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sixty silver domes, bronze statues of all the gods, streets paved with lead, a crystal theatre, a golden cock that crowns each morning on a tower. All these beauties will already be familiar to the visitor, who has seen them also in other cities. But the special quality of this city for the man who arrives there on a September evening, when the days are growing shorter and the multicoloured lamps are lighted all at once at the doors of the food stalls and from a terrace a woman’s voice cries ooh!, is that he feels envy toward those who now believe they have once before lived an evening identical to this and who think they were happy, that time.1 Italo Calvino In Invisible Cities, Marco Polo offers images of intangible places to the Chinese emperor Kublai Khan as a merchant may offer goods to a traveller. Italo Calvino’s text is suffused with scent, light and sound, as well as sometimes having the density of soot or a dust cloud. It brims with bergamot, amethysts and astrolabes; bags of candied fruit, date wine and tobacco leaves; potato peels, broken umbrellas and old socks; zinc scales, aluminium towers and tiled courts… This abundance of objects, materials and constructions acts not so much as a foil to subjective responses to the fabric of these places, but is at the core of the subject’s experience (both within the text and by the reader). Without going into a possible allegorical reading of Invisible Cities, or its complex literary structure, the text is of interest in the context of a discussion of ‘things’. It shows the impact of the material world, albeit a fantastic one, on human experience, and it explores and comments on the relationship between ‘things’ and ‘words’. If seen as a metaphorical text, it shows a passage between concrete entities and abstract concepts.
Calvino, Italo. Invisible Cities, trans. William Weaver. London: Vintage, 1997, p. 6.