Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino: A Journey Through the Mind

Step into the world of Italo Calvino, an Italian writer of the 20th century, and you’ll encounter a literary landscape unlike any other. Born in Cuba and raised in Italy, Calvino brings a unique global perspective to his work, incorporating elements of fantasy and imagination into his stories.

Invisible Cities, one of his most famous works, is no exception. This book takes readers on a journey through the mind and the many cities that exist within it. From the fantastical to the mundane, these cities are at once familiar and strange, reflecting the complex nature of the human psyche.

The Concept of Invisible Cities

Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities explores the idea of cities that exist not in the physical realm, but rather in the imagination and memory of the book’s characters. The concept of an “invisible city” is both metaphorical and literal, representing a space that is both created and inhabited by the mind.

The idea of an invisible city is significant for many reasons. For one, it emphasizes the power of imagination and the importance of memory. The cities in the book are not simply figments of the characters’ imaginations; rather, they are shaped by their memories and experiences. In this way, the cities represent the uniqueness of individual perspectives and the way in which our perceptions shape the world around us.

Furthermore, the concept of invisible cities highlights the fluidity and subjectivity of reality. The cities in the book are not fixed or static; they shift and change depending on the character who is observing them. This serves as a commentary on the nature of reality itself and raises questions about the relationship between perception and truth.

The Protagonists of Invisible Cities

The book features two main protagonists, Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. Polo, a Venetian explorer, recounts his travels to the emperor Kublai Khan, describing the various fantastical cities he has encountered on his journeys. Their conversations create a vivid portrait of the cities, as well as the shifting nature of memory and imagination.

In addition to the two primary characters, there are also many other figures who appear throughout the book, each offering their own unique perspective on the cities. These include a group of women who weave tapestries depicting different locales, and a sailor who has visited all the cities in the book. Each character brings their own perspective and experiences to the table, contributing to the book’s exploration of the nature of reality and perception.

The Cities of the Mind

Imagine walking through a city of thin alleys and winding stairways, where the only means of transportation is by foot and where memory and imagination collide. This is just one of the many cities that Marco Polo describes to Kublai Khan in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. The novel invites readers to explore a multitude of imaginative cities, each with its own unique qualities that fascinate and challenge the mind.

The City of Continuous Present

In this city, time appears to stand still. The residents of this city spend their days in the present, without any memory of the past or care for the future. Every moment is experienced as if it were new, creating a sense of timelessness that fascinates its visitors.

The City of the Dead

This city is inhabited entirely by the dead. The past and present coexist in this city, creating a sense of haunting beauty and melancholy. The dead are said to walk the streets, conjuring up memories of lost loved ones and forgotten times. The city is a reminder of the transience of life and the importance of cherishing the moments we have.

The City of Desire

In this city, desire is the driving force behind everything. The city is a place of excess and indulgence, where every desire can be fulfilled. However, the city is also one of frustration and disappointment, as desires are never fully satisfied. The city is a reflection of the human condition, where desire is a constant force that can bring both pleasure and pain.

These are just a few examples of the many cities encountered in Invisible Cities. Each city is a testament to Calvino’s vivid imagination, and his ability to create entire worlds out of thin air. The cities are not just physical spaces, but also symbolic representations of human experience, exploring themes such as memory, desire, and the passage of time. Through the cities of the mind, Calvino invites readers to embark on a journey of self-discovery and reflection, taking them to places they never knew existed.

Themes of Invisible Cities

Calvino’s Invisible Cities is a work of poetic prose that explores a variety of themes. From the nature of reality to the power of the imagination, the book offers a meditation on the human experience through the lens of its fantastical cities.

Memory and the Past

One of the most prominent themes in the book is memory and its relationship to the past. Throughout the stories, characters reflect on the cities they’ve visited and the experiences they’ve had, grappling with the fleeting nature of memory and its impact on their lives.

“The city does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps…”

This quote from the book highlights the way the past is present in the cities, even if it isn’t explicitly acknowledged. The characters encounter echoes of their own pasts in the people and places they encounter, and their experiences in the cities shape their understanding of themselves and the world around them.

Imagination and Creativity

Another key theme in the book is the power of the imagination. The cities presented in the book are often fantastical and surreal, showcasing the boundless possibilities of human creativity.

“These infernal cities…are places of the mind and heart; they do not exist in any real sense, yet they have a power over us that the cities of stone and steel never will.”

This quote highlights the way the cities in the book exist primarily in the imagination, and yet they still have a profound effect on the characters who encounter them. The book suggests that the human capacity for imagination and creativity is limitless, and that it has the power to shape our understanding of the world in profound ways.

