The Einaudi edition of Pliny’s Natural History, volume 1 is prefaced with an essay by Italo Calvino entitled “Il cielo, l’uomo, l’elefante” in which Calvino characterizes Pliny’s science as one which oscillates between the desire to find fundamental harmony in the universe and a recognition of the extraordinary and the unique (Calvino, 45). It also characterizes Pliny himself as both a poet-philosopher and a neurotic collector of data (Calvino, 43). This paper will explore the ways in which Calvino exploits these Plinian themes in his own writing, which continually strives to negotiate and dissipate the boundaries between science and literature. In her book Mapping Complexity Kerstin Pilz illustrates the two challenges which the so-called ‘two culture problem’ – the widening gap between science and literature – posed for Calvino: specialization in the sciences means there is no longer investigation into the cosmos as a whole (Pilz, 31); and if literature is to play a part in encouraging a transdisciplinary approach to knowledge, how is it to reintegrate itself into a science which has moved away from literary treatises into a search for empirical truths? (Pilz, xii). I will argue that Pliny, as the author of a literary work whose subject was nature in its entirety, provided Calvino with a model to overcome these problems.
I will be looking at three works of Calvino, which span his career: the second collection of Cosmicomics (Ti con zero) of 1967, Invisible Cities (1972), and Palomar (1983). A blurb on the inside cover of the Cosmicomics describes the work as “una sorta di storia naturale d’un Plinio fanfarone” (Ribatti, 328). I will consider Marco Polo of Invisible Cities and Palomar, alongside the Cosmicomics’ hero Qfwfq as Plinian loudmouths, who attempt to document and classify the world around them, and who, like Calvino’s Pliny, attempt to negotiate and ultimately to break free of the borders of knowledge.
The first part of the paper will look at Calvino’s use of the Plinian conception of ‘monsters’ – both their hybridity and their peripheral geographic location – to explore the extent of nature’s powers in the Cosmicomic story On the Origin of the Birds. As argued by Beagon, Pliny suggests that Nature can only be comprehended if all her elements, including monsters, are taken into consideration. The discovery of the birds leads Qfwfq to the same conclusion, but the story explores what happens when the monsters themselves don’t want to fit into such a schema. In the second part I will consider how Calvino makes use of Pliny’s method of mapping. Evans (50), shows that in his geographic books (3-6) Pliny fails to produce his intended objective – an empirical map of the world (Pliny NH 3.2 - "locorum nuda nomina")– because he cannot resist including historical and ethnographic titbits. I will argue that Calvino makes use of Pliny’s ‘failure’ to solve Marco Polo’s problem of mapping Kublai Khan’s empire in Invisible Cities. Finally, I will consider Palomar, whom Ribatti (332) refers to as an “an allegorical fable on the resistance of reason.” I will show how Palomar’s obsession with categorisation will ultimately fail because the world is too complex to be comprehended in a concrete framework, but requires rather a fluid literary treatment like Pliny’s “open encyclopaedia” (Pilz, 123).