Kublai Khan does not necessarily believe everything Marco
Polo says when he describes the cities visited on his expeditions,
but the emperor of the Tartars does continue listening
to the young Venetian with greater attention and curiosity
than he shows any other messenger or explorer of his. In the
lives of emperors there is a moment which follows pride in
the boundiess extension of the territories we have conquered,
and the melancholy and relief of knowing we shall soon
give up any thought of knowing and understanding them.
There is a sense of emptiness that comes over us at evening,
with the odor of the elephants after the rain and the sandalwood
ashes growing cold in the braziers, a dizziness that
makes rivers and mountains tremble on the fallow curves of
the planispheres where they are portrayed, and rolls up, one
after the other, the despatches announcing to us the collapse
of the last enemy troops, from defeat to defeat, and flakes
the wax of the seals of obscure kings who beseech our
armies' protection, offering in exchange annual tributes of
precious metals, tanned hides, and tortoise shell. It is the
desperate moment when we discover that this empire, which
had seemed to us the sum of all wonders, is an endless,
formless ruin, that corruption's gangrene has spread too far
to be healed by our scepter, that the triumph over enemy
sovereigns has made us the heirs of their long undoing.
Only in Marco Polo's accounts was Kublai Khan able to
discern, through the walls and towers destined to crumble,
the tracery of a pattern so subtle it could escape the termites'
Leaving there and proceeding for three days toward
the east, you reach Diomira, a city with sixty silver
domes, bronze statues of all the gods, streets paved
with lead, a crystal theater, a golden cock that crows
each morning on a tower. All these beauties will already
be familiar to the visitor, who has seen them
also in other cities. But the special quality of this
city for the man who arrives there on a September
evening, when the days are growing shorter and the
multicolored lamps are lighted all at once at the
doors of the food stalls and from a terrace a woman's
voice cries ooh!, is that he feels envy toward those
who now believe they have once before lived an evening
identical to this and who think they were happy, that time.
When a man rides a long time through wild regions
he feels the desire for a city. Finally he comes to
Isidora, a city where the buildings have spiral staircases
encrusted with spiral seashells, where perfect
telescopes and violins are made, where the foreigner
hesitating between two women always encounters a
third, where cockfights degenerate into bloody
brawls among the bettors. He was thinking of all
these things when he desired a city. Isidora, therefore,
is the city of his dreams: with one difference.
The dreamed-of city contained him as a young man;
he arrives at Isidora in his old age. In the square
there is the wall where the old men sit and watch the
young go by; he is seated in a row with them. Desires
are already memories.
There are two ways of describing the city of
Dorothea: you can say that four aluminum towers
rise from its walls flanking seven gates with springoperated
drawbridges that span the moat whose
water feeds four green canals which cross the city,
dividing it into nine quarters, each with three
hundred houses and seven hundred chimneys. And
bearing in mind that the nubile girls of each quarter
marry youths of other quarters and their parents exchange
the goods that each family holds in monopoly-
bergamot, sturgeon roe, astrolabes, amethysts--
you can then work from these facts until you
learn everything you wish about the city in the past,
present, and future. Or else you can say, like the
camel driver who took me there: "I arrived here in
my first youth, one morning, many people were hurrying
along the streets toward the market, the
women had fine teeth and looked you straight in the
eye, three soldiers on a platform played the trumpet,
and all around wheels turned and colored banners
fluttered in the wind. Before then I had known only
the desert and the caravan routes. In the years that
followed, my eyes returned to contemplate the desert
expanses and the caravan routes; but now I know this
path is only one of the many that opened before me
on that morning in Dorothea."
In vain, great-hearted Kublai, shall I attempt to
describe Zaira, city of high bastions. I could tell you
how many steps make up the streets rising like stair-
ways, and the degree of the arcades' curves, and what
kind of zinc scales cover the roofs; but I already
know this would be the same as telling you nothing.
The city does not consist of this, but of relationships
between the measurements of its space and the events
of its past: the height of a lamppost and the distance
from the ground of a hanged usurper's swaying feet;
the line strung from the lamppost to the railing opposite
and the festoons that decorate the course of the
queen's nuptial procession; the height of that railing
and the leap of the adulterer who climbed over it at
dawn; the tilt of a guttering and a cat's progress
along it as he slips into the same window; the firing
range of a gunboat which has suddenly appeared
beyond the cape and the bomb that destroys the gut-
tering; the rips in the fish net and the three old men
seated on the dock mending nets and telling each
other for the hundredth time the Story of the gun-
boat of the usurper, who some say was the queen's
illegitimate son, abandoned in his swaddling clothes there
on the dock.
As this wave from memories flows in, the city
soaks it up like a sponge and expands. A description
of Zaira as it is today should contain all Zaira's past.
The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains
it like the lines of a hand, written in the
corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows,
the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning
rods, the poles of the flags, every segment
marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls.
At the end of three days, moving southward, you
come upon Anastasia, a city with concentric canals
watering it and kites flying over it. I should now list
the wares that can profitably be bought here: agate,
onyx, chrysoprase, and other varieties of chalcedony;
I should praise the flesh of the golden pheasant
cooked here over fires of seasoned cherry wood and
sprinkled with much sweet marjoram; and tell of the
women I have seen bathing in the pool of a garden
and who sometimes-it is said-invite the stranger
to disrobe with them and chase them in the water.
But with all this, I would not be telling you the
city's true essence; for while the description of Anastasia
awakens desires one at a time only to force you
to stifle them, when you are in the heart of Anastasia
one morning your desires waken all at once and surround
you. The city appears to you as a whole where
no desire is lost and of which you are a part, and
since it enjoys everything you do not enjoy, you can
do nothing but inhabit this desire and be content.
Such is the power, sometimes called malignant,
sometimes benign, that Anastasia, the treacherous
city, possesses; if for eight hours a day you work as a
cutter of agate, onyx, chrysoprase, your labor which
gives form to desire takes from desire its form, and
you believe you are enjoying Anastasia wholly when
you are only its slave.
You walk for days among trees and among stones.
Rarely does the eye light on a thing, and then only
when it has recognized that thing as the sign of
another thing: a print in the sand indicates the
tiger's passage; a marsh announces a vein of water;
the hibiscus flower, the end of winter. All the rest is
silent and interchangeable; trees and stones are only
what they are.
Finally the journey leads to the city of Tamara.
You penetrate it along streets thick with signboards
jutting from the walls. The eye does not see things
but images of things that mean other things: pincers
point out the tooth-drawer's house; a tankard, the
tavern; halberds, the barracks; scales, the grocer's.
Statues and shields depict lions, dolphins, towers,
stars: a sign that something--who knows what--has
as its sign a lion or a dolphin or a tower or a star.
Other signals warn of what is forbidden in a given
place (to enter the alley with wagons, to urinate
behind the kiosk, to fish with your pole from the
bridge) and what is allowed (watering zebras, playing
bowls, burning relatives' corpses). From the doors
of the temples the gods' statues are seen, each portrayed
with his attributes--the cornucopia, the hourglass,
the medusa--so that the worshiper can recognize
them and address his prayers correctly. If a
building has no signboard or figure, its very form
and the position it occupies in the city's order suffice
to indicate its function: the palace, the prison, the
mint, the Pythagorean school, the brothel. The
wares, too, which the vendors display on their stalls
are valuable not in themselves but as signs of other
things: the embroidered headband stands for elegance;
the gilded palanquin, power; the volumes of
Averroes, learning; the ankle bracelet, voluptuousness.
Your gaze scans the streets as if they were written
pages: the city says everything you must think,
makes you repeat her discourse, and while you believe
you are visiting Tamara you are only recording
the names with which she defines herself and all her
However the city may really be, beneath this thick
coating of signs, whatever it may contain or conceal,
you leave Tamara without having discovered it. Outside,
the land stretches, empty, to the horizon; the
sky opens, with speeding clouds. In the shape that
chance and wind give the clouds, you are already intent
on recognizing figures: a sailing ship, a hand, an
Beyond six rivers and three mountain ranges rises
Zora, a city that no one, having seen it, can forget.
But not because, like other memorable cities, it
leaves an unusual image in your recollections. Zora
has the quality of remaining in your memory point
by point, in its succession of streets, of houses along
the streets, and of doors and windows in the houses,
though nothing in them possesses a special beauty or
rarity. Zora's secret lies in the way your gaze runs
over patterns following one another as in a musical
score where not a note can be altered or displaced.
The man who knows by heart how Zora is made, if
he is unable to sleep at night, can imagine he is
walking along the streets and he remembers the
order by which the copper clock follows the barber's
striped awning, then the fountain with the nine jets,
the astronomer's glass tower, the melon vendor's
kiosk, the statue of the hermit and the lion, the
Turkish bath, the cafe at the comer, the alley that
leads to the harbor. This city which cannot be expunged
from the mind is like an armature, a honey-comb
in whose cells each of us can place the things
he wants to remember: names of famous men, virtues,
numbers, vegetable and mineral classifications,
dates of battles, constellations, parts of speech. Between
each idea and each point of the itinerary an affinity
or a contrast can be established, serving as an
immediate aid to memory. So the world's most
learned men are those who have memorized Zora.
But in vain I set out to visit the city: forced to
remain motionless and always the same, in order to
be more easily remembered, Zora has languished,
disintegrated, disappeared. The earth has forgotten
Despina can be reached in two ways: by ship or by
camel. The city displays one face to the traveler arriving
overland and a different one to him who arrives
When the camel driver sees, at the horizon of the
tableland, the pinnacles of the skyscrapers come into
view, the radar antennae, the white and red windsocks
flapping, the chimneys belching smoke, he
thinks of a ship; he knows it is a city, but he thinks
of it as a vessel that will take him away from the
desert, a windjammer about to cast off, with the
breeze already swelling the sails, not yet unfurled, or
a steamboat with its boiler vibrating in the iron keel;
and he thinks of all the ports, the foreign merchandise
the cranes unload on the docks, the taverns
where crews of different flags break bottles over one
another's heads, the lighted, ground-floor windows,
each with a woman combing her hair.
In the coastline's haze, the sailor discerns the
form of a camel's withers, an embroidered saddle with
glittering fringe between two spotted humps, advancing
and swaying; he knows it is a city, but he thinks of it
as a camel from whose pack hang wineskins and bags
of candied fruit, date wine, tobacco leaves, and already
he sees himself at the head of a long caravan taking
him away from the desert of the jagged shade, toward
palaces of thick, whitewashed walls, tiled courts where
girls are dancing barefoot, moving their arms, half-hidden
by their veils, and half-revealed.
Each city receives its form from the desert it
opposes; and so the camel driver and the sailor see
Despina, a border city between two deserts.
Travelers return from the city of Zirma with distinct
memories: a blind black man shouting in the crowd,
a lunatic teetering on a skyscraper's cornice, a girl
walking with a puma on a leash. Actually many of
the blind men who tap their canes on Zirma's cobble-
stones are black; in every skyscraper there is some-
one going mad; all lunatics spend hours on cornices;
there is no puma that some girl does not raise, as a
whim. The city is redundant: it repeats itself so that
something will stick in the mind.
I too am returning from Zirma: my memory in-
cludes dirigibles flying in all directions, at window
level; streets of shops where tattoos are drawn on
sailors' skin; underground trains crammed with obese
women suffering from the humidity. My traveling
companions, on the other hand, swear they saw only
one dirigible hovering among the city's spires, only
one tattoo artist arranging needles and inks and
pierced patterns on his bench, only one fat woman
fanning herself on a train's platform. Memory is re-
dundant: it repeats signs so that the city can begin
Isaura, city of the thousand wells, is said to rise over
a deep, subterranean lake. On all sides, wherever the
inhabitants dig long vertical holes in the ground,
they succeed in drawing up water, as far as the city
extends, and no farther. Its green border repeats the
dark outline of the buried lake; an invisible landscape
conditions the visible one; everything that
moves in the sunlight is driven by the lapping wave
enclosed beneath the rock's calcareous sky.
Consequently two forms of religion exist in Isaura.
The city's gods, according to some people, live in
the depths, in the black lake that feeds the underground
streams. According to others, the gods live in the buckets
that rise, suspended from a cable, as they appear over the
edge of the wells, in the revolving pulleys, in the windlasses
of the norias, in the pump handles. in the blades of the
windmills that draw the water up from the drillings, in the
trestles that support the twisting probes, in the reservoirs
perched on stilts over the roofs. in the slender
arches of the aqueducts, in all the columns of water,
the vertical pipes, the plungers, the drains, all the
way up to the weathercocks that surmount the airy
scaffoldings of Isaura, a city that moves entirely upward
Sent off to inspect the remote provinces, the Great Khan's
envoys and tax-collectors duly returned to Kai-ping-fu and
to the gardens of magnolias in whose shade Kublai strolled,
listening to their long reports. The ambassadors were Persians,
Armenians, Syrians, Copts, Turkomans; the emperor
is he who is a foreigner to each of his subjects, and
only through foreign eyes and ears could the empire manifest
its existence to Kublai. In languages incomprehensible to
the Khan, the envoys related information heard in languages
incomprehensible to them: from this opaque, dense
stridor emerged the revenues received by the imperial treasury,
the first and last names of officials dismissed and
decapitated, the dimensions of the canals that the narrow
rivers fed in times of drought. But when the young Venetian
made his report, a different communication was established
between him and the emperor. Newly arrived and
totally ignorant of the Levantine languages, Marco Polo
could express himself only with gestures, leaps, cries of
wonder and of horror, animal barkings or hootings, or
with objects he took from his knapsacks--ostrich plumes,
pea-shooters, quartzes--which he arranged in front of him
like chessmen. Returning from the missions on which Kuhlai
sent him, the ingenious foreigner improvised pantomimes
that the sovereign had to interpret: one city was depicted by
the leap of a fish escaping the cormorant's beak to fall into
a net; another city by a naked man running through fire
unscorched; a third by a skull, its teeth green with mold,
clenching a round, white pearl. The Great Khan deciphered
the signs, but the connection between them and the
places visited remained uncertain; he never knew whether
Marco wished to enact an adventure that had befallen him
on his journey, an exploit of the city's founder, the prophecy
of an astrologer, a rebus or a charade to indicate a name.
But, obscure or obvious as it might be, everything Marco
displayed had the power of emblems, which, once seen, cann
ot be forgotten or confined. In the Khan's mind the empire
was reflected in a desert of labile and interchangeable data,
like grains of sand, from which there appeared, for each
city and province, the figures evoked by the Venetian's
As the seasons passed and his missions continued,
Marco mastered the Tartar language and the national idioms
and tribal dialects. Now his accounts were the most precise
and detailed that the Great Khan could wish and there was
no question or curiosity which they did not satisfy. And yet
each piece of information about a place recalled to the em-
peror's mind that first gesture or object with which Marco
had designated the place. The new fact received a meaning
from that emblem and also added to the emblem a new
meaning. Perhaps, Kublai thought, the empire is nothing
but a zodiac of the mind's phantasms.
"On the day when I know all the emblems," he asked
Marco, "shall I be able to possess my empire, at last?"
And the Venetian answered: "Sire, do not believe it.
On that day you will be an emblem among emblems."
"The other ambassadors warn me of famines. extortions.
conspiracies, or else they inform me of newly discovered
turquoise mines, advantageous prices in marten furs, suggestions
for supplying damascened blades. And you?" the Great Khan
asked Polo. "you return from lands equally distant and you can
tell me only the thoughts that come to a man who sits on his
doorstep at evening to enjoy the cool air. What is the use, then,
of all your traveling?"
"It is evening. We are seated on the steps of your palace.
There is a slight breeze." Marco Polo answered. "Whatever
country my words may evoke around you. you will see
it from such a vantage point. even if instead of the palace
there is a village on pilings and the breeze carries the stench
of a muddy estuary."
"My gaze is that of a man meditating. lost in thought I
admit it. But yours? You cross archipelagoes. tundras.
mountain ranges. You would do as well never moving from
The Venetian knew that when Kublai became vexed
with him, the emperor wanted to follow more clearly a
private train of thought; so Marco's answers and objections
took their place in a discourse already proceeding on its
own. in the Great Khan's head. That is to say, between
the two of them it did not matter whether questions and
solutions were uttered aloud or whether each of the two
went on pondering in silence. In fact. they were silent.
their eyes half-closed. reclining on cushions. swaying in
hammocks, smoking long amber pipes.
Marco Polo imagined answering (or Kuhlai Khan
imagined his answer) that the more one was lost in unfamiliar
quarters of distant cities. the more one understood
the other cities he had crossed to arrive there,' and he retraced
the stages of his journeys, and he came to know the
port from which he had set sail, and the familiar places of
his youth. and the surroundings of home. and a little
square of Venice where he gamholed as a child.
At this point Kuhlai Khan interrupted him or imagined
interrupting him, or Marco Polo imagined himself interrupted,
with a question such as.' "You advance always
with your head turned hack?" or "Is what you see always
behind you?" or rather, "Does your journey take place only
in the past?"
