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Italo Calvino (1923-1985)


Journalist, short story writer and novelist, experimental writer whose imaginative fabulations made him one of the most important Italian fiction writers of the 20th century. Calvino's career as a writer spanned nearly four decades.

"After forty years of writing fiction, after exploring various roads and making diverse experiments, the time has come for me to look for an overall definition of my work. I would suggest this: my working method has more often than not involved the subtraction of weight. I have tried to remove weight, sometimes from people, sometimes from heavenly bodies, sometimes from cities; above all I have tried to remove weight from the structure of stories and from language." (from Six Memos for the Next Millennium, 1988)

Italo Calvino was born in Santiago de las Vegas, Cuba. "I will begin by saying that I was born under the sign of Libra," he once said. (Libra is the 7th sign of the zodiak, operative September 24-October 23; the word for book in Italian is libro.) Both of his parents, Mario and Eva Calvino, were botanists. Calvino moved with his family in Italy in his youth and spent his early years in San Remo, where his father was the curator of the botanical gardens. Between 1941 and 1947 Calvino studied at the University of Turin. In 1940, he was drafted into the Young Fascists and participated in the Italian occupation of the French Riviere, but at the age of nineteen he left and sought refuge in the Alps. There he joined the Communist Resistance in the Ligurian mountains. From these experiences he drew inspiration for his first stories.

"The sea rose and fell against the rocks of the mole, making the fishing boats sway, and dark-skinned men were filling them with red nets and lobster pots for the evening's fishing. The water was calm, with just a slight continual change of color, blue and black, darker farthest away. I thought of the expanses of water like this, of the infinite grains of soft sand down there at the bottom of the sea where the currents leave white shells washed clean by the waves." (from 'The Argentine Ant' in Adam, One Afternoon, 1949)

After the war Calvino graduated from the University of Turin and worked for the communist periodical L'Unitá in 1945 as a journalist and for Einaudi publishing house from 1948 to 1984. He wrote for various periodicals throughout his life, including L'Unitá, La Nostra Lotta, Il Garibaldino, Voce della Democrazia, Il Contemporaneo, Cittá Aperta, and La Republica.

Following in the footsteps of Cesare Pavese, Calvino signed up with the Turin-based publishers Einaudi. Shortly after writing his graduation thesis on Conrad, Calvino published his first novel, Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno (1947, The Path to the Nest of Spiders), about resistance movement seen through the eyes of a young boy and in Neorealistic manner. The work was noted for its fablelike twists in the narrative. Il visconte dimezzato (1952, The Cloven Viscount) marked Calvino's break with the common themes connected with the experience of war. It told the story of a man cut in half by a cannonball during the Turkish-Christian war. The appearance of the novel provoked a debate of realism by the Italian Communist party.

In the 1950s published fantastic tales, hovering between allegory and pure fantasy, brought Calvino international acclaim and established his reputation as one of the most important Italian fiction writers of the 20th century. Il visconte dimezzato was followed by Il barone rampante (1957, The Baron in the Trees), in which an 18th-century baron's son climbs a tree and ends up spending his life in various treetops. Il cavaliere inesistente (1959,  The Non-Existent Knight), the last book of the trilogy Our Ancestors, which gave precedence to fantasy outside the general neorealistic vein. Behind the playful spinning of tales also can been seen Calvino's questioning about the relationship between the individual conscience and the course of history. However, in La nuvola di smog (1958, Smog) the author returned for awhile to the social-realistic mode to satirize the industrial society. Written in the first person, the unnamed narrator is involved with a newspaper which dealt with pollution and the environment.

Between 1955 and 1958 Calvino had an affair with the actress Elsa de' Giorgi, who was married to Count Sandro Contini Bonacossi. Excepts from his letters were published in an article in the Milan daily Corriere della Sera in 2004. While living in France, Calvino met the Argentinian translator Esther Judith Singer (nicknamed Chichita), who worked at UNESCO headquarters. They were married in 1964 in Havanna.

In the post-1956 period, marked by the events in Hungary which were to cause Calvino to leave the Italian Communist Party, Calvino devoted himself more to journalism than to fiction; he also continued to write for Il contemporaneo, a Marxist weekly. When Calvino left the Party he felt deeply distressed and wrote: "Having grown up in times of dictatorship, and being overtaken by total war when of military age, I still have the notion that to live in peace and freedom is a frail kind of good fortune that might be taken away from me in an instant." In one article Calvino asked, "Was I Stalinist Too?" Though Calvino gave numerous interviews, he rarely discussed his private life; he was a solitary person, who stuttered, spoke haltingly, and felt out of place in his times.

