Theater of Memory

The Renaissance of the Theater of Memory
by 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’. For others, like Erasmus or the Parisian scholars, he was just a ‘quack’, but also this only shows that his reception was as strong as is the case with the computer gurus of our days. Still, Camillo 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).  

(…) 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.'

From: Peter Matussek, 'The Renaissance of the Theater of Memory'. In: Janus 8 (2001), p. 4-8.

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