A memory theatre

The early modern arts of memory were rooted in the revival of classical techniques of rhetoric. Drawing on Cicero and Aristotle, the mnemonic systems that were central to early modern culture involved the picturing in the mind’s eye of images arranged in a physical location. Often this was an architectural building, such as a palace or theatre, consisting of a series of rooms each of which represented a unit or item of knowledge that one wished to remember. Recalling their location in space enabled them to be retrieved and used. This illustration from the treatise on ‘Ars Memoriae’ published in the collected works of the seventeenth-century physician and natural philosopher, Robert Fludd, includes doors, windows, a parapet with balcony, and geometric figures marking the spots where actors are to take their places for the performance. Modelled on the fashionable playhouses of his own day, it nicely embodies the manner in which medieval tradition was transfigured under the influence of the Renaissance. In the accompanying text, Fludd compares the words, sentences, and particles of speech that the orator, writer and scholar seeks to reconstitute in his memory with the spaces in which comedies and tragedies are enacted. AW

Robert Fludd, ‘Theatrum orbi[s terrarium]’, in ‘De anime memorativae Scientia, quae vulgo ars memoriae vocatur. Ars Memoriae’, in Opera, 17 vols in 7, ([Oppenheim: J.T. de Bry], 1617-1638), ii. 55.

CUL: IV.9.2

Further Reading:

Frances A. Yates, The Art of Memory (London, 1966), esp. pp. 135-62.

Mary Carruthers, The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture (Cambridge, 1992).

William E. Engel, Rory Loughnane and Grant Williams (eds), The Memory Arts in Renaissance England: A Critical Anthology (Cambridge, 2016).

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