Serendipity: Calvino’s Ersilia

Giorgio di Chirico’s “Italian Plaza with a Red Tower”

Giorgio di Chirico’s “Italian Plaza with a Red Tower”

I have been reading Italo Calvino’s masterful Invisible Cities, inspired in equal part by Marco Polo’s Travels and the paintings of Giorgio di Chirico. In turn, it inspired Geoff Dyer’s The Search.

Picture to yourself Marco Polo describing to Kublai Khan the cities he has passed through to reach the Celestial Kingdom. Each city is more fanciful than the next. Here, for instance, is Ersilia:

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 supports remain.

From a mountainside, camping with their household 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 themselves and their houses still farther away.

Thus, when traveling in the territory of Ersilia, you come upon the ruins of abandoned cities, without the walls which do not last, without the bones of the dead which the wind rolls away: spiderwebs of intricate relationships seeking a form.

An Enchantment

Charlemagne

Late in life the emperor Charlemagne fell in love with a German girl. The barons at his court were extremely worried when they saw that the sovereign, wholly taken up with his amorous passion and unmindful of his regal dignity, was neglecting the affairs of state. When the girl suddenly died, the courtiers were greatly relieved—but not for long, because Charlemagne’s love did not die with her. The emperor had the embalmed carried to his bedchamber, where he refused to be parted from it. The Archbishop Turpin, alarmed by this macabre passion, suspected an enchantment and insisted on examining the corpse. Hidden under the dead girl’s tongue he found a ring with a precious stone set in it. As soon as the ring was in Turpin’s hands, Charlemagne fell in love with the archbishop and hurriedly had the girl buried. In order to escape the embarrassing situation, Turpin flung the ring into Lake Constance. Charlemagne thereupon fell in love with the lake and would not leave its shores.—Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium, quoting Barbey d’Aurevilly.