Memory Palace: a Hegelian survey art gallery with an Escherian perspective

December 8, 2006

M.C.Escher, Ignatius Sancho and the NGC

Each painting seemed to open into a virtual space like Escher’s print gallery offering infinite possibilities of alternate space-time continuum. During storms, or on the quiet days entire rooms full of Baroque treasures were mine alone. I accumulate hours in front of particular paintings returning again and again. Good art never stops answering back. Bad art just stays there repeated how pretty it is. It took years but eventually I could conjure individual works of art in my mind, then entire rooms and finally after ten years, the entire gallery. But that wasn’t enough for memory work. I taught myself to go inside certain paintings, through a detail, perhaps just a reflection in a glass where the blue skies and brick buildings across the street from the studio appeared in miniature, complete, unexpected, like a secret painting within a painting. The more I learned about social histories the more that seemingly inconsequential details revealed links to expanded pictures behind the easel. Without knowing the theory at the time, I was breaking through the Hegelian linear history of art into a more rhizomic web of inextricably linked stories. Eventually the absent became so forcefully present that at times the artist’s intentions were completely subverted. His hero shape-shifted like a trickster and the conquered started to speak.

Only recently I read about the story of Matteo Ricci who wrote A Treatise on Mnemonics (1596) in Chinese for the governor of Jiangxi Province. Ricci lived in China as a Jesuit missionary from 1582 to 1614. I am not sure where the concept of the memory palace as mnemonic device began, perhaps in ancient Greece, but it was developed in medieval Europe. Although I began with an actual building, the National Gallery of Canada and its permanent collection, it became my mnemonic device. By systematically building a virtual architecture in which each element is associated with a fragment of memory, any memory can be restored by taking a virtual walk through its hallways and rooms.

Spence, Jonathan. . The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci.

3 Responses to “Memory Palace: a Hegelian survey art gallery with an Escherian perspective”

  1. Regarding the question where do memory palaces originate from, the concept most commonly agreed on in Western thought came from the Greek mnemonic tradition starting with Simodes’ banquet hall story and from there, the Roman texts of Ad herenium and other contributions by Cicero and others. In saying this, other cultures, such as Indian and Persian cultures all have their own memory device systems that reappeared in the late renaissance through cosmological treatises and also through Egyptian hermetic-styled (and appropriated) treatises from Bruno, in particular.

    The term ‘memory palace’ was originally coined by Augustine around the 5th century (aprox) in his memory treatise that discussed ‘palaces of memory’.

    See Francis Yates, The Art of Memory for further details or my PhD dissertation: ‘The Memory Palace: Scale, Mnemonics and the Moving Image (University of Tasmania, 2005).

    Hope this helps.


  2. Thank you Dr. Wilson for your generosity in sharing this useful information.

    Is your PhD or the relevant sections on-line? If not is it possible to get a copy through my public library?

    I would be delighted to cite your PhD properly with full references for the above comment and/or host your comments in any future entries on memory palace and mnemonics.

  3. Shaun Wilson Says:

    Hi Maureen,

    I dont think UTas published my PhD on line but can send you one particular chapter via word doc (email). It was a PhD by Project meaning a significant body of artwork (videoart) was produced along side the large written document- see Chapter 2 and 3.

    If your interested in examining mnemonic traditions then after Yates, also go to the definitive source (its in Latin) “Ad Herrenium” and further, from memory (no pun intended) most of the ars memeoria stuff is located throughout the fifth section- its the grandfather of all mnemonic themed texts but apparently there is rumoured to be an English translation available in the US although I translated my copy from Latin to English. Cicero’s ‘De oratore’ gives a more fluid translation but stay away from medieval texts that deal with memory palace thought until you have a grasp on what the Roman principles were trying to say. The most notorious texts come from Romberch and Bruno (last man burnt at the stake in Europe).

    While I’m certainly no definative expert in the field I do have a substantial understanding of ars memoria traditions from Greek/Roman/Medieval/Renaisance/Boroque periods so would be happy to answer any questions you may have regarding this area. Unfortunately there are few texts are available on the topic that have any great undertanding of memory palaces but rather just rehash what Yates already established. There is one exception about Hiroshima and memory whose name escapes me at the moment. Thats the problem when one singe book maps the historical evolution of such a small and misunderstood field…

    talk further via email: shaun.wilson@rmit.edu.au

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