29 July 2008

Giulio Camillo's Memory Theatre

Unlike with pattern poetry, there's no shortage of information on ars memorandi -- in particular, Giulio Camillo's Memory Theatre (L'Idea del Theatro, 1550), fancifully (and famously) described by Frances Yates in The Art of Memory. Yates reports a letter in which Viglius describes the Camillo's theatre to Erasmus:
The work is of wood, marked with many images, and full of little boxes; there are various orders and grades in it. He gives a place to each individual figure and ornament, and he showed me such a mass of papers that, though I always heard that Cicero was the fountain of richest eloquence, scarcely would I have that one author could contain so much or that so many volumes could be pieced together out of his writings. ... He calls this theater of his by many names, saying now that it is a built or constructed mind and soul, and now that it is a windowed one. He pretends that all things that the human mind can conceive and which 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 perceived with his eyes everything that is otherwise hidden in the depths of the human mind. (Yates 131-2)
In that increasingly boring quest for precursors to hypertextuality, many have described Camillo's Theatre of Memory as a kind of proto-WWW, where knowledge is readily accessible at any moment, neatly indexed and stored away. In one of the more eloquent essays to tap into this metaphor, Leah Marcus describes the computer as, like the Memory Theatre, yet another "device for artificial memory, a small box that we conceptualize as an office or a highway, or as a whole world, with files, folders, and web sites instead of rooms or drawers, from which items to be remembered can be readily retrieved by the user" (from "The Silence of the Archive and the Noise of Cyberspace," in The Renaissance Computer). And of course, both cyberspace and classical ars memorandi rely on metaphors of space and architecture -- of connections between different rooms, portals, "sites," each imbued with significance through images of the monstrous and the disgusting, or marked with deeply personal memories.

But that ground's been covered. I'm more interested in its shape, its roundness. As Christopher Kelty points out, the theatre is based on the Roman Vitruvian theatre, a half-circle with seats receding up; only the spectator stands on the stage and observes the seats, which reflect back
information. Of course, Camillo could have built a flat wall -- in fact, at the risk of belaboring this point, it seems all of the most obvious information storage systems are flat, rectangular surfaces that stack information vertically along horizontal lines, including libraries, walls of shelving, and even books themselves. So why a round theatre?

There's something going on with roundness in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries -- particularly roundness as a means of storing and organizing information, text. By Camillo's time, Ramon Lull's circles (or Lullian circles) had been popular little instruments for a few centuries, both directly and indirectly influencing a whole host of faddish volvelle-toting volumes: astrological and astronomical charts, moving paper planets, calendars and time-keepers. Agostino Ramelli invented his bookwheel in 1588, a ferris-wheel-like means of reading multiple volumes at one time, and just a few decades later poets such as G. P. Harsdörffer and Juan Caramuel y Lobkowitz used wheels to mechanically generate and permute lines of poetry.

Although a history of early modern roundness has yet to be written, the circle (or wheel or volvelle) sure seems to crop up a lot, especially in projects that like to flirt with infinity. It seems to me that Camillo's Theatre of Memory exists in this culture of roundness, where information -- relentlessly linear written text -- pursues the neverending loop of spirals and permutation, of circles and cycles. Just before Galileo looked heavenward to observe a heliocentric universe full of rotating bodies, Camillo imagined his little rows of drawers spiraling upward, a galaxy of knowledge with man at the center. It's time to think outside the rectangle and beyond the linear to discover knowledge in the round.


herstory said...

"Frances Yates & the Hermetic Tradition" by Marjorie G. Jones, the first biography of Frances Yates (1899-1981), has been been published by Ibis Press.

Anonymous said...

Could you list the source of your image for Camillo's theatre? Thanks!

melodious1 said...

Hey Whitney! This is Melody from Duke... I was looking up Memory Theater and stumbled across your very nice blog :) My last project was on intersections of computer/theater metaphors of consciousness, and a reference from Bill prompted me to check this out. Anyway, see you in class next week :)

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