Memory Arts
Memory Arts
Memory Arts
Memory Arts
Memory Arts

Memory Arts

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Memory Palace
Frances Yates’s The Art of Memory begins, like all classical treatises on the art, with the same story. One night the poet Simonides was invited to dine at the house of the famous boxer Scopas. Halfway through dinner, Simonides was summoned outside and, as he stepped through the door, the hall collapsed behind him. So complete was the wreckage that no one could identify the bodies of those who had died inside. No one, that is, except for Simonides, who, having committed the place of every guest at the table to his memory, was able to name the victims by recalling where they had been seated, and was thus able to reunite grieving relatives with the remains of their loved ones.

Simonides, Yates tells us, was credited by all subsequent classical writers on the subject with the invention of the art of memory, which has at its heart a very simple principle. Simonides had been able to remember the names of the dead guests because he remembered where they had been sitting. The poets and orators of antiquity, who had to remember long passages of speech, believed that they could remember them better by assigning reminders—imagines—of small parts of them to imaginary places—loci. When the time came to recite the poem, or to make the speech, the speaker would take an imaginary stroll from locus to locus, being reminded of what to say in both easily digestible chunks, and in the correct order. 

In the late Roman Republic the orators Cicero and Quintilian were among those who developed the technique in their treatises on rhetoric – the art of public speaking from memory – and the way they wrote about it suggests that the art of memory was in common usage in the classical period. They called their constellations of imagines and loci “memory palaces,” and recom- mended that orators base them on real palaces and places that they had visited. The design of such palaces was precisely prescribed. Colonnades, for example, were not to be recommended in memory palaces because the loci between the columns were too repetitive to stimulate specific memories. Locations should be peaceful, and should respond to the scale of the human body. 

The memory palace was imaginary, of course, and once the speech or the story it had been designed to recall was over, it was emptied of its contents. The orators of antiquity would then ready their memory palaces for new occupants: devising new rooms, and colonnades as a new narrative structure required, seeking out new imagines to stimulate new memories. And in this way the old memory palace would have changed into a new one, ready to stimulate the mind to tell a new story. Like a folk tale, handed down by oral tradition, like a historic building, preserved and altered by each iteration of transmission, the memory palace evolved in the mind of the orator in response to evolving circumstances.

If every interior is a temporarily assembled memory palace, and every memory palace a storytelling device, then every interior tells a story. Walter Benjamin wrote: “To inhabit means to leave traces.”

Giordano Bruno
Giordano Bruno, a dominican monk, left the convent where he learned the Art of Memory and wandered throughout Europe telling the secrets of the Art to all who would listen to him including the King of France. Bruno, following the teaching of Neoplatonists, thought that learning the Art gave magic powers: this was the Hermetic Art of Memory. 

Images stored in the loci become more than a mnemonic device. They help us get a better understanding of the world. Through them we discover the true essence of things and their relationship. They also have magical powers acting like talismans. They are in fact the "Shadows of Ideas:” the essence of reality.

After his death he was and is presented as a martyr of Science. The truth is that, when he lived, modern science was not mainstream and it isn’t known why the Inquisition decided to condemn him as all documents about his process have been lost. If the idea that Bruno lost his life because of his support for Copernicanism is false, the idea that he was condemned because of his beliefs about the magic powers of the Art of Memory, is probably true. So he may very well be a martyr of the method of loci.

Medieval methods of the Art differed very little from those of the classical world, but certain changes in the late Middle Ages helped lay the foundations for the Hermetic Art of Memory of the Renaissance. One of the most important of these was a change in the frameworks used for memory loci. Along with the architectural settings most often used in the classical tradition, medieval mnemonists also came to make use of the whole Ptolemaic cosmos of nested spheres as a setting for memory images. Each sphere from God at the periphery through the angelic, celestial and elemental levels down to Hell at the center thus held one or more loci for memory images.