All this so that Marco Polo could explain or imagine
explaining or he imagined explaining or succeed finally in
explaining to himself that what he sought was always
something lying ahead, and even if it was a matter of the
past it was a past that changed gradually as he advanced
on his journey, hecause the traveler's past changes according
to the route he has followed. not the immediate past.
that is, to which each day that goes hy adds a day, hut
the more remote past. 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
Marco enters a city; he sees someone in a square living a
life or an instant that could he his; he could now be in that
man’s place, if he had stopped in time, long ago, or if.
long ago, at a crossroads, instead of taking one road he
had taken the opposite one, and after long wandering he
had come to be in the place of that man in that square, By
now, from that real or hypothetical past of his, he is
excluded; he cannot stop; he must go on to another city,
where another of his pasts awaits him, or something perhaps
that had been a possible future of his and is now
someone else's present. Futures not achieved are only
branches of the past: dead branches.
''Journeys to relive your past?" was the Khan's question
at this point, a question which could also have been formulated:
''journeys to recover your future?"
And Marco's answer was: "Elsewhere is a negative mirror,
The traveler recognizes the little that is his. discovering
the much he has not had and will never have."
In Maurilia, the traveler is invited to visit the city
and, at the same time, to examine some old post
cards that show it as it used to be: the same identical
square with a hen in the place of the bus station,
a bandstand in the place of the overpass, two
young ladies with white parasols in the place of the
munitions factory. If the traveler does not wish to
disappoint the inhabitants, he must praise the postcard
city and prefer it to the present one, though he
must be careful to contain his regret at the changes
within definite limits: admitting that the magnificence
and prosperity of the metropolis Maurilia,
when compared to the old, provincial Maurilia, cannot
compensate for a certain lost grace, which, however,
can be appreciated only now in the old post
cards, whereas before, when that provincial Maurilia
was before one's eyes, one saw absolutely nothing
graceful and would see it even less today, if Maurilia
had remained unchanged; and in any case the metropolis
has the added attraction that, through what
it has become, one can look back with nostalgia at
what it was.
Beware of saying to them that sometimes different
cities follow one another on the same site and under
the same name, born and dying without knowing
one another, without communication among themselves.
At times even the names of the inhabitants
remain the same, and their voices' accent, and also
the features of the faces; but the gods who live beneath
names and above places have gone off without
a word and outsiders have settled in their place. It is
pointless to ask whether the new ones are better or
worse than the old, since there is no connection between
them, just as the old post cards do not depict
Maurilia as it was, but a different city which, by
chance, was called Maurilia, like this one.
In the center of Fedora, that gray stone metropolis,
stands a metal building with a crystal globe in every
room. Looking into each globe, you see a blue city,
the model of a different Fedora. These are the forms
the city could have taken if, for one' reason or another,
it had not become what we see today. In
every age someone, looking at Fedora as it was,
imagined a way of making it the ideal city, but
while he constructed his miniature model, Fedora
was already no longer the same as before, and what
had been until yesterday a possible future became
only a toy in a glass globe.
The building with the globes is now Fedora's
museum: every inhabitant visits it, chooses the city that
corresponds to his desires, contemplates it, imagining
his reflection in the medusa pond that would
have collected the waters of the canal (if it had not
been dried up), the view from the high canopied box
along the avenue reserved for elephants (now banished
from the city), the fun of sliding down the
spiral, twisting minaret (which never found a pedestal
from which to rise).
On the map of your empire, 0 Great Khan, there
must be room both for the big, stone Fedora and the
little Fedoras in glass globes. Not because they are
all equally real, but because all are only assumptions.
The one contains what is accepted as necessary when
it is not yet so; the others, what is imagined as possible
and, a moment later, is possible no longer.
The man who is traveling and does not yet know the
city awaiting him along his route wonders what the
palace will be like, the barracks, the mill, the
theater, the bazaar. In every city of the empire every
building is different and set in a different order:
but as soon as the stranger arrives at the unknown
city and his eye penetrates the pine cone of pagodas
and garrets and haymows, following the scrawl of
canals, gardens, rubbish heaps, he immediately distinguishes
which are the princes' palaces, the high
priests' temples, the tavern, the prison, the slum.
This--some say--confirms the hypothesis that each
man bears in his mind a city made only of differences,
a city without figures and without form, and
the individual cities fill it up.
This is not true of Zoe. In every point of this city
you can, in turn, sleep, make tools, cook, accumulate
gold, disrobe, reign, sell, question oracles. Anyone
of its pyramid roofs could cover the leprosarium
or the odalisques' baths. The traveler roams
all around and has nothing but doubts: he is unable
to distinguish the features of the city, the features he
keeps distinct in his mind also mingle. He infers
this: if existence in all its moments is all of itself,
Zoe is the place of indivisible existence. But why,
then, does the city exist? What line separates the inside
from the outside, the rumble of wheels from the
howl of wolves?
Now I shall tell of the city of Zenobia, which is
wonderful in this fashion: though set on dry terrain
it stands on high pilings, and the houses are of bamboo
and zinc, with many platforms and balconies
placed on stilts at various heights, crossing one another,
linked by ladders and hanging sidewalks, surmounted
by cone-roofed belvederes, barrels storing
water, weather vanes, jutting pulleys, and fish poles,
No one remembers what need or command or
desire drove Zenobia's founders to give their city this
form, and so there is no telling whether it was satisfied
by the city as we see it today, which has
perhaps grown through successive superimpositions
from the first, now undecipherable plan. But what is
certain is that if you ask an inhabitant of Zenobia to
describe his vision of a happy life, it is always a city
like Zenobia that he imagines, with its pilings and
its suspended stairways, a Zenobia perhaps quite different,
a-Butter with banners and ribbons, but always
derived by combining elements of that first model.
This said, it is pointless trying to decide whether
Zenobia is to be classified among happy cities or
among the unhappy. It makes no sense to divide cities
into these two species, but rather into another
two: those that through the years and the changes
continue to give their form to desires, and those in
which desires either erase the city or are erased by it.
Proceeding eighty miles into the northwest wind.
you reach the city of Euphemia. where the merchants
of seven nations gather at every solstice and equinox.
The boat that lands there with a cargo of ginger and
cotton will set sail again, its hold filled with pistachio
nuts and poppy seeds, and the caravan that
has just unloaded sacks of nutmegs and raisins is already
cramming its saddlebags with bolts of golden
muslin for the return journey. But what drives men
to travel up rivers and cross deserts to come here is
not only the exchange of wares. which you could find.
everywhere the same, in all the bazaars inside and
outside the Great Khan's empire. scattered at your
feet on the same yellow mats. in the shade of the
same awnings protecting them from the flies. offered
with the same lying reduction in prices. You do not
come to Euphemia only to buy and sell. but also
because at night, by the fires all around the market,
seated on sacks or barrels or stretched out on piles of
carpets, at each word that one man says--such as
"wolf," "sister," "hidden treasure," "battle," "scabies,"
"lovers"-the others tell, each one, his tale of
wolves, sisters, treasures, scabies, lovers, battles.
And you know that in the long journey ahead of you.
when to keep awake against the camel's swaying or
the junk's rocking. you start summoning up your
memories one by one, your wolf will have become
another wolf, your sister a different sister, your battle
other battles, on your return from Euphemia, the
city where memory is traded at every solstice and at
....Newly arrived and quite ignorant of the languages
of the Levant. Marco Polo could express himself only by
drawing objects from his baggage---drums, salt fish, neck-
laces of wart hogs' teeth--and pointing to them with gestures,
leaps, cries of wonder or of horror, imitating the bay
of the jackal, the hoot of the owl.
The connections between one element of the story and
another were not always obvious to the emperor; the objects
could have various meanings: a quiver filled with arrows
could indicate the approach of war. or the abundance of
game, or else an armorer's shop, an hourglass could mean
time passing, or time past, or sand, or aplace where
hourglasses are made.
But what enhanced for Kublai every event or piece of
news reported by his inarticulate informer was the space
that remained around it, a void not filled with words. The
desciptions of cities Marco Polo visited had this virtue: you
could wander through them in thought, become lost, stop
and enjoy the cool air, or run off.
As time went by. words began to replace objects and
gestures in Marco's ideas: first exclamations, isolated names,
dry verbs, then phrases, ramified and leafy discourses, meta-
phors and tropes. The foreigner had learned to speak the em-
peror's language or the emperor to understand the language of
But you would have said communication between them
was less happy than in the past; to he sure, words were
more useful than objects and gestures in listing the most
important things of every province and city--monuments,
markets, costumes, fauna and flora--and yet when Polo
began to talk about how life must be in those places, day
after day, evening after evening, words failed him, and
little by little, he went back to relying on gestures,
So, for each city, after the fundamental information
given in precise words, he followed with a mute commentary,
holding up his hands, palms out, or backs, or sideways,
in straight or oblique movements, spasmodic or slow .
A new kind of dialogue was established: the Great Khan's
white hands, heavy with rings, answered with stately
movements the sinewy, agile hands of the merchant. As an
understanding grew between them, their hands began to as-
sume fixed attitudes, each of which corresponded to a shift
of mood, in their alternation and repetition. And as the
vocabulary of things was renewed with new samples of
merchandise, the repertory of mute comment tended to become
closed, stable. The pleasure of falling back on it also
diminished in both; in their conversations, most of the time,
they remained silent and immobile.
Kublai Khan had noticed that Marco Polo's cities resembled
one another, as if the passage from one to another involved
not a journey but a change of elements. Now, from each city
Marco described to him, the Great Khan's mind set out on its
own, and after dismantling the city piece by piece, he recon-
structed it in other ways, substituting components, shifting
them, inverting them.
Marco, meanwhile, continued reporting his journey, but
the emperor was no longer listening.
Kublai interrupted him: "From now on I shall describe
the cities and you will tell me if they exist and are as I have
conceived them. I shall begin by asking you ahout a city of
stairs, exposed to the sirocco, on a half-moon bay. Now I shall
list some of the wonders it contains: a glass tank high as a
cathedral so people can follow the swimming and flying of the
swallow fish and draw auguries from them; a palm tree which
plays the harp with its fronds in the wind; a square with a
horseshoe marble table around it, a marble tablecloth, set with
foods and beverages also of marble."
Sire, your mind has been wandering. This is precisely
the city I was telling you about when you interrupted me."
"You know it? Where is it? What is its name?"
"It has neither name nor place. I shall repeat the reason
why I was describing it to you: from the numher of imaginahle
cities we must exclude those whose elements are assembled
without a connecting thread, an inner rule, a perspective, a
discourse. With cities, it is as with dreams: everything imag-
inable can be dreamed, but even the most unexpected dream
is a rebus that conceals a desire or, its reverse, a fear. Cities,
like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread
of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their
perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else."
"I have neither desires nor fears," the Khan declared,
"and my dreams are composed either by my mind or by
"Cities also believe they are the work of the mind or of
chance, but neither the one nor the other suffices to hold up
their walls. You take delight not in a city's seven or seventy
wonders, but in the answer it gives to a question of
"Or the question it asks you, forcing you to answer, like
Thebes through the mouth of the Sphinx."
From there, after six days and seven nights, you arrive
at Zobeide, the white city, well exposed to the
moon, with streets wound about themselves as in a
skein. They tell this tale of its foundation: men of
various nations had an identical dream. They saw a
woman running at night through an unknown city;
she was seen from behind, with long hair, and she
was naked. They dreamed of pursuing her. As they
twisted and turned, each of them lost her. After the
dream they set out in search of that city; they never
found it, but they found one another; they decided
to build a city like the one in the dream. In laying
out the streets, each followed the course of his pursuit;
at the spot where they had lost the fugitive's
trail, they arranged spaces and walls differently from
the dream, so she would be unable to escape again.
This was the city of Zobeide, where they settled,
waiting for that scene to be repeated one night.
None of them, asleep or awake, ever saw the woman
again. The city's streets were streets where they went
to work every day, with no link any more to the 45
dreamed chase. Which, for that matter, had long
New men arrived from other lands, having had a
dream like theirs, and in the city of Zobeide, they
recognized something of the streets of the dream,
and they changed the positions of arcades and stairways
to resemble more closely the path of the pursued
woman and so, at the spot where she had vanished,
there would remain no avenue of escape.
The first to arrive could not understand what
drew these people to Zobeide, this ugly city, this trap.
Of all the changes of language a traveler in distant
lands must face, none equals that which awaits him
in the city of Hypatia, because the change regards
not words, but things. I entered Hypatia one morning,
a magnolia garden was reflected in blue lagoons,
I walked among the hedges, sure I would discover
young and beautiful ladies bathing; but at the bottom
of the water, crabs were biting the eyes of the
suicides, stones tied around their necks, their hair
green with seaweed.
I felt cheated and I decided to demand justice of
the sultan. I climbed the porphyry steps of the palace
with the highest domes, I crossed six tiled courtyards
with fountains. The central hall was barred by iron
gratings: convicts with black chains on their feet
were hauling up basalt blocks from a quarry that
I could only question the philosophers. I entered
the great library, I became lost among shelves collap-
sing under the vellum bindings, I followed the alphabet-
ical order of vanished alphabets, up and down
halls, stairs, bridges. In the most remote papyrus
cabinet, in a cloud of smoke, the dazed eyes of an
adolescent appeared to me, as he lay on a mat, his
lips glued to an opium pipe.
"Where is the sage?"
The smoker pointed out of the window. It was a
garden with children's games: ninepins, a swing, a
top. The philosopher was seated on the lawn. He
said: "Signs form a language, but not the one you
think you know."
I realized I had to free myself from the images
which in the past had announced to me the things I
sought: only then would I succeed in understanding
the language of Hypatia.
Now I have only to hear the neighing of horses
and the cracking of whips and I am seized with
amorous trepidation: in Hypatia you have to go to
the stables and riding rings to see the beautiful
women who mount the saddle, thighs naked, greaves
on their calves, and as soon as a young foreigner
approaches, they fling him on the piles of hay or
sawdust and press their firm nipples against him.
And when my spirit wants no stimulus or nou-
rishment save music, I know it is to be sought in the
cemeteries: the musicians hide in the tombs; from
grave to grave flute trills, harp chords answer one
True, also in Hypatia the day will come when my
only desire will be to leave. I know I must not go
down to the harbor then, but climb the citadel's
highest pinnacle and wait for a ship to go by up
there. But will it ever go by? There is no language
Whether Armilla is like this because it is unfinished
or because it has been demolished, whether the cause
is some enchantment or only a whim, I do not know.
The fact remains that it has no walls, no ceilings, no
floors: it has nothing that makes it seem a city, except
the water pipes that rise vertically where the
houses should be and spread out horizontally where
the floors should be: a forest of pipes that end in
taps, showers, spouts, overflows. Against the sky a
lavabo's white stands out, or a bathtub, or some
other porcelain, like late fruit still hanging from the
boughs. You would think the plumbers had finished
their job and gone away before the bricklayers arrived;
or else their hydraulic systems, indestructible,
had survived a catastrophe, an earthquake, or the
corrosion of termites.
Abandoned before or after it was inhabited,
Armilla cannot be called deserted. At any hour, raising
your eyes among the pipes, you are likely to glimpse
a young woman, or many young women, slender,
not tall of stature, luxuriating in the bathtubs or
arching their backs under the showers suspended in
the void, washing or drying or perfuming themselves,
or combing their long hair at a mirror. In the
sun, the threads of water fanning from the showers
glisten, the jets of the taps, the spurts, the splashes,
the sponges' suds.
I have come to this explanation: the streams of
water channeled in the pipes of Armilla have remained
in the possession of nymphs and naiads. Accustomed
to traveling along underground veins, they
found it easy to enter into the new aquatic realm, to
burst from multiple fountains, to find new mirrors,
new games, new ways of enjoying the water. Their
invasion may have driven out the human beings, or
Armilla may have been built by humans as a votive
offering to win the favor of the nymphs, offended at
the misuse of the waters. In any case, now they seem
content, these maidens: in the morning you hear
In Chloe, a great city, the people who move through
the streets are all strangers. At each encounter, they
imagine a thousand things about one another; meetings
which could take place between them, conversations,
surprises, caresses, bites. But no one greets anyone;
eyes lock for a second, then dart away, seeking other
eyes, never stopping.
A girl comes along, twirling a parasol on her
shoulder, and twirling slightly also her rounded
hips. A woman in black comes along, showing her
full age, her eyes restless beneath her veil, her lips
trembling. A tattooed giant comes along; a young
man with white hair; a female dwarf; two girls,
twins, dressed in coral. Something runs among
them, an exchange of glances like lines that connect
one figure with another and draw arrows, stars. tri-
angles, until all combinations are used up in a moment,
and other characters come on to the scene: a
blind man with a cheetah on a leash. a courtesan
with an ostrich-plume fan, an ephebe. a Fat Woman.
And thus. when some people happen to find themselves
together, taking shelter from the rain under an
arcade. or crowding beneath an awning of the bazaar,
or stopping to listen to the band in the square,
meetings. seductions. copulations, orgies are consum-
mated among them without a word exchanged.
without a finger touching anything. almost without
an eye raised.
A voluptuous vibration constantly stirs Chloe, the
most chaste of cities. If men and women began to
live their ephemeral dreams, every phantom would
become a person with whom to begin a story of pursuits,
pretenses, misunderstandings, clashes, oppressions,
and the carousel of fantasies would stop.
