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Invisible Cities


Invisible Cities

Invisible Cities
First edition
Author Italo Calvino
Original title Le città invisibili
Translator William Weaver
Cover artist René Magritte, The Castle in the Pyrenees, 1959
Country Italy
Language Italian
Publisher Giulio Einaudi
Publication date
Published in English
Media type Print (Hardcover & Paperback)
Pages 165 pp (first English edition)
ISBN ISBN 0-15-145290-3 (first English edition)
OCLC 914835
LC Class PZ3.C13956 In PQ4809.A45

Invisible Cities (Italian: Le città invisibili) is a novel by Italian writer Italo Calvino. It was published in Italy in 1972 by Giulio Einaudi Editore.


  • Description 1
  • Historical background 2
  • Structure 3
  • Awards 4
  • Opera 5
  • See also 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8


The book explores imagination and the imaginable through the descriptions of cities by an explorer, Marco Polo. The book is framed as a conversation between the aging and busy emperor Kublai Khan, who constantly has merchants coming to describe the state of his expanding and vast empire, and Polo. The majority of the book consists of brief prose poems describing 55 cities, apparently narrated by Polo. Short dialogues between the two characters are interspersed every five to ten cities and are used to discuss various ideas presented by the cities on a wide range of topics including linguistics and human nature. The book is structured around an interlocking pattern of numbered sections, while the length of each section's title graphically outlines a continuously oscillating sine wave, or perhaps a city skyline. The interludes between Khan and Polo are no less poetically constructed than the cities, and form a framing device that plays with the natural complexity of language and stories.

Marco Polo and Kublai Khan do not speak the same language. When Polo is explaining the various cities, he uses objects from the city to tell the story. The implication is that each character understands the other through their own interpretation of what they are saying. They literally are not speaking the same language, which leaves many decisions for the individual reader.

The book, because of its approach to the imaginative potentialities of cities, has been used by architects and artists to visualize how cities can be,[1] their secret folds, where the human imagination is not necessarily limited by the laws of physics or the limitations of modern urban theory. It offers an alternative approach to thinking about cities, how they are formed and how they function.

Historical background

The Travels of Marco Polo, Polo's travel diary depicting his purported journey across Asia and in Yuan Dynasty (Mongol Empire) China, written in the 13th century, shares with Invisible Cities the brief, often fantastic accounts of the cities Polo claimed to have visited, accompanied by descriptions of the city's inhabitants, notable imports and exports, and whatever interesting tales Polo had heard about the region.


Over the nine chapters, Marco describes a total of fifty-five cities. The cities are divided into eleven thematic groups of five each:

  1. Cities & Memory
  2. Cities & Desire
  3. Cities & Signs
  4. Thin Cities
  5. Trading Cities
  6. Cities & Eyes
  7. Cities & Names
  8. Cities & the Dead
  9. Cities & the Sky
  10. Continuous Cities
  11. Hidden Cities

He moves back and forth between the groups, while moving down the list, in a rigorous mathematical structure. The table below lists the cities in order of appearance, along with the group they belong to:

Chapter No. Memory Desire Signs Thin Trading Eyes Names Dead Sky Continuous Hidden
1 Diomira
2 Maurilia
3 Zobeide
4 Olivia
5 Octavia
6 Esmeralda
7 Moriana
8 Irene
9 Laudomia

In each of the nine chapters, there's an opening section and a closing section, narrating dialogues between the Khan and Marco. The descriptions of the cities lie between these two sections.


The book was nominated for the Nebula Award for Best Novel in 1976.[2]


Invisible Cities (and in particular the chapters about Isidora, Armilla, and Adelma), is the basis for an opera by composer Christopher Cerrone, first produced by The Industry[3] in October 2013 as an experimental production at Union Station in Los Angeles. In this site-specific production directed by Yuval Sharon, the performers, including eleven musicians, eight singers, and eight dancers, were located in (or moved through) different parts of the train station, while the station remained open and operating as usual. The performance could be heard by about 200 audience members, who wore wireless headphones and were allowed to move through the station at will.[4][5][6] An audio recording of the opera was released in November 2014.[7][8][9] The opera was named a finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Music.[10]

See also


  1. ^ rodcorp: Illustrated Invisible Cities
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^ Reed Johnson, "Union Station the platform for the opera 'Invisible Cities': The Industry opera company and L.A. Dance Project are presenting 'Invisible Cities' on a unique platform — Union Station train terminal — and beaming it through headphones." Los Angeles Times, October 19, 2013.
  5. ^ Mark Swed, "Review: An inward tour through 'Invisible Cities'", Los Angeles Times, October 21, 2013.
  6. ^ Jeffrey Marlow, "Is This the Opera of the Future?", Wired, October 22, 2013.
  7. ^ Jessica Gelt, "The Industry starts label, to hold free concert at Union Station", Los Angeles Times, October 2, 2014.
  8. ^ Sandra Barrera, "'Invisible Cities' is first release for The Industry’s new record label", Los Angeles Daily News, October 24, 2014.
  9. ^ Julie Baumgardner, "In a Busy Train Station, a Postmodern Opera Takes Shape", The New York Times, October 29, 2014.
  10. ^ The 2014 Pulitzer Prize Winners: Music,, April 14, 2014.

External links

  • become visibleInvisible Citiesthe
  • Invisible CitiesExcerpts from
  • Review by Jeannette Winterson
  • Italo Calvino sparks obsessions
  • - essay by John Welsh, University of VirginiaErasing the Invisible Cities
  • (Subscription Required)The New York Review of Books by Gore Vidal in Fabulous Calvino
  • The New York Times by Franco Ferrucci in Calvino's Urban Allegories
  • IllustratedInvisible Cities
  • - Portraits of the world's cities painted with soundInvisible CitiesFällt -
  • Silvestri, Paolo, "After-word. 'Invisible cities': which (good-bad) man? For which (good-bad) polity?", in P. Heritier, P. Silvestri (eds.), Good government, Governance and Human Complexity. Luigi Einaudi’s Legacy and Contemporary Society, Leo Olschki, Firenze, 2012, pp. p. 313-332.
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