THE TRAVELS OF TALES: DISILLUSIONMENT AND PSYCHOGEOGRAPHY IN MARCO POLO’S IL MILIONE AND ITALO CALVINO’S INVISIBLE CITIES
Both Il Milione and Invisible Cities have disillusionment as a key element: the dispelling of myths, the replacement of one myth by another, or the compelling lure of a new city that dissipates into horror. Both Il Milione and especially Invisible Cities use psychogeography as a basis for exploration, with Venice as the Ur-city with which other cities are compared, differentiated, analyzed and evoked. Both have, in common, credibility as an ultimate aim, either of the true existence of the places or facts, or at least of the possibility of their existence. The dispelling of myths renders the latest eyewitness accounts, the latest ‘news’ at least more probable given the recent timeframe of their reportage (although whether they were actually believed or not is another matter). The use of psychogeography, the Debordian theory of how the geographical environment affects one’s emotions and behaviour (used loosely here), and the relating of new encounters back to the old and familiar makes the exotic seem measurable and comprehendable, hence more credible.
DISILLUSIONMENT: DISPELLING OF MYTHS IN IL MILIONE
Polo presents his version of the legendary Assassins of Alamut/Mulehet (also mentioned in Mandeville): the Sheikh or Old Man of the Mountains has a fortress within which is concealed a Paradise garden, where he lures unsuspecting young men, drugs them until they wake up in this garden of beauties, and stuns them so much into the belief that they have entered Paradise that upon waking they will do anything to return there. This involves carrying out the Sheikh’s orders to murder people: ‘He used to put some of these youths in this Paradise, four at a time, or ten, or twenty, according as he wished. And this is how he did it. He would give them draughts that sent them to sleep on the spot. Then he had them taken and put in the garden, where they were wakened. When they awoke and found themselves in there and saw all the things I have told you of, they believed they were really in Paradise. And the ladies and damsels stayed with them all the time, singing and making music for their delight and ministering to all their desires. So these youths had all they could wish for and asked nothing better than to remain there... And when he wanted emissaries to send on some mission of murder, he would administer the drug to as many as he pleased; and while they slept he had them carried to his palace. When these youths awoke and found themselves in the castle within the palace, they were amazed and by no means glad, for the Paradise from which they had come was not a place that they would ever willingly have left.’
But Marco Polo got his facts wrong regarding the overthrow of the Sheikh:
‘It happened about the year of Our Lord’s nativity 1262 that Hulagu, lord of the Tartars of the Levant, knowing of all the evil deeds this Sheikh was doing, made up his mind that he should be crushed... So they were taken, and the Sheikh, Alaodin, was put to death with all his men. And from that time to this there have been no more of these Sheikhs and no more Assassins; but with him there came an end to all the power that had been wielded of old by the Sheikhs of the Mountain and all the evil they had done.’
Marco Polo maintains that the Assassins were wiped out by the Mongols in 1262. Recent sources claim that ‘it was in 1256 that the Mongols wiped out the Assassin headquarters at Alamut, in northern Persia, but a Lebanese branch of the Assassins continued until it was suppressed by the Egyptians in 1273.’ However, their origins are still shrouded in mystery and even the origin of the word is debated. Little did Polo know that he dispelled one myth in order to give rise to another. Yet modern-day theorists confirm that ‘even Polo’s proven lies are of the sort which only someone who knew what he was talking about could have told.’
On the road to Cathay, after Uighuristan, is Ghinghintalas, in the region of the Altai mountains, where Polo dispels the ‘salamander’ myth: ‘Towards the northern boundary of this province is a mountain with a rich vein of steel and ondanique. In this same mountain occurs a vein from which is produced salamander. You must understand that this is not a beast as is commonly asserted; but its real nature is such as I will now describe. It is a well known fact that by nature no beast or other animal can live in fire, because every animal is composed of the four elements. For lack of any certain knowledge about salamander, men spoke of it, and still do, as a beast; but this is not true. I will now tell you the real facts... When the stuff found in this vein of which you have heard has been dug out of the mountain and crumbled into bits, the particles cohere and form fibres like wool.’
Of course, this is what we now know as asbestos.