Between this system and that of the Renaissance Hermeticists there is only one significant difference, and that is a matter of interpretation, not of technique. Steeped in Neoplatonic thought, the Hermetic magicians of the Renaissance saw the universe as an image of the divine Ideas, and the individual human being as an image of the universe; they also knew Plato's claim that all “learning” is simply the recollection of things known before birth into the realm of matter. Taken together, these ideas raised the Art of Memory to a new dignity. If the human memory could be reorganized in the image of the universe, in this view, it became a reflection of the entire realm of Ideas in their fullness, and thus the key to universal knowledge. This concept was the driving force behind the complex systems of memory created by several Renaissance Hermeticists, and above all those of Giordano Bruno.

Bruno's mnemonic systems form, to a great extent, the high-water mark of the Hermetic Art of Memory. His methods were dizzyingly complex, and involved a combination of images, ideas and alphabets which require a great deal of mnemonic skill to learn in the first place. Hermetic philosophy and the traditional images of astrological magic appear constantly in his work, linking the framework of his Art to the wider framework of the magical cosmos. The difficulty of Bruno's technique, though, has been magnified unnecessarily by authors whose lack of personal experience with the Art has led them to mistake fairly straightforward mnemonic methods for philosophical obscurities.

A central example of this is the confusion caused by Bruno's practice of linking images to combinations of two letters. Yates' interpretation of Brunonian memory rested largely on an identification of this with the letter-combinations of Lullism, the half-Cabalistic philosophical system of Ramon Lull (1235-1316). While Lullist influences certainly played a part in Bruno's system, interpreting that system solely in Lullist terms misses the practical use of the combinations: they enable the same set of images to be used to remember ideas, words, or both at the same time.

An example might help clarify this point. In the system of Bruno's De Umbris Idearum (1582), the traditional image of the first decan of Gemini, a servant holding a staff, could stand for the letter combination be; that of Suah, the legendary inventor of chiromancy or palmistry, for ne. The deccan-symbols are part of a set of images prior to the inventors, establishing the order of the syllables. Put in one locus, the whole would spell the word bene.

The method has a great deal more subtlety than this one example shows. Bruno's alphabet included thirty letters, the Latin alphabet plus those Greek and Hebrew letters which have no Latin equivalents; his system thus allowed texts written in any of these alphabets to be memorized. He combined these with five vowels, and provided additional images for single letters to allow for more complex combinations. Besides the astrological images and inventors, there are also lists of objects and adjectives corresponding to this set of letter-combinations, and all these can be combined in a single memory-image to represent words of several syllables. At the same time, many of the images stand for ideas as well as sounds; thus the figure of Suah mentioned above can also represent the art of palmistry if that subject needed to be remembered.

Bruno's influence can be traced in nearly every subsequent Hermetic memory treatise, but his own methods seem to have proved too demanding for most magi. Masonic records suggest that his mnemonics, passed on by his student Alexander Dicson, may have been taught in Scots Masonic lodges in the sixteenth century; more common, though, were methods like the one diagrammed by the Hermetic encyclopedist Robert Fludd in his History of the Macrocosm and Microcosm. This was a fairly straightforward adaptation of the late Medieval method, using the spheres of the heavens as loci, although Fludd nonetheless classified it along with prophecy, geomancy and astrology as a “microcosmic art” of human self-knowledge. Both this approach to the Art and this classification of it remained standard in esoteric circles until the triumph of the Cartesian mechanism in the late seventeenth century sent the Hermetic tradition underground and the Art of Memory into oblivion.

The Garden of Memory
One debate which went on through much of the history of the Art of Memory was a quarrel over whether the mnemonist should visualize real places or imaginary ones as the setting for the mnemonic images of the Art. If the half-legendary classical accounts of the Art's early phases can be trusted, the first places used in this way were real ones; certainly the rhetors of ancient Rome, who developed the Art to a high pitch of efficacy, used the physical architecture around them as the framework for their mnemonic systems. Among the Hermetic writers on the Art, Robert Fludd insisted that real buildings should always be used for memory work, claiming that the use of wholly imaginary structures leads to vagueness and thus a less effective system. On the other hand, many ancient and Renaissance writers on memory, Giordano Bruno among them, gave the opposite advice. The whole question may, in the end, be a matter of personal needs and temperament.

Be that as it may, the system given here uses a resolutely imaginary set of places, based on the numerical symbolism of Renaissance occultism. Borrowing an image much used by the Hermeticists of the Renaissance, I present the key to a garden: Hortus Memoriae, the Garden of Memory. 

