A master storyteller

Author Rosie Whitehouse tells the story of Italo Calvino, one of Italy’s greatest novelists.

Written by Rosie Whitehouse


Italo Calvino (1923–85), one of Italy’s greatest novelists was brought up in Sanremo and was a master of allegorical tales and modern fables. The lush hills that surround the city left an indelible mark on his work and as he himself said, ‘San Remo continues to pop out in my books, in the most diverse pieces of writing.’

His father, Mario, was a well-known botanist and the family divided their time between the Villa Meridiana, an experimental horticultural centre, which also served as their home, and the family’s farm in San Giovanni Battista, where Mario pioneered the cultivation of what were then exotic fruits, such as avocados and grapefruits. Nature is a theme in many of Calvino’s works.

As a young man during World War II, Calvino fought with the communist partisans, the Garibaldi Brigades, in the mountains behind Sanremo. It was an experience that inspired his first novel, Il Sentiero dei Nidi di Ragno, The Path to the Spiders’ Nests (1947), which was a runaway success in postwar Italy, selling 5,000 copies.

Calvino was a committed communist and his second novel, Il Visconte Dimezzato, The Cloven Viscount (1952) is his interpretation of a Europe divided by the Cold War. The protagonist, a 17th-century viscount, has been rendered in two by a cannonball. His two halves live on, unaware of the other’s existence; one half returns to his estate in Liguria and rules with a reign of terror until the good side of the count returns.

After the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956 Calvino left the Communist Party and withdrew from Italian politics. His next work, Il Barone Rampante, The Baron in the Trees (1957) is a fantasy based on shattered illusions. The main character hides from life, living like a squirrel in the trees. As a little boy, Calvino and his brother would climb the trees on the family’s land and perch for hours in the branches reading their favourite adventure stories.

Perhaps his most famous book is Invisible Cities (1972), which was inspired by Marco Polo, who recounted tales from his travels to a fellow prisoner while held in gaol in Genoa.

After his mother died in 1978 at the age of 92, Calvino sold Villa Meridiana and died in Siena in 1985.

If you are a real fan, you can see where Calvino went to school on Piazza Nota. The Cinema Centrale, where he used to skive off school to watch films, his lifelong passion, is on Corso Matteotti. The family home is Via Volta 82.

For more on Ligurian history, take a look at our award-winning Liguria guide, the only standalone guide to the region. 

Liguria Bradt Travel Guide 3

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