Thursday, January 05, 2012

Giulio Camillo's Theater of Memory

Joshua Foer's Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything (2011) doesn't hold a lot of surprises for anyone who's already familiar with the ancient mnemonic device of the memory palace, but it's a fun book nonetheless, full of such odd characters as contemporary savants, wildly nerdy mental skill competitors, and historical promulgators of memory enhancement techniques.

The most fascinating member of that last category is Guilio Camillo, an Italian philosopher who in the sixteenth century convinced Francis I of France to fund the construction of a "Theater of Memory" that would essentially be a physical representation of the sort of mental memory palaces that had been crucial to orators, philosophers, and others in the days before printing. Here's how Foer describes what Camillo proposed:
Camillo's wooden memory palace was shaped like a Roman amphitheater, but instead of the spectator sitting in the seats looking down on the stage, he stood in the center and looked up at a round, seven-tiered edifice. All around the theater were paintings of Kabbalistic and mythological figures as well as endless rows of drawers and boxes filled with cards, on which were printed everything that was known, and--it was claimed--everything that was knowable, including quotations from all the great authors, categorized according to subject. All you had to do was meditate on an emblematic image and the entirety of knowledge stored in that section of the theater would be called immediately to mind, allowing you to "be able to discourse on any subject no less fluently than Cicero." Camillo promised that "by means of the doctrine of loci and images, we can hold in the mind and master all human concepts and all the things that are in the entire world."
As you might guess from the mention of the Kabalah, there was to be a mystic, magical component to the memory theater as well, one which Camillo promised he would reveal to no one except Francis I.

It seems a scale model was built and stuffed with, if not the entirety of human knowledge, then at least a substantial number of data cards. Frances Yates, in The Art of Memory (1966), offers a bit more detail:
When next Viglius writes to Erasmus, he has been to Venice and met Camillo, who has allowed him to see the Theatre (it was a theatre, not an amphitheatre, which will appear later). "Now you must know," he writes, "that Viglius has been in the Amphitheatre and has diligently inspected everything." The object was thus clearly more than a small model; it was a building large enough to be entered by two people at once; Viglius and Camillo were in it together.
Viglius's letter continues:
He calls this theatre of his by many names, saying now that it is a built or constructed mind and soul, now that it is a windowed one. He pretends that all things that the human mind can conceive and that we cannot see with the corporeal eye, after being collected together by diligent meditation may be expressed by certain corporeal signs in such a way that the beholder may at once perceive with his eyes everything that is otherwise hidden in the depths of the human mind.
At this distance of time and culture, it's hard to know how seriously to take Camillo's own protestations--for all we know, he may have been wholly sincere in his belief that the proper facts and symbols, properly arranged, could unlock occult secrets. But to modern ears, he certainly does sound like a huckster, doesn't he? And, sadly if not surprisingly, the theater was never built to full scale, and the model disappeared to history before the sixteenth-century was out, so we have little more than tantalizing, if eyebrow-raising, glimpses of Camillo's plans and system.

Yates tells another story about Camillo that, while not bearing on his theater, seems worth sharing:
Camillo and his theater were as much talked about at the French court as they were in Italy, and many legends about his stay in France are extant. The most intriguing of these is the lion story, one version of which is told by Betussi in his dialogues published in 1544. He says that one day in Paris Giulio Camillo went to see some wild animals, together with the Cardinal of Lorraine, Luigi Almoni, and other gentlemen, including Betussi himself. A lion escaped and came towards the party.
The gentlemen were much alarmed and fled hither and thither, except Messr Giulio Camillo, who remained where he was, without moving. This he did, not in order to give proof of himself, but because of the weight of his body, which made his movements slower than the others. The king of animals began to walk round him and caress him, without otherwise molesting him, until it was chased back to its place.
Camillo's own explanation, apparently repeated regularly, was that the lion, a creature of the sun, recognized the "solar virtue" that Camillo bore because of his role as a magus. Did I mention that he comes across like a snake oil salesman?


  1. Great article.

    Camillo's Theater of Memory shows up in Carlos Fuentes' sprawling novel Terra Nostra too.

  2. Sex change: It's Frances Yates

  3. Oops. I knew that she was Dame Frances, but I always have trouble keeping my Francises and Franceses straight. Thanks for the note; I've just made the correction.

  4. The art of memory and Camillo's memory theater, introduced to Scotland's Stuart Court, was the spark that caused the birth of speculative Freemasonry in 17th century Scotland.