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.

Subscribe to access our entire archive.
Log In and read it now.