MAKING THE CITIES VISIBLE:
CALVINO MEETS UELSMANN
David A. Weiss & Simonetta Ferrini
In devising a story  the first thing that comes to my mindis an image that for some reason strikes me as charged withmeaning, even if I cannot formulate this meaning in discursiveor conceptual terms. As soon as the image has becomesufficiently clear in my mind, I set about developing it into astory; or better yet, it is the images themselves that developtheir own implicit potentialities, the story they carry withinthem. (Italo Calvino, Six Memos For The Next Millennium)
Italo Calvinos Invisible Cities is one of the most intriguing andchallenging works to be discussed in a literature class. It raisesdeep questions, provokes unexpected reactions, eludes anypreconceived answer or clear-cut interpretation. I had beenusing the book in my Contemporary Italian Literature course(in which Calvino is just one of the writers covered) for a fewsemesters. Every semester the class had reacted in a differentway to the book, everytime though showing positive, if notenthusiastic, responses. I was convinced that the limited timededicated in class to the analysis and discussion of the bookdid not do it justice. Characterized by a highly intricateconnection of visual images and by a multi-layered labyrinthof possible meanings, Invisible Cities deserved more than just aliterary reading and reflection. So in the Spring 2010 I askedmy colleague David Weiss if he wanted to collaborate with oneof his photography classes to an interdisciplinary project. Mystudents would write a review about the book, to be publishedon the final issue of Blending, Palazzis monthly magazine, hisstudents would visually interpret the spirit of the book andtranspose it into photographic images. In that way the text byCalvino would become an excellent means to stimulate boththe imaginative, reflective and creative side of our students,something that the author, we are convinced, would have highlyenjoyed. These are the steps that we followed in our project.
Literature class (9 students):Brainstorming for a first approach to the book1. One week before the actual presentation and class discussionof the book the students were assigned a written homeworkabout Invisible Cities, in which they were asked to reflect aboutthe following points:a) the non-traditional, mathematical structure of the book b) a possible general interpretation of the book (what do thecities stand for? why are they named after women? why are theydivided into categories?)c) the characteristics of each category (which are the recurrentthemes in the stories belonging to the same category? how iseach category related to the others?)d) the dialogues between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan (whatare the two characters talking about? how do they interact? howdifferent are their perspectives?)
Presentation in class and class discussion2. The following week two students presented the book in class,to which a general discussion followed, each studentcontributing with his/her own reflections, doubts, andpreferences about the stories and categories.
Individual homework - choosing quotations and writing shortcomments3. In the following weeks the students were asked to work by
themselves at home, selecting two or three among their favourite quotations from the book and writing a briefcomment about each one of them.
Class activity - selecting quotations 4. A couple of weeks before the publication, the studentsworked in class in small groups of three, discussing andselecting the most significant among their favourite quotations.
Class activity - writing the final version of the text5. One week before the publication all students workedtogether in class on the final version of the review, editing thedifferent paragraphs obtained during the previous stage into acohesive and meaningful text.
Publication of review with photographs6. Review and photographs were published on the final issueof Blending which was entirely dedicated to the themeFrametime. We chose the title Frame of time because InvisibleCities is an expression of what Calvino would have called theuniversal book, a literary frame containing past, present andfuture, the story of all the possible stories ever narrated. there is another definition in which I recognize myself fully,and that is the imagination as a repertory of what is potential,what is hypothetical, of what does not exist and has neverexisted, and perhaps will never exist but might have existed.(Italo Calvino, Six Memos For The Next Millennium)
When Professor Simonetta Ferrini stopped me in the hallwayand asked what do you think about your intermediate digitalphotography class working with my class, who is studying ItaloCalvinos Invisible Cities, to produce images/photographs?I immediately thought about Jerry Uelsmann who producedblack and white images that combined the realism ofphotography and the fluidity of our collective dreams.
