Invisible Cities: Art Inspired by the Great Writer Italo Calvino

Italo Calvino had a great cultural influence on many artists inspired by his work. From Diomira to Berenice, here are depictions of the Italian writer’s imaginary cities.

Apr 13, 2022By Elizabeth Berry, BA English, Italian, & Writing Seminars

maurilia city and emiris italo calvino inspired art


Throughout history, artists have been inspired by stories. Italo Calvino’s literary masterpiece Invisible Cities was published in 1972 and has influenced many forms of art ever since. The novel is based on the story of Marco Polo, who describes 55 fictional cities in detail throughout the course of the book. Over the years, artists have re-imagined and illustrated these cities in countless ways. Below are some of the most notable and unconventional works that represent Calvino’s Invisible Cities.


René Magritte: Italo Calvino’s Surrealist Choice

italo calvino The Castle of the Pyrenees Rene Magritte 1959 Oil on
The Castle of the Pyrenees by René Magritte, 1959, via The Israel Museum, Jerusalem


Before we get into the works inspired by Italo Calvino, let’s look at a painting that may have inspired the author while he was writing his Invisible Cities. The Castle of the Pyrenees is a work created by René Magritte, a French artist known for his surrealist art. This is the piece that adorned the cover of the first edition of the novel in 1972. While it’s not clear whether Calvino looked to Magritte’s artwork while writing, it’s evident that he and his publisher thought it represented the book well.


It seems fitting that a surrealist painting would be chosen to represent the imaginary cities of such an inventive novel. Surrealism was a movement that sought to embody the unconscious mind and Invisible Cities itself explores themes of time, humanity, and imagination in an unusual way. It makes sense that Italo Calvino and his publisher would choose one of the most prominent surrealist artists to help represent the book. In fact, many of the pieces below that were inspired by the book utilize surrealist elements in their depiction.


An In-Depth Endeavor: Karina Puente’s [In]visible Cities

italo calvino karina puente maurilia city painting
Maurilia City by Karina Puente, via Karina Puente


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Perhaps one of the most exhaustive and well-known examples of artistic interpretation of Italo Calvino’s work is Karina Puente’s [In]visible Cities. Karina Puente is a Peruvian artist and architect who often incorporates elements of cities and urban architecture in her work. Puente has undergone an endeavor over the last five years to illustrate each and every one of the 55 invisible cities described over the course of the novel.


For Puente, the [In]visible Cities collection is personal as well as professional. She began to illustrate the cities after reading Italo Calvino’s novel with her son. “While reading the book to my four-year-old son, it was a challenge to draw them for his proper understanding,” she said. Puente employs a mixed-media collage technique when creating her artwork, using materials such as cut-out ink on paper and acrylic paint markers.


The artworks in this collection illustrate the fantastic places described in the novel as well as make a declaration on the state of urban architecture and planning today. Pieces like Maurilia City show the contrast between the ancient and contemporary that is so common in cities today. Speaking about the process of creating these cityscapes in an interview, Puente said, “I don’t literally illustrate what I read. I tear the tale apart, I understand it, conceptualize it, and imagine it.” So far, Puente has illustrated 23 of the Invisible Cities, and she has 32 more to go before she finishes the series.


Kevork Mourad and Ashwini Ramaswamy: A Multimedia Reimagining of Calvino 

italo calvino kevork mourad invisible cities
Invisible Cities (drawing) by Kevork Mourad, 2019, via Ashwini Ramaswamy


Italo Calvino’s great novel has inspired many types of artists over the years, ranging from painters to animators to choreographers. One such example of this is the Invisible Cities exhibition, which was a collaboration between artist and animator Kevork Mourad and choreographer Ashwini Ramaswamy. This exhibition, which took place at the Great Northern Festival and was funded by the Minnesota State Arts Board, featured a live dance performance accompanied by projections of animations designed by Mourad.


Many would regard Kevork Mourad as the perfect choice for an exhibition on Calvino’s Invisible Cities. Mourad is a Syrian artist specializing in live drawing and animation who often collaborates with musicians, choreographers, and celebrities to create a multimedia experience. Over the years, Mourad’s work has explored themes of ancestry, cultural devastation, and urban development, with many of his pieces depicting cities and architectural structures. Mourad has been described as “a longtime admirer of Calvino’s work” and his partnership with Ramaswamy on this project is a natural continuation of his artistic interests.