The ancients built Valdrada on the shores of a lake,
with houses all verandas one above the other, and
high streets whose railed parapets look out over the
water. Thus the traveler, arriving, sees two cities:
one erect above the lake, and the other reflected,
upside down. Nothing exists or happens in the one
Valdrada that the other Valdrada does not repeat,
because the city was so constructed that its every
point would be reflected in its mirror, and the Valdrada
down in the water contains not only all the
flutings and j uttings of the facades that rise above
the lake, but also the rooms' interiors with ceilings
and floors, the perspective of the halls, the mirrors of
Valdrada's inhabitants know that each of their
actions is, at once, that action and its mirror-image,
which possesses the special dignity of images, and
this awareness prevents them from succumbing for a
single moment to chance and forgetfulness. Even
when lovers twist their naked bodies, skin against
skin, seeking the position that will give one the
most pleasure in the other, even when murderers
plunge the knife into the black veins of the neck and
more dotted blood pours out the more they press the
blade that slips between the tendons, it is not so
much their copulating or murdering that matters as
the copulating or murdering of the images, limpid
and cold in the mirror.
At times the mirror increases a thing's value, at
times denies it. Not everything that seems valuable
above the mirror maintains its force when mirrored.
The twin cities are not equal, because nothing that
exists or happens in Valdrada is symmetrical: every
face and gesture is answered, from the mirror, by a
face and gesture inverted, point by point. The two
Valdradas live for each other, their eyes interlocked;
but there is no love between them.
The Great Khan has dreamed of a city; he describes it to
"The harbor faces north, in shadow. The docks are
high over the black water, which slams against the retaining
walls; stone steps descend, made slippery by seaweed. Boats
smeared with tar are tied up, waiting for the departing
passengers lingering on the quay to bid their families fare-
well. The farewells take place in silence, but with tears. It
is cold; all wear shawls over their heads. A shout from the
boatman puts a stop to the delays; the traveler huddles at
the prow, moves off looking toward the group of those
remaining behind; from the shore his features can no longer
be discerned; the boat draws up beside a vessel riding at
anchor; on the ladder a diminished form climbs up, vanishes;
the rusted chain is heard being raised, scraping
against the hawsepipe. The people remaining behind look
over the ramparts above the rocks of the pier, their eyes
following the ship until it rounds the cape; for the last time
they wave a white rag.
"Set out, explore every coast, and seek this city," the
Khan says to Marco. "Then come back and tell me if my
dream corresponds to reality."
"Forgive me, my lord, there is no doubt that sooner or
later I shall set sail from that dock," Marco says, "but I
shall not come back to tell you about it. The city exists and
it has a simple secret: it knows only departures, not returns."
Lips clenched on the pipe's amber stem, his beard flattened
against his amethyst choker, his big toes nervously arched
in his silken slippers, Kublai Khan listened to Marco
Polo's tales without raising an eyebrow. These were the eve-
ings when a shadow of hypochondria weighed on his
"Your cities do not exist. Perhaps they have nevr
existed. It is sure they will never exist again. Why do you
amuse yourself with consolatory fables? I know well that
my empire is rotting like a corpse in a swamp, whose conta-
gion infects the crows that peck it as well as the bamboo
that grows, fertilized by its humors. Why do you not speak
to me of this? Why do you lie to lhe emperor of the Tartars,
Polo knew it was best to fall in with the sovereign's
dark mood. "Yes, the empire is sick, and, what is worse,
it is trying to hecome accustomed to its sores. This is the
aim of my explorations: examining the traces of happiness
still to be glimpsed, I gauge its short supply. If you want to
know how much darkness there is around you, you must
sharpen your eyes, peering at the faint lights in the distance,"
At other times, however, the Khan was seized by fits of
euphoria. He wouid rise up on his cushions, measure with
long strides the carpets spread over the paths at his feet,
look out from the balustrades of the terraces to survey with
dazzled eye the expanse of the palace gardens lighted by the
lanterns hung from the cedars.
"And yet I know," he would say, "that my empire is
made of the stuff of crystals, its molecules arranged in a
perfect pattern. Amid the surge of the elements, a splendid
hard diamond takes shape, an immense, faceted, transparent
mountain. Why do your travel impressions stop at
disappointing appearances, never catching this implacable
process? Why do you linger over inessential melancholies?
Why do you hide from the emperor the grandeur of his de-
And Marco answered: "While, at a sign from you,
sire, the unique and final city raises its stainless walls, I
am collecting the ashes of the other possible cities that
vanish to make room for it, cities that can never be rebuilt
or remembered. When you know at last the residue of
unhappiness for which no precious stone can compensate,
you will be able to calculate the exact number of carats
toward which that final diamond must strive. Otherwise,
your calculations will be mistaken from the very start."
No one, wise Kublai, knows better than you that
the city must never be confused with the words that
describe it. And yet between the one and the other
there is a connection. If I describe to you Olivia, a
city rich in products and in profits, I can indicate
its prosperity only by speaking of filigree palaces
with fringed cushions on the seats by the mullioned
windows. Beyond the screen of a patio, spinning
jets water a lawn where a white peacock spreads
its tail. But from these words you realize at once
how Olivia is shrouded in a cloud of soot and grease
that sticks to the houses, that in the brawling streets,
the shifting trailers crush pedestrians against the
walls. If I must speak to you of the inhabitants'
industry, I speak of the saddlers' shops smelling of
leather, of the women chattering as they weave raffia
rugs, of the hanging canals whose cascades move the
paddles of the mills; but the image these words
evoke in your enlightened mind is of the mandrel set
against the teeth of the lathe, an action repeated by
thousands of hands thousands of times at the pace
established for each shift. If I must explain to you how
Olivia's spirit tends toward a free life and a refined
civilization, I will tell you of ladies who glide at
night in illuminated canoes between the banks of a
green estuary; but it is only to remind you that on
the outskirts where men and women land every eve-
ning like lines of sleepwalkers, there is always someone
who bursts out laughing in the darkness, releasing
the flow of jokes and sarcasm.
This perhaps you do not know: that to talk of
Olivia, I could not use different words. If there really
were an Olivia of mullioned windows and peacocks,
of saddlers and rug-weavers and canoes and estuaries,
it would be a wretched, black, fly-ridden hole, and
to describe it, I would have to fall back on the metaphors
of soot, the creaking of wheels, repeated actions,
sarcasm. Falsehood is never in words; it is in
The city of Sophronia is made up of two half-cities.
In one there is the great roller coaster with its steep
humps, the carousel with its chain spokes, the Ferris
wheel of spinning cages, the death-ride with crouching
motorcyclists, the big top with the clump of
trapezes hanging in the middle. The other half-city
is of stone and marble and cement, with the bank,
the factories, the palaces, the slaughterhouse, the
school, and all the rest. One of the half-cities is
permanent, the other is temporary, and when the
period of its sojourn is over, they uproot it, dismantle it,
and take it off, transplanting it to the vacant lots of
And so every year the day comes when the
workmen remove the marble pediments, lower the
stone walls, the cement pylons, take down the Ministry,
the monument, the docks, the petroleum refinery,
the hospital, load them on trailers, to follow from
stand to stand their annual itinerary. Here remains
the half-Sophronia of the shooting-galleries and the
carousels, the shout suspended from the cart of 63
the headlong roller coaster, and it begins to count
the months, the days it must wait before the caravan
returns and a complete life can begin again.
When he enters the territory of which Eutropia is the
capital, the traveler sees not one city but many, of
equal size and not unlike one another, scattered over
a vast, rolling plateau. Eutropia is not one, but all
these cities together; only one is inhabited at a time,
the others are empty; and this process is carried out
in rotation. Now I shall teU you how. On the day
when Eutropia's inhabitants feel the grip of weariness
and no one can bear any longer his job, his relatives,
his house and his life, debts, the people he must
greet or who greet him, then the whole citizenry
decides to move to the next city, which is there
waiting for them, empty and good as new; there each
will take up a new job, a different wife, will see
another landscape on opening his window, and will
spend his time with different pastimes, friends, gossip.
So their life is renewed from move to move,
among cities whose exposure or declivity or streams
or winds make each site somehow different from the
others. Since their society is ordered without great
distinctions of wealth or authority, the passage from
one function to another takes place almost without
jolts; variety is guaranteed by the multiple assignments,
so that in the span of a lifetime a man rarely
returns to a job that has already been his.
Thus the city repeats its life, identical, shifting
up and down on its empty chessboard. The inhabitants
repeat the same scenes, with the actors changed; they
repeat the same speeches with variously combined
accents; they open alternate mouths in identical yawns.
Alone, among all the cities of the empire, Eutropia
remains always the same. Mercury, god ofthe fickle,
to whom the city is sacred, worked this ambiguous
It is the mood of the beholder which gives the city of
Zemrude its form. If you go by whistling, your nose
a-tilt behind the whistle, you will know it from
below: window sills, flapping curtains, fountains. If
you walk along hanging your head, your nails dug
into the palms of your hands, your gaze will be held
on the ground, in the gutters, the manhole covers,
the fish scales, wastepaper. You cannot say that one
aspect of the city is truer than the other, but you
hear of the upper Zemrude chiefly from those who
remember it, as they sink into the lower Zemrude,
following every day the same stretches of street and
finding again each morning the ill-humor of the day
before, encrusted at the foot of the walls. For everyone,
sooner or later, the day comes when we bring
our gaze down along the drainpipes and we can no
longer detach it from the cobblestones. The reverse is
not impossible, but it is more rare: and so we continue
walking through Zemrude's streets with eyes
now digging into the cellars, the foundations, the
There is little I can tell you about Aglaura beyond
the things its own inhabitants have always repeated:
an array of proverbial virtues, of equally proverbial
faults, a few eccentricities, some punctilious regard
for rules. Ancient observers, whom there is no reason
not to presume truthful, attributed to Aglaura its
enduring assortment of qualities, surely comparing
them to those of the other cities of their times. Perhaps
neither the Aglaura that is reported nor the
Aglaura that is visible has greatly changed since
then, but what was bizarre has become usual, what
seemed normal is now an oddity, and virtues and
faults have lost merit or dishonor in a code of virtues
and faults differently distributed. In this sense, nothing
said of Aglaura is true, and yet these accounts
create a solid and compact image of a city, whereas
the haphazard opinions which might be inferred
from living there have less substance. This is the
result: the city that they speak of has much of what
is needed to exist, whereas the city that exists on its
site, exists less.
So if I wished to describe Aglaura to you, sticking
to what I personally saw and experienced, I should
have to tell you that it is a colorless city, without
character, planted there at random. But this would
not be true, either: at certain hours, in certain places
along the street, you see opening before you the hint
of something unmistakable, rare, perhaps magnificent;
you would like to say what it is, but everything
previously said of Aglaura imprisons your words and
obliges you to repeat rather than say.
Therefore, the inhabitants still believe they live in
an Aglaura which grows only with the name Aglaura
and they do not notice the Aglaura that grows on the
ground. And even I, who would like to keep the two
cities distinct in my memory, can speak only of the
one, because the recollection of the other, in the lack
of words to fix it, has been lost.
"From now on, I'll describe the cities to you," the Khan
had said, "in your journeys you will see if they exist."
But the cities visited by Marco Polo were always different
from those thought of by the emperor.
"And yet I have constructed in my mind a model city
from which all possible cities can be deduced," Kublai
said. "It contains everything corresponding to the norm.
Since the cities that exist diverge in varying degree from the
norm, I need only foresee the exceptions to the norm and
calculate the most probable combinations."
"I have also thought of a model city from which I
deduce all the others," Marco answered. "It is a city made
only of exceptions, exclusions, incongruities, contradictions.
If such a city is the most improbable, by reducing the
number of abnormal elements, we increase the probability
that the city really exists. So I have only to subtract exceptions
from my model, and in whatever direction I proceed, I
will arrive at one of the cities which, always as an exception,
exist. But I cannot force my operation beyond a certain
limit: I would achieve cities too probable to be real."
From the high balustrade of the palace the Great Khan
watches his empire grow. First the line of the boundaries
had expanded to embrace conquered territories, but the regiments'
advance encountered half-deserted regions, scrubby
villages of huts, marshes where the rice refused to sprout,
emaciated peoples, dried rivers, reeds. "My empire has
grown too far toward the outside. It is time," the Khan
thought, for it to grow within itself," and he dreamed of
pomegranate groves, the fruit so ripe it burst its skin, zebus
browning on the spit and dripping fat, veins of metal surfacing
in landslips with glistening nuggets.
Now many seasons of abundance have filled the granaries.
The rivers in flood have borne forests of beams to support
the bronze roofs of temples and palaces. Caravans of
slaves have shifted mountains of serpentine marble across
the continent. The Great Khan contemplates an empire covered
with cities that weigh upon the earth and upon mankind,
crammed with wealth and traffic, overladen with
ornaments and offices, complicated with mechanisms and
hierarchies, swollen, tense, ponderous.
"The empire is being crushed by its own weight," Kuhlai
thinks, and in his dreams now cities light as kites appear,
pierced cities like laces, cities transparent as mosquito
netting, cities like leaves' veins, cities lined like a hand's
palm, filigree cities to he seen through their opaque and fictitious
"I shall tell you what I dreamed last night," he says to
Marco. "In the midst of a flat and yellow land, dotted
with meteorites and erratic bolliders, I saw from a distance
the spires of a city rise, slender pinnacles, made in such a
way that the moon in her journey can rest now on one, now
on another, or sway from the cables of the cranes."
And Polo says: "The city of your dream is Lalage. Its
inhabitants arranged these invitations to rest in the night
sky so that the moon would grant everything in the city the
power to grow and grow endlessly. "
"There is something you do not know," the Khan adds.
"The grateful moon has granted the city of Lalage a rarer
privilege: to grow in lightness."
If you choose to believe me, good. Now I will tell
how Octavia, the spider-web city, is made. There is
a precipice between two steep mountains: the city is
over the void, bound to the two crests with ropes
and chains and catwalks. You walk on the little
wooden ties, careful not to set your foot in the open
spaces, or you cling to the hempen strands. Below
there is nothing for hundreds and hundreds of feet: a
few clouds glide past; farther down you can glimpse
the chasm's bed.
This is the foundation of the city: a net which
serves as passage and as support. All the rest, instead
of rising up, is hung below: rope ladders, hammocks,
houses made like sacks, clothes hangers, terraces
like gondolas, skins of water, gas jets, spits,
baskets on strings, dumb-waiters, showers, trapezes
and rings for children's games, cable cars, chandeliers,
pots with trailing plants.
Suspended over the abyss, the life of Octavia's
inhabitants is less uncertain than in other cities. They
know the net will last only so long.
In Ersilia, to establish the relationships that sustain
the city's life, the inhabitants stretch strings from
the corners of the houses, white or black or gray or
black-and-white according to whether they mark a
relationship of blood, of trade, authority, agency.
When the strings become so numerous that you can
no longer pass among them, the inhabitants leave:
the houses are dismantled; only the strings and their
From a mountainside, camping with their house-
hold goods, Ersilia's refugees look at the labyrinth of
taut strings and poles that rise in the plain. That is
the city of Ersilia still, and they are nothing.
They rebuild Ersilia elsewhere. They weave a
similar pattern of strings which they would like to be
more complex and at the same time more regular
than the other. Then they abandon it and take them-
selves and their houses still farther away.
Thus, when traveling in the territory of Ersilia,
you come upon the ruins of the abandoned cities,
without the walls which do not last, without the
bones of the dead which the wind rolls away: spider-
webs of intricate relationships seeking a form.
After a seven days' march through woodland, the
traveler directed toward Baucis cannot see the city
and yet he has arrived. The slender stilts that rise
from the ground at a great distance from one another
and are lost above the clouds support the city. You
climb them with ladders. On the ground the inhabitants
rarely show themselves: having already everything
they need up there, they prefer not to come
down. Nothing of the city touches the earth except
those long flamingo legs on which it rests and, when
the days are sunny, a pierced, angular shadow that
falls on the foliage.
There are three hypotheses about the inhabitants
of Baucis: that they hate the earth; that they respect
it so much they avoid all contact; that they love it as
it was before they existed and with spyglasses and
telescopes aimed downward they never tire of examining
it, leaf by leaf, stone by stone, ant by ant,
contemplating with fascination their own absence.
Gods of two species protect the city of Leandra. Both
are too tiny to be seen and too numerous to be
counted. One species stands at the doors of the
houses, inside, next to the coatrack and the umbrella
stand; in moves, they follow the families and install
themselves in the new home at the consignment
of the keys. The others stay in the kitchen, hiding
by preference under pots or in the chimney flue or
broom closet: they belong to the house, and when the
family that has lived there goes away, they remain
with the new tenants; perhaps they were already there
before the house existed, among the weeds of the vacant
lot, concealed in a rusty can; if the house is torn
down and a huge block of fifty families is built in
its place, they will be found, mulitplied, in the
kitchens of that many apartments. To distinguish
the two species we will call the first one Penates and
the other Lares.
Within a given house, Lares do not necessarily
stay with Lares, and Penates with Penates: they visit
one another, they stroll together on the stucco cornices,
on the radiator pipes; they comment on family
events; not infrequently they quarrel; but they can
also get along peacefully for years---Seeing them all
in a row, you are unable to tell them apart. The
Lares have seen Penates of the most varied origins
and customs pass through their walls; the Penates
have to make a place for themselves, rubbing elbows
with Lares of illustrious, but decaying palaces, full of
hauteur, or with Lares from tin shacks, susceptible
The true essence of Leandra is the subject of
endless debate. The Penates believe they are the city's
soul, even if they arrived last year; and they believe
they take Leandra with them when they emigrate.
