Encyclopedia of Early Modern Philosophy and the Sciences

Living Edition
| Editors: Dana Jalobeanu, Charles T. Wolfe

Art of Memory

  • Manuel MertensEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-20791-9_320-1

Related Topics

Memory Psychology Art 



The art of memory is an art that supports memory by means of images and places.

The Art of Memory

In classical writings on rhetoric (see “Rhetoric”), the process of developing a speech is divided into five phases. After inventing arguments for a certain cause (inventio), the orator has to arrange his arguments in such a way that his audience will easily follow his reasoning (dispositio). Then he has to sculpt and polish his sentences into their most desirable form (elocutio). In the end, the entire speech has to be learned by heart (memoria) before it can ever be delivered in a convincing way (actio). For this memorizing practice, the art of memory can be of great help. The orator has to place images that reminded him of his arguments alongside a track through a well-known building. In delivering his speech, he goes for an imaginary walk through the building and, encountering the images, is sure not to forget his arguments and will pick them up in the right order. We find references to this art of images (imagines) and places (loci) in Cicero’s De Oratore (2:350–367), Quintilian’s Institutio (10:2), and the pseudo-Ciceronian Ad Herennium (3:16–24).

Although rhetoric has always been considered fundamental for the study of ancient literature, the art of memory had never received full attention until Rossi’s Clavis Universalis (1960) and Yates’ The Art of Memory (1966). Yates’ book provides a history of this art from antiquity until well into the seventeenth century, and her findings brought about many new studies. Carruthers (1990) showed how fundamental memory was in the Middle Ages (in accordance with Augustine’s praise of the treasury of memory in book X of his Confessions) and illustrated the workings and function of memory in medieval society. Bolzoni (1995) focused on the influence of the art of memory in the Renaissance, not only on modeling literary texts but sometimes even on the way in which libraries were given shape (see “Librarianship and Library Organisation”). By now the omnipresence of the art of memory in early modern culture is well illustrated by the traces it has left on the visual arts, science, religious meditation, converting practices, education, historiography, and philosophy (Neuber and Berns 1993; Engel et al. 2016; see Memory in the Early Modern Context: Practices and Theories”). Mnemonic manuals (like Ravenna’s Phoenix, Romberch’s Congestorium, and Rosellius’ Thesaurus) were circulating widely, and in royal courts, just as in marketplaces, memory artists were showing off their skills by reproducing great quantities of words – forwards, backwards, and in intercalary order. Even in the structuring of Renaissance gardens ars memoriae had a say (Kuwakino 2003).

It seems paradoxical that it is exactly in the age of printing (when storing and spreading information was facilitated through the press) that the art of memory saw its last flowering period. But the increase of information due to the press also necessitated new methods to structure and save all these new data, not only in externalized databases, like libraries, but also in an interiorized way, inside the human psyche. Besides, the art thrived well in a culture where there was a love of the visual.

Although originally stemming from ancient rhetoric, the art had substantially expanded its playing field. Hence, its ambitions heightened, sometimes in a philosophical direction. Giulio Camillo, for example, tried to raise funds for the construction of a memory theatre of Neoplatonic inspiration. Giordano Bruno (see “Giordano Bruno”), on the other hand, extended the mnemonic techniques, enriching them through the combinatory art, and he developed a new epistemic methodology, a fantastic logic, to replace the infertile Aristotelian logic (see “Aristotelian Logic in Early Modern Thought”). The legacy of the art of memory is also present in the search of seventeenth-century philosophers like Leibniz and Descartes for new scientific methodologies (see “Descartes” and “Method”).



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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Sarton Centre for History of ScienceGhent UniversityGhentBelgium