The Nature of Reality

Finally, Invisible Cities is a meditation on the nature of reality itself. The book presents a world that is both familiar and strange, inviting readers to question their assumptions about what is real and what is possible.

“The inferno…is what one cannot bear to imagine.”

This quote captures the sense of disorientation and uncertainty that permeates the book. The characters encounter cities that defy conventional logic and challenge their understanding of the world, ultimately leading them to question the nature of reality itself.

Overall, Invisible Cities is a profound work of literature that invites readers to explore a variety of themes through the lens of its fantastical world. Whether grappling with loss and memory, celebrating the power of the imagination, or questioning the nature of reality itself, the book is a testament to the boundless possibilities of the human mind and spirit.

The Writing Style of Italo Calvino

Italo Calvino’s writing style is often described as poetic, imaginative, and unconventional. His prose is characterized by its lyricism and vivid imagery, which transport the reader into his fantastical worlds. Calvino’s approach to storytelling is also marked by his use of symbolism and metaphor, which add layers of meaning to his narratives.

One of the most distinctive features of Calvino’s writing is his use of unconventional narrative techniques. In Invisible Cities, for example, the traditional concept of a linear narrative is eschewed in favor of a series of interconnected vignettes, each of which presents a different city and its unique characteristics. This fragmented structure emphasizes the idea that each city exists independently of the others, while also creating a sense of spatial and temporal dislocation.

The Use of Poetic Language

Calvino’s use of poetic language is also a hallmark of his writing style. His sentences are often complex and lyrical, combining vivid imagery, metaphors, and allusions to create a sense of magic and wonder. This approach to language is particularly evident in his descriptions of the various cities in Invisible Cities, which are brought to life through his imaginative use of language.

“The city of Zaira is shaped like a leaf, with avenues like veins, streets like arteries, a central piazza that pulsates like a heart. Life in Zaira is harmonious because the city itself is harmonious.”

Through such descriptions, Calvino creates a sense of heightened reality that is both poetic and imaginative, drawing the reader into his richly imagined worlds.

The Power of Imagination

Another major theme in Calvino’s writing is the power of imagination. His stories often explore the ways in which the human mind can transform reality, shaping the world around us through the lens of our own perceptions. This is particularly evident in Invisible Cities, where the cities that Marco Polo describes are as much a reflection of his own subjective experience as they are a representation of the physical world.

“But I cannot say how much of the city I saw was actually Venice, how much the reflection of a city remembered and loved, so that my perception is fused with memories and desires and time mistakenly caresses everything in its own likeness.”

Through his exploration of the relationship between perception, memory, and imagination, Calvino creates a world that is both surreal and deeply meaningful.

Critical Reception of Invisible Cities

Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities has been praised for its imaginative vision and poetic prose, earning it a lasting place in the literary canon. Critics have noted the book’s unique structure and style, as well as its exploration of memory, imagination, and the nature of reality.

Author David Mitchell has described Invisible Cities as “one of the most beautiful books ever written,” praising its ability to transport readers to fantastical worlds. Similarly, writer Angela Carter called the book “a triumph of imagination, a masterpiece of style and a brilliance of vision.”

The book’s impact on literature extends beyond its critical acclaim, with Invisible Cities inspiring writers and artists across multiple disciplines. Its influence can be seen in the works of contemporary authors such as Haruki Murakami and Neil Gaiman, as well as in films, music, and visual art.

Despite its enduring popularity, some critics have raised questions about the book’s structure and narrative technique. Some have argued that the fragmented structure can be disorienting for readers, while others have questioned the purpose and significance of the various cities described throughout the book.

Regardless of these criticisms, Invisible Cities remains a beloved and influential work of literature, capturing readers’ imaginations and inspiring new generations of writers and artists.

The Influences on Invisible Cities

Italo Calvino has known many literary and cultural influences that helped shape both his writing and his interests. Invisible Cities, in particular, was inspired by a number of sources that Calvino both acknowledged and concealed in his writing.

The Influence of Marco Polo

At its core, Invisible Cities is a love letter to the works of Marco Polo, the 13th-century Venetian merchant and explorer whose travel memoirs inspired Calvino’s own wanderlust and sense of curiosity. In particular, Calvino was fascinated by Polo’s descriptions of the cities he encountered during his travels, and sought to capture the mystery, wonder, and complexity of these places in his own writing.

The Influence of Jorge Luis Borges

Calvino also shared a close friendship and artistic kinship with Jorge Luis Borges, the Argentine writer whose works often blurred the line between fact and fiction, and explored the metaphysical and philosophical dimensions of language and narrative. Borges’ influence can be seen in Calvino’s use of metafictional devices, such as the framing story of Marco Polo and Kublai Khan in Invisible Cities, as well as his interest in exploring the limits of language and representation.

