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Giulio Camillo's memory theater

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Frances Yates

Giulio Camillo, or Giulio Camillo Delminio to give him his full name,was one of the most famous men of the sixteenth century. He was one of those people whom their contemporaries regard with awe has having vast personalities. His Theatre was talked of in all Italy and France;its mysterious fame seemed to grow with the years.

Frances A. Yates, The Art of Memory

Frances Yates rekonstruktion av Camillos minnesteater (1966)


Peter Matussek

Giulio Camillo (1480 - 1544) was as well-known in his era as Bill Gates is now. Just like Gates he cherished a vision of a universal Storage and Retrieval System, and just like Microsoft Windows, his 'Theatre of the Memory' was, despite constant revision, never completed. Camillo's legendary Theatre of Memory remained only a fragment, its benefits only an option for the future. When it was finished, the user - so he predicted - would have access to the knowledge of the whole universe. On account of his promising invention, Camillo's contemporaries called him 'the divine'. But he was forgotten immediately after his death. No trace is left of his spectacular databank - except a short treatise which he dictated on his deathbed and which was formulated in the future tense: 'L'Idea del Theatro' (1550).

It was only in the computer age that Camillo's name reappeared out of oblivion - at first sporadically in a few specialised articles in the fifties, then with increasing intensity and enthusiasm, until Camillo became a real hero of books and congresses, and even of television programmes and Internet appearances. How did the renaissance of this Renaissance encyclopaedist come about?

The catalyst was a chance occurrence: Ernst Gombrich, the director of the Warburg Institute in London gave Camillo's treatise to his colleague Frances Yates to read. She studied this short work thoroughly and was so fascinated that she not only brought the ‘Theatro' back to life in her mind's eye, but also made a reconstructional drawing of it in accordance with Camillo's instructions. The result formed the basis of a book on the history of the art of memory, which became one of the most influential works of cultural studies of recent decades. Further attempts at a reconstruction followed that of Yates, and their variety demonstrates how little we know about Camillo.

The objective knowledge we do have can be summarised very briefly. The structure was a wooden building, probably as large as a single room, constructed like a Vitruvian amphitheatre. The visitor stood on the stage and gazed into the auditorium, whose tiered, semicircular construction was particularly suitable for housing the memories in a clearly laid-out fashion - seven sections, each with seven arches spanning seven rising tiers. The seven sections were divided according to the seven planets known at the time - they represented the divine macrocosm of alchemical astrology. The seven tiers that rose up from them, coded by motifs from classical mythology, represented the seven spheres of the sublunary down to the elementary microcosm. On each of these stood emblematic images and signs, next to compartments for scrolls. Using an associative combination of the emblematically coded division of knowledge, it had to be possible to reproduce every imaginable micro and macrocosmic relationship in one's own memory. Exactly how this worked remains a mystery of the hermetic occult sciences on which Camillo based his notion.

Peter Matussek: The Renaissance of the Theatre of Memory

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© 2002 Mikael Hörnqvist
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