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Calvino's Memos: Between the Old and the New Millennium

Issue cover
Cover Caption: Front cover of Lezioni americane (Six Memos for the Next Millennium) (Milan: Mondadori, 2022)

Anna Botta and Lucia Re, Editors

Leslie Elwell, Managing Editor


“Molteplicità del possible”: Italo Calvino’s Memos Between the Old and the New Millennium

This thematic issue of California Italian Studies, entitled “Calvino’s Memos: Between the Old and the New Millennium,” is comprised of comparative and interdisciplinary scholarly articles as well as more informal “Notes from the Field”—including excerpts from works in progress, artists’ statements, and commentaries—inspired by or related to the ideas and writings of Italo Calvino, in particular (but not exclusively) the lectures known and published posthumously in Italian as Lezioni americane—in English as Six Memos for the Next Millennium (1988). The publication of this issue of California Italian Studies coincides with and celebrates the 100th anniversary of Calvino’s birth (October 15th, 1923). Calvino’s Memos were originally lectures prepared, beginning in January 1985, after he was invited in 1984 to be the 1985-86 Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard University. For all the Norton endowed lectures, Harvard stipulated that poetry was to be interpreted in the broadest sense, including all poetic expression in language, music, or fine arts. Calvino’s predecessors included, among others, Jorge Luis Borges, Carlos Chávez, Aaron Copland, Northrop Frye, Helen Gardner, Pier Luigi Nervi, Octavio Paz, Frank Stella, and Igor Stravinsky; and among his successors over the years were Laurie Anderson, John Ashbery, Luciano Berio, John Cage, Umberto Eco, Nadine Gordimer, Herbie Hancock, William Kentridge, Toni Morrison, Linda Nochlin, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Orhan Pamuk, and Agnès Varda. The Memos theorize principles or “values” that in Calvino’s view were especially relevant and important for literature (or, rather, poetry in the broader sense set forth by Harvard)—always seen in relation to other forms of discourse and expression—as it faced the new millennium, a millennium which Calvino, who died on September 19, 1985 at the age of 61, would not see. These future-oriented values for Calvino were also crucial to the reading and interpretation of poetic/literary works from the first and second millennia. The scholarly work included in this issue of California Italian Studies ranges in fact from studies pertaining to antiquity, the Middle Ages, and early modern literature and culture, to multidisciplinary reflections on literature, art, and science inspired by or based on the Memos, as well as critical problems and themes relevant to the contemporary era and the future of the humanities.

I. Autobiography of an Absence

Calvino Makes The Shell

In 1965 Calvino wrote “The Spiral” and positioned it as the final story of his Cosmicomics. Both the story and its title-word seemed to him a landing point for his corpus, and, during the years that followed, he never changed his mind. “The Spiral” also marks the exact midpoint of his journey because Calvino made his debut as a writer in 1945, with the war just ended, and his death came unexpectedly forty years later in 1985. In turn, the essay “Calvino makes the shell” presented here is the central chapter of, and has given its title to, my new book on Calvino (Calvino fa la conchiglia, 2023, pp. 366-385). The aim of this book is to consider Calvino’s whole self-construction as a writer: his texts, his life, his encounters, his places, his travels, his readings, his ideas—in a word, the development of a style unique in the world of literature. In this essay, “spiral” is a key word and image in a key story. “The Spiral” is, in fact, autobiographical, even if the narrating “I” is named Qfwfq. It can be read as a fictional account of Calvino’s mind and body as written by Calvino himself, and it can be deciphered as an autobiographical text even if the narrating “I” appears as a mollusk stuck to his primordial reef. In its fifteen pages, “The Spiral” tells a tale about the construction of a self, a constant narrative theme for Calvino and the inspiration for my book’s subtitle “The construction of a writer.” The essay, here translated into English by Jim Hicks, will show that those five words point to two sequences of events, each grafted onto the other. The first concerns what Calvino was constructing through his writing; the second considers the choices, the necessities, and the contingencies by which he constructed—or accepted that a great variety of circumstances would construct—his public persona as a writer.

