Imagining the invisible

Martijn Boven

The artistic exploration of space can be undertaken in many different ways. An interesting template for an imaginative dialogue with space can be derived from Italo Calvino’s The Invisible Cities (Le città invisibili) (1974). In this novel written in 1972, the Italian writer and essayist provides the portraits of 55 cities, interspersed with brief conversations between Marco Polo, the famous Venetian explorer, and Kublai Khan, here presented as the Emperor of the Tartars. Marco Polo is supposed to describe the cities that he visited on his expeditions, but it gradually becomes clear that Marco Polo always envisions the same city in a series of imaginary variations: his own city of Venice. 

In the conversations between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan, two different procedures for imagining the invisible emerge. Kublai Khan articulates the first procedure as follows: 

“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”.  (Calvino, 1974)

Kublai Khan’s procedure for imagining the invisible moves from ‘the probable norm’ to ‘the improbable exception’. Marco Polo, in turn, follows the opposite procedure:

“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”. (Calvino, 1974)

Marco Polo starts with the exception and moves towards the norm. Both procedures are ways of imagining the invisible, but they go in different directions and have different implications. 

In The Invisible Cities, Calvino invokes a spectrum of imaginative variations that operates between two poles of visibility: the pole of the probable in which only the norms are visible and the exceptions remain invisible (Kublai Khans’s procedure); the pole of the improbable where only the abnormal is highlighted and general patterns remain unseen (Marco Polo’s procedure). By privileging the first pole, it is Kublai Khan’s task to imagine the exceptions that remain invisible, thus loosening the norm and opening it up for variations. By privileging the second pole, Marco Polo needs to imagine the repetitions, habits, and patterns that remain invisible, thus tightening the peculiar and limiting its infinite differentiation. One would imagine that somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, the two procedures meet. However, their orientations remain fundamentally different and, therefore, their results will never coincide. When you start from the probable, you can only imagine the exception as something that diverges from the generality of the norm. Similarly, starting from the improbable, the patterns you imagine, whatever they are, will always be marked by the exceptional singularity of the peculiar.


To start an imaginative dialogue with space, the two procedures specified above can be applied to a specific site. For instance, let us envision a traffic light on the corner of Great George Street and Parliament Street in London. Following Kublai Khan’s procedure, this traffic light is primarily taken as a marker of a norm: regulating traffic through the binary: stop (red) and go (green). Beginning with this, we can start imagining all of the exceptions that are contained within it as divergences, but that it fails to make visible: not stopping at red, stopping at green, inattention, an accident, etc. If we follow Marco Polo’s procedure, the traffic light is no longer marked as a norm. Instead, it is a rectangular object at a particulate spot in the city. For instance, it is the place where a rare spider lives or it marks the site where Mustafa kissed Louise for the first time, etc. If you try to imagine patterns that concern this rectangular object, you will begin with these peculiarities. It is a house for spider, or a marker for first kisses, etc. Following the two procedures in turn, shifting from one to the other and back again, will allow the imaginative dialogue with space to become more dynamic.

Relevance for the pedagogy of imaginative dialogues

One of the aims of the pedagogy of imaginative dialogues has been to show how the arts can be used to imagine what remains invisible in everyday perception and what remains unsaid in everyday conversation, because it has become so common that it is no longer noticed. These two procedures with their opposed movements – loosening the norm and tightening the peculiar – can be used to set up an imaginative dialogue with space in which the invisible layers of that space can be made visible in an imaginative way. It could be expanded to collective forms of the imaginative dialogue, involving meaningful sites that have contested histories or on which incompatible views are projected. 


Calvino, Italo. (1974). Invisible Cities. Translated by William Weaver. New York: Harcourt. 

Calvino, Italo (2004). On “Invisible Cities.” Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, 40, 177–182.Linder, Benjamin (Ed.) (2022). Invisible cities and the urban imagination. Palgrave Macmillan.