He is so confident in his assertion of salamander as a material that he even associates it with Christ:
‘Accordingly, when the stuff has been extracted, it is first dried, then pounded in a large copper mortar and then washed. The residue consists of this fibre of which I have spoken and worthless earth, which is separated from it. Then this wool-like fibre is carefully spun and made into cloths. When the cloths are first made, they are far from white. But they are thrown into the fire and left there for a while; and there they turn as white as snow. And whenever one of these cloths is soiled or discoloured, it is thrown into the fire and left there for a while, and it comes out as white as snow. The account I have given you of the salamander is the truth, and all the other accounts that are put about are lies and fables. Let me tell you finally that one of these cloths is now at Rome; it was sent to the Pope by the Great Khan as a valuable gift, and for this reason the sacred napkin of our lord Jesus Christ was wrapped in it.’
Polo dismisses earlier salamander myths as fabulous nonsense, yet ‘this story has a venerable pedigree. Aristotle writes that the salamander extinguishes fire; and through the Physiologus and the Bestiaries the legend was disseminated in Christian Europe.’ Augustine mentions the salamander in his City of God, which burned perpetually without being consumed by it (using it to illustrate God’s omnipotence and the fact that human beings could burn in hell forever.) Despite long-standing theories about the salamander, Polo is confident enough in his own report to assert that his is the one and only true account.
Polo’s disillusionment is matter-of-fact, stated plainly and for all to see. Despite his collaborations with the romance writer Rustichello of Pisa, his dispelling of myth is almost businesslike in its patient revelation. Calvino’s disillusionment, however, is poetic.
DISILLUSIONMENT: DISPLACEMENT IN INVISIBLE CITIES
The fact that Calvino’s Cities are full of signs indicating other meanings reveals a kind of boundless, insatiate restlessness. This restlessness stems from the disillusions that each city inflicts upon Calvino’s Marco as it is unmasked: they are not Venice. Calvino slowly spins stories that we expect to culminate in the perfect city, but each city undercuts our rambling thoughts and quickly reveals that these expectations are baseless, and that the city is horrible: ‘Such is the power, sometimes called malignant, sometimes benign, that Anastasia, the treacherous city, possesses; if for eight hours a day you work as a cutter of agate, onyx, chrysoprase, your labour which gives form to desire takes from desire its form, and you believe you are enjoying Anastasia wholly when you are only its slave.’
This disillusionment extends even to the act of travel itself. Marco says: “Elsewhere is a negative mirror. The traveller recognizes the little that is his, discovering the much he has not had and will never have.”
As the narrative flows on, so gradually more magnificent denudings take place. The distortion is heightened and the unmasking more spectacular. We feel a sense of ridiculousness, impossibility, sometimes futility, in cities like Thekla , where the inhabitants are continually building their city along scaffolding which is purposely never finished, so that its destruction can never begin. When asked about what blueprint they are working to, they say that the blueprint is the stars in the night sky. We feel a sense of impending terror in cities like Leonia , where the inhabitants are so accustomed to having everything new each day (eg. a new bar of soap) that the towering piles of rubbish teetering on the city’s edge threaten to engulf the whole city at any moment and the surrounding cities, like vultures, are ready with their bulldozers.
The Cities become increasingly polarized, even macabre; cities are twinned with dead versions of themselves, eg. Eusapia and Laudomia ; become more nightmarish and never-ending, eg. Cecilia and Penthesilea ; they are fatally flawed, eg. Perinthia, the city that was precisely laid out by astronomers and then populated; the calculations had been horribly wrong, leading to a city of monsters: ‘Perinthia’s astronomers are faced with a difficult choice. Either they must admit that all their calculations were wrong and their figures are unable to describe the heavens, or else they must reveal that the order of the gods is reflected exactly in the city of monsters.’ Another nightmare ensues, that of overcrowding – the city of Procopia is so crowded that people sit hugging their knees, bunched up right next to each other, ‘twenty-six of us lodged in my room: to shift my feet I have to disturb those crouching on the floor. I force my way among the knees of those seated on the chest of drawers and the elbows of those taking turns leaning on the bed: all very polite people, luckily.’ In the penultimate city, Theodora - where the inhabitants were so repeatedly invaded by serpents, spiders, flies, termites, woodworms that each purge resulted in a new rodent army - mankind finally triumphed against the rats: ‘Man had finally re-established the order of the world which he had himself upset: no other living species existed to cast any doubts. To recall what had been Fauna, Theodora’s library would preserve on its shelves volumes of Buffon and Linnaeus.’
