One morning many years ago I awoke in a small rented room in the hilltop town of Montepulciano, Italy. I opened the wooden windows of my room, high up in an old building built into the city walls with a view across the Tuscan countryside stretching out below. In the morning air I could see a flock of swallows lazily circling the city walls, emitting their sad melody, as Dante calls it.
It was the summer before I planned to begin graduate work at UC Berkeley. I had gone to Italy on the advice of my beloved professor, the late Donald Carne-Ross, with whom I studied classical Greek and Italian. Carne-Ross, an Oxford man and a genuine polyglot, had been a producer on the old BBC’s Third Programme, in the days when scheduling talks by Bertrand Russell or doing a radio play of a new translation of Euripides seemed appropriate fare for a mass audience.
“Now Crim,” Carne-Ross asked me at one point in my senior year, “your plan is to study comparative literature—that’s to say, European languages–and you’ve not yet been to Europe?” He suggested I save up some money for the trip by living on a friend’s couch for a while, and then after arriving I should rent a series of rooms with local families, many of whom who lost a member in the Second World War. “You won’t need much money,” he further advised, perhaps remembering his own experiences in the post-war Italy of the 1950s. “People don’t starve in Italy. At least, not people one knows.”
By early summer that year I was in Tuscany and, as my mentor had recommended, I was strolling the piazzas of several of the many beautiful hilltowns attempting to get a feeling for, as he put it, “this big word, civilization.”
Among the many beautiful townscapes, the piazza of Siena stands out in my memory. Especially with the Sienese families out taking a passeggiata (a stroll) in the late afternoon around the square. Ah, I thought to myself, now I see: this is civilization. Che bella cosa!
That summer I spent time in Florence, Venice and Rome, with side trips to Arezzo, Rimini and elsewhere, in a kind of architectural and cultural swoon. I bought a few cheap reproductions of Piranesi etchings and went on to discover the joys of Verdi, Cesare Pavese, Fellini and the magical realist, Italo Calvino.
I mention Calvino because of his fabulistic novella Invisible Cities, an imagined conversation between Venetian traveller Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. Seated in the emperor’s garden, Polo relates his experience of some 55 cities throughout the empire, places with names like Zenobia, Eusapia, Leonia, Thekla, Diomira. The effect is a kind of Scheherazade of imagined cityscapes.
Here is the opening of the description of Hypatia:
Of all the changes of language a traveller in distant lands must face, none equals that which awaits him in Hypatia, because the change regards not words, but things. I entered Hypatia one morning, a magnolia garden was reflected in blue lagoons, I walked among the hedges, sure I would discover young and beautiful ladies bathing; but at the bottom of the water, crabs were biting the eyes of the suicides, stones tied around their necks, their hair green with seaweed…
Then there is the curious city of Berenice:
I should not tell you of Berenice, the unjust city, which crowns with triglyphs, abaci, metopes the gears of its meat-grinding machines (the men assigned to polishing, when they raise their chins over the balustrades and contemplate the atria, stairways, porticos, feel even more imprisoned and short of stature). Instead, I should tell you of the hidden Berenice, the city of the just, handling makeshift materials in the shadowy rooms behind the shops and beneath the stairs, linking a network of wires and pipes and pulleys an pistons and counterweights that infiltrates like a climbing plant among the great cogged wheels (when they jam, a subdued ticking gives warning that a new precision mechanism is governing the city)…
And Zora, “a city that no one, having seen it, can forget…The man who knows by heart how Zora is made, if he is unable to sleep at night, can imagine he is walking along the streets and he remembers the order by which the copper clock follows the barber’s striped awning, then the fountain with the nine jets, the astronomer’s glass tower, the melon vendor’s kiosk, the statue of the hermit and the lion, the Turkish bath, the café at the corner, the alley that leads to the harbor…”
Is this a journey in memory only, the Khan asks Polo? Are these cities merely jumbled recollections of Polo’s native Venice? Somehow the emperor doesn’t really care but only demands of Polo more of these dream landscapes:
When a man rides for a long time through wild regions he feels the desire for a city. Finally he comes to Isadora, a city where the buildings have spiral staircases encrusted with spiral seashells, where perfect telescopes and violins are made, where the foreigner hesitating between two women always encounters a third…
Echoes of Jorge Luis Borges, Dante, perhaps even M.C. Escher’s drawings all come to mind at various points in these pages. Yet Calvino, a deeply European figure, allows another theme to be heard—that of imperial decline—as in this lovely authorial interlude:
There is a sense of emptiness that comes over us at evening, with the odor of the elephants after the rain and the sandalwood ashes growing cold in the braziers, a dizziness that makes rivers and mountains tremble on the fallow curves of the planispheres where they are portrayed, and rolls up, one after the other, the dispatches announcing to us the collapse of the last enemy troops, from defeat to defeat, and flakes the wax of the seals of obscure kings who beseech our armies’ protection, offering in exchange annual tributes of precious metals, tanned hides, and tortoise shells.
It is the desperate moment when we discover that this empire, which had seemed to us the sum of all wonders, is an endless, formless ruin, that corruption’s gangrene has spread too far to be healed by our scepter, that the triumph over enemy sovereigns has made us the heirs of their long undoing. Only in Marco Polo’s accounts was Kublai Khan able to discern, through the walls and towers destined to crumble, the tracery of a pattern so subtle it could escape the termites’ gnawing.
As Kublai Khan might have asked, in these imagined pages do we dream? Or do we in some way finally wake?