Invisible Cities Illustrated: Three Artists Paint Every City in Italo Calvino’s Classic Novel


The medieval trav­el­ogue presents present-day writ­ers and artists with an abun­dance of mate­r­i­al. Writ­ing in an age when the bound­aries between fic­tion and non- were not so sharply drawn, ear­ly explor­ers and sailors had lit­tle com­punc­tion about embell­ish­ing their tales with exag­ger­a­tions and out­right lies. Trav­el­ers cir­cu­lat­ed sto­ries of giants and mon­sters and cred­u­lous read­ers back home swal­lowed them whole. Well, some­times. In the case of the most famed medieval trav­el­er, Mar­co Polo, schol­ars have debat­ed whether Il Mil­ione—one of the titles of a nar­ra­tive based on his accounts—refers to a fam­i­ly nick­name or to Polo’s rep­u­ta­tion for telling “a mil­lion lies.” But whether Polo told the truth or not hard­ly mat­tered to Ita­lo Calvi­no, who found in the explorer’s col­or­ful tales just the inspi­ra­tion he need­ed for his 1972 nov­el Invis­i­ble Cities.

Cities-Irene Kuth

More a series of vignettes than a nar­ra­tive, the book con­sists of chap­ter after chap­ter of Polo describ­ing for Kublai Khan the var­i­ous cities he encoun­tered on his trav­els, each one more fan­tas­tic and mag­i­cal than the last. “Kublai Khan does not nec­es­sar­i­ly believe every­thing Mar­co Polo says,” Calvi­no tells us in his intro­duc­tion, “but the emper­or of the Tar­tars does con­tin­ue lis­ten­ing to the young Venet­ian with greater atten­tion and curios­i­ty than he shows any oth­er mes­sen­ger or explor­er of his.” As read­ers, we too lis­ten with rapt atten­tion to curi­ous sto­ries of cities like Olin­da, which “grows in con­cen­tric cir­cles, like tree trunks which each year add one more ring” and Eusapia, where “the inhab­i­tants have con­struct­ed an iden­ti­cal copy of their city, under­ground,” so that the dead can “con­tin­ue their for­mer activ­i­ties.”

Cities-Beersheba Connor

Play­ing on the bizarre nature of trav­el­ers’ tales and the imag­i­na­tive excess­es of exot­ic romances, Calvino’s nov­el abounds in delight­ful archi­tec­tur­al absur­di­ties and puz­zling alle­gories, almost demand­ing to be illu­mi­nat­ed like a medieval man­u­script. Decid­ing to meet the chal­lenge, artists Matt Kish, Leighton Con­nor, Joe Kuth began illus­trat­ing Invis­i­ble Cities in April of 2014. Their tum­blr, See­ing Calvi­no, updates every Wednes­day with a new inter­pre­ta­tion of the novel’s many strange cities. At the top of the post, see “Thekla,” the “city for­ev­er under con­struc­tion,” by Kish. Below it, Kuth’s imag­in­ing of “Irene,” the “name for a city in the dis­tance, and if you approach it, it changes.” And just above, Connor’s inter­pre­ta­tion of “Beer­she­ba,” in which it is believed that “sus­pend­ed in the heav­ens, there exists anoth­er Beer­she­ba … They also believe, these inhab­i­tants, that anoth­er Beer­she­ba exists under­ground.”

Cities-Adelma Kish

See­ing Calvi­no isn’t Kish’s first for­ay into lit­er­ary illus­tra­tion. Pre­vi­ous­ly, he under­took an illus­tra­tion of every page of Melville’s Moby Dick, an impres­sive effort we fea­tured last week. (Above, see anoth­er of his Invis­i­ble Cities pieces, “Adel­ma.”) Of the new, col­lab­o­ra­tive Calvi­no project, Kish tells us, “the episod­ic struc­ture real­ly appealed to us and we thought it was the per­fect kind of thing to build a tum­blr around and share with peo­ple.”

Invis­i­ble Cities has been fas­ci­nat­ing to cre­ate… each of us brings a very dif­fer­ent approach to the work. Joe’s Cities tend to be far more lit­er­al, real­is­tic and rep­re­sen­ta­tion­al, which I find kind of stag­ger­ing because that is so dif­fi­cult to do with Calvi­no. My illus­tra­tions are far more abstract and con­cep­tu­al, try­ing to show in sym­bol­ic ways the ideas behind each chap­ter. Leighton falls some­where between us on that spec­trum, and his work has ele­ments of real­ism and abstrac­tion. None of us even talked about this before we start­ed, we sim­ply began inde­pen­dent­ly (after set­tling on a rota­tion) and watched each oth­er’s work evolve.

The three artists of See­ing Calvi­no have to date paint­ed 45 of the 56 cities in Calvino’s nov­el. Kish has also illus­trat­ed Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Dark­ness, and his blog fea­tures many oth­er graph­ic inter­pre­ta­tions of lit­er­ary and cin­e­mat­ic works. The Moby Dick project saw pub­li­ca­tion as a book in 2011. We can only hope that Calvino’s pub­lish­er sees the val­ue of an Invis­i­ble Cities edi­tion incor­po­rat­ing Kish, Kuth, and Connor’s illus­tra­tions.

You can vis­it See­ing Calvi­no here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

An Illus­tra­tion of Every Page of Her­man Melville’s Moby Dick

Hear Ita­lo Calvi­no Read Selec­tions From Invis­i­ble Cities, Mr. Palo­mar & Oth­er Enchant­i­ng Fic­tions

Expe­ri­ence Invis­i­ble Cities, an Inno­v­a­tive, Ita­lo Calvi­no-Inspired Opera Staged in LA’s Union Sta­tion

Watch a Whim­si­cal Ani­ma­tion of Ita­lo Calvino’s Short Sto­ry “The Dis­tance of the Moon”

Ita­lo Calvi­no Offers 14 Rea­sons We Should Read the Clas­sics

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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