But now a far more sinister danger lurks in Theodora:
‘At least that is what Theodora’s inhabitants believed, far from imagining that a forgotten fauna was stirring from its lethargy. Relegated for long eras to remote hiding places, ever since it had been deposed by the system of non-extinct species, the other fauna was coming back to the light from the library’s basements where the incunabula were kept; it was leaping from the capitals and drainpipes, perching at the sleepers’ bedside. Sphinxes, griffons, chimeras, dragons, hircocervi, harpies, hydras, unicorns, basilisk were resuming possession of their city.’
PSYCHOGEOGRAPHY: COMPARISON TO VENICE IN IL MILIONE
In the 13th century Venice at its heyday was one of the most powerful and prosperous cities in the whole of Europe, taking advantage of its unique geography and position between Christendom and the Islamic world. It is in this context that Marco Polo sets out from Venice to travel the world, comparing what he encounters to what he already knows, and analyzing his new experiences in familiar Venetian terms.
Sometimes this is practical, as in the currency references: in Kao-yu, ‘a Venetian groat of silver will buy three pheasants;’ in Manzi, ‘one Venetian groat would buy forty pounds of fresh ginger of excellent quality;’ ‘for a silver groat of Venice you may have a brace of geese or two brace of ducks;’ in Tinju, ‘they make bowls of porcelain... for a Venetian groat you might buy three bowls of such beauty that nothing lovelier could be imagined.’
But otherwise they are comparisons to Venice itself – the most explicit of these being the description of Kinsai (Quinsai) in China (Friar Odoric’s book also compares the city of Quinzai to Venice in terms of its size and waterways). Polo describes the
‘splendid city of Kinsai, whose name means ‘City of Heaven’. It well merits a description, because it is without doubt the finest and most splendid city in the world... I will recount the contents of her letter in due order; and it is all true, as I, Marco Polo, later saw clearly with my own eyes. First, then, it was stated that the city of Kinsai is about 100 miles in circumference, because its streets and watercourses are wide and spacious. Then there are market-places, which because of the multitudes that throng them must be very large and spacious. The lay-out of the city is as follows. On one side is a lake of fresh water, very clear. On the other is a huge river, which entering by many channels, diffused throughout the city, carries away all its filth and then flows into the lake, from which it flows out towards the Ocean. This makes the air very wholesome.’
As the description continues, the geography of Venice increasingly comes to mind:
‘And through every part of the city it is possible to travel either by land or by these streams. The streets and the watercourses alike are very wide, so that carts and boats can readily pass along them to carry provisions for the inhabitants. There are said to be 12,000 bridges, mostly of stone, though some are of wood. Those over the main channels and the chief thoroughfare are built with such lofty arches and so well designed that big ships can pass under them without a mast, and yet over them pass carts and horses; so well are the street-levels adjusted to the height. Under the other bridges smaller craft can pass. No on need be surprised that there are so many bridges. For the whole city lies in water and surrounded by water, so that many bridges are needed to let people go all over the town.’ Latham adds that in one Venetian MS (VA) the scribe has added ‘like Venice.’
Another way Polo relates new encounters to old familiar ideas is to make them, literally, measurable, either in terms of Venetian currency, or in terms of current geographical knowledge. The references to the Pole Star (which Mandeville also contains) use this device. On describing the regions of Tatarstan in the North (Bargu), Polo (erroneously) states: ‘I assure you that this region is so far north that the Pole Star is left behind towards the south.’ And in the South: ‘Comorin is a country of India proper in which it first becomes possible to see the Pole Star, which we have not seen all the way here since we left Java. From this place you can go out thirty miles into the sea and catch a glimpse of the Pole Star rising out of the water for about one cubit.’ The Pole Star is a marker of familiarity, something, literally, by which to measure new experiences. It recurs throughout his book. Marco Polo uses the Pole Star as a signpost for his audience who may not have any other clue or visual geographical information in their minds, nor easy access to or understanding of maps, so the Pole Star is perhaps a way, also, of giving at least limited geographical information using a familiar symbol.