The Garden of Memory is laid out in a series of concentric circular paths separated by hedges. Each circle corresponds to a number, and has the same number of small gazebos set in it. These gazebos-an example, the one in the innermost circle, bear symbols which are derived from the Pythagorean number-lore of the Renaissance and later magical traditions, and serve as the places in this memory garden. Like all memory places, these should be imagined as brightly lit and conveniently large; in particular, each gazebo is visualized as large enough to hold an ordinary human being, although it need not be much larger.

The garden imagery makes up half the structure of this memory system-the stable half, one might say, remaining unchanged so long as the system itself is kept in use. The other, changing half consists of the images which are used to store memories within the garden. These depend much more on the personal equation than the framing imagery of the garden; what remains in one memory can evaporate quickly from another, and a certain amount of experimentation may be needed to find an approach to memory images which works best for any given student.

In the classical Art of Memory, the one constant rule for these images was that they be striking-hilarious, attractive, hideous, tragic, or simply bizarre, it made (and makes) no difference, so long as each image caught on in the mind and stirred up some response beyond simple recognition.

Camillo Memory Theatre and Robert Fludd
Giulio Camillo Delminio (1480-1544) was an Italian Renaissance polymath. His most famous project, started in ca.1519 and carried on until his death, was “The Theatre of Memory,” an ideal architectural structure destined to “tener collocati e a ministrar tutti gli umani concetti, tutte le cose che sono in tutto il mondo” (“locate and administer all human concepts, everything which exists in the whole world”), as he wrote in his treatise L’idea del theatro.

The "Idea" of the Theatre was essentially the following: instead of having people imagine complex architectures to store all the knowledge, why not build a physical place and then store all knowledge in this place. Now you can learn simply by walking in this Memory Theatre.

Camillo imagined the theater as a wooden structure formally based on the Vitruvian description of the Roman theater from the De Architectura. However, he reversed the canonical relationship between audience and stage, because he conceived the theatre for a single spectator located on the stage. The theater is divided into seven cloves and is structured on seven levels of steps defining forty-nine areas, each one associated with a symbolic figure from mythology, from the Cabal or from hermeticism.

All human knowledge would have been archived on the different levels of the half-circle, referring to a projection of the human mind and could have been retrieved through mental associations with images and symbols. Giulio Camillo described his theatre as a mens fenestrata, a “mind endowed with windows”, a structure providing the possibility of looking inside the human mind. He also defined it as a mens artificialis. The whole configuration of the Theatre of Memory imply symbolic meanings. The structure itself lies on seven pillars, which refer to those bearing Solomon’s House of Wisdom. Each one of the seven cloves is characterized on the lower level by an image referred to one of the seven planets. 

For a long time, Camillo looked for a patron capable of carrying out his project and physically building his wooden theatre. Probably, only a wooden model was finally realized, as testified by a letter from Viglius van Aytta, an emissary of Erasmus of Rotterdam. 

As influential as the twentieth and twenty-first centuries claim Guilio Camillo's concept of a memory theater may have been, there seem to have been few attempts at visualizing Camillo's concept prior to the twentieth century. One was by the physician, astrologer, cosmologist, Qabalist, and occultist Robert Fludd.

The English philosopher and mystic Robert Fludd developed a memory system, building on the systems of Giordano Bruno and Giulio Camillo. Actually, Fludd describes two arts of memory: the “round art,” similar to Bruno’s occult use of astrology and images symbolizing the zodiac, and the “square art,” more like the medieval system of using images of “corporeal things” like men and animals placed in memory rooms.

Yates’s discussion of Fludd is based somewhat on conjecture, because so much of what they wrote seems willfully obscure, as if withholding a secret or writing only for the initiated, a secret cabal. But she seems right in saying that Fludd proposes to combine these two arts, and to do so in rooms which Fludd calls “theatres.” Engravings of such theatres are included in the second volume of his gigantic work Utriusque Cosmi Maioris Scilicet et Minoris… (1619). Fludd does seem to say, at one point, that he intends his art to be done using “real” places, not imaginary ones.