The Lares consider the Penates temporary guests,
importunate, intrusive; the real Leandra is theirs,
which gives form to all it contains, the Leandra that
was there before all these upstarts arrived and that will
remain when all have gone away.
The two species have this in common: whatever
happens in the family and in the city, they always
criticize. The Penates bring out the old people, the
great-grandparents, the great-aunts, the family of
the past; The Lares talk about the environment before
it was ruined. But this does not mean they live only
on memories: they daydream of the careers the children
will follow when they grow up (the Penates), or 79
what this house in this neighborhood might become
(the Lares) if it were in good hands. If you listen
carefully, especially at night, you can hear them in
the houses ofLeandra, murmuring steadily, interrupting
one another, huffing, bantering, amid ironic, stifled
At Melania, every time you enter the square, you
find yourself caught in a dialogue: the braggart
soldier and the parasite coming from a door meet the
young wastrel and the prostitute; or else the miserly
father from his threshold utters his final warnings to
the amorous daughter and is interrupted by the foolish
servant who is taking a note to the procuress.
You return to Melania after years and you find the
same dialogue still going on; in the meanwhile the
parasite has died, and so have the procuress and
the miserly father; but the braggart soldier, the
amorous daughter, the foolish servant have taken
their places, being replaced in their turn by the
hypocrite, the confidante, the astrologer.
Melania's population renews itself: the participants
in the dialogues die one by one and meanwhile those
who will take their places are born, some in one role,
some in another. When one changes role or abandons
the square forever or makes his first entrance into it,
there is a series of changes, until all the roles have
been reassigned; but meanwhile the angry old man
goes on replying to the witty maidservant, the usurer
never ceases following the disinherited youth, the
nurse consoles the stepdaughter, even if none of
them keeps the same eyes and voice he had in the
At times it may happen that a sole person will
simultaneously take on two or more roles-tyrant.
benefactor, messenger--or one role may be doubled,
multiplied, assigned to a hundred, a thousand inhabitants
of Melania: three thousand for the hypocrite,
thirty thousand for the sponger. a hundred thousand
king・s sons fallen in low estate and awaiting recognition.
As time passes the roles, too, are no longer exactly
the same as before; certainly the action they carry
forward through intrigues and surprises leads toward
some final denouement, which it continues to approach
even when the plot seems to thicken more
and more and the obstacles increase. If you look into
the square in successive moments, you hear how
from act to act the dialogue changes, even if the lives
of Melania・s inhabitants are too short for them to realize
Marco Polo describes a bridge, stone by stone.
"But which is the stone that supports the bridge?"
Kublai Khan asks.
"The bridge is not supported by one stone or another,"
Marco answers, "but by the line of the arch that they
Kublai Khan remains silent, reflecting. Then he adds:
"Why do you speak to me of the stones? It is only the arch
that matters to me."
Polo answers: "Without stones there is no arch."
"Did you ever happen to see a city resembling this one?"
Kublai asked Marco Polo, extending his beringed hand
from beneath the silken canopy of the imperial barge, to
point to the bridges arching wer the canals, the princely
palaces whose marble doorsteps were immersed in the
water, the bustle of light craft zigzagging, driven by long
oars, the boats unloading baskets of vegetables at the
market squares, the balconies, platforms, domes, campaniles,
island gardens glowing green in the lagoon's grayness.
The emperor, accompanied by his foreign dignitary,
was visiting Kin-sai, ancient capital of deposed dynasties,
the latest pearl set in the Great Khan's crown.
"No, sire," Marco answered, "I should never have
imagined a city like this could exist."
The emperor tried to peer into his eyes. The foreigner
lowered his gaze. Kublai remained silent the whole day.
After sunset, on the terraces of the palace, Marco
Polo expounded to the sovereign the results of his missions.
As a rille the Great Khan concluded his day savoring these
tales with half-closed eyes until his first yawn was the signal
for the suite of pages to light the flames that guided the
monarch to the Pavilion of the August Slumber. But this time
Kublai seemed unwilling to give in to weariness. "Tell me
another city," he insisted.
". . . You leave there and ride for three days between
the northeast and east-by-northeast winds . . . " Marco
resumed saying, enumerating names and customs and wares
of a great number of lands. His repertory could be called
inexhaustihle, but now he was the one who had to give in.
Dawn had broken when he said: "Sire, now I have told you
about all the cities I know."
"There is still one of which you never speak."
Marco Polo bowed his head.
"Venice," the Khan said.
Marco smiled. "What else do you believe I have been
talking to you about?"
The emperor did not tum a hair. "And yet I have never
heard you mention that name."
And Polo said: "Every time I describe a city I am saying
something ahout Venice."
"When I ask you about other cities, I want to hear
about them. And about Venice, when I ask you about
"To distinguish the other cities' qualities, I must
speak of a first city that remains implicit. For me it is Venice."
"You should then begin each tale of your travels from
the departure, describing Venice as it is, all of it, not
omitting anything you rememher of it. "
The lake's surface was harely wrinkled; the copper reflect-
ion of the ancient palace of the Sung was shattered into
sparkling glints like floating leaves.
" Memory's images, once they are fixed in words, are
erased," Polo said. "Perhaps I am afraid of losing Venice
all at once, if I speak of it. Or perhaps, speaking of other
cities, I have already lost it, little by little."
In Esmeralda, city of water, a network of canals and
a network of streets span and intersect each other. To
go from one place to another you have always the
choice between land and boat: and since the shortest
distance between two points in Esmeralda is not a
straight line but a zigzag that ramifies in tortuous
optional routes, the ways that open to each passerby
are never two, but many, and they increase further
for those who alternate a stretch by boat with one on
And so Esmeralda's inhabitants are spared the
boredom of following the same streets every day.
And that is not all: the network of routes is not arranged
on one level, but follows instead an up-anddown
course of steps, landings, cambered bridges,
hanging streets. Combining segments of the various
routes, elevated or on ground level, each inhabitant
can enjoy every day the pleasure of a new itinerary to
reach the same places. The most fixed and calm lives
in Esmeralda are spent without any repetition.
Secret and adventurous lives, here as elsewhere,
are subject to greater restrictions. Esmeralda's cats,
thieves, illicit lovers move along higher, discontinuous
ways, dropping from a rooftop to a balcony, following
gutterings with acrobats' steps. Below, the rats run
in the darkness of the sewers, one behind the
other's tail, along with conspirators and smugglers:
they peep out of manholes and drainpipes, they slip
through double bottoms and ditches, from one hiding
place to another they drag crusts of cheese, contraband
goods, kegs of gunpowder, crossing the city's compactness
pierced by the spokes of underground passages.
A map of Esmeralda should include, marked in
different colored inks, all these routes, solid and liquid,
evident and hidden. It is more difficult to fix on
the map the routes of the swallows, who cut the air
over the roofs, dropping long invisible parabolas
with their still wings, darting to gulp a mosquito,
spiraling upward, grazing a pinnacle, dominating
from every point of their airy paths all the points of
When you have arrived at Phyllis. you rejoice in observing
all the bridges over the canals. each different
from the others: cambered. covered. on pillars. on
barges. suspended, with tracery balustrades. And
what a variety of windows looks down on the streets:
mullioned. Moorish, lancet. pointed. surmounted by
lunettes or stained-glass roses; how many kinds of
pavement cover the ground: cobbles. slabs, gravel.
blue and white tiles. At every point the city offers
surprises to your view: a caper bush jutting from the
fortress' walls. the statues of three queens on corbels,
an onion dome with three smaller onions threaded on
the spire. "Happy the man who has Phyllis before
his eyes each day and who never ceases seeing the
things it contains." you cry, with regret at having to
leave the city when you can barely graze it with your
But it so happens that. instead. you must stay in
Phyllis and spend the rest of your days there. Soon
the city fades before your eyes, the rose windows are
expunged. the statues on the corbels. the domes.
Like all of Phyllis's inhabitants, you follow zigzag
lines from one street to another. you distinguish the
patches of sunlight from the patches of shade. a door
here. a stairway there. a bench where you can put
down your basket. a hole where your foot stumbles if
you are not careful. All the rest of the city is invisible.
Phyllis is a space in which routes are drawn between
points suspended in the void: the shortest way
to reach that certain merchant's tent, avoiding that
certain creditor's window. Your footsteps follow not
what is outside the eyes, but what is within, buried,
erased. If, of two arcades, one continues to seem
more joyous, it is because thirty years ago a girl went
by there, with broad, embroidered sleeves, or else it
is only because that arcade catches the light at a certain
hour like that other arcade, you cannot recall
Millions of eyes look up at windows, bridges,
capers, and they might be scanning a blank page.
Many are the cities like Phyllis, which elude the gaze
of all, except the man who catches them by surprise.
For a long time Pyrrha to me was a fortified city on
the slopes of a bay, with high windows and towers,
enclosed like a goblet, with a central square deep as a
well, with a well in its center. I had never seen it. It
was one of the many cities where I had never arrived,
that I conjured up, through its name: Euphrasia,
Odile, Margara, Getullia. Pyrrha had its place
among them, different from each of them, and like
each of them, unmistakable to the mind's eye.
The day came when my travels took me to
Pyrrha. As soon as I set foot there, everything I had
imagined was forgotten; Pyrrha had become what is
Pyrrha; and I thought I had always known that the
sea is invisible from the city, hidden behind a dune
of the low, rolling coast; that the streets are long and
straight; that the houses are clumped at intervals,
not high, and they are separated by open lots with
stacks of lumber and with sawmills; that the wind
stirs the vanes of the water pumps. From that moment
on the name Pyrrha has brought to my mind
this view, this light, this buzzing, this air in which
a yellowish dust flies: obviously the name means this
and could mean nothing but this.
My mind goes on containing a great number of
cities I have never seen and will never see, names
that bear with them a figure or a fragment or glim-
mer of an imagined figure: Getullia, Odile, Euphrasia,
Margara. The city high above the bay is also
there still, with the square enclosing the well, but I
can no longer call it by a name, nor remember how I
could ever have given it a name that means something
Never in all my travels had I ventured as far as
Adelma. It was dusk when I landed there. On the
dock the sailor who caught the rope and tied it to
the bollard resembled a man who had soldiered with
me and was dead. It was the hour of the wholesale
fish market. An old man was loading a basket of sea
urchins on a cart; I thought I recognized him; when
I turned, he had disappeared down an alley, but I
realized that he looked like a fisherman who, already
old when I was a child, could no longer be among
the living. I was upset by the sight of a fever victim
huddled on the ground, a blanket over his head: my
father a few days before his death had yellow eyes
and a growth of beard like this man. I tumed my
gaze aside; I no longer dared look anyone in the face.
I thought: "If Adelma is a city I am seeing in a
dream, where you encounter only the dead, the
dream frightens me. If Adelma is a real city, inhabited
by living people, I need only continue looking
at them and the resemblances will dissolve, alien
faces will appear, bearing anguish. In either case it is
best for me not to insist on staring at them."
A vegetable vendor was weighing a cabbage on a
scales and put it in a basket dangling on a string a
girl lowered from a balcony. The girl was identical
with one in my village who had gone mad for love
and killed herself. The vegetable vendor raised her
face: she was my grandmother.
I thought: "You reach a moment in life when,
among the people you have known, the dead outnumber
the living. And the mind refuses to accept
more faces, more expressions: on every new face you
encounter, it prints the old forms, for each one it
finds the most suitable mask."
The stevedores climbed the steps in a line, bent
beneath demijohns and barrels; their faces were hidden
by sackcloth hoods; "Now they will straighten
up and I will recognize them," I thought, with impatience
and fear. But I could not take my eyes off
them; if I turned my gaze just a little toward the
crowd that crammed those narrow streets, I was assailed
by unexpected faces, reappearing from far
away, staring at me as if demanding recognition, as
if to recognize me, as if they had already recognized
me. Perhaps, for each of them, I also resembled
someone who was dead. I had barely arrived at
Adelma and I was already one of them, I had gone
over to their side, absorbed in that kaleidoscope of
eyes, wrinkles, grimaces.
I thought: "Perhaps Adelma is the city where you
arrive dying and where each finds again the people he
has known. This means I, too, am dead." And I also
thought: "This means the beyond is not happy."
In Eudoxia, which spreads both upward and down,
with winding alleys, steps, dead ends, hovels, a carpet
is preserved in which you can observe the city's
true form. At first sight nothing seems to resemble
Eudoxia less than the design of that carpet, laid out
in symmetrical motives whose patterns are repeated
along straight and circular lines, interwoven with
brilliantly colored spires, in a repetition that can be
followed throughout the whole woof. But if you
pause and examine it carefully, you become convinced
that each place in the carpet corresponds to a
place in the city and all the things contained in the
city are included in the design, arranged according
to their true relationship, which escapes your eye distracted
by the bustle, the throngs, the shoving. All
of Eudoxia's confusion, the mules' braying, the
lampblack stains, the fish smell is what is evident in
the incomplete perspective you grasp; but the carpet
proves that there is a point from which the city
shows its true proportions, the geometrical scheme
implicit in its every, tiniest detail.
It is easy to get lost in Eudoxia: but when you
concentrate and stare at the carpet, you recognize the
street you were seeking in a crimson or indigo or magenta
thread which, in a wide loop, brings you to
the purple enclosure that is your real destination.
Every inhabitant of Eudoxia compares the carpet's
immobile order with his own image of the city, an
anguish of his own, and each can find, concealed
among the arabesques, an answer, the story of his
life, the twists of fate.
An oracle was questioned about the mysterious
bond between two objects so dissimilar as the carpet
and the city. One of the two objects-the oracle
replied-has the form the gods gave the starry sky
and the orbits in which the worlds revolve; the other
is an approximate reflection, like every human creation.
For some time the augurs had been sure that the
carpet's harmonious pattern was of divine origin.
The oracle was interpreted in this sense, arousing no
controversy. But you could, similarly, come to the
opposite conclusion: that the true map of the universe
is the city of Eudoxia, just as it is, a stain that
spreads out shapelessly, with crooked streets, houses
that crumble one upon the other amid clouds of
dust, fires, screams in the darkness.
"...So then, yours is truly a journey through memory!"
The Great Khan, his ears always sharp, sat up in his
hammock every time he caught the hint of a sigh in
Marco's speech. "It was to slough off a burden of nostalgia
that you went so far away!" he exclaimed, or else: "You
return from your voyages with a cargo of regrets!" And he
added, sarcastically: "Meager purchases, to tell the truth,
for a merchant of the Serenissima!"
This was the target of all Kublai's questions about the
past and the future. For an hour he had been toying with
it, like a cat with a mouse, and finally he had Marco
with his back to the wall, attacking him, putting a knee
on his chest, seizing him by the beard: "This is what I
wanted to hear from you: confess what you are smuggling:
moods, states of grace, elegies!"
These words and actions were perhaps only imagined,
as the two, silent and motionless, watched the smoke rise
slowly from their pipes. The cloud dissolved at times in a
wisp of wind, or else remained suspended in mid-air; and
the answer was in that cloud. As the puff carried the
smoke away, Marco thought of the mists that cloud the
expanse of the sea and the mountain ranges and, when
dispelled, leave the air dry and diaphanous, revealing distant
cities. It was beyond that screen of fickle humors that his
gaze wished to arrive: the form of things can be discerned
better at a distance.
Or else the cloud hovered, having barely left the lips,
dense and slow, and suggested another vision: the exhalations
that hang over the roofs of the metropolises, the opaque
smoke that is not scattered, the hood of miasmata that
weighs over the bituminous streets. Not the labile mists of
memory nor the dry transparence, but the charring of
burned lives that forms a scab on the city, the sponge
swollen with vital matter that no longer flows, the jam of
past, present, future that blocks existences calcified in the
illusion of movement: this is what you would find at the
end of your journey.
KUBLAI: I do not know when you have had time to visit
all the countries you describe to me. It seems to me you have
never moved from this garden.
POLO: Everything I see and do assumes meaning in a mental
space where the same calm reigns as here, the same
penumbra, the same silence streaked by the rustling of
leaves. At the moment when I concentrate and reflect, I
find myself again, always, in this garden, at this hour of
the evening, in your august presence, though I continue,
without a moment's pause, moving up a river green with
crocodiles or counting the barrels of salted fish being lowered
into the hold.
KUBLAI: I, too, am not sure I am here, strolling among the
porphyry fountains, listening to the plashing echo, and not
riding, caked with sweat and blood, at the head of my
army, conquering the lands you will have to describe, or
cutting off the fingers of the attackers scaling the walls of a
POLO: Perhaps this garden exists only in the shadow of our
lowered eyelids, and we have never stopped: you, from raising
dust on the fields of battle; and I, from bargaining for
sacks of pepper in distant bazaars. But each time we halfclose
our eyes, in the midst of the din and the throng, we
are allowed to withdraw here, dressed in silk kimonos, to
ponder what we are seeing and living, to draw conclusions,
to contemplate from the distance.