PSYCHOGEOGRAPHY: COMPARISON TO VENICE IN INVISIBLE CITIES
Marco Polo’s Il Milione does not share Invisible Cities’ mathematical structure, although they do have brevity in common – both present ‘snapshots’ of cities within the larger narrative flow. Venice is a city composed of over 100 small islands connected by over 400 bridges; in this sense it is like a floating city, another of its epithets. Travelling around the city can thus be likened to travelling across bridges to these numerous interconnected small island-chapters; a kind of unity in diversity. Most of Calvino’s Cities end in ‘a’, recalling one of Venice’s epithets: la Serenissima.
In conversation with the Great Khan, Calvino’s Marco Polo ‘came to know the port from which he had set sail, and the familiar places of his youth, and the surroundings of home, and a little square of Venice where he gambolled as a child.’ He explicitly compares everything to Venice; the unfamiliar with the familiar; the unknown with the comfort of the already known.
The city of Zenobia, ‘though set on dry terrain it stands on high pilings, and the houses are of bamboo and zinc, with many platforms and balconies placed on stilts at various heights, crossing one another, linked by ladders and hanging sidewalks, surmounted by cone-roofed belvederes, barrels storing water, weather vanes, jutting pulleys, and fish poles, and cranes,’ sounds like Venice. Even its archaeological composition recalls Venice:
‘No one remembers what need or command or desire drove Zenobia’s founders to give their city this form, and so there is no telling whether it was satisfied by the city as we see it today, which has perhaps grown through successive superimpositions from the first, now undecipherable plan. But what is certain is that if you ask an inhabitant of Zenobia to describe his vision of a happy life, it is always a city like Zenobia that he imagines, with its pilings and its suspended stairways, a Zenobia perhaps quite different, a-flutter with banners and ribbons, but always derived by combining elements of that first model.’
Venice is also used as the ‘first model’ by which every other city is considered.
The uncertain future of Venice is paralleled in the uncertain future of Octavia, where Venetian waterways are transposed to the sky-high Octavian walkways:
‘If you choose to believe me, good. Now I will tell how Octavia, the spider-web city, is made. There is a precipice between two steep mountains: the city is over the void, bound to the two crests with ropes and chains and catwalks. You walk on the little wooden ties, careful not to set your foot in the open spaces, or you cling to the hempen strands. Below there is nothing for hundreds and hundreds of feet: a few clouds glide past; farther down you can glimpse the chasm’s bed. This is the foundation of the city: a net which serves as passage and as support. All the rest, instead of rising up, is hung below... Suspended over the abyss, the life of Octavia’s inhabitants is less uncertain that in other cities. They know the net will last only so long.’
Venice is sinking, and Octavia’s precarious future literally hangs in the balance.
Calvino’s Khan also compares his Quinsay to Venice, directly asking Polo if he has ever seen a city resembling his one, ‘extending his beringed hand from beneath the silken canopy of the imperial barge, to point to the bridges arching over the canals, the princely palaces whose marble doorsteps were immersed in the water, the bustle of light craft zigzagging, driven by long oars, the boats unloading baskets of vegetables at the market squares, the balconies, platforms, domes, campaniles, island gardens glowing green in the lagoon’s grayness.’
Polo tells the Khan that he has now described all the cities he knows. The Khan then wants to hear about Venice; Polo says he has been saying something about Venice all along, because in order to describe the other cities, he must ‘speak of a first city that remains implicit.’ For him, that is Venice. When the Khan tells him to describe Venice, Polo admits that he is afraid of losing Venice by speaking of it, or perhaps that he has ‘already lost it, little by little,’ by describing the other cities in its terms. As the book progresses, it grows increasingly Venetian, as if the nostalgia for Venice increases with time and the imagined distance of Marco Polo from his home.
