The apotheosis of artifice

Giambattista Piranesi, Carcere XIV (‘The Gothic Arch’)

The Narrative of Trajan’s Column
by Italo Calvino,
translated by Martin McLaughlin.
Penguin Great Ideas 115,
Penguin Classics 2020

Just the titles of so many of these pieces are mouthwateringly attractive — ‘The Museum of Wax Monsters’, ‘The Adventures of Three Clockmakers and Three Automata’, ‘The Sculptures and the Nomads’ — and their contents don’t disappoint either. Martin McLaughlin has done a great job on the translation as far as I can tell because the sentences feel newly minted, as though directly from the hand of the author to the reader.

Except there are clues that these are not recent writings: references are made to a time before the Iranian Revolution and to a few other events that locate them firmly to a time before the author’s premature death in 1985 — he was only in his 63rd year.

But it is Calvino’s gimlet observations, marshalling of details, and philosophical reflections that render his comments eternal and paradoxically contemporary, meaning that these dozen pieces will be for me a joy to revisit at some future date.

Publishing context comes first. These twelve essays were selected from his Collezione di sabbia which first appeared the year before his death, to be copyrighted by his estate as late as 2002. Translated and published by Penguin in 2013, these dozen items were then made available in a slim volume of less than 100 pages in their Great Ideas series in 2020.

The essays are essentially either discursive reviews of books, overviews of exhibitions visited, or meditations on historic sites in Iran seen before the events of 1978. So, in order, we are given a guided tour of Paris exhibitions entitled ‘America Seen by Europe’, ‘Maps and Images of the Earth’ and ‘Dr P Spitzner’ s Great Anatomical and Ethnological Museum’; then Calvino relates his up close view of Trajan’s Column when it was covered in scaffolding. He then muses on a scholarly article about the place of graffiti in an urban environment, and another on how the city of the Roman world evolved into a different space in the Christian Middle Ages, with its different public foci.

A study of Swiss automata entitled Androids next attracts his attention, followed by The Dictionary of Imaginary Places and the National Museum of Tokyo; but it is the final three pieces — on the Islamic mihrab, the Zoroastrian perpetual flame, and the ruins of Persepolis — that he emerges from his study and the exhibition gallery to consider notions from outside which have nevertheless had huge impacts on European thinking and concepts.

I don’t know how or why these particular pieces were selected from the 38 essays in Collection of Sand, but in toto they have a logic. They range from the New World to the Old and then on to the Middle East via Japan; they deal with notional and real spaces, constructed narratives like comic strips, with artefacts such as maps, wax models, clockwork figures and swords. Calvino draws out what these spaces, narratives and objects signify, both collectively and personally, and he does it eruditely without ever, it seems to me talking down to the intelligent reader.

So he talks about the ubiquity of graffiti in Roman cities and how they differ from modern examples; he contrasts the stereotypical images of Italy produced for the tourist with the native’s view; he compares the processions in the bas-reliefs of Persepolis with lines of tourists and the journeying of nomads between the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea. The most striking image, and one which encapsulates much of what he writes here, is the mihrab, the empty niche in a mosque usually seen through a highly decorated opening, which informs the faithful of the direction of Mecca to which they turn when they pray:

[T]he idea of perfection which art pursues, the wisdom accumulated in writing, the dream of satisfying every desire that is expressed in the luxury of ornaments, all of these point towards one single meaning, celebrate one foundational principle, entail one single final object. And this is an object which does not exist. Its sole quality is that of not being there. One cannot even give it a name.

But is he correct?

This is what I thought I had understood in that distant journey of mine to Isfahan: that the most important things in the world are the empty spaces. […] What I see now from Iran are very different images: with no empty spaces, it is full of crowds shouting and gesturing in unison, darkened by the blackness of cloaks, which extends everywhere, full of a fanatical tension that knows no respite or peace. I saw nothing of all this when I was contemplating the mihrab.

Not all of the essays paint so melancholy a picture, in spite of allusions to entropy, or early explorers’ inability to recognise the new except in terms of what they’d already experienced. When Calvino discusses imaginary lands he notes that minor literary fiction can reveal “endless resources for creating poetic myths”; he ponders the great mystery that surrounds Trajan’s Column, “a column so high and totally covered in scenes that have been sculpted in minute details but cannot be seen from the ground”; and he notes our fascination with cartography as a precursor to Freudian notions of depth psychology.

Though occasionally prosaic Calvino is rarely dull, and in focusing his gaze on human artefacts — whether architecture or artworks — he give them a kind of apotheosis, not as idols on a plinth to be worshipped but as objects to contemplate and thereby consider the mystery of things.


In this leg of my European Reading Challenge I’ve visited Italy.

16 thoughts on “The apotheosis of artifice

  1. Straight onto my Wishlist. I want to read what he has to say about Trajan’s Column which has fascinated me ever since I studied it at university… where, since I could only see images from it in the book, I had formed no real concept of what it was like.

    in 2001, visiting the V&A in London for the first time since I was a child, I came across it and was dumbfounded. I recognised it immediately because I was so familiar with the bas reliefs, but could not make sense of it because it was in two halves, and anyway, I knew it was in Rome.

    #Smacks forehead Of course it was a copy, done in two halves because it could not otherwise fit into the Cast Collections gallery built especially to house it. (I found this rather triumphalist article about it, here: https://www.vam.ac.uk/articles/trajans-column)

    (I eventually saw the original in on our next trip to Europe in 2005).

    I’ve only ever read If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller, but still, I know I’m going to like these essays. Thanks for bringing this collection to my attention.

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    1. I do hope you get to read it, Lisa! Like you now I’ve seen both the original and the one in the V&A (and isn’t that a marvellous collection and resource! one of my favourite parts of the museum) and Calvino brings what he saw up close to life — though sadly the very top of the column wasn’t accessible at the time. Thanks for the link, I’ll look at that presently.

      I enjoyed Calvino’s Invisible Cities (https://wp.me/s2oNj1-invisibl) and I have a selection of his short stories with an SF flavour waiting, but found his Crossed Destinies offerings hard to get into; still, I’m hoping a return visit will see me more in the mood for them.

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    1. I’m assuming you’ve read the original collection of essays, JJ, as this selection only came out last year? And if you did, were you as taken with the essays not represented here? 🙂

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      1. I found myself in agreement with his underlying sensibilities on subjects I knew a little bit about, and so was more inclined to accept his commentary on unfamiliar topics.

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  2. I found Calvino first as the collector of Italian Folktales, and later through what were listed as his “children’s books” including Seasons in the City, The Cloven Viscount, and The Nonexistent Knight. I’ve yet to read Baron in the Trees.

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    1. Yes, the Folktales were my first acquaintance with Calvino too, weren’t they fantastic? I really want to revisit them now. Not tried his “children’s” tales, Deb, in fact I don’t think I was aware of them at all, you’ve got me intrigued now.

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  3. Ah, I love Calvino – I’ve been an addict since I read If on a winter’s night… back in my 20s. I’ve read these, but not for some time, and they’re in line for a revisit as part of my Penguin Great Ideas reading project – can’t wait….

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    1. No 115, and if you’re reading them in order, you may have a while to wait. 😀 But I must dig out that Penguin selection of short stories I started a while back before getting distracted.

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    1. I do like synchronicities like this—it feels as if there’s significance in the alignment of our reading for a brief moment, but of course it’ll be pure coincidence … still, I can savour it, as when one briefly experiences déjà-vu!

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