KUBLAI: Perhaps this dialogue of ours is taking place between
two beggars nicknamed Kublai Khan and Marco
Polo as they sift through a rubbish heap, piling up rusted
flotsam, scraps of cloth, wastepaper, while drunk on the
few sips of bad wine, they see all the treasure of the East
shine around them.
POLO: Perhaps all that is left of the world is a wasteland,
covered with rubbish heaps, and the hanging garden of the
Great Khan's palace. It is our eyelids that separate them,
but we cannot know which is inside and which outside.
When you have forded the river, when you have
crossed the mountain pass, you suddenly find before
you the city of Moriana, its alabaster gates transparent
in the sunlight, its coral columns supporting
pediments encrusted with serpentine, its villas all of
glass like aquariums where the shadows of dancing
girls with silvery scales swim beneath the medusa-shaped
chandeliers. If this is not your first journey,
you already know that cities like this have an obverse:
you have only to walk in a semicircle and you
will come into view of Moriana's hidden face, an expanse
of rusting sheet metal, sackcloth, planks bristling
with spikes, pipes black with soot, piles of
tins, blind walls with fading signs, frames of staved-in
straw chairs, ropes good only for hanging oneself
from a rotten beam.
From one part to the other, the city seems to continue,
in perspective, multiplying its repertory of
images: but instead it has no thickness, it consists
only of a face and an obverse, like a sheet of paper,
with a figure on either side, which can neither be
separated nor look at each other.
Clarice, the- glorious city, has a tormented history.
Several times it decayed, then burgeoned again,
always keeping the first Clarice as an unparalleled
model of every splendor, compared to which the
city's present state can only cause more sighs at every
fading of the stars.
In its centuries of decadence, emptied by plagues,
its height reduced by collapsing beams and cornices
and by shifts of the terrain, rusted and stopped up
through neglect or the lack of maintenance men, the
city slowly became populated again as the survivors
emerged from the basements and lairs, in hordes,
swarming like rats. driven by their fury to rummage
and gnaw, and yet also to collect and patch, like
nesting birds. They grabbed everything that could
be taken from where it was and put it in another
place to serve a different use: brocade curtains ended
up as sheets; in marble funerary urns they planted
basil; wrought-iron gratings tom from the harem
windows were used for roasting cat-meat on fires
of inlaid wood. Put together with odd bits of the
useless Clarice, a survivors' Clarice was taking shape.
all huts and hovels. festering sewers, rabbit cages.
And yet, almost nothing was lost of Clarice's former
splendor; it was all there, merely arranged in a different
order, no less appropriate to the inhabitants'
needs than it had been before.
The days of poverty were followed by more joyous
times: a sumptuous butterfly-Clarice emerged from
the beggared chrysalis-Clarice. The new abundance
made the city overflow with new materials, buildings,
objects; new people flocked in from outside;
nothing, no one had any connection with the former
Clarice, or Clarices. And the more the new city settled
triumphantly into the place and the name of the
first Clarice, the more it realized it was moving away
from it, destroying it no less rapidly than the rats
and the mold. Despite its pride in its new wealth,
the city, at heart, felt itself incongruous, alien, a
And then the shards of the original splendor that
had been saved, by adapting them to more obscure
needs, were again shifted. They were now preserved
under glass bells, locked in display cases, set on velvet
cushions, and not because they might still be
used for anything, but because people wanted to
reconstruct through them a city of which no one
knew anything now.
More decadences, more burgeonings have followed
one another in Clarice. Populations and customs have
changed several times; the name, the site, and the
objects hardest to break remain. Each new Clarice,
compact as a living body with its smells and its
breath, shows off, like a gem, what remains ~f the
ancient Clarices, fragmentary and dead. There is no
knowing when the Corinthian capitals stood on the
top of their columns: only one of them is remembered,
since for many years, in a chicken run, it supported
the basket where the hens laid their eggs, and
from there it was moved to the Museum of Capitals,
in line with other specimens of the collection. The
order of the eras' succession has been lost; that a first
Clarice existed is a widespread belief, but there are
no proofs to support it. The capitals could have been
in the chicken runs before they were in the temples,
the marble urns could have been planted with basil
before they were filled with dead bones. Only this is
known for sure: a given number of objects is shifted
within a given space, at times submerged by a quantity
of new objects, at times worn out and not replaced;
the rule is to shuffle them each time, then try
to assemble them. Perhaps Clarice has always been
only a confusion of chipped gimcracks, ill-assorted,
No city is more inclined than Eusapia to enjoy life
and flee care. And to make the leap from life to
death less abrupt, the inhabitants have constructed
an identical copy of their city, underground. All
corpses, dried in such a way that the skeleton
remains sheathed in yellow skin, are carried down
there, to continue their former activities. And, of
these activities, it is their carefree moments that take
first place: most of the corpses are seated around
laden tables, or placed in dancing positions, or made
to play little trumpets. But all the trades and profes-
sions of the living Eusapia are also at work below
ground, or at least those that the living performed
with more contentment than irritation: the clockmaker,
amid all the stopped clocks of his shop, places his
parchment ear against an out-of-tune grandfather's
clock; a barber, with dry brush, lathers the cheekbones
of an actor learning his role, studying the script with
hollow sockets; a girl with a laughing skull milks the
carcass of a heifer.
To be sure, many of the living want a fate after
death different from their lot in life: the necropolis is
crowded with big-game hunters, mezzosopranos,
bankers, violinists, duchesses, courtesans, generals--
more than the living city ever contained.
The job of accompanying the dead down below
and arranging them in the desired place is assigned
to a confraternity of hooded brothers. No one else
has access to the Eusapia of the dead and everything
known about it has been learned from them.
They say that the same confraternity exists
among the dead and that it never fails to lend a hand;
the hooded brothers, after death, will perform the same
job in the other Eusapia; rumor has it that some of
them are already dead but continue going up and
down. In any case, this confraternity's authority in
the Eusapia of the living is vast.
They say that every time they go below they
find something changed in the lower Eusapia; the dead
make innovations in their city; not many, but surely
the fruit of sober reflection, not passing whims.
From one year to the next, they say, the Eusapia of
the dead becomes unrecognizable. And the living, to
keep up with them, also want to do everything that
the hooded brothers tell them about the novelties of
the dead. So the Eusapia of the living has taken to
copying its underground copy.
They say that this has not just now begun to
happen: actually it was the dead who built the upper
Eusapia, in the image of their city. They say that in
the twin cities there is no longer any way of knowing
who is alive and who is dead.
This belief is handed down in Beersheba: that, sus-
pended in the heavens, there exists another Beersheba,
where the city's most elevated virtues and senti-
ments are poised, and that if the terrestrial Beersheba
will take the celestial one as its model the two cities
will become one. The image propagated by tradition is
that of a city of pure gold, with silver locks and diamond
gates, a jewel-city, all inset and inlaid, as a maximum of
laborious study might produce when applied to materials
of the maximum worth. True to this belief, Beersheba's
inhabitants honor everything that suggests for them the
celestial city: they accumulate noble metals and rare
stones, they renounce all ephemeral excesses, they
develop forms of composite composure.
They also believe, these inhabitants, that another
Beersheba exists underground, the receptacle of
everything base and unworthy that happens to them,
and it is their constant care to erase from the visible
Beersheba every tie or resemblance to the lower twin.
In the place of roofs they imagine that the un-
derground city has overturned rubbish bins, with
cheese rinds, greasy paper, fish scales, dishwater,
uneaten spaghetti, old bandages spilling from them.
Or even that its substance is dark and malleable and
thick, like the pitch that pours down from the
sewers, prolonging the route of the human bowels,
from black hole to black hole, until it splatters
against the lowest subterranean floor, and from the
lazy, encircled bubbles below, layer upon layer, a
fecal city rises, with twisted spires.
In Beersheba's beliefs there is an element of
truth and one of error. It is true that the city is accom-
panied by two projections of itself, one celestial and
one infernal; but the citizens are mistaken about
their consistency. The inferno that broods in the
deepest subsoil of Beersheba is a city designed by the
most authoritative architects, built with the most ex-
pensive materials on the market, with every device
and mechanism and gear system functioning, decked
with tassels and fringes and frills hanging from all
the pipes and levers.
Intent on piling up its carats of perfection,
Beersheba takes for virtue what is now a grim mania to
fill the empty vessel of itself; the city does not know
that its only moments of generous abandon are those
when it becomes detached from itself, when it lets
go, expands. Still, at the zenith of Beersheba there
gravitates a celestial body that shines with all the
city's riches, enclosed in the treasury of cast-off
things: a planet a-flutter with potato peels, broken
umbrellas, old socks, candy wrappings, paved with
tram tickets, fingernail-cuttings and pared calluses,
eggshells. This is the celestial city, and in its
heavens long-tailed comets fly past, released to rotate
in space from the only free and happy action of the
citizens of Beersheba, a city which, only when it
shits, is not miserly, calculating, greedy
The city of Leonia refashions itself every day: every
morning the people wake between fresh sheets, wash
with just-unwrapped cakes of soap, wear brand-new
clothing, take from the latest model refrigerator still
unopened tins, listening to the last-minute jingles
from the most up-to-date radio.
On the sidewalks, encased in spotless plastic
bags, the remains of yesterday's Leonia await the gar-
bage truck. Not only squeezed tubes of toothpaste,
blown-out light bulbs, newspapers, containers,
wrappings, but also boilers, encyclopedias, pianos,
procelain dinner services. It is not so much by the
things that each day are manufactured, sold, bought
that you can measure Leonia's opulence, but rather
by the things that each day are thrown out to make
room for the new. So you begin to wonder if Leonia's
true passion is really, as they say, the enjoyment of
new and different things, and not, instead, the joy of
expelling, discarding, cleansing itself of a recurrent
impurity. The fact is that street cleaners are welcomed
like angels, and their task of removing the residue of
yesterday's existence is surrounded by a respectful
silence, like a ritual that inspires devotion,
perhaps only because once things have been cast off
nobody wants to have to think about them further.
Nobody wonders where, each day, they carry their
load of refuse. Outside the city, surely; but each year
the city expands, and the street cleaners have to fall
farther back. The bulk of the out Bow increases and
the piles rise higher, become stratified, extend over a
wider perimeter. Besides, the more Leonia's talent
for making new materials excels, the more the rubbish
improves in quality, resists time, the elements,
fermentations, combustions. A fortress of indestructible
leftovers surrounds Leonia, dominating it on
every side, like a chain of mountains.
This is the result: the more Leonia expels goods,
the more it accumulates them; the scales of its past
are soldered into a cuirass that cannot be removed.
As the city is renewed each day, it preserves all of itself
in its only definitive form: yesterday's sweepings
piled up on the sweepings of the day before yesterday
and of all its days and years and decades.
Leonia's rubbish little by little would invade the
world, if, from beyond the final crest of its boundless
rubbish heap, the street cleaners of other cities were
not pressing, also pushing mountains of refuse in
front of themselves. Perhaps the whole world,
beyond Leonia's boundaries, is covered by craters of
rubbish, each surrounding a metropolis in constant
eruption. The boundaries between the alien, hostile
cities are infected ramparts where the detritus of
both support each other, overlap, mingle.
The greater its height grows, the more the danger
of a landslide looms: a tin can, an old tire, an unraveled
wine Bask, if it rolls toward Leonia, is enough to bring
with it an avalanche of unmated shoes, calendars of
bygone years, withered Bowers, submerging the city in
its own past, which it had tried in vain to reject, mingling
with the ~t of the neighboring cities, finally clean. A
cataclysm will flatten the sordid mountain range, can-
celing every trace of the metropolis always dressed in
new clothes. In the nearby cities they are all ready,
waiting with bulldozers to Batten the terrain, to push
into the new territory, expand, and drive the new street
cleaners still farther out.
POLO:...Perhaps the terraces of this garden overlook
only the lake of our mind. . . .
KUBLAI:...and however far our troubled enterprises as
warriors and merchants may take us, we both harbor
within ourselves this silent shade, this conversation of
pauses, this evening that is always the same.
POLO: Unless the opposite hypothesis is correct: that those
who strive in camps and ports exist only because we two
think of them, here, enclosed among these bamboo hedges,
motionless since time began.
KUBLAI: Unless toil, shouts, sores, stink do not exist; and
only this azalea bush.
POLO: Unless porters, stonecutters, rubbish collectors, cooks
cleaning the lights of chickens, washerwomen bent over
stones, mothers stirring rice as they nurse their infants,
exist only because we think them.
KUBLAI: To tell the truth, I never think them.
POLO: Then they do not exist.
KUBLAI: To me this conjecture does not seem to suit our
purposes. Without them we could never remain here swaying,
cocooned in our hammocks.
POLO: Then the hypothesis must be rejected. So the other
hypothesis is true: they exist and we do not.
KUBLAI: We have proved that if we were here, we would
POLO: And here, in fact, we are.
From the foot of the Great Khan's throne a majolica pave-
ment extended. Marco Polo, mute informant, spread out on
it the samples of the wares he had brought back from his
journeys to the ends of the empire: a helmet, a seashell, a
coconut, a fan. Arranging the objects in a certain order on
the black and white tiles, and occasionally shifting them
with studied moves, the ambassador tried to depict for the
monarch's eyes the vicissitudes of his travels, the conditions
of the empire, the prerogatives of the distant provincial
Kublai was a keen chess player; following Marco's
movements, he observed that certain pieces implied or
excluded the vicinity of other pieces and were shifted along
certain lines. Ignoring the objects' variety of form, he could
grasp the system of arranging one with respect to the others
on the majolica floor. He thought: "If each city is like a
game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I
shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed
in knowing all the cities it contains."
Actually, it was useless for Marco's speeches to employ
all this bric-a-brac: a chessboard would have sufficed,
with its specific pieces. To each piece, in turn, they could
give an appropriate meaning: a knight could stand for a
real horseman, or for a procession of coaches, an army on
the march, an equestrian monument: a queen could be
a lady looking down from her balcony, a fountain, a
church with a pointed dome, a quince tree.
Returning from his last mission, Marco Polo found the
Khan awaiting him, seated at a chessboard. With a gesture
he invited the Venetian to sit opposite him and describe,
with the help only of the chessmen, the cities he had
visited. Marco did not lose heart. The Great Khan's chessmen
were huge pieces of polished ivory: arranging on the board
looming rooks and sulky knights, assembling swarms of pawns,
drawing straight or oblique avenues like a queen's progress,
Marco recreated the perspectives and the spaces of black
and white cities on moonlit nights.
Contemplating these essential landscapes, Kublai reflected
on the invisible order that sustains cities, on the rules
that decreed how they rise, take shape and prosper, adapting
themselves to the seasons, and then how they sadden
and fall in ruins. At times he thought he was on the verge
of discovering a coherent, harmonious system underlying the
infinite deformities and discords, but no model could stand
up to the comparison with the game of chess. Perhaps, instead
of racking one's brain to suggest with the ivory pieces'
scant help visions which were anyway destined to oblivion,
it would suffice to playa game according to the rules, and
to consider each successive state of the board as one of the
countless forms that the system of forms assembles and destroys.
Now Kublai Khan no longer had to send Marco Polo on
distant expeditions: he kept him playing endless games of
chess. Knowledge of the empire was hidden in the pattern
drawn by the angular shifts of the knight, by the diagonal
passages opened by the bishop's incursions, by the lumbering,
cautious tread of the king and the humble pawn, by
the inexorable ups and downs of every game.
The Great Khan tried to concentrate on the game: but
now it was the game's purpose that eluded him. Each game
ends in a gain or a loss: but of what? What were the true
stakes? At checkmate, beneath the foot of the king, knocked
aside by the winner's hand, a black or a white square
remains. By disembodying his conquests to reduce them to
the essential, Kublai had arrived at the extreme operation:
the definitive conquest, of which the empire's multiform
treasures were only illusory envelopes. It was reduced to a
square of planed wood: nothingness. . .
Irene is the city visible when you lean out from the
edge of the plateau at the hour when the lights come
on, and in the limpid air, the pink of the settlement
can be discerned spread out in the distance below:
where the windows are more concentrated, where it
thins out in dimly lighted alleys, where it collects
the shadows of gardens, where it raises towers with
signal fires; and if the evening is misty, a hazy glow
swells like a milky sponge at the foot of the gulleys.
Travelers on the plateau, shepherds shifting
their flocks, bird-catchers watching their nets, her-
mits gathering greens: all look down and speak of Irene.
At times the wind brings a music of bass drums and
trumpets, the bang of firecrackers in the light display
of a festival; at times the rattle of guns, the
explosion of a powder magazine in the sky yellow
with the fires of civil war. Those who look down
from the heights conjecture about what is happening
in the city; they wonder if it would be pleasant or
unpleasant to be in Irene that evening. Not that they
have any intention of going there (in any case the
roads winding down to the valley are bad), but Irene
is a magnet for the eyes and thoughts of those who
stay up above.
At this point Kublai Khan expects Marco to speak
of Irene as it is seen from within. But Marco cannot
do this: he has not succeeded in discovering which is
the city that those of the plateau call Irene. For that
matter, it is of slight importance: if you saw it,
standing in its midst, it would be a different city;
Irene is a name for a city in the distance, and if you
approach, it changes.
