‘Invisible Cities’: between real and imagined urban spaces

Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.

Invisible Cities is a utopian novel by Italo Calvino that is considered a masterpiece for its unique approach and structure. The novel is based on an imaginary dialogue between the Venetian explorer Marco Polo and the Tartar Emperor Kublai Khan. The ruler finds himself overwhelmed by the expansiveness of its Eurasian empire and by the fact that he never visited many parts of it – an allegory of the frugality of power and the anxieties that it causes. Marco Polo becomes the voice of the empire’s vastness: he describes 55 fictional cities that he visited during his travels in the Khan’s reign. The cities are divided into categories that function as a map for the imaginary journey that the two characters embark on throughout the book, an out-of-time adventure that explores human nature, aspirations and dreams using cities as paradoxes.

While re-reading this classic I pictured in my head the mythical cities that Calvino describes and compared them to real ones.

Here are my associations between real and imagined urban spaces that capture the essence of human experiences. The cities described by Marco Polo are in fact invisible because they are imagined. However, they represent primordial types of “human aggregations”.

EUPHEMIA – trading cities

Marco Polo describes Euphemia as a city where people don’t exchange just goods, but mostly ideas, feelings, and emotions that take different forms – and names – when expressed by the diverse population. Euphemia reminds me of 1920s Shanghai. At the time the port was not just a showcase of modern technologies and a commercial hub that accounted for half of the exports and imports of China; most importantly, Shanghai was a centre of intellectual discourse and a centre of global interactions. It was the place where new and old ideas fused and generated a diverse environment that fomented new intellectual currents. Those ultimately challenged traditionalism and conceived new ways of being a urbanite and a citizen, one result was the foundation of the Communist Party in 1921.

 You do not come to Euphemia only to buy and sell, but also because at night, by the fires all around the market, seated on sacks or barrels or stretched out on piles of carpets, at each word that one man says – such as “wolf”, “sister”, “hidden treasure”, “battle”, “scabies”, “lovers” – the others tell, each one, his tale of wolves, sisters, treasures, scabies, lovers, battles.

Euphemia ultimately represents the essence of trading urban centres in connecting people and ideas, rather than just goods.

FEDORA – cities and desire

Marco Polo describes fedora –city of desire – as a grey stone metropolis. In its heart, stands a building with a crystal globe in each room. Every globe represents a different version of Fedora, the forms that the city could have taken if it had not become what it is. In every stage of Fedora’s history people imagined and desired a new version of the city. However, while they were planning ways to change it, Fedora was already changing too fast for the plans to be realized. The globes are conserved in the city as they represent the world of possibilities and desires that did not realize and ultimately resulted in the present city. Fedora reminds me of contemporary Metro Manila. The city was planned by different entities in many stages of its modern history; however rapid urbanization and the government’s inability to quickly cope with the diverse demands for infrastructural developments and social needs resulted in a largely unplanned urban area. The parallel between Fedora and Metro Manila also reveals another perspective on cities and desires. Cities represent for many migrants the ideal place to realize their dreams and improve their lives by looking for new opportunities. In many cases, however, these aspirations are crashed by the harsh reality of ‘big cities’, where the lack of affordable housing and equal opportunities can reverse their idealistic perception.

On the map of your empire, O Great Khan, there must be room both for the big, stone Fedora and the little Fedoras in glass globes. Not because they are all equally real, but because all are only assumptions. The one contains what is accepted as necessary when it is not yet so; the others, what is imagined as possible and, a moment later, is possible no longer.


Quotes’ Reference: Calvino, Italo. Invisible cities. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1978.

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