Italo Calvino, Communist

This short essay (“Notes from the Field”) argues that the Lezioni Americane/Six Memos for the Next Millennium represent not only Calvino’s literary legacy, but also his political legacy as a lifelong communist at heart, even though Calvino, who had fought as a member of the communist Garibaldi division in the anti-fascist Resistance in Liguria, officially resigned from the Italian Communist party in 1957. In spite of his subsequent distance from and even suspicion of politicians and politics per se, Calvino remained deeply political and committed in his thought and in his literary and critical work. For many who think of Calvino merely as the writer of combinatory narratives, the emulator of Jorge Louis Borges, the friend of George Perec and the theorist of “Lightness,” this may come as a surprise.

Italo Calvino’s Lecture at Mount Holyoke College: Description and the Future of Literature

Less than a year before his untimely death, Italo Calvino received an honorary degree from Mount Holyoke College. In his acceptance remarks, Calvino spoke about the importance of what he perceived as a lost skill, the art of description. Reflecting on different types of description, Calvino selected several readings from his own works: “The Button,” Invisible Cities, and Mr. Palomar. Calvino’s choice of readings invites a comparison with his posthumous Six Memos for the Next Millennium, recalling, in particular, his chapters on “Exactitude” and “Visibility.” Calvino’s 1984 recommendation to revive the art of description goes hand in hand with his invitation to reflect on the shades and nuances of language, on precision and rigor as solutions to rescue language and literature from ambiguity and vagueness. He found this rigor and precision in the writings of several authors (from Leopardi to Valéry), as well as in art, in Domenico Gnoli’s work in particular. The intersection between Calvino’s writing and art has been examined by many; my paper further explores this interdisciplinary area. Starting with Calvino’s selections for his Mount Holyoke readings, and with what he construed as “descriptions from life” and “from imagination” (Gnoli as the poet of objects as landscapes, the imaginary scenery of Marco Polo’s intellectual travels, and Palomar’s existential reflections on objects), my article investigates Calvino’s descriptive impulse and the interconnections between literature and art, word and image.


II. Literature and the Dream of a Library

Le Norton Lectures di Calvino. Il racconto inedito di una biblioteca di apocrifi

When Calvino died, he was at work on the Harvard lectures, which remained incomplete. This incompleteness leads one to realize that  Lezioni americane is in fact a work in Italian that Calvino never really imagined, nor actually wrote. An apocryphal book of sorts, of which only an original nucleus is left that tells us about his idea of literature as reflected in his library of similarly apocryphal books; hidden books that preside over and inspire the process of writing. What remains of the planned lectures are various layers of sunken work, an underground archive of notebooks, handwritten notes, typescripts sent out to be translated only to be written over and reworked. There are also traces of previous stages of Calvino’s study of the books he utilized, annotated and commented, and reused to write the lectures.

This is, however, the first time that Calvino takes the measure of his entire mental library in order to recount his idea of literature and offer mirror images of himself as writer and reader through the paths of his memory and poetic imaginary. For the first time, Calvino looks for himself systematically among the books of his library, both mental and real, and searches for his place in the frame that holds together six ideal shelves. These ideal shelves are reflections of images of himself and of an idea of literature whereby all forms of knowledge arise from anomalies hidden in the great library of the world. Through new insights based on research conducted in Calvino’s personal archives and his library (preserved in the writer’s house in Rome’s Campo Marzio until the death of Esther Calvino), this article presents a reading of Calvino’s Norton Lectures as a tale about the idea of an apocryphal library, or, in other words, a hidden library, which may be the originary secret of his work.

