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language > Memos for Our Times: A Conversation on Italo Calvino’s Legacy

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Memos for our time

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of Italo Calvino’s birth, the Italian Cultural Institute of Washington, DC and Georgetown University present a discussion on the author’s enduring relevance in the 21st century. Recent developments have indeed drawn attention to Calvino’s keen foresight and uncanny ability to anticipate the challenges we are facing today. A panel of specialists will engage in a conversation on Calvino’s insights, wrestling with topics such as artificial intelligence, the role of literature, and the urban and natural environments.

With the participation of:

  • Laura Benedetti (Georgetown University)
  • Letizia Modena (Vanderbilt University)
  • Gioia Woods (Northern Arizona University)
  • Luca Zipoli (Bryn Mawr College)

Embassy of Italy
3000 Whitehaven Street NW
Washington, DC 20008



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Laura Benedetti is the Laura and Gaetano De Sole Professor of Contemporary Italian Culture and the Chair of the Department of Italian Studies at Georgetown University. Her publications span seven hundred years, from Dante to Elena Ferrante, and include two novels, Un paese di carta and Secondo piano. The recipient of the Flaiano International Prize (for her volume The Tigress in the Snow: Motherhood and Literature in 20th-Century Italy), Laura Benedetti has delivered lectures at major universities and cultural venues in Europe and North America, as well as Egypt and Japan.

Letizia Modena is Associate Professor of Italian at Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee (USA), where she is also co-director of the Urban Humanities Postdoctoral Program. She is the author of Italo Calvino’s Architecture of Lightness: The Utopian Imagination in An Age of Urban Crisis (Routledge, 2011, 2014), which focuses on the urbanistic roots of the bestselling novel Invisible Cities (1972), a perennial favorite of contemporary architects, city planners, and designers. Today, her research covers the intersections of the arts and urban studies on questions of representation, spatial justice, and equity.

Gioia Woods is Professor of Humanities and Chair of the Department of Comparative Cultural Studies at Northern Arizona University. She is a scholar of American and global literatures of the mid-twentieth century and an environmental humanist. Her recent articles on Italo Calvino focus on his environmental awareness and advocacy. Her forthcoming book is Reinvent America and the World: Lawrence Ferlinghetti, City Lights Bookstore, and Literary Resistance.

Luca Zipoli is Assistant Professor in the Department of Transnational Italian Studies at Bryn Mawr College. He holds a Ph.D. in Italian literature from the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa, where he also pursued his undergraduate degree. Before joining Bryn Mawr College, he researched and taught at Princeton University, New York University, and the Princeton Study Abroad Program. His main research interests include Early Modern and Modern Italian Literature, with a specific focus on how the Italian Avant-Garde revived and adapted Italy’s literary tradition throughout the 20th century.


You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door; the TV is always on in the next room. Tell the others right away, “No, I don’t want to watch TV!” Raise your voice — they won’t hear you otherwise — “I’m reading! I don’t want to be disturbed!” Maybe they haven’t heard you, with all that racket; speak louder, yell: “I’m beginning to read Italo Calvino’s new novel!” Or if you prefer, don’t say anything: just hope they’ll leave you alone.


― Italo Calvino, “If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler”


Italo Calvino (1923–1985) was an Italian writer and journalist, renowned for works such as the “Our Ancestors” trilogy (1952–1959), the “Cosmicomics” short story collection (1965), and novels like “Invisible Cities” (1972) and “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler” (1979). He was a highly translated contemporary Italian author and is buried in Castiglione della Pescaia, Tuscany.

Calvino was born in Santiago de las Vegas, a Havana suburb, in 1923. His father, Mario, was a tropical agronomist and botanist, known for his anarchist past and later socialist views. His mother, Giuliana Luigia Evelina “Eva” Mameli was a botanist and university professor, educated in the values of civic duty and science. Calvino’s parents had contrasting personalities, leading to a complex but strict middle-class upbringing.

The family returned to Italy in 1925, settling in Sanremo. In 1941, Calvino enrolled at the University of Turin, where he concealed his literary ambitions. During World War II, he joined the Italian Resistance and participated in the fighting in the Maritime Alps. His university discussions with Eugenio Scalfari contributed to his political awakening. Calvino then studied agriculture but found his true calling as a writer.

In 1957, he left the Italian Communist Party, disillusioned by the Soviet invasion of Hungary. Despite this, he continued to write for left-wing publications and was part of the Oulipo (workshop of potential literature) group.

Calvino’s later works, such as “Invisible Cities” and “If on a winter’s night a traveler,” showcased his imaginative storytelling. Calvino’s journey through literature, politics, and personal exploration shaped his unique and enchanting storytelling style. He passed away in 1985, leaving behind a legacy of literary innovation and imagination.


  • Organized by: IIC Washington, Georgetown University