A really fascinating part of Yates’s argument is what she extrapolates from the physical layout of Fludd’s book. On two facing pages there are engravings of the zodiac symbols and spheres of the planets (a round image), and Fludd’s main theatre-room (thought by Yates to be an image of the Globe). If you know your Elizabethan stage history, you know that the ceiling covering the rear part of the stage is thought to have been painted with an image of the night sky, or other representations of the stars, and was called “the heavens.” Drawing on this tradition, Yates speculates that the position of the two engravings is meaningful: when the book is closed, the round image of the heavens will cover or be on top of the square image of the stage, just as the heavens of the stage cover the lower realm where most of the action took place. The round and square arts of memory are thereby combined, just as the position at which some scenes took place in Shakespeare’s plays can be meaningful and symbolic—think of Prospero in the Tempest, appearing ‘above’ in one scene: the magus, his superior knowledge keeping him above the fray of human foibles.

Guidonian Hand 
Learning how to read music is akin to learning another language: there are symbols; those symbols correspond to certain sounds; and, in learning how those sounds are represented by the symbols, you can learn to replicate those sounds. In medieval music, the Guidonian hand was a mnemonic device used to assist singers in learning to sight-sing.The Guidonian hand is closely linked with Guido's new ideas about how to learn music, including the use of hexachords, and the first known Western use of solfège.

Each knuckle-joint and finger-point on a hand represented a different note in the Medieval and Renaissance tone system called the Gamma-Ut. By pointing at any of these joints and points, you could quickly and easily impart music without needing to use costly and labor intensive sheet music. All you had to do was make sure the students had memorized what each knuckle and fingertip sounded like.

Almost everything in the Western musical worlds today centers on the twelve notes of the chromatic scale. By contrast, almost all the music written during the Medieval and Renaissance periods in Europe revolved around a 22-note system, called the Gamma-Ut. The twenty-two notes of the Gamma-Ut system were divided into the seven groups of 6, or seven hexachords. The Guidonian Hand is a mnemonic system in which these 22 notes spiral across twenty joints on the left hand. Like the alphabet, it was a basis for understanding relationships between different characters—in this case, musical notes (ut, re, mi, fa, sol, and la). It’s not certain whether medieval singers used the Hand during performance, but we can be sure their musical thinking was informed by it.

“It’s a way of navigating tonal space effectively,” explains Jesse Rodin, who with his students demonstrated the Hand as part of a performance of four-voice a cappella music for the Mass. “If you’re a violinist and it’s time to play a piece, you put your finger on a certain place on the violin, and, with the help of a bow, the instrument makes a sound,” he says. “If you’re a singer, you can’t do that. Vocal utterances don’t have physical locations. So the Hand is effectively a fingering system for the voice. It’s a way of assigning each frequency or relation of frequencies a physical place on the body.”

Morse Code
One visual metaphor that compresses image and text into a mnemonic is the pictogrammatic alphabet. In particular the mnemonic chart for morse code, wherein the letters of the alphabet, overlaid with Morse Code symbols, act as a mnemonic. In 1918, Robert Baden-Powell designed this alphabet for Girl Scout’s to memorize Morse Code. The associated codes for each letter appear to be based on the shape of the capital letter, thus anchoring the sounds and signals of morse to the corresponding curves and vertices of the letter as loci. 

This gives us insight into the structure of what Vanevar Busch called "association." It also provides systematic ways of talking about intelligibility in multimedia. It relates to visualization, it is very much concerned with the acquisition of new knowledge and plays upon methods that we use informally, and it is a tradition that survives today. Certainly, the written word is at a disadvantage in essentially oral cultures. Ivan lllich documents that in the twelfth century, reading was a visceral, physical action, in which words were read aloud with expressive intonation.

In a tradition of one and a half millennia, the sounding are echoed by the resonance of the moving lips and tongue. The reader's ears pay attention, and strain to catch what the reader's mouth gives forth. In this manner the sequence of letters translates directly into body movements and patterns of nerve impulses. The lines are a soundtrack picked up by the mouth and voiced by the reader for his own ear. By reading, the page is literally embodied, incorporated.