Lightness and the Future of Antiquity in Lezioni americane

This article considers Calvino’s memo on lightness in relation to his vision of antiquity as part of the literatures of the future. It sets out to explore this question from the perspective of speculative fiction and, crucially, the memo’s closural appeal to Kafka’s “The Bucket Rider” (1917), a short story that also ends with a forward-movement into an unknown future. The core of the discussion draws attention to the ways Calvino stages classical lightness as a form of avenir, or “things to come,” a process that mobilizes the Greco-Roman past at the time of writing, as he establishes its projection onto the future. Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura, on atomic motion and combination, and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, on the myth-history of change from Chaos to the power of Augustan Rome, are key models in Calvino’s reading; and not only in Six Memos. In Invisible Cities (1972), lightness, or the “removal of weight,” is the value substantiating Calvino’s large-scale projection of Venice across the globe and deep temporalities. In this novel, he maps out the avenir of “light” classical forms, in connecting Homeric cityscapes, both mythical and historical, with the makings of a topography of a futuristic California. As an ensemble, both the essay and the hyper-novel articulate curious epistemologies of antiquity’s future. They call attention to the narrative capaciousness and potential of Homer’s Odyssey, as well as the nature-oriented compositions of Lucretius and Ovid. Here, Calvino relates the avenir of a highly hybrid, adaptably contiguous tradition.  More pointedly, he envisages the survival of ethical literatures composed beyond Anthropocene concerns, and whose relationality with the world at large serves to give a voice to the non-human. But Calvino’s alternative histories of antiquity’s avenir are not simply an exercise of his speculative imaginary. On the contrary, they speak eloquently to the field of cultural, scientific, and technological production towards the last quarter of the twentieth century, in which vestiges of older literatures, like those of Homer, Lucretius and Ovid, are put to the test in an ever-changing world.


"Il perché del gioco": Chess and Medievalism in Calvino’s Le città invisibili and Lezioni americane

This essay considers chess as a particular mode of exchange in Italo Calvino’s Le città invisibili that draws upon the game’s global nature and long history of representing cross-cultural exchange, as seen in the 13th century world that Calvino evokes in the framing of his work as an exchange between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. This focus lends itself to both an examination of Calvino’s overarching medievalism in his late novel and a look to his self-reflection in the essay on Exactitude in his Lezioni americane, where the evocation of chess in his earlier novel takes on heightened significance in Calvino’s defining of his own writerly identity. I will argue that the representation of the game is essential in analyzing not only Calvino’s thoughts on language and systems of communication and control in this late period, but also his look to the cultural other that vacillates between essentializing and the forging of global affinities.

Epic Halves, Epic Doubles: Calvino, Tasso, and the Self-Reflecting Enemy

Italo Calvino’s avowed preference for the Orlando furioso does not preclude him from relying on the Gerusalemme liberata to bolster the epic features of his trilogy I nostri antenati, particularly in the novel Il visconte dimezzato (1952). This article does not establish this intertextual relationship with an eye to exploring how the 16th-century author has influenced Calvino, but instead follows Lucia Re’s line of thought in her article “Ariosto and Calvino: the Adventures of a Reader” by looking backward to see what Calvino’s novella reveals about Tasso’s poem. Elements of Il visconte dimezzato can indeed serve as an interpretive key to the question of the early modern author’s politico-religious ideology. Calvino parodies epic conflict in the central narrative of his novel by physically splitting his protagonist’s body into a good half and an evil half. Each becomes an autonomous entity, creating a simultaneous halving and doubling effect. After a long rivalry and duel over a peasant woman, Il Gramo and Il Buono combine again to become one re-unified Medardo. This peculiar construction of self versus self emphasizes the fundamental likeness of all peoples regardless of their camp in a conflict. Calvino’s direct citation of Tasso hints that his predecessor may have shared this universalizing view. Tasso appears in a moment both meta- and metà-literary: attempting to further dismember his adversary, Il Gramo accidentally slices in half the book that Il Buono is reading. This is the Gerusalemme liberata, whose halfway point according to its author falls just after the death of the warrior Clorinda. Like Medardo, Clorinda has a double and conflicting nature. Her dual religious, racial, and gender identities have long been the subject of commentary. By halving the Liberata at this point, Calvino suggests that we reconsider our understanding of this character. Ending the poem here would shift the focus from the final duel of Tancredi and Argante in Canto 19 to that of Clorinda and Tancredi in Canto 12. This change assigns much more value to Clorinda; rather than an anomaly, she becomes the foremost representative of the enemy army. If the principal Muslim character is in fact such a complicated figure as Clorinda, who is ultimately redeemed, then the extent to which Tasso frames the Muslims as morally corrupt becomes problematized. Calvino’s portrait of the universal warrior anticipates aspects of more recent critical approaches to Tasso, pointing out that the Liberata’s ethical divide between the army of the saved Christians and that of the condemned Muslims may not be as severe as it appears.

