Brain Pickings

Yan Nascimbene’s Stunning Illustrations of Italo Calvino Classics


Meditations on life in philosophical watercolors.

I was enormously saddened to learn that French-Italian illustrator Yan Nascimbene passed away last Friday at the age of 63. A graduate of New York’s School of Visual Arts, Nascimbene illustrated more than 50 books, 300 book covers, and countless editorial pieces for publications like The New Yorker, TIME, Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, The Chicago Tribune, The Boston Globe, Scientific American, and The Atlantic. But his most memorable drawings — which, with their tender watercolors, bring to mind Maurice Sendak’s final farewell — stem from his profound love for the work of Italian novelist Italo Calvino.

It all began in the mid-1990s with Difficult Loves, a collection of 13 Calvino short stories about love and loneliness, which had been a longtime dream job for Nascimbene. After several years of pursuit spanning letters, emails, and faxes to and from six different people representing the Calvino estate, the project finally came to life in February of 2001 as Aventures, featuring 27 stunning illustrations by Nascimbene:

Besides the implicit connection the two creators shared in the geography of both of their childhoods, Nascimbene related to Calvino’s existential bent:

You can read his stories on two levels. He writes about love and loneliness and the difficulty that comes in trying to connect with others. His writing is light, clean and crisp, almost mathematical. And at the same time on another level Calvino is highly philosophical about life. He writes one little story about some mundane event or occurrence and builds up a whole analytical system of life around it.

Next came Palomar, Calvino’s final novel consisting of 27 short chapters arranged in a 3 × 3 × 3 pattern, which Nascimbene illustrated in 2003:

The final Nascimbene/Calvino installment, The Baron in the Trees, came in 2005 and is virtually impossible to find online, but your local library might have a copy. It is absolutely breathtaking:

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