Lyslei de Souza Nascimento
University Federal of Minas Gerais, Brazil

E tutte quelle coppe non sono altro che calamai prosciugati aspettando che nel buio dell'inchiostro vengano a galla i demoni le potenze infere i babau gli inni alla notte i fiori del male i cuori della tenebra, oppure vi plani l'angelo melanconico che distilla gli umori dell'anima e travasa stati di grazia e epifanie.*

                                                                                Italo Calvino
                                                                                The Castle of Crossed Destinies, p. 100

Year after year, Italian San Gennaro devotees gather in Naples to participate in the rite involving the fantastic liquefaction of the martyr's blood contained in two ampullae. Faith, as blind simulacrum of certainty that things eagerly awaited for will actually happen and as conviction of facts that cannot be seen, is the powerful vector causing the coagulated blood to dissolve.

King Ferdinand of Spain carried the relics of the saint, who was decapitated as a result of Diocletian's persecution, to Naples Cathedral in 1495. The ceremony of San Gennaro's miracle is open to great numbers of pilgrims who can see his blood exposed and, according to tradition, the liquefaction and ebullition of the precious liquid. The non-dissolving of the clotted blood is considered a bad omen.

The ampullae are like religious reliquaries, enclosing objects of delight in the mystical, the mysterious, and the sacred. These containers also possess the property of holding secrets about to be revealed. The reliquaries are guardians of quintessence and narrative memory, besides being metaphors of perpetualness as desired by those who believe.1 These vessels could be seen as the hearts of the tarot cards, as the crucible of the alchemist, or as the inkwell of the writer-narrator in The Castle of Crossed Destinies by Italo Calvino.

Calvino's reliquary, however, escapes the sacred and ritual aspects displayed in San Gennaro's ampullae and relics. The Blessed Chalice, the Holy Grail, and other symbols operate in literary and religious traditions involved by imaginary constructions of the sacred as objects set apart for veneration. Thus, the role of the faithful is reduced to believing, beyond any doubt, in the Holy Grail, which sometimes may not only be the chalice containing Christ's blood but also the book holding the key to eternal life. The Holy Grail, as described by medieval legend, is a vessel covered by emeralds used by Jesus in the last supper and in which Joseph of Arimathea would have collected the blood from Christ's heart when transfixed by the centurion's spear. This legend originated in the XII century from romances of chivalry such as Perceval or Le Conte du Grail, 1182, by Chrétien de Troyes. In this context, both representation and tradition - the chalice and the book - convey the idea of an eternal life, free from suffering, and are based on the premise of faith.

In Calvino, however, the soul is an empty inkwell. The chalice and the inkwell are each containers of the ink/blood of the scriptural. Calvino's reliquary contains remnants of dry ink. At the bottom of that vessel - vast depository of literary and pictorial references - lies, quiescent, the ink/blood. While the text on which faith relies as illusion of those who believe seeks unremittingly the miracle - the liquefaction of the blood for good luck, or the Holy Grail for eternal life - Calvino's text relies on the poetic lightness that science can attain in literature.

Lightness acts on the dry ink of the multiple texts intertwined in the remainders of ink at the bottom of the inkwell and compels the writer/narrator to liquefy those that persist to appear carrying the weight of tradition. What makes Calvino's ink flow and create new unexpected traces on paper is the alchemical search of someone trying to attain knowledge of things through literature, relieving language of its weight, making of it and with it the lightness of living. Calvino's pen, his quill, his ball-point pen seems to point to a crossing of multiple roads that follow the black thread of ink on paper: the route of passions - a real pathway, aggressive, clear-cut - it is the path of no-knowing that requires reflection and slow apprenticeship.

In Calvino's empty inkwell repose the multiplicity of references and interferences that his memory as a reader intertwines. There are images of blots and erasures on the writer's parchment. Even though the religious cup/inkwell runneth over, other chalices are vertiginously full, and there are still "those that drink from someone else's cup," Calvino's inkwell is empty. This image bestows upon his writing an understructure resembling that of certain varieties of lace. Calvino filigrees and honeycombs, through mnemonic evocations, the text precariously sedimented in the ink with which he writes. As in a dictionary, all the readings and metaphors - infinite memories of vestiges and scraps so difficult to trace - constitute his palimpsest.

