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SLIM 2023 / Italo Calvino and the Visionary Architecture of Lightness


2023 Week of Italian Language in the World
Italian language and sustainability

Italo Calvino’s Universe
A lecture series on literature, ecology, arts and ethics

On the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the birth of Italo Calvino (1923-1985), the Italian Cultural Institute of Chicago, in collaboration with the Department of Modern Languages, Italian Program, at DePaul University, presents a series of lectures on exemplary and less known themes, from the vast body of work of the Italian author, between fantastic elements and historical issues.


3/ Rethinking the World: Italo Calvino and the Visionary Architecture of Lightness
Presented by prof. Letizia Modena
Thursday, November 2 at 6pm CT
Italian Cultural Institute of Chicago

A hundred years after his birth, one of Italo Calvino’s most vibrant legacies continues to fold in the visual and performing arts. Witness the ongoing International Exhibit “Italian Excellence: Illustrations for Italo Calvino” at the Italian Cultural Institute of Chicago, which presents the works of both established and emerging illustrators who have been inspired by Calvino’s “word images.” Undoubtedly, Calvino’s writings still grip our imagination: his keen observations on the spatial dimensions of our existence, the environment surrounding the individual, the way we, as people, experience places, both in terms of physical, material shapes and abstract relationships remain as fascinating and relevant as they were when he first wrote them.  Today, artists, scholars, lay persons, cultural critics, urbanists, and many others read, teach, and discuss Calvino’s works. His 1972 novel Invisible Cities continues to provoke dialogue among architectural theorists and urban planners, some enthusiastic and others wary of his influence.  But, knowing that Calvino has been and remains a great source of inspiration for so many, invites the question: What inspired his own imagination? More pointedly: What did he draw upon to reimagine the present and future urban environment? 

Prof. Letizia Modena’s conversation will revolve around Calvino’s love for the city and engagement with the central preoccupations of urbanists in the 1960s and early 1970s, when the metamorphosis of cities into shapeless, congested, and overpopulated megacities was becoming more and more evident. We will see how much Calvino’s own imaginative and memorable urban icons were inspired by a revolution of forms underway in the novel’s milieu; a revolution that was generating design structures geared towards dematerialization, or lightness. Visionary architecture, which remains a controversial chapter in the history of architectural design, was comprised of an international cohort of architects whose works immediately preceded the publication of Invisible Cities, and in which the discourse on utopia was alive and well.  Thus, we will see that the gravity-defying and utopian urban forms of visionary architecture inspired many urban icons in Calvino’s novel that still inspire architects, urban designers, artists, and many, many others. 

The presentation will be moderated by Caterina Mongiat Farina, Associate Professor and Director of the Department of Modern Languages, Italian Program, at DePaul University. 

Free and open to the public. Registration is not required. Doors open at 5:30pm CT and seats are assigned on a first-come-first-served basis, until capacity is reached.

Letizia Modena is Associate Professor of Italian at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee (USA), where she is also co-director of the Urban Humanities Postdoctoral Program. Her transdisciplinary research explores our individual and collective relationships to the built environment.  It is rooted in collaborations between urban studies and the arts on questions of representation, spatial justice, and equity.  Her lines of inquiry include how the arts speak to common and architectural meanings of place—from belonging and rootedness to displacement and dislocation—and how they capture and shape human relationships to the urban environment along the lines of class, gender, ethnicity, health profile and sexuality.  In Italo Calvino’s Architecture of Lightness: The Utopian Imagination in an Age of Urban Crisis (2011, 2014), she focused on the urbanistic roots of the bestselling novel Invisible Cities (1972), a perennial favorite of contemporary architects, city planners, and designers.  Her current book project, “Peripheral Visions,” is a sustained reflection on how imaginative literature, photography, and film can contribute to inclusive urban planning and to public-facing, collaborative learning and teaching in the humanities. She is the author of numerous articles probing if and how written and visual narratives of the city, as well as monuments and memorials, can endow us with alternative ways of seeing, describing, and constructing urban space.

Caterina Mongiat Farina (laurea, Università di Padova; PhD, Harvard University) is Associate Professor and Italian Program Director at DePaul University. Her research focuses on issues of language, rhetoric, and identity in Italian literature during the long sixteenth century and from the Postwar period to the present. She is the author of Questione di lingua. L’ideologia del dibattito sull’italiano nel Cinquecento (Longo editore, 2014); with Geoff Farina, the translator of Umberto Eco’s classic manual How to Write a Thesis (MIT Press, 2015), and with Paola De Santo, the editor and translator of Isabella Andreini’s 1607 Letters (Iter Press, forthcoming). Mongiat Farina’s articles on premodern literature and contemporary coming-of-age fiction appeared in journals such as Rinascimento, Stilistica e metrica italiana, Forum Italicum, Italica, Esperienze letterarie, and Strumenti critici. Her current research focuses on Italo Calvino’s use of metaphors and similes between human beings, animals, and plants and commonplaces of the bildungsroman to reflect on how to be human and embrace change as a constant process, beyond one’s formative years. She is collaborating with Paola De Santo on the Italian edition of Andreini’s Lettere.

The Week of Italian Language in the World is a yearly worldwide celebration of the Italian language and creativity. This initiative was born in 2001 in cooperation with the Accademia della Crusca. It is organized during the third week of October by the Embassies, Consulates, and Italian Cultural Institutes, with the support of the Ministry of Culture (MiC), the Ministry of University and Research (MUR), the Government of Switzerland and all of the main partners for the promotion of the Italian language. 

Partner program of the 2023 Chicago Architecture Biennial, “This Is a Rehearsal” 

Reservation no longer available

  • Organized by: Italian Cultural Institute of Chicago
  • In collaboration with: Department of Modern Languages, Italian Program, DePaul University & Chicago Architecture Biennial