For those who pass it without entering, the city is
one thing; it is another for those who are trapped by
it and never leave. There is the city where you arrive
for the first time; and there is another city which you
leave never to return. Each deserves a different name;
perhaps I have already spoken of Irene under other
names; perhaps I have spoken only of Irene.
What makes Argia different from other cities is that
it has earth instead of air. The streets are completely
filled with dirt, clay packs the rooms to the ceiling,
on every stair another stairway is set in negative,
over the roofs of the houses hang layers of rocky terrain
like skies with clouds. We do not know if the
inhabitants can move about the city, widening the
worm tunnels and the crevices where roots twist:
the dampness destroys people's bodies and they have
scant strength; everyone is better off remaining still,
prone; anyway, it is dark.
From up here, nothing of Argia can be seen; some
say, "It's down below there," and we can only believe
them. The place is deserted. At night, putting
your ear to the ground, you can sometimes hear a
Those who arrive at Thekla can see little of the city
beyond the plank fences, the sackcloth screens, the
scaffoldings, the metal armatures, the wooden catwalks
hanging from ropes or supported by sawhorses,
the ladders, the trestles. If you ask, "Why is
Thekla's construction taking such a long time?" the
inhabitants continue hoisting sacks, lowering leaded
strings, moving long brushes up and down, as they
answer, "So that its destruction cannot begin." And
if asked whether they fear that, once the scaffoldings
are removed, the city may begin to crumble and fall
to pieces, they add hastily, in a whisper, "Not only
If, dissatisfied with the answers, someone puts
his eye to a crack in a fence, he sees cranes pulling up
other cranes, scaffoldings that embrace other scaffold-
ings, beams that prop up other beams. "What
meaning does your construction have?" he asks.
"What is the aim of a city under construction unless
it is a city? Where is the plan you are following, the
"We will show it to you as soon as the working
day is over; we cannot interrupt our work now," they
Work stops at sunset. Darkness falls over the
building site. The sky is filled with stars. "There is
the blueprint," they say.
If on arriving at Trude I had not read the city's name
written in big letters, I would have thought I was
landing at the same airport from which I had taken
off. The suburbs they drove me through were no dif-
ferent from the others, with the same little greenish
and yellowish houses. Following the same signs we
swung around the same flower beds in the same
squares. The downtown streets displayed goods,
packages, signs that had not changed at all. This was
the first time I had come to Trude, but I already
knew the hotel where I happened to be lodged; I had
already heard and spoken my dialogues with the
buyers and sellers of hardware; I had ended other
days identically, looking through the same goblets at
the same swaying navels.
Why come to Trude? I asked myself. And I al-
ready wanted to leave.
"You can resume your flight whenever you
like," they said to me, "but you will arrive at another
Trude, absolutely the same, detail by detail. The
world is covered by a sole Trude which does not
begin and does not end. Only the name of the airport
In Olinda, if you go out with a magnifying glass and
hunt carefully, you may find somewhere a point no
bigger than the head of a pin which, if you look at it
slightly enlarged, reveals within itself the roofs, the
antennas, the skylights, the gardens, the pools,
the streamers across the streets, the kiosks in the
squares, the horse-racing track. That point does not
remain there: a year later you will find it the size of
half a lemon, then as large as a mushroom, then a
soup plate. And then it becomes a full-size city, en-
closed within the earlier city: a new city that forces
its way ahead in the earlier city and presses it toward
Olinda is certainly not the only city that grows
in concentric circles, like tree trunks which each year
add one more ring. But in other cities there remains,
in the center, the old narrow girdle of the walls from
which the withered spires rise, the towers, the tiled
roofs, the domes, while the new quarters sprawl around
them like a loosened belt. Not Olinda: the old walls ex-
pand bearing the old quarters with them, enlarged, but
maintaining their proportions on a broader horizon at
the edges of the city; they surround the slightly newer
quarters, which also grew up on the margins and became
thinner to make room for still more recent ones pressing
from inside; and so, on and on, to the heart of the city,
a totally new Olinda which, in its reduced dimensions re-
tains the features and the flow of lymph of the first Olinda
and of all the Olindas that have blossomed one from the
other; and within this innermost circle there are already
blossoming-though it is hard to discern them-the next
Olinda and those that will grow after it.
...The Great Khan tried to concentrate on the game:
but now it was the game's reason that eluded him. The end
of every game is a gain or a loss: but of what? What were
the real stakes? At checkmate, beneath the foot of the king,
knocked aside by the winner's hand, nothingness remains: a
black square, or a white one. By disembodying his conquests
to reduce them to the essential, Kublai had arrived at the
extreme operation: the definitive conquest, of which the
empire's muitiform treasures were only illusory envelopes,
it was reduced to a square of planed wood.
Then Marco Polo spoke: "Your chessboard, sire, is
inlaid with two woods: ebony and maple. The square on
which your enlightened gaze is fixed was cut from the ring
of a trunk that grew in a year of drought: you see how its
fibers are arranged? Here a barely hinted knot can he made
out: a bud tried to burgeon on a premature spring day, but
the night's frost forced it to desist."
Until then the Great Khan had not realized that the
foreigner knew how to express himself fluently in his
language, but it was not this fluency that amazed him.
"Here is a thicker pore: perhaps it was a larvum's nest;
not a woodworm, because, once born, it would have begun
to dig, but a caterpillar that gnawed the leaves and was
the cause of the tree's being chosen for chopping down...
This edge was scored hy the wood carver with his gouge so
that it would adhere to the next square, more protruding..."
The quantity of things that could he read in a little
piece of smooth and empty wood overwhelmed Kublai; Polo
was already talking ahout ebony forests, ahout rafts laden
with logs that come down the rivers, of docks, of women at
The Great Khan owns an atlas where all the cities of the
empire and the neighboring realms are drawn, building by
building and street by street, with walls, rivers, bridges,
harbors, cliffs. He realizes that from Marco Polo's tales it
is pointless to expect news of those places, which for that
matter he knows well: how at Kambalu, capital of China,
three square cities stand one within the other, each with
four temples and four gates that are opened according to the
seasons; how on the island of Java the rhinoceros rages,
charging, with his murderous horn; how pearls are gathered
on the ocean bed off the coasts of Malabar.
Kublai asks Marco, "When you return to the West,
will you repeat to your people the same tales you tell me?"
"I speak and speak," Marco says, "but the listener
retains only the words he is expecting, The description of
the world to which you lend a benevolent ear is one thing,'
the description that will go the rounds of the groups of
stevedores and gondoliers on the street outside my house
the day of my return is another; and yet another, that which
I might dictate late in life, if I were taken prisoner by
Genoese pirates and put in irons in the same cell with a
writer of adventure stories, It is not the voice that com-
mands the story: it is the ear."
"At times I feel your voice is reaching me from
far away, while I am prisoner of a gaudy and unlivable
present, where all forms of human society has reached an
extreme of their cycle and there is no imagining what new
forms they may assume. And I hear, from your voice, the
invisible reasons which make cities live, through which
perhaps, once dead, they will come to life again."
The Great Khan owns an atlas whose drawings depict
the terrestrial globe all at once and continent by continent,
the borders of the most distant realms, the ships' routes, the
coastlines, the maps of the most illustrious metropolises and
of the most opulent ports. He leafs through the maps before
Marco Polo's eyes to put his knowledge to the test. The
traveler recognizes Constantinople in the city which from
three shores dominates a long strait, a narrow gulf, and an
enclosed sea; he remembers that Jerusalem is set on two
hills, of unequal height, facing each other; he has no hesi-
tation in pointing to Samarkand and its gardens.
For other cities he falls back on descriptions handed
down by word of mouth, or he guesses on the basis of scant
indications: and so Granada, the streaked pearl of the
caliphs; Lubeck, the neat, boreal port; Timbuktu, black
with ebony and white with ivory; Paris, where millions of
men come home every day grasping a wand of bread. In
colored miniatures the atlas depicts inhabited places of
unusual form: an oasis hidden in a fold of the desert from
which only palm crests peer out is surely Nefta; a castle
amid quicksands and cows grazing in meadows salted by
the tides can only suggest Mont-Saint-Michel; and a palace
that instead of rising within a city's walls contains
within its own walls a city can only be Urbino.
The atlas depicts cities which neither Marco nor the
geographers know exist or where they are, though they cannot
be missing among the forms of possible cities: a Cuzco on a
radial and multipartite plan which reflects the perfect order
of its trade, a verdant Mexico on the lake dominated by
Montezuma's palace, a Novgorod with bulb-shaped domes,
a Lhassa whose white roofs rise over the cloudy roof of the
world. For these, too, Marco says a name, no matter
which, and suggests a route to reach them. It is known
that names of places change as many times as there are
foreign languages; and that every place can be reached from
other places, by the most various roads and routes, by those
who ride, or drive, or row, or fly.
"I think you recognize cities better on the atlas than
when you visit them in person," the emperor says to Marco.
snapping the volume shut.
And Polo answers, "Traveling, you realize that differ-
ences are lost: each city takes to resembling all cities,
places exchange their form, order, distances, a shapeless
dust cloud invades the continents. Your atlas preserves the
differences intact: that assortment of qualities which are
like the letters in a name."
The Great Khan owns an atlas in which are gathered
the maps of all the cities: those whose walls rest on solid
foundations, those which fell in ruins and were swallowed
up hy the sand, those that will exist one day and in whose
place now only hares' holes gape.
Marco Polo leafs through the pages; he recognizes
Jericho, Ur, Carthage, he points to the landing at the mouth
of the Scamander where the Achaean ships waited for ten
years to take the besiegers back on board, until the horse
nailed together by Ulysses was dragged by windlasses
through he Scaean gates. But speaking of Troy, he hap-
pened to give the city the form of Constantinople and
foresee the siege which Mohammed would lay for long
months until, astute as Ulysses, he had his ships drawn at
night up the streams from the Bosporus to the Golden
Horn, skirting Pera and Galata. And from the mixture of
those two cities a third emerged, which might he called San
Francisco and which spans the Golden Gate and the bay
with long, light bridges and sends open trams climbing its
steep streets, and which might blossom as capital of the
Pacific a millennium hence, after the long siege of three
hundred years that would lead the races of the yellow and
the black and the red to fuse with the surviving descendants
of the whites in an empire more vast than the Great
The atlas has these qualities: it reveals the form of
cities that do not yet have a form or a name. There is the
city in the shape of Amsterdam, a semicircle facing north,
with concentric canals--the princes', the emperor's, the
nobles'; there is the city in the shape of York, set among
the high moors, walled, bristling with towers; there is the
city in the shape of New Amsterdam known also as New York,
crammed with towers of glass and steel on an oblong island
between two rivers, with streets like deep canals, all of
them straight, except Broadway.
The catalogue of forms is endless: until every shape
has found its city, new cities will continue to be born. When
the forms exhaust their variety and come apart, the end of
cities begins. In the last pages of the atlas there is an out-
pouring of networks without beginning or end, cities in the
shape of Los Angeles, in the shape of Kyoto-Osaka, without
Like Laudomia, every city has at its side another city
whose inhabitants are called by the same names: it is
the Laudomia of the dead, the cemetery. But Laudomia's
special faculty is that of being not only double,
but triple; it comprehends, in short, a third Laudomia,
the city of the unborn.
The properties of the double city are well known.
The more the Laudomia of the living becomes
crowded and expanded, the more the expanse of
tombs increases beyond the walls. The streets of the
Laudomia of the dead are just wide enough to allow
the gravedigger's cart to pass, and many windowless
buildings look out on them; but the pattern of the
streets and the arrangement of the dwellings repeat
those of the living Laudomia, and in both, families
are more and more crowded together, in compartments
crammed one above the other. On fine afternoons
the living population pays a visit to the dead
and they decipher their own names on their stone
slabs: like the city of the living, this other city com-
municates a history of toil, anger, illusions, emotions;
only here all has become necessary, divorced
from chance, categorized, set in order. And to feel
sure of itself, the living Laudomia has to seek in the
Laudomia of the dead the explanation of itself, even
at the risk of finding more there, or less: explanations
for more than one Laudomia, for different cities
that could have been and were not, or reasons that
are incomplete, contradictory, disappointing.
Rightly, Laudomia assigns an equally vast resi-
dence to those who are still to be born. Naturally the
space is not in proportion to their number, which is
presumably infinite, but since the area is empty, sur-
rounded by an architecture all niches and bays and
grooves, and since the unborn can be imagined of
any size, big as mice or silkworms or ants or ants'
eggs, there is nothing against imagining them erect
or crouching on every object or bracket that juts
from the walls, on every capital or plinth, lined up
or dispersed, intent on the concerns of their future
life, and so you can contemplate in a marble vein all
Laudomia of a hundred or a thousand years hence,
crowded with multitudes in clothing never seen before,
all in eggplant-colored barracans, for example,
or with turkey feathers on their turbans, and you can
recognize your own descendants and those of other
families, friendly or hostile, of debtors and creditors,
continuing their affairs, revenges, marrying for love
or for money. The living of Laudomia frequent the
house of the unborn to interrogate them: footsteps
echo beneath the hollow domes; the questions are
asked in silence; and it is always about themselves
that the living ask, not about those who are to come.
One man is concerned with leaving behind him an
illustrious reputation, another wants his shame to be
forgotten; all would like to follow the thread of their
own actions' consequences; but the more they sharpen
their eyes, the less they can discern a continuous
line; the future inhabitants of Laudomia seem like
dots, grains of dust, detached from any before or
The Laudomia of the unborn does not transmit,
like the city of the dead, any sense of security to the
inhabitants of the living Laudomia: only alarm. In
the end, the visitors' thoughts find two paths open
before them, and there is no telling which harbors
more anguish: either you must think that the number
of the unborn is far greater than the total of all the
living and all the dead, and then in every pore of
the stone there are invisible hordes, jammed on the
funnel-sides as in the stands of a stadium, and since
with each generation Laudomia's descendants are
multiplied, every funnel contains hundreds of other
funnels each with millions of persons who are to be
born, thrusting their necks out and opening their
mouths to escape suffocation. Or else you think that
Laudomia, too, will disappear, no telling when, and
all its citizens with it; in other words the generations
will follow one another until they reach a certain
number and will then go no further. Then the
Laudomia of the dead and that of the unborn are like
the two bulbs of an hourglass which is not turned
over; each passage between birth and death is a grain
of sand that passes the neck, and there will be a last
inhabitant of Laudomia born, a last grain to f.lll,
which is now at the top of the pile, waiting.
Summoned to lay down the rules for the foundation
of Perinthia, the astronomers established the place
and the day according to the position of the stars;
they drew the intersecting lines of the decumanus
and the cardo, the first oriented to the passage of the
sun and the other like the axis on which the heavens
turn. They divided the map according to the twelve
houses of the zodiac so that each temple and each
neighborhood would receive the proper influence of
the favoring constellations; they fixed the point in
the walls where gates should be cut, foreseeing how
each would frame an eclipse of the moon in the next
thousand years. Perinthia-they guaranteed-would
reflect the harmony of the firmament; nature's reason
and the gods' benevolence would shape the inhabitants'
Following the astronomers' calculations precisely,
Perinthia was constructed; various peoples came to
populate it; the first generation born in Perinthia
began to grow within its walls; and these citizens
reached the age to marry and have children.
In Perinthia's streets and square today you
encounter cripples, dwarfs, hunchbacks, obese men,
bearded women. But the worse cannot be seen; gut-
tural howls are heard from cellars and lofts, where
families hide children with three heads or with six
Perinthia's astronomers are faced with a difficult
choice. Either they must admit that all their calculations
were wrong and their figures are unable to
describe the heavens, or else they must reveal that
the order of the gods is reflected exactly in the city of
Each year in the course of my travels I stop at Proce-
pia and take lodgings in the same room in the same inn.
Ever since the first time I have lingered to contem-
plate the landscape to be seen by raising the curtain
at the window: a ditch, a bridge, a little wall, a medlar,
a field of corn, a bramble patch' with blackberries,
a chicken yard, the yellow hump of a hill, a white
cloud, a stretch of blue sky shaped like a trapeze.
The first time I am sure there was no one to be
seen; it was only the following year that, at a move-
ment among the leaves, I could discern a round, flat
face, gnawing on an ear of corn. A year later there
were three of them on the wall, and at my return I
saw six, seated in a row, with their hands on their
knees and some medlars in a dish. Each year, as soon
as I entered the room, I raised the curtain and
counted more faces: sixteen, including those down in
the ditch; twenty-nine, of whom eight were perched
in the medlar; forty-seven, besides those in the
chicken house. They look alike, they seem polite,
they have freckles on their cheeks, they smile, some
have lips stained by blackberries. Soon I saw the
whole bridge filled with round-faced characters,
huddled, because they had no more room to move in;
they chomped the kernels of corn, then they gnawed
on the ears.
And so, as year followed year, I saw the ditch
vanish, the tree, the bramble patch. hidden by hedges
of calm smiles, between round cheeks, moving, chewing
leaves. You have no idea how many people can be con-
tained in a confined space like that little field of com.
especially when they are seated, hugging their knees,
motionless. They must have been many more than they
seemed: I saw the hump of the hill become covered with
a thicker and thicker crowd; but now that the ones on
the bridge have got into the habit of straddling one ano-
ther's shoulders, my gaze can no longer reach that far.
