Conversation’s with a Khan: Invisible cities and Spatial Theory

Invisible cities was written in 1972, Italo Calvino’s work explores the themes of imagination and the imaginable through a dialogue between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo. The work contains a description of around fifty cities which are explored in the form of prose poems which are interspersed with conversation between Polo and the Khan. Although the poems themselves are separated into separate groups relating to numerous themes, such as death, desire and memory. The book itself was both celebrated and critiqued upon its release, with some claiming that in the work, “Calvino the mature postmodernist became exactly what he feared as a young man, that is to say, a solipsistic thinker removed from the exigencies of history’.[1] The idea imagination of any city or space is ultimately and exercise in imagining oneself is both a profound and unsettling one, however not one as divorced from the exigencies of history as literary critics might assume. Einaudi’s invisible cities in fact reflects a number of key themes and ideas touched on in spatial history and historiography, albeit in a roundabout manner. Perhaps the most telling section of the work can be found in the conversation between Polo and Kublai in the opening of chapter 6:


Dawn had broken when he said: “Sire, now I have told you about all the cities I know.”

“There is still one of which you never speak.”

Marco Polo bowed his head.

“Venice,” the Khan said.

Marco smiled. “What else do you believe I have been talking to you about?”The emperor did not tum a hair. “And yet I have never heard you mention that name.

And Polo said: “Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice.”

“When I ask you about other cities, I want to hear about them. And about Venice, when I ask you about Venice.”

“To distinguish the other cities’ qualities, I must speak of a first city that remains implicit. For me it is Venice.”[2] 


Although it may not have been Einaudi’s intention, the idea that we ultimately remain grounded in our own imagination and ideas when describing new spaces is an important warning to the historian. The problem of anachronism within history is a longstanding issue and one that historical theorists have always attempted to tackle. The idea that a description of a time or space is ultimately a reflection of the context of the person imagining was one of the key criticisms of the Historist school of historical thought. Polo’s description of his fantastical cities is flavoured by the context in which he explains them, more particularly his venetian background, which influences his ideas about cities as he explains them. All of his cities are described based on their relationship to his understanding of Venice.


Aside from more obvious historiographical tropes, the work also suggests numerous aspects of spatial theories within the poems on cities. The idea that ‘The eye does not see things but images of things that mean other things’ is certainly reminiscent of Lefebvre’s idea of representational spaces that have a system of signs and symbols that help conceptualise space.[3] Furthermore, in Cities and Signs 3, the idea that ‘In every city of the empire every building is different and set in a different order: but as soon as the stranger arrives at the unknown city and his eye penetrates the pine cone of pagodas and garrets and haymows’ has similarities to Lefebvre’s idea of representations of spaces, as spaces that can be conceptualised and that ‘the imagination seeks to change and appropriate’.[4]


Although these similarities and associations are merely speculative, the book was nonetheless an interesting reflective peace that raises important questions for the spatial historian and an important warning:


‘No one, wise Kublai, knows better than you that the city must never be confused with the words that describe it’.[5]

[1] John Welsh, ‘Erasing the Invisible Cities: Italo Calvino and the Violence of Representation’ in Working papers in Romance Languages, Vol 1 Issue 2 Summer 2007, p1.

[2] Italo Calvino, invisible Cities, (London, 1972), p86.

[3] Calvino, Cities, p13; Henri, Lefebvre, The Production of Space, (Oxford, 1991), p38.

[4] Calvino, Cities, p34; Lefebvre, Space, p39.

[5] Calvino, Cities, p61.

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