To the images of overflowing and of insatiable thirst, the austere and elegant image of the empty inkwell counterpoises. The remainder of dried-up ink, far from being a cumbrance to Calvino's writing, reveals itself as the sum of the textual multiplicity that constitutes the literary text. Books rebut, contend, complement one another, but it is from the cultural context in which these texts were produced that each of the writer's performances gains meaning. His work as a fabulist rearranges, adjusts, gradually subdues the grandiloquence of the verbal tone to reach the level of a sleepwalker's falter.

The first image evoked, chalice/reliquary, refers to that sacredness of the literary text that alleges transcendence. The second, inkwell/ink, is above all a self-doubt on man's doings and his power to construct and control his own destiny. Thus, the text loses aura and reveals itself as literary artifact and matter.

The dried-up ink in the elegant inkwell exercises the memory of both writer and reader, always in complicity. All that has been learned by heart, all that has been mentally declaimed, all that has been based upon a repertoire of texts is constantly stirred by the writer's pen. The text once scattered in remembrances regains fluidity when rewritten, not as nostalgic vibration, but as a text that is being read/written for the first time and can be considered

l'archivio dei materiali accumulati via via, atraverso stratificazioni successive di interpretazioni iconologiche, di umori temperamentali, d'intenzioni ideologiche, d'impostazioni stilistiche.2
The thickness evoked by the dried ink is connected to the weight of existence within tradition. In Calvino's writings, the remnants of ink, as an iconographic repertoire of texts, appear superimposed as palimpsests on his memory. That dry ink, in its impossibility to continue writing, in its concretion, could be paradoxically considered an alchemichal residue in which the writer's pen explores the dark boundaries of what can be thought, of narrative materials, of possibilities of discourse.

The miracle of the writer's pen consists, then, in liquefying the ink that has become dry and re-writing with lightness those sedimentary texts deposited at the bottom of the flask, or drawing forth, from the remainders of narratives, fresh ink for new stories. From the primitive chaos in the dry ink flow off possibilities of shades and nuances of other texts seeking their way through to the reader.

Hearts, vases, reliquaries, ampullae, crucibles and inkwells are all depositories of the ink/blood with which fiction is written. The intervention of the writer's pen, seems to dissolve the thickness of scripture and turn it, according to Calvino, as light as the dense quilts filled with butterfly wings, as the foot prints of winged hoofs which are lighter than insect legs, as the golden spray left on leaves by certain dragonflies. Traces to be taken as leads in the tangle of narrative possibilities.

The remnant of ink condensed at the bottom of the inkwell reminds us of the alchemist's Nigredo. Mircea Eliade associates black with the reduction of substances to their Materia Prima, the Massa Confusa. Calvino's dry ink, seen as a residual shapeless mass, would correspond to the Chaos in alchemic theory. One of the alchemists' maxims advises not to start a procedure before reducing everything to water. Likewise, in Calvino, the text can only be produced if the ink - condensed by the remainders of so many other texts - is diluted to obtain Leukosis, Albedo: resurrection of Nigredo - the black ink - in other narratives.

The artist, like the alchemist, should obtain the Dissolution of these textual substances so that he may engender new, unexpected plots. To the writer/alchemist knowledge dilutes the compaction of the world. It is something like a return to the primordial state in which the sacred ink may flow, bearing in mind, however, that

questa sfera arida parte ogni discorso e ogni poema; e ogni viaggio attraverso foreste battaglie tesori banchetti alcove ci riporta qui, al centro d'un orizzonte vuoto.3 ***
Ironically, in The Castle of Crossed Destinies, the center of the empty horizon seems to be the place where all narratives converge. The transformation of a residue into liquefied ink substantiates the new narratives. This regressive phenomenon - turning matter into its liquid form, narratable, liable to be written - could also be related to birth and death, initiatory death, as can be inferred from Nigredo, Putrefactio, Dissolutio. In alchemy, every death is, above all, reintegration to the cosmic Night, to the pre-cosmological Chaos, that is to say, a return to the seminal phase of existence. Thus, creation (a new scripture) as apparition of Formas, is the effect of an initiatory death, and resurrection would correspond to a re-dimension of the Materia Prima - from where the whole may be contemplated and choices are made - into Nova Materia. To Calvino, every narrative is traversed by a feeling of death in which real and fictional characters, holding on to the riggings of life, seem to struggle for survival.

