18 May, International Museum Day, free access.

By Ana Gómez and Clara Harguindey

This route adopts the form of a tour of cities represented, imagined and narrated, establishing a dialogue between the novel Invisible Cities (Italy, 1972) by Italo Calvino and selected works in the collection. Like curious travellers, we embark on a journey, an encounter, fleeing through the visible cities at the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza and creating a dialogue with those imagined by the writer.

Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities are constructed around the journeys that Marco Polo recounts to the Great Khan. The character of Marco Polo—the thread of the discourse and architect of the imaginary universe of the tales—is inspired by the famous Venetian explorer, who is largely portrayed as a character whose curiosity and thirst to understand “the reasons which bring men to live in cities” make him practically an alter ego in the writer’s quests.

In every city description and every dialogue or reflection, Calvino evokes a timeless idea about the territories and places where we live, developing a poetic yet critical view that questions the contemporary city in a way that closely resembles how artists from every age have done the same with their paintbrushes and canvases.

For Calvino, “Cities are collection of many things: memories, desires, signs of a language; [they] are place of exchange, as all books of economic history explain, but these are not only exchanges of merchandise, but exchanges of words, desires and souvenirs as well.”

Just as a painter sketches a landscape, a territory or the city where his childhood memories were forged, the writer creates his invisible cities as fragments, as a response to different moments in time and questions that he ponders throughout his life. The invisible cities emerged in Calvino’s imagination from a series of files where he collected ideas and notes on the concept of the city, gradually adding more and more pages until they evolved into an entity in themselves, with a common poetics.


This is how I carried on the Invisible Cities book over the years [...] At one stage I could only write about sad cities, and at another only about happy ones. There was one period when I compared the cities to the starry sky, [...]; and another when I kept writing about the garbage which spreads outside the city day by day. In short, what emerged was a sort of diary which kept closely to my moods and reflections: everything ended up being transformed into images of cities—the books I read, the art exhibitions I visited, and discussions with friends.

During our tour we will draw up a map of encounters between the cities described by Calvino and some of the cities painted and imagined by artists in the collection. This will enable us to discover the logics they share, to construct non-visible. As Calvino says, “[It is a space which] the reader must enter, wander round, maybe lose his way in, and then eventually find an exit, or perhaps even several exits, or maybe a way of breaking out on his own.”

Just as the Great Khan only talked to Marco Polo to follow the thread of his reasoning, situating his replies in a discourse already running through his mind, viewers embarking on this route will juxtapose the images in their memory with the images of the cities they encounter on this journey. The idea is to visit the cities in the museum’s collection and focus on the fringes, the secondary narratives, the peripheral concepts. We want to invite viewers to look at these cities in a critical way, to move away from familiar concepts and embrace instead ideas that may initially seem remote or alien. The route is not intended to be conclusive or exhaustive (“[pieces which] seem to evoke ancient cities only make sense insofar as they have been thought out and written with the city of today in mind”) but to encourage us to expand the discourses of the memory, to rethink not “the city” but “our city” and strive to play an active role as agents in the world in which we live, as thinking beings who imagine, invent and create their future.

Tour artworks