La logica profonda del meraviglioso: Italo Calvino teorico della fiaba (e del fantastico)

This article discusses Calvino’s idea of the fairy tale through the analysis of his theoretical works. On the one hand, such a discussion is crucial for the understanding of Six Memos for the Next Millennium, where the fairy tale is a central concern; on the other hand, it fills a patent gap. Despite Calvino’s thorough knowledge of the main trends in fairy-tale studies of his time, in fact, the leading scholars of this field have rarely discussed his views. I compare fairy tale and fantastic fiction, showing that according to Calvino the fairy tale is strikingly different, on a theoretical level, from the fantastic genre. Whereas the fantastic is conceived as a fully historical narrative typology, the fairy tale is something more than just a literary genre among others. The fairy tale is indeed very close to the most remote source of storytelling, and provides decisive evidence of the combinatory nature of fiction itself. This idea of the fairy tale raised for Calvino important issues about the notion of History itself, and the relationship between historical processes and ideal forms. Calvino tried to address these issues by splitting the fairy tale into two parts, and hypothesizing the existence of what I call a deep fairy tale, which is what this article is mostly about.


III. Interdisciplinary Approaches and Dialogues

A Jazz Cosmicomics: Geometry, Perversion, Resonance

Italo Calvino has a widely recognized and significant position in Italian literature and culture as one of the masters of twentieth-century Italian letters, recognized for his intensely visual imagination and geometric formalism. This position, however, might actually understate Calvino’s significance, because his influence has been at least as significant outside of Italy as inside, and larger outside of literature than inside (Invisible Cities, in particular, has had an enormous influence in art, architecture, urban planning, design, and even social services offered in urban spaces). A useful model for thinking about transcultural and transmedial influence might be the notion of resonance, in which a sound (Calvino’s writing in this case) reverberates in an increasingly large and complex cultural space — such a model might be particularly attractive when it comes to Calvino, since it has the potential to reframe the attention to the visual and the geometric. This article looks to one particular example of this cultural resonance: Lisa Mezzacappa’s 2020 jazz suite of Calvino’s Cosmicomics. Jazz might seem like an unusual way of conceptualizing Calvino, but in Un ottimista in America, Calvino himself suggested that jazz has a particular and positive capacity to think through cultural dilemmas without “crystallizing” into a static and unproductive image (a point he would also make in one of his cosmicomic stories, tellingly entitled “I cristalli”). Indeed, jazz allows us a different way to hear Calvino: playful, improvisational, and sensual. Looking primarily at one track from Mezzacappa’s suite, “The Form of Space,” I contend that her adaptation encourages us to hear Calvino story as a critique of the purely cerebral, visual and geometric; the music instead gestures toward a subject who is neurotic, perverse and unpredictable. The improvisational nature of jazz and the Lucretian geometry of spacetime both suggest that the supposedly rational and composed subject might swerve out of the predictable straight line into surprising new territory that is boisterous, risky and remarkably open.


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Un re in ascolto: Luciano Berio and Italo Calvino's Collaboration as a Memory of the Future

