If beauty truly is a world forsaken, perhaps there is no clearer sign than in Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities.

This work of Italy’s master storyteller is a rich collection of one-to-two-page short stories to be savoured like a box of turkish delights.

It begins with a fantastic encounter between the Kublai Khan and Marco Polo, where the Khan challenges the explorer to describe all the lands he has seen. Without a shared language, Polo resorts to symbolic pantomimes, which are interpreted into text as stunning, vivid glimpses of wondrous cities.

Somewhere between poetry and fantasy travel writing, one’s journey through this collection changes as suddenly and seamlessly as a dream-rich sleep.

Taken through “Thin Cities,” “Trading Cities,” and “Hidden Cities” among others, Calvino’s explorer offers moving insights into the nature of human cultures, which, like Epictetus’s river, are somehow ephemeral yet enduring.

His brush paints the city as a construction, not just of our experiences, but of our fantasies, memories and dreams. As an avid traveller, I found that each of his magic images speaks to the fantasy that is every city.

The majority of our world is imagined. Every place you’ve ever been continues to be after you’ve left, while even for the heartiest of travellers, there is no chance of ever seeing the whole of this world.

There are landmarks, milestones, town halls and graveyards; balconies, terraces, bedrooms and dining halls; corridors, alleyways, patios and boulevards. All these places are of the city, but not the city. The city is the sum of all the places we know as our city, each interwoven in a fabric that knows not its threads. With each new building we are stepping through others’ memories, imaginations, impressions left with years of footfalls on the stone, passing through doors opened by generations of hands before us.

Calvino taps into this poetry of place that we might ride it through great canals of our own imagining: Polo as our gondolier, the Khan enraptured at our side.

Image Credit: François de Nomé – Martyrdom of a Saint