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.