These “notes from the field” examine Italo Calvino and Luciano Berio’s collaboration for the opera (or “azione scenica’) Un re in ascolto (A King Listens). My specific approach to the collaboration is through the notions of “expanded music” and “extended voice,” which I use to capture several different stages or “moving parts” of the collaboration. Convergences as well as divergences emerge, and hence experiments amidst novel acoustic spaces and scenarios, within and beyond the classical stage. Calvino first wrote the libretto for Berio as a fairytale about a king, turning it eventually into a favola dell’ascolto, inspired by the article “Ascolto” co-authored by Ronald Barthes and Roland Havas. In the introductory part of my article, I touch briefly on this libretto and the ways in which it evokes different dimensions and layers of listening, including an uncanny “acousmatic” dimension. I go on to consider the “Trattamento” (a later pluri-dimensional proposal by Calvino), as an entry point into Berio’s “musical action”–compositions constructed through a montage of Calvino’s arias, mashed up with excerpt of other texts. In particular, I insist on the friction between the multiplication of women’s voices and the arias Calvino wrote. I discuss Berio’s musical poetics relative to acoustic spaces—constructed through live electronics, instrumental music, and voice—and his own take on Calvino’s musicality. I then plunge into Calvino’s short story “Un re in ascolto.” In reading this short story, I investigate the implications of Calvino’s silence regarding the novel stage –beginning in the late 1970s– of sound reproducibility, a paradigmatic shift that reframed the public and the private soundscape and reshaped the interspersions of the bodily sensorium. In a Calvino-centric mode, these notes engage with existing interpretations about the collaboration (by Adriana Cavarero, Laura Cosso, Daniel Cohen-Levinas, Umberto Eco, Massimo Mila, and Peter Szendy) and the Italian intellectual context of the late 1970s (Aldo Giorgio Gargani, Carlo Ginzburg) in light of the recent expanding field of sound studies (Michael Bull, Francesco Giomi, Shuhei Hosokawa, Jonathan Stern, and Dominic Pettman). I end these notes with a brief incursion into Berio’ later conception of the spatialization of sounds (at the Tempo Reale music research center in Florence) that unexpectedly once again connects with Calvino’s auditory poetics and expands on it.


“A Calvinian character”: Bruno Munari’s Six Memos for this Millennium

Starting from Umberto Eco’s suggestion that sees Bruno Munari as a “personaggio calviniano,” this essay discusses Calvino’s Six Memos as a way to map Munari’s work and the theoretical intentions expressed in his books. This is not an arbitrary choice, for it is based on the belief that in his extraordinarily diverse and multidisciplinary work and experimentation with–among other media, genres, practices and artforms–painting, sculpture, illustration, graphic and industrial design, advertising, publishing, architecture, performance, experimental cinema, creative and essayistic writing, and art pedagogy, Munari embodies the six virtues extolled by Calvino like no other artist in the Italian 20th century. Like Calvino’s, Munari’s lessons may in fact be seen to constitute, in their own original way, an invaluable template for this millennium that is as of yet unrecognized outside the field of design.

“Un luogo della pura rappresentazione”: Theater and Architecture in Italo Calvino’s Lezioni americane (Six Memos for the Next Millennium) and Aldo Rossi's Quaderni azzurri (Blue Notebooks)

The writer Italo Calvino and the architect Aldo Rossi were among the most prominent intellectual stars to emerge from Italy onto the international scene in the post-1968 period. Although there is no concrete evidence that the two men knew each other's work, or that they thought of themselves as part of the 'postmodernist' movement of those years, their respective career trajectories seem to parallel one another in sometimes striking ways. More importantly, Calvino and Rossi were erudite and voracious readers who shared a very wide-ranging set of literary and cultural references, as becomes apparent when the dense textual network of the Lezioni americane is mapped onto that of Rossi's notebooks (now known as the Quaderni azzurri), in which the architect recorded many of his readings as well as his reflections on the latter. This essay focuses principally on texts left unpublished by Calvino and Rossi while alive (and still not translated into English today), namely the unfinished lecture "Cominciare e finire"—drafted as part of the Norton series but eventually put aside by the author—and the aforementioned Quaderni azzurri. What emerges from the juxtaposition of these works is the central importance of theatrical texts, spaces, performances, and ultimately the concept of theater itself, in Calvino's and Rossi's respective cultural projects. For the former, theaters are a concrete "image of the ideal space in which stories take shape" (L/A 744), and thus may serve  as a synecdoche for all literary story-telling. For the latter, who designed and built a number of theaters over the course of his career, architecture is at its best when it concerned not with function but with making itself available ("disponibile") to the telling of the human story. This is never more the case than in the built environment of the theater, which is the desideratum of architecture—to become the place where stories with transformative power may take place—pushed to the extreme degree of what Rossi calls "pure availability" ("la disponibilità pura"). Both writer and architect not only acknowledge the cultural prestige of the theater, even in the media-saturated and dispersive era of late capitalism, but envision it as a place of unique imaginative freedom within the system of representation at the end of the millennium.

