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Invisible Cities

Invisible Cities

If someone asked you to describe your hometown, what kind of details would you include? What sets your city apart from everywhere else in the world? In Italo Calvino's (1923-1985) novel Invisible Cities (1972), the characters Marco Polo and Kublai Khan discuss the attributes of 55 individual cities. Structured as a conversation between the two historical figures, Invisible Cities uses the descriptions of these fantastical cities to analyze themes like the cyclical nature of humanity and the limitations of communication and power.

Invisible Cities Structure

Invisible Cities was originally published in Italy in 1972; it was translated into English two years later. The bulk of the novel is structured as a conversation between Mongolian Emperor Kublai Khan and explorer Marco Polo. The story does not follow a strict plot line, instead revolving around the description of 55 different cities in Khan's empire.

Polo describes each of the 55 fictitious cities in the form of a brief prose poem. About every five to ten cities, Polo and Khan engage in a dialogue about the cities and their commonlaities. The chapters and themes are arranged in a highly structured, mathematical pattern, which reveals the influence of the OuLiPo movement on Calvino's work.

The OuLiPo movement began in France, under the leadership of poet Raymond Queneau and mathematician François Le Lionnais. It became a group of mathematicians and writers, who rejected spontaneity and instead favored self-restricting patterns to create stories. Calvino joined this group in 1968. OuLiPo stands for Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle (Workshop for Potential Literature).

Over the course of nine chapters, the cities form a specific structure. As Polo narrates his travels for Khan, the cities are divided into eleven thematic categories, each containing five cities named after women. The thematic groups and their cities are as follows:

  1. Cities & Memory

    • Diomira

    • Isidora

    • Zaira

    • Zora

    • Maurilia

  2. Cities & Desire

    • Dorothea

    • Anastasia

    • Despina

    • Fedora

    • Zobeide

  3. Cities & Signs

    • Tamara

    • Zirma

    • Zoe

    • Hypatia

    • Olivia

  4. Thin Cities

    • Isaura

    • Zenobia

    • Armilla

    • Sophronia

    • Octavia

  5. Trading Cities

    • Euphemia

    • Chloe

    • Eutropia

    • Ersilia

    • Esmeralda

  6. Cities & Eyes

    • Valdrada

    • Zemrude

    • Baucis

    • Phyllis

    • Moriana

  7. Cities & Names

    • Aglaura

    • Leandra

    • Pyrrha

    • Clarice

    • Irene

  8. Cities & the Dead

    • Melania

    • Adelma

    • Eusapia

    • Argia

    • Laudomia

  9. Cities & the Sky

    • Eudoxia

    • Beersheba

    • Thekla

    • Perinthia

    • Andria

  10. Continuous Cities

    • Leonia

    • Trude

    • Procopia

    • Cecilia

    • Penthesilea

  11. Hidden Cities

    • Olinda

    • Raissa

    • Marozia

    • Theodora

    • Berenice

Arriving at each new city, the traveler finds again a past of his that he did not know he had: the foreignness of what you no longer are or no longer possess lies in wait for you in foreign, unpossessed places." (Chapter 2)

This quote is part of a conversation that probably takes place in Kublai Khan's head—it is unclear if it is his head, Polo's head, or neither—instead of aloud. Khan imagines Polo saying this to explain how a traveler's identity is tied to the places they have visited. Instead of staying the same, Polo (or Khan) explains, a place completely changes a person's view of the world and going to new places means a traveler's identity and sense of the world is constantly changing.

“Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice.” (Chapter 6)

Polo says this quote after Khan gets frustrated at him for never talking about Venice, Polo's hometown." Polo responds by saying that he needs to keep an "implicit" city to be able to describe the individual qualities of all the others he has been to. To Polo, Venice is his home place, and that connects it deeply to his identity, unlike the other cities.

Invisible Cities - Key takeaways

  • Invisible Cities was written by Italo Calvino and first published in 1972.
  • The novel is structured as a conversation between Emperor Kublai Khan and explorer Marco Polo, as Polo describes cities in Khan's empire that he has visited.
  • Instead of following a chronological order, the novel is structured thematically, with 11 grouping that organize the cities based on their themes.
  • Invisible Cities consists of 55 prose poems (one for each city) and dialogue as the two men reflect on what they learn about the cities, one another, and themselves.
  • Invisible Cities is largely plotless and is much more concerned with what these fictional cities say about the human experience.

Frequently Asked Questions about Invisible Cities

Invisible Cities was written by Italian author Italo Calvino.

Invisible Cities is about a conversation between Mongol Emperor Kublai Khan and explorer Marco Polo, as they discuss different cities in Khan's vast empire. 

All 55 of the cities in Kublai Khan's empire are fictitious, but the two men briefly talk about Marco Polo's real hometown, Venice. 

Invisible Cities is a reflection on place and identity. 

Calvino's style is lyrical and postmodern, but he was also largely influenced by the OuLiPo movement, adding an element of structure to his work as shown in the highly-organized 55 cities.

Final Invisible Cities Quiz


Who wrote Invisible Cities

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Italo Calvino

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Who are the major characters in Invisible Cities?

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Kublai Khan.

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Who is Kublai Khan?

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The emperor of Mongolia and China. 

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Who is Marco Polo? 

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A Venetian explorer who works as an ambassador to Kublai Khan. 

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Why does Kublai Khan ask Marco Polo to describe his cities to him? 

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Kublai Khan worries his empire his grown too large and he is losing control.

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How many cities are included in Polo's descriptions? 

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What major barrier do Khan and Polo face in the beginning? 

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They don't speak the same language. 

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What structure does Polo use to describe each city? 

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Prose poem

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How are the cities organized in the novel? 

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11 thematic groups

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True or false: Khan trusts Polo completely as his most loyal advisor

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How do Khan and Polo communicate?

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Using objects

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What objects does Khan use in the hopes that he can organize and analyze his cities logically? 

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Chess board.

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What city does Khan accuse Polo of not talking about? 

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Venice, Polo's hometown.

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What does Khan come to realize about his empire?

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Trying to control all of the cities is futile. 

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What are some of the major themes in the novel? 

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The cyclical nature of humanity.

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