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Calvino’s Exactitude

“To my mind exactitude means three things above all:

1. a well-defined and well-calculated plan for the work in question;
2. an evocation of clear, incisive, memorable visual images; in Italian we have an adjective that doesn’t exist in English, “icastico,”…
3. a language as precise as possible both in choice of words and in expression of the subtleties of thought and imagination.”
Calvino quotes this in his memo from the book “Six Memos for the New Millennium”. Here he discusses his third quality of literature, exactitude. Calvino is explaining that literature needs to follow these three elements to be considered exact.

“The crystal, with its precise faceting and its ability to refract light, is the model of perfection that I have always cherished as an emblem, and its predilection has become even more meaningful since we have learned that certain properties of the birth and growth of crystals resemble those of the most rudimentary biological creatures, forming a kind of bridge between the mineral world and living matter.”

Here, quoting from the same book, Calvino discusses the emblem he selected for exactitude. He selects a crystal because it takes white light and is able to reflect it into the visual light spectrum. It takes something simple and is able to show it in its most complicated form through an exact process. Calvino also brings up that now that we know how complicated and exact the process is for creating a crystal, it is even more relatable. He explains that for literature to be exact it must be well planned and thought-out, like the process of crystallizing.

Calvino looks to better explain his concept by using a mentor of his. Giorgio de Santillana was considered by Calvino as a guide for him while he was in America. Santillana does a famous lecture in which he discusses the Egyptian’s emblem for the element of exactitude. They believed it was represented by Maat, the goddess of scales. They represented her as “a feather that served as a weight on scales used for the weighing of souls”.


While discussing Calvino’s exactitude, a famous haiku I studied in a Poetry Workshop class comes to mind. The haiku, “The Solider” by Udiah, conveys the thought of exactitude Calvino mentions. A haiku is intended to convey the thought of the author through a process of three lines, broken down to a 5-7-5 syllable count. This is about as exact as it gets. “The Solider” uses the thought of fallen soldiers, something that many would consider a deep thought, needing a lot of words to convey the real feeling that associates with the death of soldiers. Udiah, a famous author of Haikus, is able to convey the feelings and thoughts of fallen solders with just 17 syllables. This shows that exactitude, as Calvino mentions, is a powerful quality of literature.

“The Soldier”

Fighting for freedom,

Fall of a valiant soldier

Resting in the Lord



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