The death card in tarot could thus be read in all its ambiguity as the carrier of roots fertilized by decomposing carcasses and bones which, going through burials and exhumations permits re-writing. The alchemical transformation, as recommended in Liber Platonis Quartorum, should be performed using an occiput as a vase, since os capitis . . . vas mamsionis cogitations et intellectus, as quoted by Jung in Psychologie und Alchemie. The alchemist in his laboratory, before his crucible, resembles the writer at his desk before his inkwell and the Saint Jerome of the pictures mentioned by Calvino.

The descent to Hell - initiatory death - and the experiment that transforms dry ink into liquid ink are rendered through the Saturnian signs of melancholy and the contemplation of skulls.

The Chronos-Saturn image symbolizes Time, the Great Destroyer. Since Saturn, the symbol of time, is often represented holding a scale, the image not only symbolizes death (as putrefactio) but also rebirth. Thus, in this realm of Libra (of omniscience and clairvoyance), in this familiarity with the workings of Time (as death destroying omni genus et formam), in the wisdom reserved for those who, in life, anticipate the experience of death, the saturnine melancholy of Magus, Alchemists and, perhaps, of writers should not be forgotten.

In a lecture on quickness which he was to have delivered in the United States, Calvino calls upon Maat, the goddess of the scales. The writer explains precision as a well-defined and calculated work plan that should include the evoking of incisive, memorable visual images, precise enough to translate the nuances of thought and imagination. His concern reveals the diligent work of the alchemist/writer and his proneness to the introspection characteristic of the melancholic. According to Calvino,

ever since antiquity it has been thought that the saturnine temperament is the one proper to artists, poets, and thinkers, and that seems true enough. Certainly literature would never have existed if some human beings had not been strongly inclined to introversion, discontented with the world as it is, inclined to forget themselves for hours and days on end and to fix their gaze on the immobility of silent words. Certainly my own character corresponds to the traditional features of the guild to which I belong. I too have always been saturnine, whatever other masks I have attempted to wear. My cult of Mercury is perhaps merely an aspiration, what I would like to be. I am a Saturn who dreams of being Mercury, and everything I write reflects these two impulses.4
The writer/alchemist engenders in his crucible/inkwell a narrative bearing, as inscriptions, the strokes of the pen of its creator and of as many texts he as writer/reader perused. Calvino reminds us that Libra is his zodiacal sign. By counterweighing Mercury (exchanges, trade, ability) and Saturn (melancholy, solitude, contemplation) on the scales, he attains balance and harmony. Resembling the almost obsessive work of the alchemist/writer, his narrative resurges as a mosaic arranged by the raveling/spinning of traditions and texts that constitute the narrative fabric.


1. Danielle Régnier-Bohler, Ficcion. In: Philippe Ariès and Georges Duby, Histoire de la Vie Privée, vol. 2:

De l'Europe Féodale à Renaissance (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1985).
2. Italo Calvino, The Castle of Crossed Destinies (Torino: Einaudi, 1991), p. 128.
3. Ibid, p. 38.
4. Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millennium (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988), p. 52.

Dedicated to Wander M. Miranda
Translated by Miriam L. Volpe

* And all those cups are nothing but dried-up inkwells waiting for the demons to rise to the surface from the darkness of the ink, the infernal powers, the bogeymen, the hymns to the night, the flowers of evil, the hearts of darkness, or else for the melancholy anger to glide by that distills the humors of the soul and decants states of grade and epiphanies. [back to text]

*** from this arid sphere every discourse and every poem sets forth; and every journey through forests, battles, treasures, banquets, bedchambers, brings us back here, to the center of an empty horizon.[back to text]

Back to Calvino page.