Urbanity – or about visible and invisible cities

— Susanne Rau

The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space. (Calvino 1972: 165)

These are the words of Marco Polo, the traveler from Venice who journeyed to Asia in the thirteenth century, in reply to a question posed by the Mongol ruler Kublai Khan of whether everything is not in vain if the last harbor (on a journey) can only be the city of hell. Marco Polo had told the Khan of his extensive journey, which included visits to many cities that, over the course of the report, increasingly painted a panorama of a world threatened with ruin. The Great Khan also possessed an atlas charting the cities of his empire and the surrounding kingdoms, which even included maps of lands with promising cities that remained to be discovered. The Great Khan thus asked the traveler: where will the favorable winds take us? which cities shall we visit next?

This exchange between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo in Italo Calvino’s Le città invisibili could be applied to the international Humanities Center for Advanced Studies “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations.” Which cities will the project members visit and explore in the coming years? Where will we go? Which cities will we look at only in a historical atlas? The ambivalence of these places also deserves to be examined—which can be heaven or hell or both at the same time, as expressed in Calvino’s metaphor of the cities of hell. In this vein, it should also be noted what the architectural critic Dieter Bartetzko reported about the fourteenth Venice Biennale of Architecture. As he saw it, the architects there had demonstrated a “merciless reckoning” with the course of modernity between 1914 and 2014—a century in which it might have been possible to build a “global paradise,” but what was built instead was a concrete desert that he believes ought to be consigned to hell (Bartetzko 2018). Just as Calvino’s Marco Polo trusts human beings to recognize “what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno,” the common task must also be to find out how people in cities made life livable, how they gave it permanence and spatial form. Cities, Calvino continues, are like dreams, because cities and dreams are built of desires and fears. Wittingly or unwittingly, Calvino thus places himself in an older tradition of attempts to define the city: for a city consists not only of a collection of built structures but also of its dominant ways of life, as well as of ideas and perceptions. And with this thought, we are right in the midst of the topic of urbanity.

The Humanities Centre for Advanced Studies “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations” publishes part of its research in an open access database set up by the de Gruyter-Verlag entitled “Religion and Urbanity Online”. This database will present important research contributions on religious change and the change of urban spaces and above all urban forms of life, practices and discourses on the urban in Europe, the circum-Mediterranean region and South Asia. The first contributions are now online!

This is an open invitation to our readers to enlarge the sample of urban histories related to religious phenomena – histories of attempts to make the city liveable in religious terms and their modification, failure or radicalisation in these very cities –, to contribute to this database or at least to be among our readers of the “first edition” of Religion & Urbanity Online. 

If you want to know more about this project, please feel free to contact the editors (Jörg Rüpke or Susanne Rau) or send a proposal to the following email address: urbrel-pub@uni-erfurt.de.

Susanne Rau is professor of spatial history and culture at the University of Erfurt and one of the spokespersons of the KFG “Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations” .


Bartetzko, Dieter, “Zur Hölle mit den Betonwüsten.” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung June 11, 2018. URL: http://www.faz.net/aktuell/feuilleton/kunst/architekturbiennale-in-venedig-zur-hoelle-mit-den-betonwuesten-12982212.html?printPagedArticle=true#pageIndex_0 (accessed May 22, 2020).

Calvino, Italo, Invisible Cities, translated by William Weaver. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1972.

Movie recommendation

Urbanity/ies, Jacques Lévy (Director), Chôros (Production), Thomas Bataille and Jacques Lévy (Images), Olivier Zuchuat (Montage) (1h 17 min 37 sec) [2012]. On Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/84537407

Cite this blog post
urbrel (2020, August 31). Urbanity – or about visible and invisible cities. Religion and Urbanity: Reciprocal Formations. Retrieved May 29, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/v3cx

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