This year. finally, as I raise the curtain, the window
frames only an expanse of faces: from one corner
to the other, at all levels and all distances, those
round, motionless, entirely flat faces are seen, with a
hint of a smile, and in their midst, many hands,
grasping the shoulders of those in front. Even the
sky has disappeared. I might as well leave the window.
Not that it is easy for me to move. There are
twenty-six of us lodged in my room: to shift my feet
I have to disturb those crouching on the floor, I force
my way among the knees of those seated on the chest
of drawers and the elbows of those taking turns leaning
on the bed: all very polite people, luckily.
In Raissa, life is not happy. People wring their hands
as they walk in the streets. curse the crying children,
lean on the railings over the river and press their fists
to their temples. In the morning you wake from one
bad dream and another begins. At the workbenches
where, every moment, you hit your finger with a
hammer or prick it with a needle, or over the columns
of figures all awry in the ledgers of merchants
and bankers, or at the rows of empty glasses on the
zinc counters of the wineshops, the bent heads at
least conceal the general grim gaze. Inside the houses
it is worse. and you do not have to enter to learn
this: in the summer the windows resound with quarrels
and broken dishes.
And yet, in Raissa, at every moment there is a
child in a window who laughs seeing a dog that has
jumped on a shed to bite into a piece of polenta
dropped by a stonemason who has shouted from the
top of the scaffolding. "Darling, let me dip into it,"
to a young serving-maid who holds up a dish of
ragout under the pergola, happy to serve it to the
umbrella-maker who is celebrating a successful tran-
saction, a white lace parasol bought to display at the
races by a great lady in love with an officer who has
smiled at her taking the last jump, happy man, and
still happier his horse, flying over the obstacles,
seeing a francolin flying in the sky, happy bird freed
from its cage by a painter happy at having painted it
feather by feather, speckled with red and yellow in
the illumination of that page in the volume where
the philosopher says: "Also in Raissa, city of sadness,
there runs an invisible thread that binds one living
being to another for a moment, then unravels, then
is stretched again between moving points as it draws
new and rapid patterns so that at every second the
unhappy city contains a happy city unaware of its
Andria was built so artfully that its every street follows
a planet's orbit, and the buildings and the places of com-
munity life repeat the order of the constellations and
the position of the most luminous stars: Antares, Alph-
eratz, Capricorn, the Cepheids. The city's calendar is so
regulated that jobs and offices and ceremonies are ar-
ranged in a map corresponding to the firmament on that
date: and thus the days on earth and the nights in the
sky reflect each other.
Though it is painstakingly regimented, the city's
life flows calmly like the motion of the celestial bodies
and it acquires the inevitability of phenomena not
subject to human caprice. In praising Andria's citizens
for their productive industry and their spiritual
ease, I was led to say: I can well understand how
you, feeling yourselves part of an unchanging
heaven, cogs in a meticulous clockwork, take care
not to make the slightest change in your city and
your habits. Andria is the only city I know where it
is best to remain motionless in time.
They looked at one another dumbfounded. "But
why? Whoever said such a thing?" And they led me
to visit a suspended street recently opened over a
bamboo grove, a shadow-theater under construction
in the place of the municipal kennels, now moved to
the pavilions of the former lazaretto, abolished when
the last plague victims were cured, and-just inaugu-
rated--a river port, a statue of Thales, a toboggan
"And these innovations do not disturb your city's
astral rhythm?" I asked.
"Our city and the sky correspond so perfectly,"
they answered, "that any change in Andria involves
some novelty among the stars." The astronomers,
after each change takes place in Andria, peer into
their telescopes and report a nova's explosion, or a
remote point in the firmament's change of color from
orange to yellow, the expansion of a nebula, the
bending of a spiral of the Milky Way. Each change
implies a sequence of other changes, in Andria as
among the stars: the city and the sky never remain
As for the character of Andria's inhabitants, two
virtues are worth mentioning: self-confidence and
prudence. Convinced that every innovation in the
city influences the sky's pattern, before taking any
decision they calculate the risks and advantages for
themselves and for the city and for all worlds.
You reproach me because each of my stories takes
you right into the heart of a city without telling you
of the space that stretches between one city and the
other, whether it is covered by seas, or fields of rye,
larch forests, swamps. I will answer you with a story.
In the streets of Cecilia, an illustrious city, I met
once a goatherd, driving a tinkling flock along the
"Man blessed by heaven," he asked me, stopping,
"can you tell me the name of the city in which we
"May the gods accompany you!" I cried. "How
can you fail to recognize the illustrious city of Cecilia?"
"Bear with me," that man answered. "I am a wan-
dering herdsman. Sometimes my goats and I have to
pass through cities; but we are unable to distinguish
them. Ask me the names of the grazing lands: I
know them all, the Meadow between the Cliffs, the
Green Slope, the Shadowed Grass. Cities have no
name for me: they are places without leaves, separa-
ting one pasture from another, and where the goats
are frightened at street corners and scatter. The dog
and I run to keep the flock together."
"I am the opposite of you," I said. "I recognize
only cities and cannot distinguish what is outside
them. In uninhabited places each stone and each
clump of grass mingles, in my eyes, with every other
stone and clump."
Many years have gone by since then; I have known
many more cities and I have crossed continents. One
day I was walking among rows of identical houses; I
was lost. I asked a passerby: "May the immortals
protect you, can you tell me where we are?"
"In Cecilia, worse luck!" he answered. "We have
been wandering through its streets, my goats and I,
for an age, and we cannot find our way out. . . ."
I recognized him, despite his long white beard; it
was the same herdsman of long before. He was followed
by a few, mangy goats, which did not even stink, they
were so reduced to skin-and-bones. They cropped
wastepaper in the rubbish bins.
"That cannot be!" I shouted. "I, too, entered a
city, I cannot remember when, and since then I have
gone on, deeper and deeper into its streets. But how
have I managed to arrive where you say, when I was
in another city, far far away from Cecilia, and I have
not yet left it?"
"The places have mingled," the goatherd said.
"Cecilia is everywhere. Here, once upon a time,
there must have been the Meadow of the Low Sage.
My goats recognize the grass on the traffic island."
A sibyl, questioned about Marozia's fate, said, "I see
two cities: one of the rat, one of the swallow."
This was the interpretation of the oracle: today
Marozia is a city where all run through leaden passages
like packs of rats who tear from one another's
teeth the leftovers which fall from the teeth of the
most voracious ones; but a new century is about to
begin in which all the inhabitants of Marozia will fly
like swallows in the summer sky. calling one another
as in a game. showing off. their wings still. as they
swoop. clearing the air of mosquitos and gnats.
"It is time for the century of the rat to end and
the century of the swallow to begin." the more determined
said. In fact, already beneath the grim and petty rattish
dominion, you could sense, among the less obvious people,
a pondering, the preparation of a swallowlike flight, head-
ing for the transparent air with a deft flick of the tail,
then tracing with their wings' blade the curve of an
I have come back to Marozia after many years: for
some time the sibyl's prophecy is considered to have
come true; the old century is dead and buried. the
new is at its climax. The city has surely changed.
and perhaps for the better. But the wings I have seen
moving about are those of suspicious umbrellas
under which heavy eyelids are lowered; there are people
who believe they are flying. but it is already an
achievement if they can get off the ground flapping
their batlike overcoats.
It also happens that, if you move along Marozia's
compact walls, when you least expect it, you see a
crack open and a different city appear. Then, an instant
later, it has already vanished. Perhaps everything
lies in knowing what words to speak, whit actions
to perform, and in what order and rhythm; or
else someone s gaze, answer, gesture is enough; it is
enough for someone to do something for the sheer
pleasure of doing it, and for his pleasure to become
the pleasure of others: at that moment, all spaces
change, all heights, distances; the city is transfigured,
becomes crystalline, transparent as a dragonfly.
But everything must happen as if by chance, without
attaching too much importance to it, without insisting
that you are performing a decisive operation,
remembering clearly that any moment the old Marazia
will return and solder its ceiling of stone, cobwebs,
and mold over all heads.
Was the oracle mistaken? Not necessarily. I in-
terpret it in this way: Marozia consists of two cities,
the rat's and the swallow's; both change with time,
but their relationship does not change; the second is
the one about to free itself from the first.
To tell you about Penthesilea I should begin by
describing the entrance to the city. You no doubt
imagine seeing a girdle of walls rising from the dusty
plain as you slowly approach the gate, guarded by
customs men who are already casting oblique glances
at your bundles. Until you have reached it you are
outside it; you pass beneath an archway and you find
yourself within the city; its compact thickness surrounds
you; carved in its stone there is a pattern that
will be revealed to you if you follow its jagged outline.
If this is what you believe you are wrong: Pen-
thesilea is different. You advance for hours and it is
not clear to you whether you are already in the city's
midst or still outside it. Like a lake with low shores
lost in swamps so Penthesilea spreads for miles
around a soupy city diluted in the plain; pale build-
ings back to back in mangy fields among plank
fences and corrugated-iron sheds. Every now and
then at the edges of the street a cluster of construc-
tions with shallow facades very tall or very low like
a snaggle-toothed comb seems to indicate that from
there the city's texture will thicken. But you continue
and you find instead other vague spaces, then a
rusty suburb of workshops and warehouses, a ceme-
tery. a carnival with Ferris wheel, a shambles; you
start down a street of scrawny shops which fades
amid patches of leprous countryside.
If you ask the people you meet, "Where is Pen-
thesilea?" they make a broad gesture which may mean
"Here," or else "Farther on," or "All around you,"
or even "In the opposite direction."
"I mean the city," you ask, insistently.
"We come here every morning to work," some-
one answers, while others say, "We come back here
at night to sleep."
"But the city where people live?" you ask.
"It must be that way," they say, and some
raise their arms obliquely toward an aggregation of
opaque polyhedrons on the horizon, while others
indicate, behind you, the specter of other spires.
"Then I've gone past it without realizing it?"
"No, try going on straight ahead."
And so you continue, passing from outskirts to
outskirts, and the time comes to leave Penthesilea.
You ask for the road out of the city; you pass again
the string of scattered suburbs like a freckled pigmen-
tation; night falls; windows come alight, here more con-
centrated, sparser there.
You have given up trying to understand whether,
hidden in some sac or wrinkle of these dilapidated
surroundings there exists a Penthesilea the visitor can
recognize and remember, or whether Penthesilea is
only the outskirts of itself. The question that now
begins to gnaw at your mind is more anguished: outside
Penthesilea does an outside exist? Or, no matter
how far you go from the city, will you only pass from
one limbo to another, never managing to leave it?
Recurrent invasions racked the city of Theodora in
the centuries of its history; no sooner was one enemy
routed than another gained strength and threatened
the survival of the inhabitants. When the sky was
cleared of condors, they had to face the propagation
of serpents; the spiders' extermination allowed the
flies to multiply into a black swarm; the victory over
the termites left the city at the mercy of the woodworms.
One by one the species incompatible to the
city had to succumb and were extinguished. By dint
of ripping away scales and carapaces, tearing off elytra
and feathers, the people gave Theodora the exclusive
image of human city that still distinguishes it.
But first, for many long years, it was uncertain
whether or not the final victory would not go to the
last species left to fight man's possession of the city:
the rats. From each generation of rodents that the
people managed to exterminate, the few surviviors
gave birth to a tougher progeny, invulnerable to
traps and resistant to all poison. In the space of a few
weeks, the sewers of Theodora were repopulated with
hordes of spreading rats. At last, with an extreme
massacre, the murderous, versatile ingenuity of mankind
defeated the overweening life-force of the enemy.
The city, great cemetery of the animal kingdom,
was closed, aseptic, over the final buried corpses with
their last Beas and their last germs. Man had finally
reestablished the order of the world which he had
himself upset: no other living species existed to cast
any doubts. To recall what had been fauna, Theodora's
library would preserve on its shelves the volumes
of Buffon and Linnaeus.
At least that is what Theodora's inhabitants
believed, far from imagining that a forgotten fauna was
stirring from its lethargy. Relegated for long eras to
remote hiding places, ever since it had been deposed
by the system of nonextinct species, the other fauna
was coming back to the light from the library's basements
where the incunabula were kept; it was leaping
from the capitals and drainpipes, perching at the
sleepers' bedside. Sphinxes, griffons, chimeras,
dragons, hircocervi, harpies, hydras, unicorns, basilisks
were resuming possession of their city.
I should not tell you of Berenice, the unjust city,
which crowns with triglyphs, abaci, metopes the
gears of its meat-grinding machines (the men as-
signed to polishing, when they raise their chins over
the balustrades and contemplate the atria, stairways,
porticos, feel even more imprisoned and short of sta-
ture). Instead, I should tell you of the hidden Bere-
nice, the city of the just, handling makeshift materials
in the shadowy rooms behind the shops and beneath
the stairs, linking a network of wires and pipes and
pulleys and pistons and counterweights that infil-
trates like a climbing plant among the great cogged
wheels (when they jam, a subdued ticking gives warn-
ing that a new precision mechanism is governing the
city). Instead of describing to you the perfumed
pools of the baths where the unjust of Berenice re-
cline and weave their intrigues with rotund eloquence
and observe with a proprietary eye the rotund
flesh of the bathing odalisques, I should say to you
how the just, always cautious to evade the spying
sycophants and the Janizaries' mass arrests, recognize
one another by their way of speaking, especially their
pronunciation of commas and parentheses; from their
habits which remain austere and innocent, avoiding
complicated and nervous moods; from their sober but
tasty cuisine, which evokes an ancient golden age:
rice and celery soup, boiled beans, fried squash
From these data it is possible to deduce an
image of the future Berenice, which will bring you clos-
er to knowing the truth than any other information
about the city as it is seen today. You must neverthe-
less bear in mind what I am about to say to you: in
the seed of the city of the just, a malignant seed is
hidden, in its turn: the certainty and pride of being in
the right-and of being more just than many others
who call themselves more just than the just. This
seed ferments in bitterness, rivalry, resentment; and
the natural desire of revenge on the: unjust is colored
by a yearning to be in their place and to act as they
do. Another unjust city, though different from the
first, is digging out its space within the double
sheath of the unjust and just Berenices.
Having said this, I do not wish your eyes to
catch a distorted image, so I must draw your attention
to an intrinsic quality of this unjust city germinating
secretly inside the secret just city: and this is the
possible awakening-as if in an excited opening of
windows-of a later love for justice, not yet subjected
to rules, capable of reassembling a city still more
just than it was before it became the vessel of
injustice. But if you peer deeper into this new germ
of justice you can discern a tiny spot that is spreading
like the mounting tendency to impose what is
just through what is unjust. and perhaps this is the
germ of an immense metropolis. . . .
From my words you will have reached the con-
clusion that the real Berenice is a temporal succession
of different cities. alternately just and unjust. But what
I wanted to warn you about is something else: all the
future Berenices are already present in this instant,
wrapped one within the other, confined, crammed,
The Great Khan's atlas contains also the maps of the
promised lands visited in thought but not yet discovered
or founded: New Atlantis, Utopia, the City of the Sun,
Oceana, Tamoe, New Harmony, New Lanark, lcaria.
Kublai asked Marco: "You, who go about exploring
and who see signs, can tell me toward which of these
futures the favoring winds are driving us."
"For these ports I could not draw a route on the
map or set a date for the landing. At times all I need is a
brief glimpse, an opening in the midst of an incongruous
landscape, a glint of lights in the fog, the dialogue of two
passersby meeting in the crowd, and I think that, setting out
from there, I will put together, piece by piece, the perfect
city, made of fragments mixed with the rest, of instants
separated by intervals, of signals one sends out, not know-
ing who receives them. If I tell you that the city toward
which my journey tends is discontinuous in space and time,
now scattered, now more condensed, you must not believe
the search for it can stop. Perhaps while we speak, it is
rising, scattered, within the confines of your empire; you
can hunt for it, but only in the way I have said. "
Already the Great Khan was leafing through his atlas,
over the maps of the cities that menace in nightmares and
maledictions: Enoch, Babylon, Yahooland, Butua, Brave
He said: "It is all useless, if the last landing place
can only be the infernal city, and it is there that, in ever-
narrowing circles, the current is drawing us. "
And Polo said: "The inferno of the living is not
something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already
here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by
being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it.
The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become
such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second
is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension:
seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of
the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give
the desperate moment when we discover that this empire, which had seemed to us
the sum of all wonders, is an endless, formless ruin, that corruption's gangrene has
spread too far to be healed by our scepter, that the triumph over enemy sovereigns
has made us the heirs of their long undoing.
Cities and memory 1
the special quality of Diomira when the multicolored lamps are lighted all at once
at the doors of the food stalls and from a terrace a woman's voice cries ooh!, is
that the traveler feels envy toward those who now believe they have once before
lived an evening identical to this and who think they were happy, that time.
Cities and memory 2
He was thinking of all these things when he desired a city. Isidora, therefore, is the
city of his dreams: with one difference. The dreamed-of city contained him as a young
man; he arrives at Isidora in his old age. In the square there is the wall where the
old men sit and watch the young go by; he is seated in a row with them. Desires are
Cities and desire 1
"I arrived here in my first youth, one morning, many people were hurrying along the
streets toward the market, the women had fine teeth and looked you straight in the
eye...Before then I had known only the desert and the caravan routes. In the years
that followed, my eyes returned to contemplate the desert expanses and the caravan
routes; but now I know this path is only one of the many that opened before me on
that morning in Dorothea."
