Notes for Collection of Sand - essays by Italo Calvino

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history obscura vision books

Collection of Sand is a collection of book reviews, exhibition reviews and travelogues that Italo Calvino wrote in the 70’s and 80’s. The quality varies. The best of them are unsurprisingly ekphrastic essays where Calvino described gardens, historical sites, and paintings in exquisite details. Those where he tried to regurgitate scientific or historical knowledge from academic books are less inspiring. But still, it is the variety of things that Calvino cared to write about that charms. I haven’t encountered another book that talks about so many arcane things in one place. The vast majority of the notes that I made below have no relevance to anything that I do. Sometimes it just feels good to indulge myself to read about random subjects such as… the first giraffe in Paris…

In 2015, I visited Museo Galileo in Florence. I became facscinated by a beautiful world map in a room about navigation, and I vaguely remembered that it was mentioned in Collection of Sand. A quick consultation with the ebook in my phone… and indeed, it was the Fra Mauro 1450 world map (a replica, that is), described in an essay titled The traveller in the map. It was apparently the first map that made Europe looked so small. The museum also displayed some anatomical models by Clemente Susini - who was mentioned in The museum of wax monsters. This was the only time in my life that I saw some of the things that Calvino wrote about.

I. Exhibitions - Explorations

Collection of sand

Calvino wondered why anyone would be interested in collecting sands, in an exhibition in Paris about bizarre collections.

How new the new world was?

If a New World were discovered now, would we be able to see it? Calvino went to an exhibition called America Seen by Europe.

  • Giuliano Dati - 15th century Florentine poet, who translated Columbus’s letter on the first voyage. The engravings from this book were among the earliest depictions of the New World in Europe
  • Amerigo Vespucci - Italian explorer, who published early reports about America. The word America means Amerigo’s Land
  • John White - 16th century colonist and artist. First attempt to establish an English colony in the new world
  • Albert Eckhout - 17th century Dutch painter, one of the first European artists to paint scenes about America
  • Frans Post - dutch painter, one of the first European artists to paint American landscapes
  • Stefano della Bella - Florentine printmaker

The traveller in the map

In an exhibition called Maps and Images of the Earth, Calvino mused about narratives in maps.

  • Tabula Peutingeriana - a 13th century illustration of the road network of the Roman Empire
  • John Ogilby published the first british road atlas in 1675
  • Abraham Cresques 14th-century cartographer from Palma, Majorca (then part of the Crown of Aragon), who made the Catalan Atlas
  • Muhammad al-Idrisi - made the medieval world map Tabula Rogeriana
  • Codex Boturini - Aztec codex that tells the story of the Aztec Exodus - which took place between 1100 to 1135 - all the way to the promised land, which is today’s Mexico City
  • Vincenzo Coronelli made a globe for Louis XIV
  • Cassini map- the first topographic and geometric map established of the Kingdom of France as a whole. Note: this Cassini is César-François Cassini de Thury, the grandson of the more famous Giovanni Domenico Cassini who discovered the satellites of Saturn
  • Fra Mauro map - a map of the world made around 1450 by the Italian cartographer Fra Mauro
  • Map of the lagoon of Venice - 17th century by Antonio Vestri
  • Opicinus de Canistris - an Italian priest, writer, mystic, and cartographer who generated a number of unusual writings and fantastic cosmological diagrams
  • Madeleine de Scudéry - French writer who invented Map of Tendre, an allegorical map of an imaginary land

The museum of wax monsters

Calvino visited a reconstruction of Dr. Spitzner’s anatomical wax museum - a fairground attraction of the 19th century Belgium.

The dragon tradition

Surprisingly this essay has little to do with dragons! It’s about an exhibition tracing the origins of ethnographical discovery of France in Enlightenment.

  • Denis Diderot - French philosopher, prominent figure of Enlightenment
  • Abbé Grégoire - French Catholic priest, advocator of a unified French language

Before the alphabet

In an exhibition about the birth of writing, Calvino learned about cuneiform writing and Egyptian hieroglyphs.

An exhibition about modern folklore.

A novel inside a painting

Calvino tried to read Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People like a novel.