From 1959 to 1967 Calvino edited with Elio Vittorini the magazine Il Menabó di letteratura. In 1952 he travelled to the Soviet Union and in 1959-60 to the United States, saying in his American diary: "Very attractive women are rare. On the whole they are petite-bourgeois." In 1967 he moved to Paris, where he became acquainted with the activities of Oulipo, led by Raymond Queneau and François LeLionnais. After moving back to Italy, he settled in Rome in 1980.  

In Marcovalco (1963), a collection of fables, Calvino satirized the modern, destructive urban way of living. Marcovalco is a Chaplinisque character, an ordinary working man and a father, who desperately longs for beauty and sinks in his daydreams whenever he can. When everybody leaves the city in August, he enjoys the empty streets. His peace is interrupted by a television group – it wants to interview the only person who is not on holiday.

Calvino visited New York first time in 1959 and came to regard it as "my city." His 'American Diary 1959-60' consisted of letters written to colleagues. Calvino was amazed of the size of the fridges and how ignorant Americans were of Italian writing. In 1964 he went to Paris to strengthen his ties with the latest innovative trends. Le cosmicomiche (1965, Cosmicomics) set the concepts of evolution against cosmic scales. Through the boasting accounts of Qfwfq, who is as old as the universe, Calvino questions all the basic concepts of scientific theories. Qfwfq changes constantly – it has been a fish, and the last dinosaur. When his dear friend says, "Boys, the noodles I would make for you!" this outburst of general love initiates "at the same moment the concept of space and, properly speaking, space itself, and time, and universal gravitation, and the gravitation universe, making possible billions and billions of suns, and of planets, and fields of wheat..." In Il Castello dei destini incrociati (1973, The Castle of Crossed Destines) Calvino found his source of inspiration in two ancient packs of tarot cards. The novel represented a type of open text that allows for a similar variety of possible readings.

"Waiting in line, Mr Palomar contemplates the jars. He tries to find a place in his memories for cassoulet, a rich stew of meats and beans, in which goose-fat is an essential ingredient; but neither his palate's memory nor his cultural memory is of any help to him. And yet the name, the sight, the idea attract him, awaken an immediate fantasy not so much of appetite as of eros: from a mountain of goose-fat a female figure surfaces, smears white over her rosy skin, and he already imagines himself making his way towards her through those thick avalanches, embracing her, sinking with her." (from Mr. Palomar, 1983)

Le cittá invisibli (1972, Invisible Cities) was a surreal fantasy in which Marco Polo invents dream-cities to amuse Kubla Khan – a city on stilts, a city made of waterpipes, a spiderweb city, a city that cannot be forgotten and so on. Polo's principle as a storyteller is: "Falsehood is never in the words, it is in the things." In Isidore, one of the Cities of Memory, "the foreigner hesitating between two women always encounters a third, and in Zirma one sees "a girl walking with a puma on a leash," and one leaves "Tamara without having discovered it." The Great Khan's labyrinthine empire becomes a metaphor of the universe itself. Calvino won with the book the prestigious Premio Felrinelli Award. Of Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveller (1979), Salman Rushdie declared: "He is writing down what you have always known except that you've never thought of it before."

Le cittá invisibili concist of a conversation between an imaginary Marco Polo and an imaginary Kublai Khan. Marco Polo describes a series of surreal cities in the Khan's domain. Each city is charactericized by a unique quality or concept and they are all named for women. The novel is divided into nine parts. The first and last parts contain five vignettes between the framing narratives. The old and Khan tries to find significance from Marco Polo's fragmented tales, but the true story is the ongoing debate between the visionary Marco and the skeptical Kublai – hope versus despair.

In Se una notte d'inverno unviaggiatore ( If on a Winter's Night a Traveller) the story alternates the opening chapters of 10 different novels, and opens with a man discovering that the copy of the novel he has recently purchased is defective, a Polish novel having been bound within its pages. When he returns to the bookshop he meets a young woman, and they find out that their texts are 10 exerpts that parody the genres of conteporary fiction. The book includes instalments of a discourse on the experience of reading. Responsible for the 10 opening chapters might be a literary translator, whose intrigues the fantastical narrative concerns. Calvino seems to consider reading over writing.

