Italo Calvino was one of the most important Italian fiction writers in the 20th century. He was a novelist, short story writer and journalist. He blended fantasy, fable, folktales and comedy giving an illuminated depiction of modern life. Calvino redefined the literary forms breathing new life into the novel writing. At the time of his death, his literary work topped amongst the most translated works of a contemporary Italian writer.
Italo Calvino, was born in 1923 in Santiago de Las Vegas, Cuba, where his parents worked as botanists. Shortly after his birth, his family returned to their native Italy and he spent his early years in San Remo. He joined the Italian Resistance during World War II and after the war settled in Turin, obtaining his degree in literature while working for the periodical L’Unità and for the publishing house of Einaudi. From 1959 to 1966 he edited, with Elio Vittorini, the left-wing magazine Il Menabò di Letteratura.
Two of Calvino’s first fictional works were inspired by his participation in the Italian Resistance: the Neorealistic novel Il sentiero dei nidi di ragno (1947; The Path to the Nest of Spiders) where he revealed the war as seen through the eyes of an innocent young soldier, the first of many youthful and/or naive protagonists he used to reflect life’s complexity and tragedy; and the collection of stories entitled Ultimo viene il corvo (1949; Adam, One Afternoon, and Other Stories).
Calvino turned decisively to fantasy and allegory in the 1950s, producing the three fantastic tales that brought him international acclaim. The first of these fantasies, Il visconte dimezzato (1952; “The Cloven Viscount,” in The Nonexistent Knight & the Cloven Viscount), is an allegorical story of a man split in two – a good half and an evil half – by a cannon shot; he becomes whole through his love for a peasant girl. The second and most highly praised fantasy, Il barone rampante (1957; The Baron in the Trees), is a whimsical tale of a 19th-century nobleman who one day decides to climb into the trees and who never sets foot on the ground again. From the trees he does, however, participate fully in the affairs of his fellow men below. The tale wittily explores the interaction and tension between reality and imagination. The third fantasy, Il cavaliere inesistente (1959; “The Nonexistent Knight,” in The Nonexistent Knight & the Cloven Viscount), is a mock epic chivalric tale
By the middle of the 1950s Calvino spent most of his time in Rome, the literary as well as political hub of Italian life. He resigned from the Communist Party, disillusioned by the spread of dogmatic Stalinism and the savage crushing of the Hungarian revolt of 1956. As the years passed, Calvino became increasingly skeptical of politics.
Publication of Fiabe italiane (Italian Folktales) in 1956 did much to ensure Calvino’s reputation as a major literary figure. Calvino compiled a complete and authoritative collection of 200 folk tales from all regions and dialects of Italy. Critics rank this anthology along with that of the Brothers Grimm in importance and appeal.
In 1959 Calvino visited America for six months, and in the early 1960s he moved to Paris.
In 1963 he published Marcovaldo o Le stagioni della Città (Marcovaldo Or The Seasons in the City), a series of ecological allegories in the form of urban tales, where Calvino satirized the modern, destructive urban way of living. Marcovaldo is a Chaplinisque character, an ordinary working man and a father, who desperately longs for beauty and sinks in his daydreams whenever he can. Each story belongs to a season, and all of them together take their shape from the cycle of the seasons. The Lunch-box is the opening to chapter seven, Autunno (Autumn). Marcovaldo lives through the stories as the double of the writer, observing, reflecting and comparing in a perfectly detached way. He is a humble and romantic worker lost and trapped in the big city, which perverts rhythms and obfuscates cycles.
Among Calvino’s later works of fantasy is Le cosmicomiche (1965; Cosmicomics), a stream-of-consciousness narrative that treats the creation and evolution of the universe.
The 1970s saw the publication of Le Città Invisibili (1972; Invisible Cities), the story of Marco Polo’s voyage from Venice to Cathay, including descriptions of many fictionalized cities; Il Castello dei Destini Incrociati (1973; The Castle of Crossed Destinies), which is organized around the imagery of medieval Tarot cards; and Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore (1979; If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler). This last work consists of ten unfinished novels within a novel which is itself a wild romp through the worlds of academia, publishing, and criticism.
Calvino returned to Rome in 1980. During his last years Calvino visited the United States again. In 1975 he became an honorary member of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters; in 1980 Italian Folktales was included on the American Library Association’s Notable Booklist; in 1984 he was awarded an honorary degree by Mount Holyoke College; and in 1985 he was to have delivered the Norton Lectures at Harvard. However, Calvino died at 61 on September 19, 1985, in Siena, Italy, following a cerebral hemorrhage.