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Emma Letizia Jones on The Art of Memory
19 February, 2021
While great writing about architecture has been dominated by men, although this has shifted in the last 20-30 years, I feel that the discipline of art history has, in contrast, long championed great women writers and historians. When I think of great writing by women on architecture, I find that I more frequently turn to these art historians.
There is a lineage of great women writers and scholars affiliated with the Warburg Institute in London, including Gertrud Bing and Frances Yates. They were writing at a time when histories of art and architecture were much more closely intertwined than they are today. Yates’ The Art of Memory is one in a series of books that tries to come to grips with an alternative cultural history of the Renaissance: that of Hermeticism. In this book Yates traces the history of the Art of Memory, an ancient mnemonic practice by which ideas are attached to objects or places formed in the mind, in order to be remembered.
My favourite chapters are those in which Yates makes some astonishing discoveries about the very concrete origins of the Renaissance Memory Theatre of sixteenth-century British hermeticist Robert Fludd, which lie in Shakespeare’s Globe theatre. Yates then shows that the Globe reflects a synthesis between the medieval religious stage and the Vitruvian Classical stage. What I find astonishing about her analysis is that Yates has no qualms about crossing disciplinary boundaries, from architectural history to the history of hermeticism and magic, to Christian theology, and back again, all through the filter of the German practice of Bildwissenschaft, the methodological origin of the discipline of art history. She ‘looks askew’ so to speak, at her examples, revealing entirely new dimensions to canonical buildings (the Globe, the Vitruvian theatre). Whether this is due to her being a woman – a woman from neither a wealthy nor privileged background – sitting firmly outside the mainstream of scholarship her entire life, I do not know.
But this chapter is certainly very satisfying in its way bringing the architecture formed in the mind during the practice of the art of memory full circle, letting it ultimately reveal to us a building that was very real, made of bricks and mortar. As Yates elegantly put it: ‘The imaginary architecture of the art of memory has preserved the memory of a real, but long vanished, building’.
A full PDF of The Art of Memory (Routledge edition) is available via Monoskop.