People are obsessed with the historic value of places, cityscapes and societies. They say that old is better than new and that pictures on a postcard represent something more authentic, honest, bright and true. But the comparison is often pointless. Why praise 'the postcard city'?
The writer Italo Calvino made the point brilliantly in his book Invisible Cities. Published in 1974, Invisible Cities centers on a fictional conversation between the explorer Marco Polo and the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan. In Cities & Memory 5, Polo describes the imaginary city of Maurilia:
In Maurilia, the traveller is invited to visit the city and examine some old postcards that show it as it used to be: the same identical square with a hen in the place of the bus station, a bandstand in the place of the overpass, two young ladies with white parasols in the place of the munitions factory.
If the traveller does not wish to disappoint the inhabitants, he must praise the postcard city and prefer it to the present one....Beware of saying to them that sometimes different cities follow one another on the same site and under the same name, born and dying without knowing one another, without communication among themselves.
At times, the name of the inhabitants remain the same, their voices' accent and also the features of the faces; but the gods who live beneath names and places have gone off without a word and outsiders have settled in their place.
It is pointless to ask whether the new ones are better or worse than the old, since there is no connection between them, just as the old postcards do not depict Maurilia as it was, but a different city which, by chance, was called Maurilia, like this one.
I love this quotation. And Invisible Cities is a great book. Don't let anybody show you a postcard of Victorian England and try to convince you that it pictures a better world. It's a different world.
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