Calvino and Cinema: Revisiting a Difficult Love, in Dialogue with Duccio Chiarini about his Documentary, “Italo Calvino, lo scrittore sugli alberi”

Rightfully deemed one the most cinematic of all Italian writers, Italo Calvino has been an endless source of inspiration for contemporary directors and visual artists. Calvino, however, had an ambiguous relationship with the world of cinema. Despite being an avid moviegoer for most of his life, he displayed both a fascination with and a certain disdain for film. While cinematic adaptations of his literary works have been rare, and not always successful, on the 100th anniversary of his birth, many artists are seeking to bring his life and work to the screen. This essay revisits Calvino’s “difficult love” for cinema and engages in a critical conversation with director Duccio Chiarini about the making of a documentary film on Calvino conceived for a wide, public distribution. The interview discusses the challenges of creating a portrait of a polyhedric writer while balancing creative impulses, material conditions, production demands, and other contingencies that shape a film project. The last section examines Chiarini’s film, Italo Calvino: lo scrittore sugli alberi (2023), which interweaves extracts from Il barone rampante with interviews, letters, photos, and drawings, and previously unseen home movies, offering viewers an intimate encounter with the writer.

Molteplicità potenziale e creatività al tempo del computer: un matematico del 2000 legge Calvino

Taking into consideration Calvino's 1967 lecture "Cibernetica e  fantasmi," the article discusses wheter the similarities between mathematics and literature previously noticed when reading Calvino's Six Memos for the Next  Millennium (Lezioni americane) may be extended to include both central characteristics of 21st century mathematics and the mechanization of formal proofs.

Molteplicità e ritratto: sovrapposizioni autoriali fra Italo Calvino e Giulio Paolini

In 1996, the Italian artist Giulio Paolini was invited to design the cover of the book L'occhio di Calvino by Marco Belpoliti. The book was one of the first to study the role of images in Italo Calvino's production, becoming an ideal background for Paolini's cover: a collage portrait of the writer while he was proofreading one of his texts. This image raised one of the major questions which was already addressed twenty years before, when Calvino and Paolini first collaborated: the crisis of authorship and the multiplicity of the self, which Calvino will also stresses in his Six Memos for the Next Millenium. This article tries to explore the specificity, the limits and the legacy of their theory of authorship by analizing the portraits of Giulio Paolini in comparison with Belpoliti's and Calvino's texts.

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Inhabiting Zenobia

On November 3, 2022 a video projection entitled Inhabiting Zenobia, created and edited by Costanza Ferrini, took place as part of Light Year, a series of monthly projections of video art and experimental film on the Brooklyn side of the Manhattan Bridge. Begun in June 2015, this series offers, on the first Thursday of every month, free projections with thousands of viewers in attendance in loco and many more worldwide following these events via live streaming online. The aim of Light Year is to build bridges by bringing together artists and spectators from all over the world, creating synergies between various forms of public art, video art and experimental cinema. Inhabiting Zenobia (Light Year #91) consisted of multiple large-scale video projections on one of the anchor walls of the Manhattan Bridge and, simultaneously, in the Drey Gallery (East York, Toronto) and the Scope BLN Gallery (Berlin).  Through the video works or fragments presented, Inhabiting Zenobia sought to suggest some strands running through Calvino's thought in regard to the form of the invisible—and sometimes unlivable—city, although it did so without necessarily making these explicit.  The artists Jamila Campagna&Alektron, Raffaella Valsecchi, Francesca Manca di Villahermosa, Miltos Manetas, Alessio Liberati, and Dimitri Porcu & Lionel Martin took part in Costanza Ferrini's project. Zenobia is in fact the name that Calvino chose in Invisible Cities for the most vertical of the "thin cities" ("Thin Cities," 2). It is perhaps, according to Ferrini, the fictional invisible city closest to the world-city envisioned by Calvino, which is likewise vertical and thin. The video projection explored different points of view, forms and modes of living the city, particularly those vertical worlds hidden in invisible corners of megacities and cities across the planet. The work's essential hypothesis is that Zenobia—the invisible vertical city—is the projection of the society in which many of us now live.  In these “Notes from the Field,” Ferrini reflects back on her work and on how in the 1970s Calvino anticipated the contemporary megalopolis to come. In the Light Years projection curated by Ferrini, the notion of verticality was suggested through a form of conceptual, visual and aural expression that sought to convey all of its contradictions, omissions, and frailties. In the first part of her text written for California Italian Studies, Ferrini offers notes and reflections on the various modalities through which Calvino's work—especially Invisible Cities, "Dall'opaco" and Six Memos for the Next Millennium—served to inspire her own artistic activity. She also sets her work in relation to that of other writers and artists such as the Futurist painter Umberto Boccioni and the video artist Adrian Paci. In the second part, she discusses not only the respective methods employed by the participating artists, but the meaning underlying their video contributions to the project as well as the links between their own works and Calvino's themes. At the end of the essay Ferrini includes a link providing access (via the Facebook platform) to the complete video version of Inhabiting Zenobia.