Cities and memory 3
The city does not consist of this, but of relationships between the measurements of
its space and the events of its past: the height of a lamppost and the distance from
the ground of a hanged usurper's swaying feet; the rips in the fish net and the three
old men seated on the dock mending nets and telling each other for the hundredth time
the Story of the gunboat of the usurper...
Cities and desire 2
The city appears to you as a whole where no desire is lost and of which you are a part,
and since it enjoys everything you do not enjoy, you can do nothing but inhabit this
desire and be content...if for eight hours a day you work as a cutter of agate, onyx,
chrysoprase, your labor which gives form to desire takes from desire its form, and
you believe you are enjoying Anastasia wholly when you are only its slave.
Cities and signs 1
The wares, too, which the vendors display on their stalls are valuable not in
themselves but as signs of other things: the embroidered headband stands for
elegance; the gilded palanquin, power; the volumes of Averroes, learning; the
ankle bracelet, voluptuousness. Your gaze scans the streets as if they were written
pages: the city says everything you must think, makes you repeat her discourse...
Cities and memory 4
This city which cannot be expunged from the mind is like an armature, a honey-comb in
whose cells each of us can place the things he wants to remember: So the world's most
learned men are those who have memorized Zora. But in vain I set out to visit the city:
forced to remain motionless and always the same, in order to be more easily remembered,
Zora has languished, disintegrated, disappeared. The earth has forgotten her.
Cities and desire 3
Despina displays one face to the traveler arriving overland and a different one to him
who arrives by sea.. When the camel driver sees the pinnacles of the skyscrapers come
into view, he knows it is a city, but he thinks of it as a vessel that will take him
away from the desert...In the coastline's haze, the sailor knows it is a city, but he
thinks of it as a camel from whose pack hang wineskins and bags of candied fruit, date
wine...Each city receives its form from the desert it opposes;
Cities and signs 2
Travelers return from the city of Zirma with distinct memories: a blind black man shouting
in the crowd, a lunatic teetering on a skyscraper's cornice, a girl walking with a puma on
a leash. Actually, in every skyscraper there is someone going mad; all lunatics spend hours
on cornices; there is no puma that some girl does not raise, as a whim. Memory is redundant:
it repeats signs so that the city can begin to exist.
Thin cities l
Isaura, city of the thousand wells, is said to rise over a deep, subterranean lake.
The city's gods, according to some people, live in the depths, in the black lake that
feeds the underground streams. According to others, the gods live in the buckets that
rise, suspended from a cable, as they appear over the edge of the wells,
only through foreign eyes and ears could the empire manifest its existence to Kublai.
In languages incomprehensible to the Khan, the envoys related information heard in
languages incomprehensible to them: Perhaps, Kublai thought, the empire is nothing
but a zodiac of the mind's phantasms. "On the day when I know all the emblems," he
asked Marco, "shall I be able to possess my empire, at last?" And the Venetian an-
swered: "Sire, do not believe it. On that day you will be an emblem among emblems."
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. Futures not achieved are only branches of the past:
dead branches. Elsewhere is a negative mirror...The traveler recognizes the little that
is his. discovering the much he has not had and will never have.
Cities and memory 5
In Maurilia, the traveler is invited to visit the city and, at the same time, to examine
some old post cards that show it as it used to be: the same identical square with a hen
in the place of the bus station, two young ladies with white parasols in the place of the
munitions factory...sometimes different cities follow one another on the same site and un-
der the same name, born and dying without knowing one another...
Cities and desire 4
In the center of Fedora, that gray stone metropolis, standsa metal building with a crystal
globe in every room. Looking into each globe, you see a blue city, the model of a different
Fedora. These are the forms the city could have taken On the map of your empire, 0 Great
Khan, there must be room both for the big, stone Fedora and the little Fedoras in glass
globes. The one contains what is accepted as necessary when it is not yet so; the others,
what is imagined as possible and, a moment later, is possible no longer.
Cities and signs 3
as soon as the stranger arrives he immediately distinguishes which are the princes' palaces,
the tavern, the prison, the slum. This--some say--confirms the hypothesis that each man
bears in his mind a city made only of differences, a city without figures and without form,
and the individual cities fill it up...if existence in all its moments is all of itself, Zoe is the
place of indivisible existence. But why, then, does the city exist? What line separates the
inside from the outside, the rumble of wheels from the howl of wolves?
Thin cities 2
though set on dry terrain it stands on high pilings, linked by ladders and hanging sidewalks,
surmounted by cone-roofed belvederes, barrels storing water, weather vanes, jutting pulleys,
and fish poles, and cranes...the city as we see it today has perhaps grown through successive
superimpositions from the first, now undecipherable plan...(we can) divide cities into two
species: those that through the years and the changes continue to give their form to desires,
and those in which desires either erase the city or are erased by it.
Trading cities 1
You do not come to Euphemia only to buy and sell, but also because at night, all around the
market, at each word that one man says--such as "wolf," "sister," "hidden treasure," "battle,"
"scabies," "lovers"--the others tell, each one, his tale of wolves, sisters, treasures, scabies,
lovers, battles...summoning up your memories one by one, your wolf will have become another
wolf, your sister a different sister, your battle other battles, on your return from Euphemia,
the city where memory is traded at every solstice and at every equinox.
But what enhanced for Kublai every event or piece of news reported by his inarticulate infor-
mer was the space that remained around it, a void not filled with words. As time went by.
words began to replace objects and gestures in Marco's ideas: first exclamations, isolated
names, dry verbs, then phrases, ramified and leafy discourses, metaphors and tropes. A new
kind of dialogue was established: the Great Khan's white hands, heavy with rings, answered
with stately movements the sinewy, agile hands of the merchant.
With cities, it is as with dreams: everything imaginable can be dreamed, but even the most
unexpected dream is a rebus that conceals a desire or, its reverse, a fear. "I have neither
desires nor fears," the Khan declared, "and my dreams are composed either by my mind or by
chance." You take delight not in a city's seven or seventy wonders, but in the answer it
gives to a question of yours." "Or the question it asks you, forcing you to answer, like
Thebes through the mouth of the Sphinx."
Cities and desire 5
Zobeide, the white city, well exposed to the moon, with streets wound about themselves as
in a skein: men of various nations had an identical dream. They saw a woman running at night
through an unknown city; they decided to build a city like the one in the dream. at the spot
where they had lost the fugitive's trail, they arranged spaces and walls differently from
the dream, so she would be unable to escape again. The first to arrive could not understand
what drew these people to Zobeide, this ugly city, this trap.
Cities and signs 4
I walked among the hedges of Hypatia, sure I would discover young and beautiful ladies bath-
ing; but at the bottom of the water, crabs were biting the eyes of the suicides, stones tied
around their necks, their hair green with seaweed. Now I have only to hear the neighing of
horses and the cracking of whips and I am seized with amorous trepidation: And when my spirit
wants no stimulus or nourishment save music, I know it is to be sought in the cemeteries;
Signs form a language, but not the one you think you know.
Thin cities 3
Armilla has no walls, no ceilings, no floors: it has nothing that makes it seem a city, ex-
cept the water pipes that rise vertically where the houses should be and spread out horizon-
tally where the floors should be...the streams of water channeled in the pipes of Armilla
have remained in the possession of nymphs and naiads. they found it easy to enter into the
new aquatic realm, to burst from multiple fountains, to find new mirrors, new games, new
ways of enjoying the water.
Trading cities 2
In Chloe, the people who move through the streets are all strangers. At each encounter,
they imagine a thousand things about one another; meetings which could take place between
them, conversations, surprises, caresses, bites. But no one greets anyone; eyes lock for a
second, then dart away, seeking other eyes, never stopping. If men and women began to live
their ephemeral dreams, every phantom would become a person with whom to begin a story of
pursuits, pretenses, misunderstandings, clashes, and the carousel of fantasies would stop.
Cities and eyes 1
The ancients built Valdrada on the shores of a lake...two cities: one erect above the lake,
and the other reflected, upside down...Valdrada's inhabitants know that each of their act-
ions is, at once, that action and its mirror-image, which possesses the special dignity of
images...Even when lovers twist their naked bodies, skin against skin, even when murderers
plunge the knife into the black veins of the neck, it is not so much their copulating or mur-
dering that matters as the copulating or murdering of the images, limpid and cold in the mirror.
"The harbor faces north, in shadow. The docks are high over the black water, which slams
against the retaining walls; stone steps descend, made slippery by seaweed. Boats smeared
with tar are tied up, waiting for the departing passengers lingering on the quay to bid their
families farewell...."there is no doubt that sooner or later I shall set sail from that dock,"
Marco says, "but I shall not come back to tell you about it. The city exists and it has a
simple secret: it knows only departures, not returns."
my empire is rotting like a corpse in a swamp...Yes, the empire is sick: examining the
traces of happiness still to be glimpsed, I gauge its short supply...my empire is made
of the stuff of crystals...Amid the surge of the elements, a splendid hard diamond takes
shape...When you know at last the residue of unhappiness for which no precious stone can
compensate, you will be able to calculate the exact number of carats toward which that
final diamond must strive.
Cities and signs 5
If there really were an Olivia of mullioned windows and peacocks, of saddlers and rug-
weavers and canoes and estuaries, it would be a wretched, black, fly-ridden hole, and
to describe it, I would have to fall back on the metaphors of soot, the creaking of
wheels, repeated actions, sarcasm. Falsehood is never in words; it is in things.
Thin cities 4
One of the half-cities is permanent, the other is temporary, and when the period of its
sojourn is over, they uproot it, dismantle it, and take it off, transplanting it to the
vacant lots of another half-city.
Trading cities 3
the whole citizenry decides to move to the next city, which is there waiting for them,
empty and good as new; there each will take up a new job, a different wife...The inhab-
itants repeat the same scenes, with the actors changed; they repeat the same speeches
with variously combined accents; they open alternate mouths in identical yawns.
Cities and eyes 2
you hear of the upper Zemrude chiefly from those who remember it, as they sink into the
lower Zemrude, following every day the same stretches of street and finding again each
morning the ill-humor of the day before, encrusted at the foot of the walls.
Cities and names 1
you see opening before you the hint of something unmistakable, rare, perhaps magnificent;
you would like to say what it is, but everything previously said of Aglaura imprisons
your words and obliges you to repeat rather than say.
It is a city made only of exceptions, exclusions, incongruities, contradictions.
If such a city is the most improbable, by reducing the number of abnormal elements,
we inmase the probability that the city really exists.
an empire covered with cities that weigh upon the earth and upon mankind, crammed
with wealth and traffic...in his dreams now cities light as kites appear, pierced
cities like laces, cities transparent as mosquito netting, cities like leaves'
veins...a rarer privilege: to grow in lightness.
Thin cities 5
There is a precipice between two steep mountains: Octavia, the spider-web city is over
the void, bound to the two crests with ropes and chains and catwalks. All the rest,
instead of rising up, is hung below: rope ladders, hammocks, houses made like sacks,
clothes hangers, terraces like gondolas, skins of water. Life is less uncertain than
in other cities. They know the net will last only so long.
Trading cities 4
to establish the relationships that sustain the city's life, the inhabitants stretch
strings from the corners of the houses...When the strings become so numerous that you
can no longer pass among them, the inhabitants leave: the houses are dismantled; only
the strings and their supports remain.
Cities and eyes 3
Nothing of the city touches the earth except those long flamingo legs on which it rests...
the inhabitants love the earth as it was before they existed and with spyglasses and
telescopes aimed downward they never tire of examining it, leaf by leaf, stone by stone,
ant by ant, contemplating with fascination their own absence.
Cities and names 2
Gods of two species protect the city...One species stands at the doors of the houses,
inside, next to the coatrack and the umbrella stand; The others stay in the kitchen,
hiding by preference under pots or in the chimney flue...If you listen carefully,
especially at night, you can hear them in the houses, murmuring steadily, interrupt-
ing one another, huffing, bantering, amid ironic, stifled laughter.
Cities and the dead 1
Melania's population renews itself: the participants in the dialogues die one by one
and meanwhile those who will take their places are born, some in one role, some in
Marco Polo describes a bridge, stone by stone. Why do you speak to me of the stones?
It is only the arch that matters to me." Polo answers: "Without stones there is no arch."
Memory's images, once they are fixed in words, are erased," Polo said. "Perhaps I am
afraid of losing Venice all at once, if I speak of it. Or perhaps, speaking of other
cities, I have already lost it, little by little."
Trading cities 5
Esmeralda's inhabitants are spared the boredom of following the same streets every day.
The most fixed and calm lives in Esmeralda are spent without any repetition. Secret and
adventurous lives, here as elsewhere, are subject to greater restrictions. Esmeralda's cats,
thieves, illicit lovers move along higher, discontinuous ways, dropping from a rooftop to
a balcony, following gutterings with acrobats' steps.
Cities and eyes 4
Phyllis is a space in which routes are drawn between points suspended in the void: the
shortest way to reach that certain merchant's tent, avoiding that certain creditor's
window. Your footsteps follow not what is outside the eyes, but what is within, buried,
erased. Millions of eyes look up at windows, bridges, capers, and they might be scanning
a blank page. Many are the cities like Phyllis, which elude the gaze of all, except the
man who catches them by surprise.
Cities and names 3
I had never seen Pyrrha. It was one of the many cities where I had never arrived,
that I conjured up, through its name. The day came when my travels took me to Pyrrha.
As soon as I set foot there, everything I had imagined was forgotten; Pyrrha had
become what is Pyrrha; My mind goes on containing a great number of cities I have
never seen and will never see, names that bear with them a figure or a fragment or
glimmer of an imagined figure.
Cities and the dead 2
You reach a moment in life when, among the people you have known, the dead outnumber
the living. And the mind refuses to accept more faces, more expressions: on every
new face you encounter, it prints the old forms, for each one it finds the most
suitable mask. I thought: "Perhaps Adelma is the city where you arrive dying and where
each finds again the people he has known.
Cities and the sky 1
each place in the carpet corresponds to a place in the city and all the things
contained in the city are included in the design. Every inhabitant of Eudoxia com-
pares the carpet's immobile order with his own image of the city, an anguish of his
own, and each can find, concealed among the arabesques, an answer, the story of his
life, the twists of fate.
"...So then, yours is truly a journey through memory!...he caught the hint of a
sigh in Marco's speech. "It was to slough off a burden of nostalgia that you
went so far away!" he exclaimed, or else: "You return from your voyages with a
cargo of regrets!...confess what you are smuggling: moods, states of grace, elegies!"
Perhaps this garden exists only in the shadow of our lowered eyelids...Perhaps all that
is left of the world is a wasteland, covered with rubbish heaps, and the hanging garden
of the Great Khan's palace. It is our eyelids that separate them, but we cannot know
which is inside and which outside.
Cities and eyes 5
Moriana's hidden face, an expanse of rusting sheet metal, sackcloth, planks bristling
with spikes, ropes good only for hanging oneself from a rotten beam...it has no thick-
ness, it consists only of a face and an obverse, like a sheet of paper, with a figure
on either side, which can neither be separated nor look at each other.
Cities and names 4
Several times Clarice decayed, then burgeoned again...the survivors emerged from the
basements and lairs, in hordes, swarming like rats. driven by their fury to rummage
and gnaw, and yet also to collect and patch, like nesting birds...the name, the site,
and the objects hardest to break remain. Perhaps Clarice has always been only a con-
fusion of chipped gimcracks, ill-assorted, obsolete.
Cities and the dead 3
to make the leap from life to death less abrupt, the inhabitants of Eusapia have con-
structed an identical copy of their city, underground. All corpses, dried in such a way
that the skeleton remains sheathed in yellow skin, are carried down there, to continue
their former activities. The job of accompanying the dead down below and arranging them
is assigned to a confraternity of hooded brothers. They say that every time they go below
they find something changed in the lower Eusapia; the dead make innovations in their city;
Cities and the sky 2
This belief is handed down in Beersheba: that, suspended in the heavens, there exists
another Beersheba, where the city's most elevated virtues and sentiments are poised,
and that if the terrestrial Beersheba will take the celestial one as its model the two
cities will become one. Intent on piling up its carats of perfection, Beersheba takes
for virtue what is now a grim mania to fill the empty vessel of itself;
Continuous cities 1
The city of Leonia refashions itself every day: every morning the people wake between
fresh sheets, wash with just-unwrapped cakes of soap, wear brand-new clothing...you
begin to wonder if Leonia's true passion is really, as they say, the enjoyment of new
and different things, and not, instead, the joy of expelling, discarding, cleansing
itself of a recurrent impurity. Perhaps the whole world, beyond Leonia's boundaries,
is covered by craters of rubbish...
...Perhaps the terraces of this garden overlook only the lake of our mind. . . .and
we both harbor within ourselves this silent shade, this conversation of pauses, this
evening that is always the same...Unless toil, shouts, sores, stink do not exist; Unless
porters, stonecutters, rubbish collectors, washerwomen bent over exist only because we
think them. KUBLAI: To tell the truth, I never think them. POLO: Then they do not exist.