Calvino has a point when he characterizes Polo’s descriptions of visits to strange lands as evocations, above all, of Venice – he wants to make his cities believable, probable, or at least possible. One of the central aims of travel writing is education, and in order for it to work, it has to be believable – it has to be credible. Although credibility was ‘less of an issue in the high medieval topographical literature... the wonders of the far East and West lay very far away and had no practical implications for most European readers and writers [blunting] the question of their authenticity,’ - it was still an aim of the book for the traveller’s tales to be believed. Marco Polo achieved this with only varying degrees of success. However, it is not credibility in the actual existence of the wondrous Other; it is credibility in the possibility of their existence that has ensured the enduring popularity of Polo’s book: ‘Like romances, medieval books of topography and travel offered pleasure and entertainment. They enlarged their readers’ sense of possibility, allowing them to fantasize about alternative worlds of barely imaginable wealth, flexible gender roles, fabulous strangeness and beauty. Like novels or movies today, they demanded emotional and intellectual consent rather than a dogmatic commitment to belief.’ This allowance and invitation to dream about possibilities would also prove to be a brilliant marketing ploy and encourage sales of his book – Marco Polo was, in the end, a merchant.
The medieval reader – or the reader of fiction today – is used to a different set of criteria with which to judge the plausible or implausible. They share ‘an approach to truth more complicated and multivalent than the post-seventeenth-century obsession with the literal fact... For them, truth could exist on various levels, both literal and figurative. Moral or spiritual meaning was at least as important as descriptive accuracy, and wonder... was a “significance reaction.”’ Thus travel writing’s didactic purpose again presents itself as one of the main aims of its genre.
Credibility is an issue for travel writers in particular, as opposed to general geographical or topographical description, because the authors were assumed to have been there themselves, in the heart of the action, in the thick of things, and to have lived to tell the tale: ‘They told specific stories, set in a particular time and place, rather than laying out a general cosmographical structure freighted with moral and theological meaning. Furthermore, because the appeal of such stories lay largely in the novelty and implausibility of their material, truth to fact was of greater concern.’
Importantly, credibility was necessary, since their own personal reputations were also at stake: ‘For travel writers... the margins of the world were topologically continuous with the European centre; their own experience and credibility were at stake, and they needed to present their narratives as both literally and morally true.’ Hence Polo’s heavy insistence on his eyewitness accounts as being absolutely true; he sees things with his own eyes (or recounts tales garnered from ‘reliable sources’), giving himself authenticity.
While Polo’s Milione is peppered with exaggeration - on the brackish green water seven days’ journey from Kerman, Polo exclaims, ‘Drink one drop of it and you void your bowels ten times over;’ in the realm of Quilon, he exclaims, ‘The heat here is so intense and the sun so powerful that it is scarcely tolerable. For I assure you that if you put an egg into one of the rivers you would not have long to wait before it boiled’ - and superlatives - ‘the best X in the world’, ‘the only X in the world’, ‘the largest...’, ‘the most splendid...’, ‘the loveliest...’, ‘the finest...’ ‘the greatest...’ - the underlying tenet beneath all his incredulity is that it is the absolute truth. Polo affirms: ‘What I have told you is the plain truth without a word of falsehood,’ and proudly reminds us that ‘...there has been no man...who has known or explored so many of the various parts of the world and of its great wonders as this same Messer Marco Polo.’
Polo exaggerates for effect and even, paradoxically, to highlight the truth of what he says. He tempers this by dispelling myths and relating things back to Venetian terms, weights, measures, geographies and geographical knowledge. Calvino unmasks cities for dramatic effect, plays with imagined ecstatic, or feared, geographies of the mind and, in so doing, emphasizes what is true about cities today, and what is true about Venice itself.
We are left with the boundaries between truth and fiction blurred and porous. The incredible crystallizes in order to become credible. If we can believe one thing, we can believe everything. We can suspend our disbelief and go along with the writer, if only to enjoy the story. We can end with the apocryphal tale of Polo’s speech upon his death: Latham informs us that in Jacopo d’Acqui’s Imago Mundi, ‘Jacopo also reports Marco as declaring on his deathbed that, so far from exaggerating, he had not related the half of what he had seen.’
Calvino, Italo, Invisible Cities. London: Vintage, 1997.
Critchley, John, Marco Polo’s Book. UK: Variorum, 1992.
Daston, Lorraine, and Park, Katherine, Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750. New York: Zone Books, 1998.
Polo, Marco, The Travels of Marco Polo, translated and with an introduction by Latham, Ronald. UK: Penguin, 1958
Wittkower, Rudolf, Allegory and the Migration of Symbols. London: Thames and Hudson, 1987.