Yates on the Art of Memory: The reversed theatre

(If you haven’t already, you might want to read << Straight mnemotechnic first)

The Odeon of Herodes Atticus theatre, Greece.

“…all things that the human mind can conceive and which we cannot see with the corporeal eye […] 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 from the human mind. And it is because of this corporeal looking that he calls it a theatre.”
(“The Odeon of Herodes Atticus theater.“, by Robert Yeagle / CC0 1.0 / Desaturated from original)

This story is getting really complex. Our protagonist — the Art of Memory — began as an aid for ancient rhetoricians to persuade men and find the truth in arguments, turned into medieval scholastic practices to avoid damnation and find the path to the heavens, and was then reduced to a “possibly useful” technique by the humanists. Now, in another unexpected turn of events, it seems to be adapting to survive like a Darwinian iguana. The problem is that in order to do so, it is combining the classical Art of Memory with neoplatonism, hermeticism, occultism and magic, and, in the process, drowning my mind in a sea of befuddled ignorance. While Frances Yates discourses with great enthusiasm about such arcane topics in Chapters 6 and 7 of “The Art of Memory“, it is hard not feel helpless; there is so much I don’t know that it is impossible to fully grasp the relevance of what she is saying. I understand there is something about a madman, a theatre, and the impossible dream of remembering it all. Who but a madman would have such a crazy idea, anyway?

Giulio Camillo (1480–1544) was an Italian philosopher who (somehow) convinced King Francis I of France to sponsor the construction of a scaled wooden model of some kind of theatre. Such theatre would be, as Yates put it, “a vision of the world and of the nature of things seen from a height, from the stars themselves and even from the supercelestial founts of wisdom beyond them”. If this definition confuses you, you are not alone; even after reading both chapters on Camillo, I can’t explain it much better.

Anyway, the general idea was to organise all knowledge contained in the universe through his theatre. Camillo’s line of thought was that if orators could store in ephemeral memory places the images corresponding to the mundane subject-matters of their speeches, so he could store in “eternal places” the images of the “eternal truth” and the “eternal nature of all things”. And these “eternal” places and images would come from the neoplatonic “Hermetic Reformation”, initiated by Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494), which combined the ancient Egyptian knowledge coming from the legendary sage Hermes Trismegistus (mainly the Corpus Hermeticum and the Asclepius) with the mystical traditions of the Jewish Kabbalah and more. Camillo was trying to merge ancient mystical knowledge with the ancient Greek Art of Memory — he was trying to remember the essence of the World, the Ideas of Plato, the divine Truth! I admit I am glad to find someone who is more megalomaniac than I am.

This link shows a remarkable digital rendering of Camillo’s theatre which helps us (at least) understand its architectural design. Yates summarises its main structural features as following:

The Theatre rises in seven grades or steps, which are divided by seven gangways representing the seven planets. […] On each of its seven gangways are seven gates or doors. These gates are decorated with many images.

Basically, it’s all about the “gates”, which look more like panels to me, specially because they are supposed to display images. The position of these gates can be defined based on a local coordinate system where each gangway is in the “X” axis and each grade or level is in the “Y” axis. In the X axis, each gangway refers to one of the seven planets (at that time, believed to be Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, the Sun and the Moon). The planets also form the first level in the Y axis, so each of the panels closest to the stage represents one planet. The planets are the basis of the system, considered to symbolise the “seven pillars of Solomon’s House of Wisdom”, the “seven Sephiroth of the supercelestial world”, the seven “essential measures” on which, according to the mystical theory, all things here below depend. Just like in a real theatre, where the most important people sat in the lower seats, in Camillo’s theatre the lowest level or grade is reserved for the most important concepts, in this case, the “first causes”, the Platonic Ideas.

