I would like to begin with a series of posts about the “art of memory”, often referred to as Ars Memoriae, Ars Memorativa and Mnemotechnics. I personally believe it to be a Western form of concentration on an object. Through time, specifically during the Renaissance, this method was developed to such a degree that it became a magical operative art. Before we continue, I would like to point out that I don’t intend “Magic” as a set of spells which is the lowest kind of “magic”, but as a meticulous “work” which is aimed toward the inner development of a human being. Such “work” (one of which is the alchemical Magnum Opus) existed in Western societies, and was very similar to the Eastern esoteric inner work and, in my opinion, had begun to extinguish after the Renaissance period.
Historically, we can find the first codified system for the development of memory in the classical rhetoric. Cicero and Marcus Fabius Quintilianus used such a system that consisted in imagining a building, inside of which the various parts of speech were visualized as objects and placed in different rooms. In such a way, during his performance, the orator was able to recall the sequence of concepts by travelling through the various rooms of the mental building.
Obviously, this was a simple mnemonic technique which was aimed toward rhetorical functionality. Through the progressive development of hermetism and Renaissance neoplatonism, such a method was developed and enriched in such a way that it became a real magical discipline.
In his work “De vita coelitus comparanda”, Marsilio Ficino suggested to “build models of the world” (substantially geometrical forms like the Eastern mandalas), in which forms and colors were the representations of planets and forces which acts through them. In the opinion of Marsilio Ficino, the goal of such forms was not decorative, but had to become “real tools for meditation”. In practice, the various principles represented in such “models of the world” had to be “brought inside” the essence of the practitioner through the means of contemplation and meditation.
This was what was suggested in the “De vita coelitus comparanda”:
“…place such a colored figure on the dome ceiling, in the room where you live and sleep. So (through the constant contemplation of the figure), instead of the sight of the individual things in nature, you’ll be able to perceive the figure of the universe and its colors.”
Such a crucial step is visible in the symbolic content of many masterpieces of the Renaissance pictorial art. It also introduced the foundations of the “art of memory” such as it was studied and practiced by the great esoteric masters and magicians of the 16th century, from Robert Fludd, Tommaso Campanella to Giordano Bruno (a character we’ll speak of more in the next series of this post devoted to the “art of memory”).
The basic assumption of such magic art can be summarized in the concept that the active thinking on an object means in some way “to bring it inside” the practitioner, and the symbolism of the object becomes part of the “meditator”. Mainly, the principles represented by the object become present in our inner world, and become as real in the field of thought, as it is real as an object in the material field.
This possibility “to bring inside” becomes the possibility to “keep inside” (and awake) the “Divine”, the principles of this Universe, and its forms and principles of manifestation, namely, the “laws”.
The term “to reflect” (to ponder) should illustrate this concept. Indeed, this word has a dual connotation: “to mirror” or “to reflect”, and “to ponder”, “to elaborate in mind”. This is one of the main points in the Western (but also Eastern) magic and mysticism, from the visualization to the hesychastic prayer.
For the Renaissance Magus, every object of the world is one of the expressions of an archetype. The object is connected with the archetype symbolically (or, if you prefer, we can use a more modern term, namely “analogically”). So, the act of linking objects in coherent sequences, as we’ll see in further posts, is the basis for the art of memory. It fulfills two functions: the first is purely technical, since it makes it possible to recall a memory through a chain of associations; the second function is higher, of a magical-esoteric character, and consists in “reflecting” the archetype through its various forms of manifestation.
Indeed, the archetypes are unattainable in their pure form, by the ordinary mind. However, it’s possible to reascend to them through associative chains and correspondences. This represents for the magus, the “language” through which “God” expresses itself and, at the same time, becomes understandable to the human mind. In such a way, the magician, through such correspondences, can “harmonize” himself with the divine. This is the meaning of the symbols in esoteric practices.
This topic will continue in the next post, The Art of memory 2: Giordano Bruno and the “Shadows”