To Build a City - Thoughts on Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino


“Memory is redundant: it repeats signs so that the city can begin to exist.” Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities elucidates the reality that memories build a mind, and the mind builds a place. Calvino’s use of metaphor throughout Invisible Cities helps to bring the reader closer to the truth that one’s mind creates one’s reality.

Throughout the short novel, explorer Marco Polo describes the cities he has encountered along his travels to Mongol emperor Kublai Khan. The strange duo seems to share a mutual respect for each other’s desire to understand what makes a city. As the novel progresses, Marco Polo, telling more and more outlandish tales of cities come and gone, begins to understand the reality that cities are made by the mind and not the hands. As Polo attempts to convey this truth to Khan, the emperor tries not to understand in an attempt to save his own eroding kingdom. As Khan says to Polo, “Why do you speak to me of stones? It is only the arch that matters to me.” Polo’s response encapsulates the truth of a city when he retorts, “Without stones there is no arch.”

Marco Polo’s allusion here to the stones that build the arch is not only a reference to the people that compose a city but also the thoughts that compose a mind. Throughout the novel, Calvino makes clear that minds form a city and thoughts form a mind. One must choose to be an intentional thinker so as not to become lost like too many of Polo’s cities. As Calvino illustrates, far too many cities (and minds) are withering nets, letting all fall through until they exist no more. To hold firm one’s principles is to build an unshakeable bridge of stones that will sustain the battering weather for ages.

In Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino makes clear that a city is not a collection of buildings and streets but rather a conglomeration of people whose thoughts shape their lives and thus the city they create. We create our own realities in our minds. To truly appreciate or create a city, one must look not outside but rather within.

- Charlie, February 2022