As one moves towards the higher seats, one progresses from the divine to the mundane across all stages of creation:

  1. Grade (level) I: The Planets, representing the first causes, the Sephiroth;
  2. Grade II: The Banquet, as the first day of creation; the emerging elements of creations in their unmixed form, served as a banquet from the Ocean (the waters of wisdom) to the gods;
  3. Grade III: The Cave (which is the Homeric cave in the Odyssey and not the Platonic cave of the Republic), representing a further stage of creation where the activity of the Nymphs (as described in the Odyssey), would mix the elements to form created things;
  4. Grade IV: the mind and soul of man, the interior man, symbolised (quite grotesquely) by the Gorgon Sisters, the three sisters described by Hesiod who had one single eye among them. This is based on the Cabalist view that a man has three souls;
  5. Grade V: Pasiphae and the Bull, symbolising the union of the soul with the body of man. In Greek mythology, Pasiphae, after being cursed by Poseidon, mated with a white bull and gave birth to the Minotaur;
  6. Grade VI: The Sandals of Mercury, which he puts on to execute the will of the gods, and represent all the natural activities of man;
  7. Grade VII: Prometheus with a lighted torch, representing all activities that man do through art and science, religion and law.

The same image in a given planetary series, i.e., in the same gangway, will have different meanings depending on which grade it is. So, it keeps the same planetary theme, usually associated to one single element (e.g., Jupiter = air; Mars = fire, etc.), but changes meaning depending on which phase of the creation it is.

Yates also explains that:

“…under the images there were drawers, or boxes, or coffers of some kind containing masses of papers, and on theses papers were speeches, based on the works of Cicero, relating to the subjects recalled by the images.”


So, is that what the theatre really is, a highly decorated filing cabinet uncomfortably placed among many rows of seats which face an empty stage? What is this mysterious construction that interested a king and conceded ever-lasting fame to an otherwise ordinary professor? I wish I could answer these questions properly, but I suspect I can’t. All I can see is that the theatre seems to be some kind of knowledge structure used to represent, store and process information. As such, it resembles current knowledge representation schemes used in disciplines such as computer science and artificial intelligence. In fact, I would argue that the theatre is a type of semantic network, where the nodes of the network are represented not by one single concept, but by many — there are many images in each panel — and the edges of the network, i.e., the relationships between concepts, are inferred through the position of the images with respect to the planets and the stages of creation.

But how would these images be used? And for what?

We are experiencing a revival in rhetoric interest in the Renaissance and Cicero‘s extensive writings and speeches are a huge source of inspiration. Any orator would want to know what he knew and, even more, to remember what he did. The drawers in the theatre were said to contain such material from Cicero, but Yates hints on the possibility of much more diverse material from other sources being contained in them. None of it is, however, extant today. The orator (or student or magus) would stand in the stage and look towards the gangways, where the real show would be staged — a reversed theatre. Somehow, he would grasp all knowledge in its true essence, because it would come from their planetary sources and flow towards ever lesser things in the lower world. The two seven-fold divisions would organise all knowledge and allow all possible associations between images, and the different emotional currents running through them would stir the mind and eventually form a memory organically geared to the universe — one which would provide a sort of magical “planetary oratory” to whoever used the theatre.

Got it? I didn’t. I confess this is all too vague for me. I don’t do magic. I can’t understand complex elucubrations about God, spirits, energies or astrology. I am not saying they are wrong or that they don’t exist; I simply can’t relate to such ideas. I might change in the future, but if I ever do, I am sure it will be a slow process. The reason is not that I have thought long about all these subjects and reached rock-hard resolutions. The reason is much simpler: habit. My wife finds it absurd that I don’t cheer for any specific team in any sport. I, in turn, say that she does so for the same reason she believes in God and for the same reason I don’t (I can’t technically say I don’t believe at all, but this is a long story, for another time). And the reason is habit. She grew up in a family that cheered for team A in sport B and even if she had eventually decided to cheer for team C, she would still care about sport B because of them. Of course, there are exceptions, but this is the rule. And I’ve come from a family who never talked about God (or sports), so the best I could do was to change my would-be atheism into a more scientifically-inclined agnosticism. The result is that although none of my “isms” are set in stone, they do make reading all this magical stuff quite hard.

What matters, though, is that the Art of Memory survives, even after another profound transformation. It is being used as a framework for remembering through magic — “Magicmonics”, if you will — and the Greek corporeal similitudes are now magical talismans. It is being used by men not to meditate on religious teachings, but to acquire a divine understanding of the world through mysterious secrets, and, in doing so, fostering a kind of magical rhetoric. The Art of Memory has turned into an occult art — but it persists. I just hope Frances Yates won’t change her focus from the development of the Art itself to the idiosyncrasies of the occult philosophies of the period. I hope she will remember she has already written a lot about magic in her first book on Giordano Bruno.

(You might be interested in Method in madness >>)


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