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The secret heart of the empire

The fascination of a book lies not only in what it says openly but also in what it whispers.

Specific concepts that are only hinted at or deliberately withheld are like pauses in music: have the same value as the notes.

In Italo Calvino’s ‘Invisible Cities’ there’s an empire made up of tangible things but also of things perceived, felt, and imagined.

That is to say, a complex organism comes to life in the white space that separates one word from another.

These elements present in the cities’ descriptions Marco Polo makes to the Kublai Khan constitute the reality that the Tartar emperor will never know directly.

The empire is too large and boundless, and Kublai is too old and tired to go and visit it.

Anyway, for a few days, through the foreigner’s words, the emperor will be able to reach the secret heart of his kingdom and hear it beat.

He’ll feel he owns it more than ever.


Semiotics should be every artist’s field of study: symbols and images are daily bread for artists.

Calvino knew this well.

For instance, the city is a potent symbol, and what Marco Polo describes to the Khan are living signs of the human spirit.

When Polo talks of feelings and emotions, he’s also talking about towers, walls, houses, shops and streets.


In the book, the various locations of the empire are grouped into different categories: cities ​​of memory, desire, signs, exchanges, dead, hidden, continuous, etc …

The categories are precise characteristics of those places, which can be found in every city’s aspect or minor detail.

All cities have female names.


So imagine, for a moment, that you have to describe the city where you were born or live.

To the description of the monuments or places of significant civic or artistic interest, you would add the life you see in the streets and squares, desires, expectations and fears of the men who live there and who animate it.

Cities are not built with concrete, brick, wood or marble. Cities are the embodiment of human ideals, large and small.

Indeed, it’s no coincidence that Rome is universally known as the ‘ Urbe ‘, which means the city par excellence.

Precisely as the Bible is the book par excellence.

And moreover, as the saying goes, ‘ Rome was not built in a day ‘: it takes the conditions, patience and dedication to realise a great ideal.

And perhaps eternity will not be enough since we also know Rome as the ‘ Eternal City ‘. Then…


At the end of Marco Polo’s account, Kublai Khan feels himself, for the first time, lord and master of his empire. He visualises it within himself and loves it as if it were one of his sons.

In conclusion, the chaos generated the cosmos of which our world is a part. Disorder symbolises sublime creativity.

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