Say it with knots

Impressions about an exhibition about knot making as a medium for communication and artistic expression. A little bit about knots theory in mathematics but took a wrong turn to talk about Lacan.

  • Quipu - knot language used by Peruvian Incas.

Writers who draw

Why do some writers draw while others don’t? Do writers draw differently? (An exhibition of paintings by writers)

II. The Eye’s Ray

In memory of Roland Barthes

Reading about Roland Barthes’ sudden death in French newspapers, Calvino reflected on Barthes’ work and life.

Day-flies in the fortress

At the Forte del Belvedere in Florence, Calvino commented on the ephemeral sculptures of Fausto Melotti

The pig and the archeologist

At the archeological site of Villa Settefinestre, Calvino learned about the evolving roles of Roman villas.

The narrative of Trajan’s column

Calvino read Trajan’s Column in Rome like a comic strip.

The written city: inscriptions and graffiti

Comments on a book about inscriptions and typefaces in Italian cities, from Middle Ages to modern times.

Thinking the city: the measure of spaces

There was a time (early 19th century) when Rome had too much empty spaces! Comments on city spaces, in reaction to an essay about cities in medieval Italy, by French historian Jacques Le Goff.

The redemption of objects

Calvino read an anthology of Mario Praz - Italian writer and art collector. As far as I can tell, this essay is about furnitures (?). The title refers to Praz’ view on collecting things: “How satisfying it is to redeem a good object in all its purity from the contamination of low and degrading company!”

Light in our eyes

Calvino was (unsurprisingly) fascinated by optics and vision. He tried to summarize what he learned in a book about vision.

III. Accounts of the Fantastic

The adventures of the three clockmakers and three automata

On an illustrated book about the automata of Neuchâtel - capital of clockmaking in the 18th century.

Fairy geography

On a book about fairies by Robert Kirk - 17th century collector of folklore.

The archipelago of imaginary places

Comments on The Dictionary of Imaginary Places by Argentinian writer Alberto Manguel.

Stamps from states of mind

Hand painted stamps by American artist Donald Evans.

The encyclopaedia of an visionary

Calvino was (of course) fascinated by Codex Seraphinianus, an encyclopaedia of a fantasy world written in an made up language.

IV. The shape of time

The old woman in the purple kimono

Observations made on a platform of a Tokyo train station.

The obverse of the sublime

Calvino does what he does best - looking at things (in this case, a Japanese garden) and thinking about his looking at things.

The wooden temple

In Japan, great buildings are built with wood, a perishable material, so they have to be rebuilt again and again.

The thousand gardens

A garden design that is all about changes.

The moon chasing the moon

Calvino thought about how the Zen gardens of Kyoto would look like under moonlight.

The sword and the leaves

Calvino visited an exhibition about arms and armour from ancient japan, at Tokyo’s National Museum. At a garden in Kyoto, he recalled a Zen koan about a sword maker.

The pinballs of solitude

Thoughts about pachinko.

Eros and discontinuity

Observations about Japanese erotic prints.

The ninety-ninth tree

A Kyoto taxi driver told a story about the wood of ninety-nine trees.

The shape of the tree

Calvino visited the Tree of Tule (Árbol del Tule) in the Mexican state of Oaxaca.

Time and branches

At the Church of Santo Domingo in Oaxaca, Mexico, Calvino thoughts about genealogical trees and real trees.

  • Tree of Jesse - depiction in art of the ancestors of Christ, shown in a tree
  • Jesse - father of David

The forest and the gods

Touring a Mayan temple surrounded by dense forests, Calvino mused about the nature of … language? See also Serpents and Skulls in Mr. Palomar, although that chapter is about the Toltec ruins of Tula.

The mihrab

At the Jameh Mosque of Isfahan, Iran, Calvino mused about the importance of emptiness (a very Taoist thought).

The flames within the flames

The true fire is the hidden fire. Calvino on the mysticism of fire.

The sculptures and the nomads

Upon encountering some nomads after visiting Iranian ancient sites, Calvino thought about death and eternity.

  • Persepolis - ceremonial capital of the Achaemenid Empire in Iran
  • Naqsh-e Rostam - ancient necropolis located about 12 km northwest of Persepolis