Fall 2017–Winter 2018

Giulio Camillo and the Theater of Knowledge

A mind endowed with windows

Lina Bolzoni

In the sixteenth century, there was a man who traveled across Europe carrying with him an instrument that was supposed to capture God—a memory theater that reproduced the structure of the world and could endow the mind with divine powers. His name was Giulio Camillo. He was so stout that he moved with difficulty and he was afflicted with a stutter. But when he spoke, it was as one possessed by a divine fervor, and he managed to win over even his most skeptical listeners, beginning with the refined French courtiers who looked askance at this Italian man to whom their king, Francis I, was disposed to lend a sympathetic ear. Camillo claimed to have penetrated the secrets of alchemy and concocted a potion of “potable gold” that was supposed to restore youth but instead nearly dispatched to the next world the unfortunate client who ventured to drink it. Camillo was a man of letters and a philosopher, an orator and a poet, a magician and a Kabbalist; he was a friend of the most eminent writers of the period, from Ariosto to Bembo, and of artists such as Titian and Lorenzo Lotto.

Camillo was born in Friuli in northeastern Italy, and was educated in the refined circles of Venice and Padua. He traveled across Italy and Europe in search of a wealthy patron who would be willing to finance the Faustian dream that he pursued for his entire life—the construction of a memory theater, a theater of all knowledge. And he found such a sponsor, first in Francis I, and then in Alfonso d’Avalos, the Spanish governor of Milan. Camillo eventually died in Milan, probably due to an excess of lovemaking during a night passed in the company of two women—a fitting end to a life that cultivated both mystic ecstasy and the pleasures of the senses.

What manner of person was Camillo? A man in possession of divine powers who was struck down prematurely, as his admirers lamented, or a charlatan, as others muttered under their breath? In reality, Camillo remained in his own way coherent in his vision. His greatness, as well as his shortcomings, lay in his having interpreted literally the dreams of his age, embarking on a quest to lend them form and substance, and to translate them into a structure that could also assume the form of an actual amphitheater built of wood. We know that, in Venice, Camillo constructed a scale model of his theater large enough for a person to enter; we have a description written by a friend of Erasmus’s, who saw it there in 1532. Following in the footsteps of Pico della Mirandola, Camillo sought to recuperate the universal knowledge that formed the basis of the different schools of philosophy and religious faiths in the world, and it was on this foundation that he built his theater. The places and the images on which it was based were not, however, arbitrary and human in nature—as in the traditional systems of the art of memory—but divine and therefore linked to the hiddenmost structure of reality. The theater was a mens fenestrata (a mind endowed with windows) and a mens artificialis (an artificial mind), a machine designed to draw from the inner soul the images shared by all men by rendering them newly visible. Camillo in fact explained that he had adopted this model precisely because the Greek words for “theater” (theatron) and “to see” (theaomai) shared the same root.

The structure of Camillo’s theater appears to have been based on the form of the classical Roman amphitheater, although in this case the relationship between spectacle and audience was reversed. The spectator was placed at the center, on the stage, while the spectacle of all reality unfolded around him along seven axes. Each of these consisted of seven tiers, and was marked at its base by a column representing one of the seven known planets and the classical divinity associated with it. However, the array of columns also corresponded to the seven days of Creation, to the first principles of Pythagorean and hermetic philosophy, and to the first seven divine names in the Kabbalistic tradition. The whole of reality—from its first principles to the arts and sciences—was thus arranged around forty-nine principal loci, each place marked by an image. According to the rules of the art of memory, the spectator could employ each one as an imago agens, that is, as an image capable of summoning up a network of associations in the mind. Like the pieces on a chessboard, however, the observer was supposed to take note not only of the image, but also where it was placed in relation to everything else in the theater. Take, for example, a spectator who wished to climb the seven tiers of the theater marked by the first column, that of the moon. Here, he would also find the image of Diana, the goddess associated with the moon and therefore with the element of water, and the psychological traits connected with water, such as inconstancy. When the spectator reached the uppermost level of the theater, he would find the image of Prometheus, who was associated with the arts and crafts of Man. There he would also find depicted the arts of Diana, such as the hunt, and behind her image a book containing poems on the hunt written by the great poets.

In fact, in Camillo’s theater, one would find not only a complete encyclopedia of the sciences, but also all the words that could usefully serve to express any sentiment, any situation. And all of this could be realized in accordance with the great myth of classicism, because beauty had been revealed to mankind on this earth, its values were eternal, and its secrets were stored in the works of Cicero and Virgil, Petrarch and Boccaccio. All that was required was to extract and recombine them using appropriate methods. To achieve this, Camillo built a series of rhetorical machines in which the ars combinatoria worked hand in hand with alchemy. Just as life could be breathed into the homunculus in the laboratory of the alchemist, so in Camillo’s theater the great works of the past were anatomized, and then arranged in an orderly manner. Camillo’s rhetorical machines could help to unveil the secrets of these works’ beauty in order to make them live once again in new forms. He called upon artists including Titian and Francesco Salviati to produce paintings for his theater, but their proposed images have vanished, devoured by time. Similarly, the full-scale realization of Camillo’s theater has been lost—or perhaps never even existed. Camillo’s L’Idea del teatro, published in 1550, provides only a schematic description of the theater and it is difficult to imagine exactly how he intended to arrange all the material that he had collected—from images and diagrams to dictionaries of literature and philosophy—and was carrying with him as he traveled across Europe. In recent years, more fully elaborated descriptions of the theater have come to light, including manuscripts, possibly by Camillo, in which it has been transformed into a splendid villa or art gallery. In this way, his theater retains both its charm and its secrets.

Lina Bolzoni teaches Italian literature at Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa. Her books include The Gallery of Memory: Literary and Iconographic Models in the Age of Printing (Toronto University Press, 2001), The Web of Images: Vernacular Preaching from Its Origins to St. Bernardino da Siena (Ashgate, 2004), and an edited collection of Giulio Camillo’s writings titled L’Idea del theatro” con “L’idea dell’eloquenza,” il “De transmutatione” e altri testi inediti (Adelphi, 2015).

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