Cities and Signs (4) or Sin City

In the description of the city of Hypatia Marco Polo tells the story of his first encounter with the place, how he wondered around and what he was searching for, rather than give a direct account of the city’s architecture or construction. Although, Calvino tries to evade just mapping out a city, he rarely relies on Marco Polo’s interactions of a place in order to give the city life.

However, Hypatia’s account is given almost exclusively by the story of Polo’s adventure there. This sets the first important point about the city – it is not the architecture that makes this place special but people’s interactions with it. Marco’s account is lead by his discovery not of beautiful ladies but of suicide corpses, which points to the unhappiness that the place brings to its citizens. The fact that the corpses are left outside on the open, not hidden or buried, points to the awareness of the act and maybe even the need for it; it also points to the ignorance of the living citizens of their fellows’ lives. Such an environment reminds either of business that doesn’t allow for time for funerals or that the people choose to be ignorant. As Polo proceeds to the sage, the reader slowly realises that “sage” doesn’t have the usual meaning here. It symbolises someone indulging in a library’s gifts. Then Polo understands that the place is a place for indulging, for enjoyment, for passion and happiness. He sees that the citizens have in Hypatia anything and everything that they might ever want. The only problem is that such a place is very hard to leave – the only way to do it without having regrets would be to let go of oneself forever – jump off the high towers into the waters and become food for crabs.

The library is falling apart, which again shows the ignorance of the people who live in Hypatia. If the place for knowledge is left to rot, probably so is the whole city. Only things that could bring pleasure – gardens and park, are kept. The streets are probably damp, full of trash and empty of people, as they have no where to go – they are already in the best possible place. The palace is also left to rot, only prisoners working there, no ruler is to be found, which points to the possibility that he is also indulging in some garden or another. However, the existence of a beautiful palace, staircase and dome show that there was greatness in the city in the past and that there must be something or someone, probably the prisoners, who are working to keep up the heaven for everyone else. The remote papyrus cabinet also points to a long history of the place. It seems that Hypatia is not what it used to be.

What a Beautiful Place

My favourite environment has been already described not once, but many times. It functions in the Bible, in the Hobbit, in Lord of the Rings – it’s a heaven.

Hidden, in a valley surrounded by mountains with an ancient virgin forest, untouched and unexplored by man, lays a stone villa. It has big halls, with no windows, that let the light breeze and the sunlight in at all times. It is two stories high, and on top there is a wall that functions for protection. From the yard in front of the building, you can see and hear the waterfall that comes pouring from the mountain on the East. It is lost in the branches of the trees, but if you walk a bit towards the little chapel, you can see the river that it creates. You have to walk on a small bridge that crosses the river, to get to the chapel. In it you will find stone etchings of the stories of heroes long dead, and an empty altar in the middle of the circular room. From there, the trees hide most of the villa and all of the benches laid out in the beginning of the forest, where the trees are not as tightly packed.

If you go back and start walking towards the West, with the villa on your left, you will soon start to sweat, as the elevation increases rapidly. In a hundred meters you will reach a junction of forest paths – one goes up towards the mountains, one deep into the forest, where you would need a light at any time of day, and one carries you by the side of the valley, behind the villa and further on even behind the chapel. If you take this road you will end up on the river side, and in an hour at the bottom of the waterfall.

In Tolkien’s Middle Earth a place similar to this is named Lothl√≥rien and it is the last place where the ancient race of the elves reside in the third age. Legolas describes it as “the fairest of all the dwellings of my people. there are no trees like the threes of that land. For in the autumn their leaves fall not, but turn to gold. not till the spring and the new green opens do they fall, and then the boughs are laden with yellow flowers; and the floor of the wood is golden, and golden is the roof, and its pillars are of silver, for the bark of the trees is smooth and grey” (Lord of the Rings).