Monday 13 November 2006

Memory Palaces

Cicero, in De oratore, relates how the poet Simonides of Ceos invented the art of memory, which enabled the student of rhetoric to give long speeches from memory with unfailing accuracy. The art depended on associating an image with a place. Quintilian described the art in more detail. First one impressed in memory a series of loci, or architectural settings, say rooms in a villa. The speech to be remembered is then broken into a series of concrete images, such as a musical intrument, representing one idea, or a weapon representing another. One can then imagine walking from room to room while delivering the speech, recovering in order the emblems that were earlier placed there. Matteo Ricci, the Jesuit missionary to China, taught just this method to children of Mandarins struggling to memorize the Four Books and Five Classics for the court examinations.

I had memory palaces very much in mind when I undertook construction of my villa at Tempietto, and indeed, a series of rooms without any decoration but blonde wood grain is as hard to navigate as a maze. But as the doors and stairways have gone in, and my horse has taken up residence in the foyer, I find myself wandering its halls in my dreams, recalling conversations and visitors who have brought it alive, and look forward to using it as a reposity of emblems and signs to stir the memory.

The art has fallen out use. I have tried it and can attest that it works, but requires mental gymnastics of considerable agility and regular practice. Instead I have taken to copying out my conversations and saving them verbatim, so I may later peruse the sparkling remarks and recall their authors with delight in my leisure. This is quite in accord with copying out one's imagined loci and rebuilding it in Second Life.

Donlyn Lyndon and Charles Moore wrote a charming little book entitled Chambers for a Memory Palace in which they exchanged encomiums to their favourite examples from a collection of architectural themes and compositions. A sampling of chapter titles: Axes that Reach / Paths that Wander; Roofs that Encompass / Canopies that Center; Platforms that Separate / Slopes that Join.

Architecture as poetry. What this imagined and remembered World might yet become!

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