During a lecture at Columbia University in 1983, Calvino explained that “Invisible Cities does not deal with recognisable cities. These cities are all inventions, and all bear women’s names. The book is made up of a number of short chapters, each of which is intended to give rise to a reflection which holds good for all cities or for the city in general”.
The Invisible Cities emerged in Calvino’s imagination a little at a time: his ideas and notes were organised in files which were divided by concept, and by gradually adding material, the book took shape. “The book was written while I was passing through a number of different phases. While I sometimes wrote only about sad cities, other times I could only write about happy ones. There was one period when I compared the cities to the starry sky, to the signs of the zodiac; and another when I kept writing about the garbage which spreads outside the city day by day”.
In short, what emerged was a sort of diary which kept closely to his moods and reflections.
In his lecture he specifies: “And yet, all these pages put together did not make a book: for a book (I think) is something which has a beginning and an end”.
This is why Calvino needed to add a frame to all those stories: therefore the Invisible Cities took the the form of a series of conversations between the traveller and merchant Marco Polo and the elderly and melancholic Emperor of the Tartars, Kublai Khan, who is entertained by Marco’s recounts of his journeys visiting the cities in this vast empire.
Polo entertains the Khan with tales of impossible cities which are all reflections and meditations on life. Each of the chapters which make up the book is preceded and followed by a commentary between Polo and the Khan who carefully listens to Polo’s reports and reflects on his crumbling empire. Polo recounts of fairy tale places with oriental scenarios: caravans, deserts, beautiful and mysterious women, shepherds and travellers… and one after the other, these cunning, thin, good or evil cities take shape.
However, these cities exist only in the mind of the Venetian traveller who describes these places in the most minute details but always looking where all the others are not looking, perceiving details that are invisible to others. The cities that Marco Polo talks about are created as he speaks and the Khan is not always sure whether he should believe what Polo describes and does not know to what extent the subtlety of his ambassador leads to pure invention.