Calvino died of cerebral hemorrhage in Siena, on September 19, 1985. His later essays Le lezioni americane – about five central qualities of good fiction: lightness, quickness, exactitude, visibility, and multiplicity – were published posthumously. From the collection Under a Jaguar Sun (1991), stories on the five senses, 'sight' and 'touch,' were never completed. About sight he once said: "Actually, I have been writing about visibility my whole life." In The Uses of Literature (1980) Calvino noted that there should be a time "in adult life devoted to revisiting the most important books of our youth. Even if the books have remained the same (though they do change, in the light of an altered historical perspective), we have most certainly changed, and our encounter will be an entirely new thing."

For further reading: Image, Eye and Art in Calvino, ed. by Birgitte Grundtvig, Martin McLaughlin and Lene Waage Petersen (2007); Understanding Italo Calvino by Beno Weiss (1993); Calvino's Fictions by Kathryn Hume (1992); Calvino and the Age of Neorealism by Lucia Re (1990); Calvino Revisited, ed. by Franco Ricci (1989); Introduzione a Calvino by Christina Benussi (1989); Italo Calvino: Introduzione e guida allo studio dell'opera Calviniana, storia e antologia della critica by Giorgia Baroni (1988); Italo Calvino by Albert Howard Carter (1987); Italo Calvino: Writer and Critic by JoAnn Cannon (1981); Calvino: The Writer as Fablemaker by Sara Maria Adler (1979); Invito alla lettura di Italo Calvino by Giuseppe Bonura (1972); Italo Calvino: A Reappraisal and an Appreciation of the Trilogy by J.R. Woodhouse (1968); Calvino by G.P. Bottino (1967) - Other masters of allegorical fantasy: Umberto Eco, Vladimir Nabokov, Günter Grass - See also: Magic Realism

Selected bibliography:

  • Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno, 1947
    - The Path to the Nest of Spiders (translated by Archibald Colquhoun, 1957)
  • Ultimo viene il corvo, 1949
    - Adam, One Afternoon, and Other Stories (translated by Archibald Colquhoun and Peggy Wright, 1957)
  • I giovani del Po, 1950
  • La formica argentina, 1952 (in Botteghe oscure 10)
  • Il visconte dimezzato, 1952
    -  The Non-Existent Knight & The Cloven Viscount: Two Short Novels (translated by Archibald Colquhoun, 1962)
    - Halkaistu varakreivi (suom. Jorma Kapari, 1970)
  • L'entrata in guerra, 1954
  • Fiable italiane, 1956
    - Italian Fables (translated by Louis Brigante, 1959) / Italian Folktales: Selected and Retold by Italo Calvino (translated by George Martin, 1980)
  • La speculazione edilizia, 1957 (in Botteghe oscure 20)
    - A Plunge into Real Estate  (in Difficult Loves, translated by William Weaver, D.S. Carne-Ross, 1983)
  • Il barone rampante, 1957
    - The Baron in the Trees (translated by Archibald Colquhoun, 1959)
    - Paroni puussa (suom. Pentti Saarikoski, 1960)
  • I giovani del Po, 1957 (in Officina 8-11)
  • La nuvola di smog, 1958
    - Smog (in Difficult Loves, translated William Weaver, D.S. Carne-Ross, 1983)
  • I racconti, 1958 (Gli idilli difficili, Le memorie difficili, Gli amori difficili, La vita difficile)
    - Adam, One Afternoon, and Other Stories (translated by Archibald Colquhoun and Peggy Wright, 1957); The Watcher & Other Stories (translated by William Weaver and Archibald Colquhoun, 1971); Difficult Loves (translated William Weaver, D.S. Carne-Ross, 1983)
    - Tämä vaikea elämä (suom. Jorma Kapari, 1979)
  • Il cavaliere inesistente, 1959
    - The Non-Existent Knight & The Cloven Viscount: Two Short Novels (translated by Archibald Colquhoun, 1962)
    - Ritari joka ei ollut olemassa (suom. Pentti Saarikoski, 1962) 
  • I nostri antenati, 1960
    - Our Ancestors: The Cloven Viscount; Baron in the Trees; The Non-Existent Knight (translated by Archibald Colquhoun, 1992)
  • Marcovaldo; ovvero, le stagioni in cittá, 1963
    - Marcovaldo; or, The Seasons in the City (translated by William Weaver, 1983)
    - Marcovaldo eli Vuodenajat kaupungissa (suom. Jorma Kapari, 1987)
  • La giornata d'uno scrutatore, 1963
    - The Watcher & Other Stories (tr. 1971)  
  • Le cosmicomiche, 1965
    - Cosmicomics (translated by William Weaver, 1968)
    - Kosmokomiikkaa (suom. Liisa Ryömä, 1969)
  • I fiori blu /  Raymond Queneau, 1967 (translator)
  • Ti con zero, 1967
    - T zero (translated by William Weaver, 1969)
  • Il castello dei destini incrociati, 1969, 1973
    - The Castle of Crossed Destines (translated by William Weaver, 1977)
  • Orlando Furioso di Ludovico Ariosto, 1970 (Calvino's reading of the epic poem and selections)
  • Gli amori difficili, 1970
    - Difficult Loves (translated by William Weaver, Archibald Colquhoun, Peggy Wright, 1984)
  • Fiable italiane, 1971
    - Italian Folk Tales (translated by Sylvia Mulcahy, illustrated by Emanuele Luzzati, 1975) / Italian Folktales: Selected and Retold by Italo Calvino (translated by George Martin, 1980)
  • The Watcher & Other Stories, 1971
  • Le cittá invisibli, 1972
    - Invisible cities (translated by William Weaver, 1974)
    - Näkymättömät kaupungit (suom. Jorma Kapari, 1976)
  • L'uccel belverde e altre fiable italiane, 1972
  • Il Principe Granchio, e altre fabre italiane, 1974
  • Se una notte d'inverno un viaggiatore, 1979
    - If on a Winter's Night Traveller (translated by William Weaver, 1981)
    - Jos talviyönä matkamies (suom. Liisa Ryömä, 1983)
  • Pietra sopra: Discorsi di letteratura e societá, 1980
    - The Uses of Literature: Essays (US title; translated by Patrick Creagh, 1986) / The Literature Machine: Essays (UK title; tr. Patrick Creagh, 1987)
  • Difficult Loves. Smog. A Plunge into Real Estate, 1983 (translated William Weaver, D.S. Carne-Ross)
  • Palomar, 1983
    - The Silent Mr. Palomar (translated by William Weaver, 1981) / Mr. Palomar (translated by William Weaver, 1985)
    - Herra Palomar (suom. Liisa Ryömä, 1988)
  • Adam, One Afternoon and Other Stories, 1983 (translated by Archibald Colquhoun and Peggy Wright)
  • Cosmocomiche vecchie e nuove, 1984
  • Collezione di sabbia, 1984
  • Sotto il sole giaguaro, 1984
    - Under the Jaguar Sun (translated by William Weaver, 1988)
  • La canzone del polistirene / Raymond Queneau, 1985 (translator)
  • Uses of literature: Essays, 1986 (translated by Patrick Creagh)
  • The Literature Machine: Essays, 1987 (translated by Patrick Creagh)
  • Lezioni americane: Sei proposte per il prossimo millenio, 1988
    - Six Memos for the Next Millenium (The Charles Eliot Norton Lectures 1985-86; translated by Patrick Creagh, 1988)
    - Kuusi muistiota seuraavalle vuosituhannelle (suom. Elina Suolahti, 1995)
  • La strada di San Giovanni, 1990
    - The Road to San Giovanni (translated by Tim Parks, 1993)
  • I libri degli altri. Lettere 1947-1981, 1991 (edited by Giovanni Tesio)
  • Perché leggere i classici, 1991
    - Why Read the Classics? (translated by Martin McLaughlin, 1999)
  • Romanzi e racconti, 1991-1994 (3 vols., edited by Claudio Milanini, et al.)
  • Prima che tu dica "Pronto", 1993
    - Numbers in the Dark, and Other Stories (translated by Tim Parks, 1995)
    - Kenraali kirjastossa (suom. Helinä Kangas, 2012) 
  • Eremita a Parigi, 1994
    - Hermit in Paris: Autobiographical Writings (translated by Martin McLaughlin, 2003)
  • Saggi, 1995 (2 vols., ed. by Mario Barenghi)
  • Tutte le cosmicomiche, 1997
    - The Complete Cosmicomics (translated by Martin McLaughlin,Tim Parks, and William Weaver, 2009
    - Koko kosmokomiikka (suom. Liisa Ryömä, 2008)
  • Lettere 1940-1985, 2000 (edited by Luca Baranelli)
  • Mondo scritto e mondo non scritto, 2002  (edited by Mario Barenghi)

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