Saturday, January 2, 2016

Versions of Venice, and Calvino's "Cities & Memory"

A poster-sized version of Venice recently created by my son's second grade class

The New Year holiday invites us to look backward at the past and forward to some projected future, like the Roman god Janus from which the month of January takes its name. In truth, I suppose most of us can't help but do this at all times anyway, even if we don't make a point of it, even if it's not one of the designated themes of our evening, as it may be on New Year's Eve.

Of course in Venice the past is always with us: you can quite literally trip over it, bump into it, and, in some rare architectural instances, be in danger of it falling on you. In fact, for some Italians (and not just Venetians) the very presence of the past in all its immense splendor becomes too much to bear.

A detail of the above poster
I used to know a native Florentine with a PhD in Italian Renaissance art who'd come to regard all the world-famous cultural treasures of his hometown with something like horror. They exerted an oppressive chill upon his attempts to establish his own life. So he fled to New York City and opened a contemporary art gallery in Chelsea. And though the art he showed there all hearkened back to the formal beauty of, say, Raphael rather than the conceptual aridity of Duchamp or the violence of Vienna Actionism, he used to talk about a chat he once had with Julia Roberts--and a parting kiss on the cheek she'd given him--as if it was worth more than everything Michelangelo had ever created.

In a similar vein, when Austrian forces dared to bomb Venice during World War I Italian Futurists were outraged, proclaiming that the foreigners were impinging upon the Italians' own right, privilege and necessity of destroying their own burdensome past.

Of course the relationship between the past, present, and future isn't a linear one, and doesn't simply go in one direction. Past events may (or may not) influence the present, but our present needs and wishes certainly seem to influence how we think of the past.* There are any number of versions of the past and the way anyone talks about his or her preferred one usually tells you at least as much about what they aim to accomplish in the present as it does about anything that happened in the past. Even in--or especially in--a historical place like Venice, in which the past seems so solid, it turns out to be no less malleable.

All of which is intended as something like an introduction to the short piece below from Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, translated by William Weaver and published (in the US) by Harcourt, which deftly transforms the simple two-way interplay between past and present (a simple interplay that destinations like Venice trade on) into a dazzling (and dizzying) multiplicity of versions of what we tend to think of as one and the same place.   


In Maurilia, the traveler is invited to visit the city and, at the same time, to examine some old postcards that show it as it used to be: the same identical square with a hen in the place of the bus station, a bandstand in the place of the overpass, two young ladies with white parasols in place of the munitions factory. If the traveler does not wish to disappoint the inhabitants, he must praise the postcard city and prefer it to the present one, though he must be careful to contain his regret at the changes within definite limits: admitting that the magnificence and prosperity of the metropolis Maurilia, when compared to the old, provincial Maurilia, cannot compensate for a certain lost grace, which, however, can be appreciated only now in the old post cards, whereas before, when that provincial Maurilia was before one's eyes, one saw absolutely nothing graceful and would see it even less today, if Maurilia had remained unchanged; and in any case the metropolis has the added attraction that, through what it has become, one can look back with nostalgia at what it was. 
Beware of saying to them that sometimes different cities follow one another on the same site and under the same name, born and dying without knowing one another, without communication among themselves. At times even the names of the inhabitants remain the same, and their voices' accent, and also the features of the faces; but the gods who live beneath names and above places have gone off without a word and outsiders have settled in their place. It is pointless to ask whether the new ones are better or worse than the old, since there is no connection between them, just as the old postcards don't depict Maurilia as it was, but a different city which, by chance, was called Maurilia, like this one. 


*The American novelist (and New Yorker editor) William Maxwell wrote, "in talking about the past we lie with every breath we draw."


In the US you can order a new copy of Calvino's Invisible Cities online from the Indie Bound website (a website representing independent bookstores) at:

Or, in the US or the UK, a used copy from the Biblio website:


  1. I have just returned from a visit to the village where I was born and spent an idyllic childhood. The village shop has gone as has the watermill. The farm houses are converted into apartments and the farmyards into housing estates. I suffered a severe bout of melancholia wandering around but then realised it was only my past and no-one else's that I was missing. The village as it is will one day be someone's past memory.

    1. True, Andrew, but in spite of what Calvino suggests in the little tale above and the wisdom of your own position, I still find myself thinking in terms of "better" and "worse." But I suppose that once we leave the individual behind--and leave behind what mattered to us personally in our own lives--then the whole question of what counts as progress gets very complicated. I still can't even figure out, to give just one Venetian example, whether it's a good or bad sign that, according to an older Venetian friend, Venetians no longer have any interest in the very early hours of, say, the Rialto fish sellers, many of whose assistants were born abroad (as no young Venetians will do the work).