Never one to let mere impossibility get in the way of a good story, Italo Calvino retold Marco Polo’s tales even more extravagantly in Invisible Cities. Crucially, Calvino switched the perspective with Polo recounting his discoveries to a sceptical but entranced Kublai Khan. The premise was essentially a jumping-off point for the writer to create his own metropolises of the imagination: Tamara where everything is symbolic, Chloe the chaste city where everyone is a stranger, Adelma populated by doppelgängers of the dead, Thekla a skeleton city of scaffolding, the expanding microscopic Olinda and so on. It is a beguiling, paradoxical, poetic work and like much of Calvino’s writing fully embraces the inventive possibilities of fiction. If art is the telling of beautiful lies, he seems to be saying, then let our lies be boundless, let them alter the world around us or, failing that, the way we see the world and speak of it. It is a book to mesmerise architects as much as poets.
Darran Anderson explores the fictional metropolis and its history.