"La Rivista di Engramma (open access)" ISSN 1826-901X

70 | febbraio/marzo 2009


Aby Warburg, Giordano Bruno and Mnemonics in Mnemosyne

François Quiviger

The last year of Aby Warburg's life was marked by an intense interest in the works of Giordano Bruno (1548-1600). Warburg’s correspondence as well as the diary of his last stay in Rome between 1928 and 1929 inform us of his Brunian obsessions which brought him in contact with various scholars, took him to a pilgrimage at Nola and led him to buy an entire Library of about 350 titles of Brunian works and studies initially assembled by Virgilio Salvestrini (1873-1954) author of the Bibliografia Bruniana.

The Salvestrini books contain only one Cinquecentina (the mnemonic Cantus Circaeus) but they have the great advantage of retracing Bruno’s Nachleben from the rediscovery of his thought in late eighteenth-century Germany – which prompted the first re-editions of his works – to the heroisation process which culminates in late nineteenth century Italy. The collection encompasses the main editions of the complete works, the main studies as well as a set of pamphlets of minor scholarly interest but of historical relevance regarding the reception of Bruno in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These include some of the pamphlets written in the context of the controversy surrounding the erection of the monument on the Campo de’ Fiori as well as two novels, six plays and two musical dramas composed around the figure of the philosopher.

About half of this collection has been digitised and is now freely available online through the websites of the Warburg Institute and the Centro Internazionale di Studi Bruniani Giovanni Aquilecchia (CISB), thanks to a generous grant from the Istituto Italiano per gli Studi Filosofici. To these have been added brief introductory essays regarding the history of this collection and its importance for Aby Warburg and for Frances Yates.

See these pages for more information:
Introduction; Warburg and Bruno; Frances Yates and Bruno's mnemonic works of Bruno
Download page: http://warburg.sas.ac.uk/mnemosyne/Bruno/index.html

Warburg did not have much time to work on this material for he died in October 1929, less than a year after its acquisition. His perception of Giordano Bruno as a herald of modern times and a thinker in images did not have much continuity either – at least in the Warburg Library. The next scholar to approach Giordano Bruno and exploit the Salvestrini books was Frances Yates, who presented the philosopher as a figure turned towards the ancient and distant past rather than the future. Nevertheless, while Yates' s view of Renaissance Hermeticism in general, and of an Hermetic Bruno in particular, have been contested, her contextualisation and discussion of the philosopher’s mnemonic works, in her book The Art of Memory, has brought the importance of early modern techniques of memorisation and visualisation back to the attention of the English speaking world.

Does the art of memory have anything to do with a Library called Mnemosyne? One of the main points of Frances Yates’ study is that the invention of printing eventually made mnemonics redundant as a means of retaining and transporting knowledge. Her study thus concentrated on the swan song of this discipline when it became associated with magic and occult philosophy, particularly in the works of Giulio Camillo and Giordano Bruno.

Writing in the early 1960s, Frances Yates could not anticipate that the art of memory would shortly experience another renaissance. Today, thanks to recent technology, a single individual can carry several thousands of texts, sounds and images in a container smaller than a pack of cigarettes and access them through a screen. This electronic miniaturisation of knowledge comes with the acute necessity to make it visible and accessible. In this new context the art of memory does not serve anymore to memorise but to visualise.

As means of transmitting knowledge are shifting from the printed to the electronic page, individuals and institutions find themselves challenged to organise their own electronic library through the confines of a computer screen. The current possibilities granted by the electronic medium have at least four early modern mnemonic precedents.

The formula of a desktop with icons providing access to related thematic content is already present in the mnemonic theatre of Giulio Camillo Delminio. It is a set of thematic images arranged in a Vitruvian amphitheatre under which were placed boxes filled with text. Thus, as in a modern computer, icons provide access to files. 

 Giulio Camillo memory theatre in Frances Yates reconstitution (The Art of memory, London 1964)

Modern extensions of this approach are hyperlinks and hot-spots thanks to which several zones of an image or a text can be made clickable. This way it is possible to associate each selection with the content of a new browser window. This transposes two important features of mnemotechnique: the creation of images laden with attributes condensing information, and the principle, particularly exploited by Bruno, that things are best remembered through their associations with other things.

From Ars memorandi, Pforzheim 1502

The third precedent is Ramist memory. Issued from a Protestant ambience notoriously suspicious of the powers and dangers of images and imagination, Ramist mnemonics organises knowledge in a visible hierarchical structure of words.

From O. Toscanella, Armonia di tutti i principali retori, et migliori scrittori degli antichi, & nostri tempi, Venice 1565

It is paralleled in the computerised universe by the visualisation of the hierarchical directories structure provided by basic utilities such as Windows Explorer.

Bruno’s mnemonic machines integrate the animated figures of Classical mnemonics into the combinatory wheels invented by Raimundus Lullus. They provide another precedent of the combinatory possibilities of database systems (click here for more). 

What seems a moderate challenge at an individual level – to organise a personal collection of image and text files through directories heralded by icons – becomes a considerably more complicated affair when applied to an entire Library. The problem is further complicated by one central aim of the Warburg Institute Library: to represent not only knowledge but its changes and movements across time and space. Most sections of sources are arranged topographically and chronologically by the date of death of their authors. Thanks to this arrangement anyone standing in front of most sets of shelves can see how a discipline changed and developed across time in a particular geographical area. So far this arrangement has been transposed manually in long files through which the user can scroll through the sequence of books and click on the main heading to consult the contents of each section (click here for an example). Furthermore, in the same spirit of providing a bird's eye view, large zoomable pdf files have been published and thanks to these each section can be encompassed at a glance (click here to access these).

Like today’s computers, ancient mnemonics use sound, image, text and movement to condense and represent knowledge. Classical mnemonics condense information into striking images, Camillo's theatre visualises a fixed universe, Bruno's machines serve to combine and condense. Unlike the Warburg Institute Library, however, the art of memory rarely represents time and history.

Nevertheless as electronic tools become increasingly sophisticated and accessible to non-technicians, it seems likely that the challenge of representing knowledge and its history, and above all making them accessible and navigable, will eventually affect the presentation of the contents of libraries. At the most basic level, the technology behind computer games provides an environment in which the user can circulate and interact: it can be a building, a landscape or a cityscape or anything that can be imagined. While tridimensional interactive representations have been used in recent years in the field of archaeology and mass entertainment to provide reconstitutions of lost or damaged monuments – e.g. the reconstitution of the Coliseum in the film The Gladiator – it would be both possible and useful to apply this technology to representing knowledge.