For those of you who are not familiar with Uelsmanns work,he created images by assembling multiple negatives in up toseven different enlargers to expose a single print, decadesbefore photoshop would even be a notion. My challenge as aninstructor was two-fold. First, to give assignments to thestudents, to get them on the right track, and to think of thefinal body of work as an alchemy of the photographicprocess. Second, the students would have to shift (for amoment) their attention from photography to literature and,as a group, discuss how to turn the writings of Calvino intoimagery by breaking down a citt into its vital components.
This proved to be challenging because the Cities were left upto interpretation. Some were easier to visualize and thereforeeasier to create, while others would have entailed months ofplanning. I had only a short amount of time to teach specializeddigital darkroom techniques, lighting skills, photographic visualrules and tricks and to push the students past their limits andexpectations. I have to say the final outcome was spectacular and a pleasantsurprise.
I have gradually confused photography and life and a result of this I believeI am able to work out of myself at an almost precognitive level.Jerry Uelsmann
CITIES & DESIRE 4 - FEDORA
Looking into each globe, you see a blue city, the model of a different Fedora. These are the forms the city could have taken if,
for one reason or another, it had not become what we see today. In every age someone, looking at Fedora as it was, imagined a
way of making it the ideal city, but while he constructed his miniature model, Fedora was already no longer the same as before,
and what had been until yesterday a possible future became only a toy in a glass globe.
Guardando dentro ogni sfera si vede una citt azzurra che il modello dunaltra Fedora. Sono le forme che la citt avrebbe
potuto prendere se non fosse, per una ragione o per laltra, diventata come oggi la vediamo. In ogni epoca qualcuno, guardando
Fedora qual era, aveva immaginato il modo di farne la citt ideale, ma mentre costruiva il suo modello in miniatura gi Fedora
non era pi la stessa di prima, e quello che fino a ieri era stato un suo possibile futuro ormai era solo un giocattolo in una sfera
CITIES & EyES 5 - MORIANA
When you have forded the river, when you have crossed the mountain pass, you suddenly find before you the city of Moriana,
its alabaster gates transparent in the sunlight, its coral columns supporting pediments encrusted with serpentine, its villas all of
glass like aquariums where the shadows of dancing girls with silvery scales swim beneath the medusa-shaped chandeliers. [...]
From one part to the other, the city seems to continue, in perspective, multiplying its repertory of images: but instead it has no
thickness, it consists only of a face and an obverse, like a sheet of paper, with a figure on either side, which can neither be
separated nor look at each other.
Guadato il fiume, valicato il passo, luomo si trova di fronte tutta un tratto la citt di Moriana, con le porte dalabastro trasparenti
alla luce del sole, le colonne di corallo che sostengono i frontoni incrostati di serpentina, le ville tutte di vetro come acquari dove
nuotano le ombre delle danzatrici dalle squame argentate sotto i lampadari a forma di medusa. [...]
Da una parte allaltra la citt sembra continui in prospettiva moltiplicando il suo repertorio dimmagini: invece non ha spessore,
consiste solo in un diritto e in un rovescio, come un foglio di carta, con una figura di qua e una di l, che non possono staccarsi
CITIES & THE DEAD 2 - ADELMA
I thought: You reach a moment in life when, among the people you have known, the dead outnumber the living. And the mind
refuses to accept more faces, more expressions: on every new face you encounter, it prints the old forms, for each one it finds
the most suitable mask.
Pensai: Si arriva a un momento nella vita in cui tra la gente che si conosciuta i morti sono pi dei vivi. E la mente si rifiuta
daccettare altre fisionomie, altre espressioni: su tutte le facce nuove che incontra, imprime i vecchi calchi, per ognuna trova la
maschera che sadatta di pi.
CITIES & MEMORy 5 - MAURILIA
In Maurilia, the traveler is invited to visit the city and, at the same time, to examine some old postcards that show it as it used
to be . It is pointless to ask whether the new [gods that inhabit the city] are better or worse than the old, since there is no
connection between them, just as the old postcards do not depict Maurilia as it was, but a different city which, by chance, was