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.
- Clemente Susini - Italian sculptor who became renowned for his wax anatomical models
- Raimondo di Sangro - maker of anatomical models
- Sante Geronimo Caserio - Italian anarchist
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.
- Ebla tablets - clay tablets found in the ancient city of Ebla, Syria
- Hieratic - a cursive writing system used for Ancient Egyptian
- Phoenician alphabet - the first alphabet
The wonders of the popular press
An exhibition about modern folklore.
- Le Petit Journal - a popular Parisian newspaper
- Apaches - French gang
- Henri Désiré Landru - French serial killer
- Bonnot Gang - French gang
- Musée Grévin - a museum in Paris
- Zarafa - the first giraffe in Paris
A novel inside a painting
Calvino tried to read Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People like a novel.
- The Death of Sardanapalus - a painting by Delacroix, a scandalous painting in its time
- The Massacre at Chios - a painting by Delacroix
- Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi - a painting by Delacroix
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)
- George Sand - French novelist
- Alfred de Musset- French novelist
- Jules Barbey d’Aurevilly - French novelist
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.
- Camera Lucida - Roland Barthes’ book about photography
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.
- Columella - Roman writer on agriculture
The narrative of Trajan’s column
Calvino read Trajan’s Column in Rome like a comic strip.
- Decebalus - the last king of Dacia
The written city: inscriptions and graffiti
Comments on a book about inscriptions and typefaces in Italian cities, from Middle Ages to modern times.
- Francesco Colonna - Italian monk who wrote Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, a famous example of early printing.
- Giovanni Battista Piranesi - Italian artist famous for his etchings of Rome
- Giambattista Bodoni - 18th century Italian typographer
- Antonio Canova - 18th century Italian neoclassical sculptor
- May 1968 - civil unrest in Paris
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.
- Bonvesin da la Riva - poet and writer of the 13th century
- Giacomo Leopardi - Italian philosopher
- Giuseppe Parini - Italian poet
- Carlo Emilio Gadda - Italian writer and poet
- Giorgio de Chirico - Italian artist
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!”
- Vernon Lee - British novelist and essayist
- William Morris - British artist and writer
- Charles Lamb - English writer
- Decadentism - an Italian artistic style
- Gabriele D’Annunzio - Italian poet and journalist
Light in our eyes
Calvino was (unsurprisingly) fascinated by optics and vision. He tried to summarize what he learned in a book about vision.
- Nizami Ganjavi - Persian poet
- In Praise of Shadows - an essay on Japanese aesthetics by the Japanese author and novelist Jun’ichirō Tanizaki
- Remarks on Colour - a book about color by Wittgenstein
- Theory of Colours - a book about color theory by Goethe
- Newton’s seven basic colors
- It was Newton who introduced indigo as a basic color
- Ernst Gombrich - art historian who wrote about art and perception
- Leon Battista Alberti - Italian humanist
- Leonardo da Vinci on vision
- Christoph Scheiner - 17th century Jesuit priest and physicist who studied the retina and the optic nerve
- The way Albrecht Dürer painted the Young Hare was apparently influenced by discoveries about the retina
- Claude Lorrain - French painter, who apparently painted landscapes looking into a convex mirror
- George Berkeley’s first major work was an essay on 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.
- Jaquet-Droz automata - the three automata
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.
- Capillaria - fantasy novel by Hungarian author Frigyes Karinthy
- Lucian of Samosata - an Assyrian satirist
- Cabourg - the model for the fictional town of Balbec in Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time.
- Yoknapatawpha County - Fictional Mississippi county created by William Faulkner, which is largely based upon and inspired by Lafayette County, Mississippi
- Bensalem - mythical city on Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis
- Icaria - Utopian city in The Voyage to Icaria by Étienne Cabet
- Ruritania - fictional country in The Prisoner of Zenda.
- Islands of Count Zaroff - fictional islands in The Most Dangerous Game.
- Albracca - fictional city in Italian romance
- Bastiani Fortress - fictional fortress in The Tartar Steppe
- Arcadia - poem by Jacopo Sannazaro
- Emilio Salgari - Italian writer of adventure novels
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.
- Edward Lear - English artist and writer
- Leo Lionni - author and illustrator of children’s books
- André Leroi-Gourhan - French anthropologist
- Bruno Munari - Italian artist
IV. The shape of time
The old woman in the purple kimono
Observations made on a platform of a Tokyo train station.
- Fukinuki yatai 吹抜屋台 - literally “house without roof”, a technique used in Japanese art showing the inside of houses
- The Diary of Lady Murasaki 紫式部日記 - 11th century Japanese literature
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.
- Sento imperial palace 仙洞御所 - a garden in Tokyo
- Odaki/medaki waterfalls - the male and the female waterfall
- Saihō-ji 西芳寺 - a Buddhist temple in Tokyo famous for its moss garden
The wooden temple
In Japan, great buildings are built with wood, a perishable material, so they have to be rebuilt again and again.
- Ginkaku-ji 銀閣寺 - the silver pavilion, a Zen temple in Kyoto
The thousand gardens
A garden design that is all about changes.
- Katsura Imperial Villa 桂離宮 - a villa and gardens in Kyoto
- Tokonoma 床の間 - a recessed space in a Japanese-style reception room, in which items for artistic appreciation are displayed
- Sen no Rikyū 千利休 - 16th century Japanese tea master
- Sōgi 宗祇 - 15th century Japanese poet
The moon chasing the moon
Calvino thought about how the Zen gardens of Kyoto would look like under moonlight.
- Ryōan-ji 竜安寺 - temple in Kyoto, famous for its Zen garden. See also Clavino’s novel Mr. Palomar in a chapter titled The Sand Garden.
- Taruho Inagaki 稲垣 足穂 - Japanese avant-garde writer
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.
- Jardin des plantes - botanical garden in Paris
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.
- Temple of the Inscriptions - Mayan temple at Palenque
At the Jameh Mosque of Isfahan, Iran, Calvino mused about the importance of emptiness (a very Taoist thought).
- mihrab - semicircular niche in the wall of a mosque that indicates the direction that Muslims should face when praying
- Sheikh Lotfollah Mosque - one of the architectural masterpieces of Iranian architecture
- Majolica - a form of pottery
- Ālī Qāpū - imperial palace in Isfahan. Calvino wrote about its music hall
- Madrasa-i Madar-i Shah - garden in Isfahan
- Naqsh-e Jahan Square - city square of Isfahan
The flames within the flames
The true fire is the hidden fire. Calvino on the mysticism of fire.
- Fire Temple of Yazd - Zoroastrian fire temple
- Ahura Mazda - highest deity of Zoroastrianism
- Avestan - language of Zoroastrian scripture
- Jean Cocteau’s I will save the fire interview
The sculptures and the nomads
Upon encountering some nomads after visiting Iranian ancient sites, Calvino thought about death and eternity.