Yates on the Art of Memory: Look with the eyes of memory

(If you haven’t already, you might want to read << From Rhetoric to Ethics first)

Giotto's Seven Virtues: Prudence.

Giotto’s Prudence: a mnemonic image on its locus.
(“Giotto [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons ” / CC0 1.0 Universal / Desaturated from original)

The Art of Memory was complicating the life of the laymen of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. They were probably like any one of us, living on a tightrope between Hell and Heaven, deliberately doing good to compensate for instinctive bad deeds, trying to believe their moral and spiritual balances were still on the positive, asking forgiveness for their mistakes. But it was easier to pretend ignorance when all the preaching was done in boring arcane Latin. Now, things were beginning to change.

The great scholastic saint Thomas Aquinas and his teacher Albertus Magnus have upgraded the Art of Memory, which was now a part of Prudence. Not only that, but Saint Thomas Aquinas wrote his own precepts on the art, which would be quoted and misquoted for centuries. Preachers now had not only the proper techniques to use for the sake of memorising their own sermons, but they were beginning to have at their disposal an arsenal of striking images (“unusual similitudes”) with which they could carve their teachings in the souls of men — and in their memories. Moral treatises such as Ammaestramenti degli antichi by Bartolomeo da San Concordio and the Rosaio della vita, by Matteo de Corsini, were now being arranged by ordered sub-divisions in a manner conducive to proper memorisation. Moreover, they were being written in the vulgar tongue — Italian. The laymen therefore were being exhorted through terrorising imagines agentes that imprinted in their memories the punishments that awaited in Hell, but also the means to avoid them and reach the Heavens. They could now read in their own language documents neatly arranged to favour the memorisation of what they should do. No boredom; no Latin. They even had a saint telling them how to do it. The poor bastards had no excuse anymore for sinning. And I don’t even need to mention the Inquisition.

This great recommendation of the Art of Memory as a part of Prudence would fill the layman’s mind with galleries of striking images of virtues and vices and Hell and Paradise. Francis Yates mentions texts such as Ridevall’s Fulgentius metaf oralis and Holcot’s Moralitates that are devoted to describe such images. But note what I said: describe. These are textual descriptions of invisible mental images that are meant to be conjured in one’s mind and stored in one’s memory. They are not to be exteriorised. These are not actual pictures. Imagine a little boy being told the story of Snow White by his mom on bedtime. When she reaches the part where Snow White runs through the forest at night, she would do well to use really soft words, otherwise her son is sure to demand that she stays in bed with him the whole night. The images that we conjure in our minds after what we read or hear are utterly more striking than what we see in real life (well, excluding 9/11). In the case of images of eternal damnation being masterfully inculcated in the minds of the pious medieval man, they must have been more frightening than the little boy’s dark forest or even the monster in the closet — the latter two certainly don’t burn like Hell.

Most of these invisible memory images would remain forever as one’s own internal art — visual manifestations of the imagination seen only by the mind’s eye. But a few would not be restricted to that. The gifted ones would exteriorise those images into paintings, sculptures, writings, music. Yates provides examples of paintings from Lorenzetti and Giotto that suggest the exteriorisation of the Art of Memory; if not like I mentioned in another post, it at least suggests that the precepts of memory were being used to make visual art more memorable. But Yates doesn’t restrict herself to examples of paintings. She puts up an audacious, but extremely interesting case that Dante‘s Divine Comedy could in fact be describing a system for memorising the punishments of Hell, with every sin in its own place and represented by its own set of grotesque and striking images. She goes even further to suggest (maybe a little farfetched, but what do I know?) that Dante’s division of his work in three books, Hell, Purgatory and Paradise, is correlated with the three parts of Prudence, memoriaintelligentia and providentia. Dante’s poem would be a huge mnemonic device for memorising the scholastic theme of damnation and to help the pious medieval man in his search for light. 

Yates keeps asking the reader to “look with the eyes of memory”. I like that expression and I shall use it in the future. But the truth is that I myself can’t. Not because I can’t understand her arguments about how the Art of Memory might have influenced all forms of Medieval art. It is easy for me to see the three-dimensionality of Giotto’s paintings as related to the “Ad Herennian‘s” rules for making the images stand out from their backgrounds, but I can also see it as simply a new visual technique that was coming about. It is even easier for me to see Dante’s Divine Comedy as a fantastic mnemonic; like Simonides was known to have said about poetry, “painting that speaks” is to me much more memorable than paintings per se. But I can also see it just as the expression of a magnificent artist who, as any other, wants to impress his words in his reader’s mind as deeply as possible. The truth is that I simply don’t understand Medieval art. I don’t know any art, for that matter, what to say of the Medieval one. So, it is hard for me to imagine how it would be if her theory were wrong. I am only now beginning to evolve the sensibility to admire art — or even to grasp it. But even while I try, it is not a conscious act made for the sake of art. It is not that in the process of learning to perceive art in general, I have bumped into memory and I should now try to see it reflected in art. I am doing all this because of memory. I am doing all this because of my obsessive-compulsive desire to learn and need to remember. And while still learning what to remember in the first place, I’ve bumped into art proper. Memory (without pun) is what permeates my mind always. Yates’ appeal is superfluous to me — I can’t look without the eyes of memory anymore.

(You might be interested in Straight mnemotechnic >>)


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