The Influence of Italian Literature

As an Italian writer, Calvino was also deeply immersed in the literary traditions of his own country, and drew inspiration from a wide range of writers, poets, and thinkers. These included Dante Alighieri, whose epic poem The Divine Comedy provided a blueprint for Calvino’s own exploration of the afterlife in Invisible Cities; and the Italian futurists, whose celebration of technology and progress can be seen in Calvino’s fascination with the urban landscapes of his own time.

Together, these influences helped shape the unique blend of fantasy, philosophy, and poetry that characterizes Calvino’s writing, and made Invisible Cities both a tribute to the past and a celebration of the future.

The Legacy of Italo Calvino

Italo Calvino’s impact on modern literature cannot be overstated. His unique writing style and imaginative storytelling have inspired countless writers and readers alike.

One of Calvino’s most significant contributions to literature was his blending of genres, as seen in Invisible Cities. By combining elements of fiction, travel writing, and philosophy, he created a new form of narrative that continues to resonate with readers today.

The Cosmicomic Stories

Calvino’s Cosmicomic stories, published in 1965, were another groundbreaking contribution to literature. These short stories explored the history of the universe through the eyes of a narrator named Qfwfq, and touched on themes such as the nature of time, the evolution of life, and the power of imagination.

The Cosmicomic stories also showcased Calvino’s ability to fuse science and literature, a feat that few writers have been able to achieve. This unique blend of genres has inspired a new generation of writers, who continue to explore the intersection of science and art in their own work.

The Postmodern Movement

Calvino’s writing was also instrumental in shaping the postmodern movement in literature. His use of unconventional narrative techniques, such as nested stories and circular structures, challenged traditional notions of plot and character development.

This experimentation with form and structure was especially evident in Invisible Cities, where the cities themselves served as the focal point of the narrative. By emphasizing the importance of place and imagination, Calvino opened up new avenues of exploration for writers in the postmodern era.

The International Literary Scene

Calvino’s impact on the global literary scene cannot be understated. His writing has been translated into dozens of languages, and his ideas and themes continue to resonate with readers from all corners of the world.

Through his literary contributions, Calvino helped to break down barriers between cultures and foster a greater understanding of the human experience. As one of Italy’s most celebrated writers, he remains an enduring symbol of the power of the written word to connect people and ideas across time and space.


For those who have just finished reading Italo Calvino’s masterpiece, Invisible Cities, it is common to have lingering questions about the book, the author, and the themes presented therein. Here are some frequently asked questions to help clarify any confusion:

Q: What is the meaning of the title, Invisible Cities?

A: The title, Invisible Cities, refers to the cities that are described in the book. These cities are not physical places, but rather, they exist only in the minds of the characters who describe them to Marco Polo. They are cities of the imagination, and they represent the various hopes, fears, and desires of humanity.

Q: Who is the author of Invisible Cities?

A: The author of Invisible Cities is Italo Calvino, an Italian writer who is known for his experimental style and his fascination with language and storytelling. Calvino was born in Cuba in 1923 and spent most of his life in Italy. He passed away in 1985.

Q: What are some of the major themes of Invisible Cities?

A: The major themes of Invisible Cities include memory, imagination, reality, and the power of language. The book explores the ways in which we construct our understanding of the world around us, and how our perceptions are shaped by our experiences and beliefs.

Q: Is Invisible Cities based on a true story?

A: No, Invisible Cities is a work of fiction. While the book is inspired by the travels of Marco Polo and the cities he visited, the cities described in the book are purely imaginary.

Q: Why is Invisible Cities considered a postmodern novel?

A: Invisible Cities is often categorized as a postmodern novel because it eschews traditional narrative structures and blurs the lines between fiction and reality. The book also explores the ways in which language and storytelling shape our understanding of the world, a common theme in postmodern literature.

Q: Is Italo Calvino a well-known author?

A: Yes, Italo Calvino is widely regarded as one of the most important writers of the 20th century. His work has had a significant impact on modern literature, and his writing continues to inspire readers and writers alike.

Q: Is it necessary to have knowledge of Marco Polo’s travels to appreciate the book?

A: No, it is not necessary to have prior knowledge of Marco Polo’s travels to appreciate the book. While the book is inspired by Marco Polo’s travels, it is a work of fiction that stands on its own. The book is more concerned with exploring the power of the imagination and the ways in which we construct reality than with retelling Marco Polo’s story.

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