Invisible Cities

By: Italo Calvino
Subject matter: Marco Polo; Kublai Khan
Rating: 5/5


Invisible Cities book cover

Invisible Cities is incredible.

Just incredible.

I had no idea what to expect going into this novel, but what I got was something that rocked my world. I’ve never read anything quite like it.This novel challenged me to imagine city after city after city, to read deeper but not miss the surface level beauty of architecture, to allow my mind to travel back and forth between the past and the present.

There’s so much to say about this book. My thoughts are jumbled.

It’s not your typical novel. The structure, as atypical as it may be, is one of the best parts of this novel. At first, it seems boring. On it’s most basic level, it’s just descriptions of literally dozens of cities, one after the other, with seemingly arbitrary chapter titles. At first I found myself wondering when it was going to change, when the plot was going to pick up, when the good stuff was gonna happen.

But man, oh man, some of the descriptions just push your imagination to its absolute limits! In the best way possible, of course. Like this one:

There is a precipice between two steep mountains: the city is over the void, bound to the two crests with ropes and chains and catwalks. … Below there is nothing for hundreds and hundreds of feet…

This is the foundation of the city: a net which serves as passage and as support. All the rest, instead of rising up, is hung below: rope ladders, hammocks, houses made like sacks, clothes hangers, terraces like gondolas, skins of water, gas jets, spits, baskets on strings, dumb-waiters, showers, trapezes and rings for children’s games, cable cars, chandeliers, pots with trailing plants.

Of course, they’re not all so fanciful (though some are even harder to imagine). But the architecture and the imaginativeness and the detail make this book worth reading, if nothing else.

But then these series of descriptions are sandwiched between conversations between Venetian explorer Marco Polo and the great Kublai Khan of the Mongol Empire.

This is where the philosophy really hits you in the face. Khan and Polo get super existential, questioning whether or not Polo’s exploits are real, cities are real, they themselves are real. These sandwich ends are short and jam packed and take a heck of a lot of critical reading, but they’re worth it.

Calvino seems to be commenting on something, a lot of things actually, but I can’t be entirely sure what. And that’s the beauty of this novel: just as each person can look at a city and seem something entirely unique, so can each person read this novel and get something entirely personal out of it. This would be a great novel for architecture students, for utopian/dystopian fiction lovers, for anyone with a half an imagination.

I encourage you to pick it up, to go for a ride in the imagination of Marco Polo, to challenge your own imagination and your own conceptions about what exists around you. It’s a beautiful and at times not-so-beautiful journey, but I think you’ll like it.

I did.




If you enjoyed Calvino’s novel, check out these suggestions: 

(for other works by Calvino)

If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino

Cosmicomics by Italo Calvino

Difficult Loves by Italo Calvino

(for other great novels about architecture)

The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

(for books about cities and improving them)

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Utopia by Thomas More

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

(for historical fiction about philosophy and travel)

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

(for themes of empire and ruling)

The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli

(for themes of Marco Polo)

The Travels of Marco Polo by Marco Polo


Coming up:

The Cay by Theodore Taylor

Changes That Heal by Henry Cloud

The Once and Future King by T. H. White

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi

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