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IV. The Animal-Human-Mineral-Vegetal Continuum

The Petriverse of Italo Calvino

This essay considers Calvino’s Six Memos and other works in the context of the ‘geologic turn’ in contemporary environmental humanities. The introductory section shows how Calvino anticipated key notions now becoming prevalent in this work, including an ontology and ethics that respects “the unity of all things, animate or inanimate” (Memos). The next section, “Worlds Composed of Rocks,” rereads Calvino texts through a geologic lens—it treats “Lightness” through the lens of what Gaston Bachelard calls “the Medusa Complex,” examines geologic elements in the three retellings of the Orpheus myth in The Complete Cosmicomics, and briefly compares Calvino’s “The Stone Sky” to N.K. Jemisin’s recent geo-fiction The Stone Sky. The final section, Words Composed of Rocks, takes up Calvino’s semiotics as expressed in the Six Memos, Cosmicomics, and essays in Collection of Sand. Calvino’s interest in giving voice to natural materials is connected to Serpil Opperman’s notion of ‘Storied Matter,’ Roger Caillois’s ‘writing of stones,’ and Francis Ponge’s prose poems, among other sources. The essay features artworks and photos by the author, reflective of a contemporary merging of critical and creative engagements with literature in producing theoretical work in the geo-humanities.

“The scope of an epigram”: Quickness, Magic, and Marcovaldo’s Environmental Eye

"Quickness", the second lecture collected in Six Memos for the New Millenium, is an essential value linking the old and new millennium.  In this essay, I examine how "quickness" is deployed in Italo Calvino’s celebrated Marcolvaldo stories, giving special attention to the primary elements of quickness: enchantment and attachment. Herein I suggest how quickness communicates impending cultural and environmental catastrophe and the slow violence wrought by consumer capitalism.  Positioned as he was during the Great Acceleration-the post-war period of rapid growth during which human action overtook other earth systems as the main governing factor in global processes-Calvino’s recommendation for quickness has special urgency for us as we move further into the Anthropocene.

V. Calvino in/and Translation

Tuning In: On Retranslating Quotations

This essay draws on the author's personal experiences in translating two quotation-heavy volumes, Italo Calvino's Six Memos for the Next Millennium and Roberto Calasso's K., in order to raise and examine theoretical questions about context, intertextuality, and retranslation. Brock asks why a translator might choose to retranslate quoted passages that already exist in other translations and demonstrates that new contexts can justify retranslation.

Italo Calvino’s Earliest Translations into English by Rome-Based African American Translator and Editor Ben Johnson

This “Notes from the Field” contribution draws on print cultural records to call attention to African American translator Ben Johnson’s early translations of Italo Calvino’s short stories, including his English-language debut, “Last Comes the Raven” in Paris Review. Though information about Johnson’s career and time in Rome remains skeletal, these notes present readers with a working knowledge of his move to Rome following his wartime service in Italy, where he translated a great number of Italian modernist literary texts into English.