The modern reader conceives of the page as a plate that inks the mind, and of the mind as a screen onto which the page is projected and from which, at aflip, it can fade. For the monastic. reader,...reading is a much less phantasmagoric and much more carnal activity: the reader understands the lines by moving to their beat, remembers them by recapturing their rhythm, and thinks of them in terms of putting them into his mouth and chewing. No wonder that pre-university monasteries are described to us in various sources as the dwelling places of mumblers and munchers.” - Ivan Illich. The Vineyard of the Text

Memory Theater One
Robert Edgar's low tech Memory Theater One is designed for "easy-chair" installation in your house or in a quiet gallery space. It is seductive on many levels because of its accessibility. It is an enlightening work. Memory Theater One is an artwork or, as an accompanying document states: "An interactive postmodern metaphor." What would an art of memory look like today when no cosmology can summarize even a single text?

Composed and designed for the Apple II series machines (II, II+, IIE), using Graforth language, the Theater incorporates imagery, literature, philosophy, and humor with animated three dimensional graphics enabling the user to travel through a series of architectural spaces (27 rooms) and metaphors.

Edgars description of the Theater architecture and its manipulation tell a great deal in simple, almost poetic terms how spatial and temporal design is employed: "What you will need to enter the Memory Theater is a monochrome monitor (the program is not in color), two disc drives, joystick or Koala Pad attached to game port."

Besides going from top room (autobiographical) to bottom room (philosophical), the user is invited to browse in the library, which holds text fragments from Frances Yates: The Art of Memory; U.S. Army technical manual; Hollis Frampton, in October, W.V. Quine, The Ways of Paradox, Roland Barth, Mythologies, Milton Erickson, Selected Papers, A Chinese Poem, by Fong; Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind, Jerome Bruner, In Search of Mind, Levi-Strauss, The Origin of Table Manners, and the New York Times.

Also from Edgar's accompanying text: "The additive memory room holds a cross sectional representation of the ring room. The 12 stamps arranged on the clock face are the result of exmode overprinting of all the room icons except the one it represents. The resulting stamp exhibits the differential pattern of all the overprinted icons...somewhat analogous to the differential pattern on exposed holographic film. The ego in the additive memory room is the result of overprinting all 12 icons in exmode. When you move the ego over one of the stamps, the difference - which becomes visible is the missing icon. As the icon appears, a text fragment also becomes visible, corresponding to a letter of the alphabet, e.g. 'f is for film, a construction machine.'"

This reference to holographic memory, where you can recreate the entire image from a fragment of the image, is key to Edgar's fascination with the low tech possibilities based on a deep concern for content rather than technical flash. Simulating the conceptual structure of a hologram on an Apple II is one example of the intersection of aesthetics and computer programming. The genetic structure of the hologram, itself a construct of the environmental inclusiveness of memory, housed in its own "additive room" gives the casual theater goer a shock. The movement of perception from mind to machine back to mind becomes performance.

Upper room image: falling man is the cursor (ego), trail of astrology signs across the room ending with a line drawing of a kangaroo.

Upper room text: "They were walking in the other room. How, she wanted to know, could a singer sing a song she didn't know? A cameraman can turn away and snap an unexpected image, but how could a singer sing without intention? Without intending to make the notes she makes? What role can writing have in improvisation?”

Bottom room image: Left pedestal holds dice, right pedestal holds the words "ha ha."

Bottom room text: "The clown's trippings and tumblings are the workings of his mind, for they are his jokes; but the visibly similar trippings and tumblings of a clumsy man are not the workings of that man's mind.” (from Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind.)

A little like Willem de Kooning showing all the mental and physical processes of making a painting and then telling you "don't try this at home". This conflict between art and utility, metaphor and simulation is very important. The resolution might be some kind of text/image editor that allows you to interject, to collaborate with the Memory Theater. If, after all, the notion is to interact rather than witness you must be allowed to create. The opportunity for new art that the computer offers is this kind of interaction, correlation, collaboration. If art is to be truly active then it must be a kind of utility that provides inspiration as well as work space. Perhaps, Joseph Buoy's notion that everyone must become an artist is making sense.