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Fedora and the cities that could have been

Fedora is one of Italo Calvino’s 55 invisible cities, part of the Cities and Desire “chapters” or classification.

In a short narration (the story is only one page long), Calvino sets a powerful and sensitive scenery of an imaginary city. A grey metropolis of stone, with at its center a metal palace. In each of the rooms of what he calls a museum, there is a cristal globe holding a blue model of Fedora. It is not a reproduction of the city as it is, but of what at a point in time, it could have become “for one reason or another”. Each of the inhabitants visits the museum and chooses their favorite version of the city, the one upon which they can project their own desires.

Fedora, illustration by Karina Puente Frantzen

“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”.

Calvino draws on the question of Utopia, by introducing the notion of an “ideal” city, and the intrinsic reason for failure in building a perfect system. Drawing a thin line between a “possible future” and remaining a “toy in a glass globe”. The Fedoras that didn’t come to be can recall islands, as in the original Utopia of Thomas Moore, a necessary condition being an enclosed, controlled system. Temporality is central in this passage of the text. The reason of the failure is that the city, and by extension society is a dynamic body, that by the time it is defined has already changed, it cannot be grasped, nor captured. Nevertheless the urge of defining an ideal has remained a constant at “every age”.

Relying on this sentence we can start questioning who has been defining those ideals. “Someone”, an individual rather than a collective vision, “looking” at the city from above and seeing it “as it is”, suggesting a supposed objective truth.

“(...) there must be room both for the big, stone Fedora and the little Fedoras in glass globes. Not because they are all equally real, but because all are only assumptions. The ones contain what is accepted as necessary when is not yet so; the others, what is imagined as possible and, a moment later, is possible no longer.”

The story ends with an advice from Marco Polo, the narrator (and inventor) of the cities, to Kublai Khan, the emperor ordering this exchange to learn about each of the places of his empire and better control it. If in the previous abstract he seemed to hold little regard to the little Fedoras, comparing each of them to “only a toy in a glass globe”, Calvino concludes by placing them at equal importance with the built city. The physicality of the latter, made of stone, doesn’t make it more “real” than the imagined ones. The unbuilt Fedoras are to be represented on the map of the Empire along with the stone one. There is no opposition between built and unbuilt to define reality, but different reasons for both to be equally subjective truths.

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