The Memory Theatre of Giulio Camillo and a Tale of Three Cathedrals

Once upon a time, a strange Amazonian god sent me a package of words entitled “Printed Commonplace-Books and the Structuring of Renaissance Thought by Ann Moss.1

I have recently had three male relatives from the generation older than me die, and there were some interesting commonalities in their lives.  One was a physics professor, one an author and one a film editor. They all took copious hand written notes. One would, when in conversation with someone write notes, then, when with that person again, ask, and how is so and so. Another, his children tell me, when they were all together of an evening watching the original University Challenge, would get every question right.

I was also taught to take notes, but as I am a generation younger, my career has been in the transition to computing, and I haven’t kept up note taking, although I note many professionals do. Note taking was never explained to me as an integral part of a process.

Using WKSEs I discovered that note taking is part of ancient practices and processes that date back to the Greeks and Romans called “common placing”. Cicero is possibly the most famous example, but just about everyone did it until the 20th Century. Taking notes and ordering them were integral to processes of remembering. The world outside was also explicitly ordered to enable remembering, from rosary beads to cathedrals.

Da Vinci is a fascinating example. He wrote his notes with his other hand in mirror writing, drawing at the same time. This has been asserted to be a code. I disagree. It was just efficient, using both hands at the same time. We play musical instruments, sculpt, pot, cook, type, knit, eat, talk, dig and swim using both hands, why do we not write with both hands? We are all well able to, but we never practice it, we have strange unexamined rules; that pens and pencils must be held in certain hands, and using the left hand is of the devil.

Aficionados of Sherlock Holmes will know he used memory palaces. This is an ancient idea, used by Homer and all the classic storytellers. Cicero describes the techniques, and the techniques were very widely used including up to the present, but often misunderstood.

The collection of alphabetized symbols that commenced this tale spoke of another collection entitled The Art of Memory by Frances Yates.2 This second collection notes the scribed utterances of someone called Jonathan Miller (all in capitals!)

“ONE OF THOSE QUITE REMARKABLE AND UNCLASSIFIABLE BOOKS ON THE HISTORY OF KNOWLEDGE WHICH SUDDENLY MAKES SENSE OF THREE OR FOUR ISSUES IN TERMS OF ONE COMMANDING METAPHOR”

Yates notes that Cathedrals were built as real memory palaces to guide the pilgrim to heaven. Florence Cathedral has precisely this structure- the Baptistry, the main building and the Campanile to take you to heaven.

Chartres has a further level of complexity- the labyrinth, which can be understood as a meditative key to help the pilgrim around the greatest story ever told displayed on the walls in the chapels, and in the windows.

We even have examples of kluge cathedrals- Lincoln for example – where it looks as if these underlying themes of the cathedral as a memory palace and map of one’s life have been forgotten over the generations it took to build it.

I hope readers can glimpse where I am going. The words legibility, flow, come to mind. Maybe access professionals are modern cathedral builders?

Yates discusses Camillo (who he comes the cry!). Only the possible inventor of classification, not that important! Camillo attempted to structure all human knowledge, and I propose, was successful, but we have not understood his achievements. We have misunderstood it because he used the occult fashions of the time, and we have, quite typically, thrown the baby out with the bath water! His structure included the Greek gods, and I therefore propose as I have used the word theatre, that a theatrical expert on the true gods, Stephen Fry, have a look at this.3

A related revolution was happening at the same time, from the geocentric to heliocentric world view.4 Camillo puts Apollo at the centre of his theatre before Copernicus.

I think humanity needs to carry out two projects in parallel, the reconstruction ofCamillo’s original theatre and building a new theatre and or cathedral using modern thinking, especially about inclusion, relationships and logical processes.

It would be internally logical, it would demonstrate clearly its context and relationships and it would be humane, fun, intriguing, paradoxical, of zen, puzzling, open, enabling, legible, flowing, inclusive. It would use music and dance and art as key parts of its structure. Weaving and knitting would be fundamental, including Quipu and related technologies.

I propose this will have some very interesting repercussions. It will be necessary to reinvent our classification systems. Dewey5 cannot manage this and in fact its decimal classification system actively prevents us working and thinking in terms of the required processes, gestalt and inclusion by its artificial decimalisation of knowledge.

Are we in the muddles and messes we are because we are using very badly damaged and dangerous tools and do not appreciate what has already been discovered. I am arguing for a new renaissance.

1.Moss, A. Printed Common-place Books and the Structuring of Renaisssance Thought. (Clarendon Press).

2.Yates, F. The Art of Memory. Bodley Head (2014). at <https://www.penguin.co.uk/authors/1008054/frances-a-yates.html&gt;

3.Fry, S. Mythos The Greek Myths Retold. Penguin (2017).

4.Koestler, A. The Sleepwalkers. Penguin (1959).

5.Dewey Decimal Classification | library science | Britannica.com. Britannica (2018). at <https://www.britannica.com/science/Dewey-Decimal-Classification&gt;

The Memory Theatre of Giulio Camillo.docx

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