Mourad and Ramaswamy’s collaboration is an example of multimedia art, which, according to the Tate, “describes artworks made from a range of materials and include an electronic element such as audio or video.” Through their collaboration, Ramaswamy and Mourad connected the past and present in a performance aimed at helping second and third-generation immigrants to experience Calvino’s novel as well as gain a closer connection to their ancestry.


Architectural Wonders: Imagination Through Sculpture

sopheap pich compound sculpture
Compound by Sopheap Pich, 2011, via M+ Museum, Hong Kong


From 2012 to 2013, the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art hosted an exhibition inspired by Italo Calvino’s novel titled Invisible Cities. The artworks in the show were created by a wide range of artists, often using the architectural imagery of cities throughout the novel as a catalyst for sculpture design. The artists involved in the exhibit created their artworks from many different materials, such as charcoal, plaster, soap, and there was even a multimedia exhibition featuring light and sound. According to the museum, “the works in the show explored how our perceptions of place are shaped by personal influences as diverse as memory, desire, and loss, as well as by cultural forces such as history and the media.”


One of the most prominent sculptures in the Calvino-inspired show was Compound, 2011, by Sopheap Pich, a Cambodian contemporary artist who creates sculptures out of natural materials, typically woven bamboo and rattan. Compound in particular is made of a mix of bamboo, rattan, plywood, and metal wire. This piece was considered especially insightful as part of this exhibition, as it represents both an imaginary city from Calvino’s novel as well as the real-world urbanization and development of Phnom Penh. In viewing Compound, museum patrons were invited to make a connection between the real and the imaginary.


The Original Invisible Cities and Their Impact on Surrealist Art

bosch garden of earthly delights painting
The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch, 1490-1500, via Museo Del Prado, Madrid


It is common for surrealist art to depict imagined places or objects from deep in the artists’ minds, similar to Italo Calvino’s theme of imagined cities. It is clear that Calvino, or at least his publisher, understood the similar themes between his work and the surrealist movement, as shown by the use of René Magritte’s artwork on the cover of the first edition. It is interesting to take a look at where some of these ideas originated, as both Calvino and the surrealist movement are part of a greater chain of inspiration taking place over many centuries. One of the most commonly recognized precursors to surrealism is Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, 1490-1500. This starting point and inner model for surrealists is a triptych, or a painting with three sections, depicting the artist’s imagined scenes of heaven and hell.


Similar themes of dreamscape and imaginary worlds are present in the surrealist art of the twentieth century. Bosch’s masterpiece has been on display in the Museo del Prado in Madrid since 1933, where many artists have viewed and been moved by the piece since. Surrealist artists such as Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, and the aforementioned René Magritte drew inspiration from The Garden of Earthly Delights in their own work.


Looking to the Future: Italo Calvino’s Influence on NFT Artwork and Beyond

invisible cities mari k emiris painting
Emiris by Mari K, 2021, via ArtStation


Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities have had a recent revival in the art world in the form of NFTs. The term NFT stands for ‘non-fungible token,’ a type of digital token that can be used to represent the ownership of a unique item. Often people use NFTs to possess Ethereum blockchain-secured ownership of things like art, music, collectibles, or even real estate. While according to Ethereum NFTs can technically represent “anything that is unique that needs provable ownership,” they are most commonly used as a form of fine art collecting.


As a result of the NFT boom, digital artists have let their minds run wild with Calvino’s Invisible Cities. As we have already seen, Calvino’s work often inspires those who are also interested in architecture and urban design. In April 2021, digital art marketplace SuperRare presented an exhibition of NFT art in their virtual gallery titled Invisible Cities. According to the exhibit’s curators, the pieces represent “a multivalent global response to Calvino’s prompt to imagine a realm of cities that never existed.


We can see from artworks like Mari K.’s Emiris, 2021, that the use of digital painting opens countless new possibilities for the representation of Calvino’s ideas in art. Seeing the incredible attention to detail and high quality of these digital artworks makes one wonder how technology will allow us to interpret Calvino’s work in the future. Invisible Cities is truly a modern classic, both as a result of Calvino’s incredible talent with words, and the way the novel has inspired people around the world to create.

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By Elizabeth BerryBA English, Italian, & Writing SeminarsElizabeth Berry is a writer from Los Angeles, California. She holds a BA in English, Italian, and Writing Seminars from Johns Hopkins University, and is working towards her MFA in Creative Writing at the University of St Andrews. In her spare time, she writes articles about Italian art, culture, and literature. She loves golden retrievers, the color fuchsia, and kayaking.