expanding Mongrol Empire that the idea of the global city begins to take form. Kublai “è straniero a ciascuno dei suoi sudditi e solo attraverso occhi e orecchi stranieri l’impero poteva manifestare la sia esistenza” (“is a foreigner to each of his subjects and only through foreign eyes and ears can the emperor manifest its [the Empire] existence”) (Le città invisibili 29). The composition of an empire on the foreignness of the emperor in relation to his subjects supports that the global city will also be built on foreignness. This sense of foreignness also speaks to the importance of emblems as a method of communication between Kublai and Polo. Emblems become a mode of conversation as well as symbol for the city. Polo had “il potere degli emblemi” (“the power of the emblems”) and was able to engage the emperor, despite not speaking his langauge (Le città invisibili 30). When Kublai and Polo first began exchanging information, their emblems, hand signals, and movements were used as a language, but as Polo became more accustomed to the Tartan language, these emblems were not required as often. Yet, as Polo was becoming more fluent in the emperors language, Kublai could not help but continue to resonate with the first symbols that Polo had used to describe the cities, as “ogni notizia su di un luogo richiamava alla mente dell’imperatore quel primo gesto o oggetto con cui il luogo era stato designato” (“every piece of information about a place recalled to the mind of the Emperor that first gesture or object with which the place had been designated”) (Le città invisibili 30). Even the use of the chessboard is symbolic to a map or atlas, which only Kublai possesses. (Pilz 91). Language and urban construction become intrinsically tied to Calvino’s construction of the imaginary city in the future.

       As the city expands into a global form, the ways of the past are replaced with more efficient mechanizations. This is such in the city of Maurilia, where visitors can “osservare certe vecchie cartoline illustrate che la rappresentano com’era prima” (“observe certain old illustrated postcards that represent how it was before”) because the cityscape has drastically changed (Le città invisibili 37). However, the inhabitants of Maurilia prefer the old city to the new, as it had “una certa grazia perduta” (“a certain lost grace”) (Le città invisibili 37). “La vecchia Maurilia provinciale” (“the old provincial Maurilia”) grows and develops and “diventata [un] metropoli” (“became a metropolis”) (Le città invisibili 37). The shift from rural to urban is expressed through this description. Realistic details did not matter to Calvino, instead he sought to use imagination to tell a story. This is evident through the use of creativity as opposed to reality to describe fifty-five fictitious cities that exist within Kublai’s empire. What mattered to Kublai was that there was “un vuoto non riempito di parole” (“a void not filled with words”) that allowed one’s imagination to run alive within this empty space (Le città invisibili 45). Kublai understands this his empire is “come un cadavere nella palude,” (“like a cadaver in the swamp”) yet at times he is also “visitato da soprassalti d’euforia” (“visited by jolts of euphoria”) which speaks to the tension between expanding a global network of cities and actually working to ensure this network is viable (Le città invisibili 65). There is falsehood to the increasing dependency on mechanization and the loss of the past.

       The only true invisible city, Bauci, exists at the centre of the atlas (Pilz 113). It has been argued by theorists that Bauci is the only city that truly deserves the name invisible (Fioretti 116). Bauci is raised from the ground by “i sottili trampoli” (“thin stilts”) and the city is “si perdono sopra le nubi” (“lost above the clouds”) (Le città invisibili 83). The inhabitants “preferiscono non scendere” (“they prefer to not come down”) and to stay in the clouds (Le città invisibili 83). His description of the “lunghe gambe da fenicottero” (“long flamingo legs”) that keeps the city of Bauci suspended in the sky adds to the use of language to create another world (Le città invisibili 83).  It is also important to note that it is the citizen’s decision to stay in the clouds. The lack of an authoritarian figure or an overreaching government speaks to the rise in postcolonial studies in the postmodern world. Kublai constructs knowledge through a normative, modernist approach, while Polo’s description of knowledge is characterized by deconstructing what he sees, or more importantly, what he does not see, “una città da cui deduco tutte le altre” (“a city from which I deduce the others”) (Pilz 112-113). Therefore, although travellers are not aware when they are approaching Bauci, the city still exists in its own utopia.

       The true testament to the excellency of Calvino’s work is in the lasting impression it has had in contemporary theories of architecture and art. In 2014, Lima-based architect Karina Puente embarked on the task of illustrating all fifty-five of Calvino’s cities described in Le città invisibili (Puente). She was inspired by the language and creativity that evoked a new dimension of urbanism. Calvino’s detailed and intrinsic descriptions of the cities acts as a learning guide for architects, historians, and literary theorists. Each new interpretation of Calvino’s work adds to a diverse understanding of what constitutes a viable city, as well as further complicating the approach to urbanism and utopia in the later twentieth century.

       Italo Calvino’s passing in 1985 marked the end of the life of a complex and interesting man. His works defy death and remain heavily debated and discussed today. Through his two literary masterpieces, Marcolvaldo and Le città invisibili, Calvino altered and revitalized the interpretation of the city. Through these two texts, Calvino outlined the hardships and struggles of city-life in the 1960s, as well as his hope for the future of the city. In Marcovaldo, Calvino expresses the anxiety that he had with the city, with the disconnect between humans and industry, and the lost closeness to nature. In Le città invisibili, he offers an outline for the creative engagements that are required to stimulate visionary thinking. His lasting impressions in the fields of history, literary theory, architecture, and art have achieved what he hoped for – an interconnected relationship between the city, people, and nature. As cities expand at increasing rates and the rolling hills of the countryside give way to towering apartment complexes, there will continue to be a remnant of the rural past in the land – and through Calvino’s literature, there will linger the hope of renewal through the written word. The increasing modernization and urbanization of the city into the later twentieth century and early twenty-first century may have alarmed Calvino, however, it is the dedication and engagement of city planners that would make his heart content.


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