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It is 516 B.C., Mnemosyne is the Greek goddess of memory. Simonides is inventing the art of memory. He is teaching that painting, poetry and memory are intense visualization. In order to demonstrate this, spaces are designed with visual details that elicit lines of poetry to the initiated. Carefully placed windows and small openings direct light onto these details. The topic of the day is "Education and Memory Theater." Could it be that the mind has an eye? -Time of the Teacher, Ben Davis

The history of the art of memory begins with the Greek orator Simonides of Ceos, (556-468 B.C.). Simonides was characterized on ancient tablets as being the inventor of the system of memory-aids described as Visual Imagery Mnemonics. Many scholars view Simonides as a turning point in the history of the art of memory due to this shift that occurred within the emergence of a more highly organized society that could implement a new system beyond oral tradition.

In her classic book,
Art of Memory, Frances A. Yates explains:

"Simonides was one of the most admired lyric poets in Greece, though very little of his poetry has survived. He was honey-tongued and particularly excelled in the use of beautiful imagery. The comparison of poetry and painting is traced back to Simonides, for this has a common denominator with the invention of the art of memory."

Simonides saw poetry, painting and mnemonics in terms of intense visualization. The mnemonics method Simonides introduced involved encoding information into memory by conjuring up vivid mental images and then mentally placing them in familiar locations, such as in the rooms of a house, or auditorium. He became aware of this process during a tragic event in which he was requested to remember the exact locations of people who were killed by a roof collapsing at a banquet he had attended. He was able to remember where each person was seated, due to his visual memory associations. Upon discovering an ordered memory process aided him in uncovering the identities of the deceased, he developed his gift for memory into the system known as mnemonics.

Cicero & Mnemonics (104-63 B.C.)

The period of history that followed Simonides mnemonics teachings produced astonishment by citizens who witnessed the powerful orators who had adapted these techniques. The orator and Roman Statesmen Cicero utilized mnemonics by placing objects within an imagined visual space, or inner mansion, as a means to remember his speeches. His powerful oratories made him the most important figure in the transfer of Greek rhetoric to the Latin world.

Cicero speaks of memory with deep philosophical questions in his work, Tusculan Disputations, questioning the power in humanity which results in all discoveries and inventions:

"A power able to bring about such a number of important results is to my mind wholly divine. For what is the memory of things and words? What further is invention? Assuredly nothing can be apprehended even in God of greater value than this."

Augustine on Memory (354-430 A.D.)

The well known philosopher Augustine is one of the few thinkers to have deeply reflected on the problems of memory. At the tender age of 19, Augustine was exposed to Cicero's work Hortensius, that led him to fascination with philosophical questions. His infamous work Confessions, speaks of the images from sense impressions, which are stored away in the vast court of memory in its large and boundless chamber:

"I come to the fields and spacious places of memory, where are the treasures of innumerable images, brought into it from things of all sorts perceived by the senses. This is stored up, whatever besides we think, either by enlarging or diminishing, or any other way varying those things which the sense hath come to; and whatever else hath been committed and laid-up, which forgetfulness hath not yet swallowed up and buried."

Giulio Camillo & Memory Theaters (1480-1544 A.D.)

The next pivotal transformation of the art of memory was that of Giulio Camillo, considered by many to be the most famous thinker of the 16th Century. Guilio outlined the construction of his "Memory Theater" in his book L'idea del Theatro (1550). The theater was a wooden structure which was first presented in Venice and then in Paris, and was the talk of Europe at the time.

Various accounts describe the structure as a building which would allow one or two individuals at a time within its interior. The insides were inscribed with a variety of images, figures and ornaments. It was full of little boxes arranged in various orders and grades. Upon entering the Theater, the spectator will be able to discourse on any subject no less fluently than Cicero as he stands on a stage looking out towards the auditorium where the images are placed among seven pillars or grades. Each grade representing the expanding history of divine thought.

Camillo never finished his Memory Theater, nor did any of his constructions survive to the 17th Century. In her book Theater of the World, Francis A. Yates points towards the construction of the
Globe Theater in Shakespeare's day, of having been the result of Camillo's influence.

Interestingly, the art of memory and the memory theater, had been active in the hands of Church scholars since the 11th Century. The system was used to place images in religious works of art and in the minds of the masses, so as to instill moral truths and lessons that would not be forgotten.

Giordano Bruno's Mnemonic Investigations (1548-1600 A.D.)

Giordano Bruno, an excommunicated Dominican friar of the 16th Century, had developed an art, science and philosophy which was Hermetic in nature. Bruno is considered by many scholars to be way ahead of his time in many of his theories that included his belief the earth revolved around the sun, and not visa versa as was the orthodox belief at the time. In the introduction to the translated version of Bruno's work, On the Composition of Images, Signs & Ideas, translator Dick Higgins states writes in the introduction:

"Bruno argues for the unity of all the arts in a way that suggests 19th Century ideas about synesthesia or 20th Century ones about intermedia. . . the convergence of poetry, prose and visual art, is of interest today also, and it is noteworthy that Bruno provides a historic paradigm for this."

Bruno attempted to use the memory theater concept from his predecessor as a modeled attempt to grasp the mysteries of religion and the universe. He devised memory systems of the utmost complexity in nature stressing systematic classification of observable material and representing it in a manipulatable symbol. In exile from the Church, Bruno met up with many of the important thinkers of the time such as Sir Phillip Sydney, Williams Shakespeare, and John Dee and his ideas were popular among the Europeans.

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Eventually, the Church hunted Bruno down like a fugitive, and tortured him in an attempt force a confession of his "heresy." After 8 years of imprisonment, the Church gave up on Bruno, who would not recant his beliefs, and burned him at the stake.

Even though Bruno's mnemonic investigations quickly became unfashionable and ignored due to the emergence of the print culture, it had a most profound influence by ironically turning contemporary thought towards science. With the print culture's rise in the 17th Century, the use of the art of memory eventually reverted back to Aristotelian form.

Information derived from:

Time of the Teacher, Ben Davis
Ben Davis' Web Site, 1988

The Art of Memory, Frances A. Yates
The Chicago University Press, 1966

Theater of the World, Frances A. Yates
The Chicago University Press, 1969

Introduction -
The Ash Wednesday Supper, Giordano Bruno
Translated & Edited, Edward A. Gosselin/Lawrence S. Lerner
University of Toronto Press, 1995

Searching for Memory - the Brain, the Mind and the Past
Daniel L. Schacter, MD
Basic Books - Perseus Books Group, 1996