Giulio Camillo and His Theatre of Memory

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Giulio Camillo was a sixteenth-century Italian philosopher, most notable for his idea of the “Theatre of Memory.” The following passage comes from chapter 6 of The Art of Memory by Yates Francis (the embedded quotes are by Camillo himself):

“The Theatre rises in seven grades or steps, which are divided by seven gangways representing the seven planets. The student of it is to be as it were a spectator before whom are placed the seven measures of the world ‘in spettaculo’, or in a theatre. And since in ancient theatres the most distinguished persons sat in the lowest seats, so in this Theatre the greatest and most important things will be in the lowest place. That there would be no room for an audience to sit between these enormous and lavishly decorated gangway gates does not matter. For in Camillo’s Theatre the normal function of the theatre is reversed. There is no audience sitting in the seats watching a play on the stage. The solitary ‘spectator’ of the Theatre stands where the stage would be and looks towards the auditorium, gazing at the images on the seven times seven gates on the seven rising grades.

Looking at our plan, we can see that the whole system of the Theatre rests basically upon seven pillars, the seven pillars of Solomon’s House of Wisdom. Solomon in the ninth chapter of Proverbs says that wisdom has built herself a house and has founded it on seven pillars. By these columns, signifying most stable eternity, we are to understand the seven Sephiroth of the supercelestial world, which are the seven measures of the fabric of the celestial and inferior worlds, in which are contained the Ideas of all things both in the celestial and in the inferior worlds. Camillo is speaking of the three worlds of the Cabalists, as Pico della Mirandola had expounded them; the supercelestial world of the Sephiroth or divine emanations; the middle celestial world of the stars; the subcelestial or elemental world. The same ‘measures’ run through all three worlds though their manifestations are different in each. As Sephiroth in the supercelestial world they are here equated with the Platonic ideas. Camillo is basing his memory system on first causes, on the Sephiroth, on the Ideas; these are to be the ‘eternal places’ of his memory.

…his memory building is to represent the order of eternal truth; in it the universe will be remembered through organic association of all its parts with their underlying eternal order.

Each of the six upper grades has a general symbolic meaning represented by the same image on each of its seven gates. We have shown this on the plan by giving the name of the general image for a grade at the top of all its gates, together with the characters of the planets, indicating to which planetary series each gate belongs.

…the second grade of the Theatre is really the first day of creation, imaged as the banquet given by Ocean to the gods, the emerging elements of creation, here in their simple unmixed form.

The third grade will have depicted on each of its gates a Cave, which we call the Homeric Cave to differentiate it from that which Plato describes in his Republic. In the cave of the Nymphs described in the ‘Odyssey,’ nymphs were weaving and bees were going in and out, which activities signify, says Camillo, the mixtures of the elements to form the elementata ‘and we wish that each of the seven caves may conserve the mixtures and elementata belonging to it in accordance with the nature of its planet.’ The Cave grade thus represents a further stage in creation, when the elements are mixed to form created things or elementata.

 With the fourth grade we reach the creation of man, or rather the interior man, his mind and soul. … this grade (has) as the leading image to be depicted on all its gates the Gorgon Sisters, the three sisters described by Hesiod who had only one eye between them…

 On the fifth grade, the soul of man joins his body. This is signified under the image of Pasiphe and the Bull which is the leading image on the gates of this grade. ‘For she (Pasiphe) being enamoured of the Bull signifies the soul which, according to the Platonists, falls into a state of desiring the body.’ The soul in its downward journey from on high, passing through all the spheres, changes its pure igneous vehicle into an aerial vehicle through which it is enabled to become joined to the gross corporeal form. This junction is symbolised by the union of Pasiphe with the Bull.

‘The sixth grade of the Theatre has on each of the gates of the planets, the Sandals, and other ornaments, which Mercury puts on when he goes to execute the will of the gods, as the poets feign.

‘The seventh grade is assigned to all the arts, both noble and vile, and above each gate is Prometheus with a lighted torch.’ The image of Prometheus who stole the sacred fire and taught men knowledge of the gods and of all the arts and sciences thus becomes the topmost image, at the head of the gates on the highest grade of the Theatre. The Prometheus grade includes not only all the arts and sciences, but also religion, and law.

Thus Camillo’s Theatre represents the universe expanding from First Causes through the stages of creation. First is the appearance of the simple elements from the waters on the Banquet grade; then the mixture of the elements in the Cave; then the creation of man’s mens in the image of God on the grade of the Gorgon Sisters; then the union of man’s soul and body on the grade of Pasiphe and the Bull; then the whole world of man’s activities; his natural activities on the grade of the Sandals of Mercury; his arts and sciences, religion and laws on the Prometheus grade.

The Theatre is thus a vision of the world and of the nature of things seen from a height, from the stars themselves and even from the supercelestial founts of wisdom beyond them.

Though the Ficinian influence is everywhere present in Camillo’s Theatre, it is in the great central series of the Sun that it is most apparent. Most of Ficino’s ideas on the sun are set out in his De sole, though they also appear in his other works. … On the Banquet grade of the Sun series, Camillo places the image of a pyramid, representing the Trinity. … Camillo’s arrangement is completely Ficinian in spirit, in its suggestion of a hierarchy descending from the Sun as God to other forms of light and heat in lower spheres, transmitting the spiritus in his rays.

The Theatre presents a remarkable transformation of the art of memory. The rules of the art are clearly discernible in it. Here is a building divided into memory places on which are memory images. … The religious intensity associated with mediaeval memory has turned in a new and bold direction. The mind and memory of man is now ‘divine’, having powers of grasping the highest reality through a magically activated imagination. The Hermetic art of memory has become the instrument in the formation of a Magus, the imaginative means through which the divine microcosm can reflect the divine macrocosm, can grasp its meaning from above, from that divine grade to which his ‘mens’ belongs. The art of memory has become an occult art, a Hermetic secret.”

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From Astrological Mandalas by A.T. Mann: the sign Gemini imagined as Memory Theatre (more at http://www.atmann.net/12mantxt.htm)

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11 Responses to Giulio Camillo and His Theatre of Memory

  1. It boggles the mind to imagine these degrees being presented ……

  2. Jeff Japp says:

    Hmm. When I hear the number 7, my mind always tends toward the chakras and not the sephirot, but I suppose since the top three represent the crown or godhead, then the lower seven on their own have significance. As always, thoughtful and interesting post.

    Jeff

    • Agreed about number 7. I think Camillo said exactly the same thing – that the top three are not accessible by human memory perhaps. Still, I think he was a genius to picture memory as the theatre – what a profound metaphor.

  3. Thank you once again for posting a profound magical carrot which I used to as a starting point for my own treasure hunt in the pursuit of personal growth. Memory, imagination and curiosity are key factors in personal growth and are rarely mentioned as being so.

    • I have had a long fascination with memory and have posted a lot in the past on the subject. But I think the idea of the theatre in relation to memory is truly brilliant.
      I agree with your point entirely. Thank you very much for stopping by and commenting.

  4. 1weaver says:

    hook, line and sinker – i *love* this. going to enjoy returning when i can find some time to immerse. symbol reader, you are so cool 🙂

  5. Hi Monika

    this is wonderful. I read “The Art of Memory” a long time ago – and your post has made me think that cultivating this art could be a real help as the late middle aged braincell shows real signs of deterioration!

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