Renaissance Rediscovery: The Memory Theater and its Resonance in the Age of AI

Melissa Morano Aurigemma
Exceptional Capital
4 min readJan 19, 2024

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When we think about the development of computing and data storage, it is likely that Aiken, Hopper, Turing — among others — come to mind. However, there are a few names our modern recitation of history often fails to recall.

The form and function of memory? Data storage? Generative AI? Of course, as a general concept regarding machine learning we think of the mind, the brain — cognitive function and intelligence of the human mind — and how that could be correlative to artificial intelligence. Neural networks are modeled, in part, through an understanding of human cognitive function.

I feel it is safe to assume that most people are not thinking of 15th/16th century Italian philosopher and polymath Giulio Camillo, when thinking of the earliest stages of artificial memory.

Who?

Exactly.

Giulio Camillo, born 1480, was active during the Italian Renaissance and is understood to have been engaged across a variety of subject matter throughout his lifetime. However, one of the preeminent designs attributed to him is that of the “Memory Theater.”

A visual of Camillo’s Memory Theater

Sometimes described as a comprehensive mnemonic device, Memory Theater (Italian to English translations also refer to this as the Theater of Memory) is not just an aid or trigger in the process of recollection. Camillo’s writing formulates it as a physical or mental space that houses memory which makes cognition, articulation, generation of new ideas, and learning possible for humans.

A Memory Theater is the creation of structured and symbolic pathways and space where individuals could mentally place and retrieve information. What I find particularly intriguing is that this is a method of spatializing memory which pre-dates invention of computing functions to execute similar tasks or storage, retrieval and generation.

His imagery places an individual on the stage, looking at the “audience” — whereby the individual is then in a position to “locate and administer all human concepts, everything which exists in the whole world” (from Camillo’s L’idea del teatro).

A Memory Theater was, according to Camillo, divided into distinct sections, representative of categories of knowledge. Individuals had the ability to traverse mentally through the categories to recall information. Camillo drew from the “art of memory,” a mnemonic technique device dating back to antiquity and used to enhance memory through the association of ideas with specific locations. Frances Yates explores Camillo’s concept in great detail in her 1966 work The Art of Memory.

Camillo’s work in the realm of memory and knowledge was influenced by a revival of classical thought. Memory has necessary connection to establishing knowledge or enabling comprehension of ideas in the human mind. Memory is a requisite mechanism to grasp and envision possibilities. Original concepts of memory and artificial memory can even be traced from an account of Simonides, describing metaphorical capability and its connection to imagery.

Camillo’s Memory Theater sought a more robust comprehension and exploration of the organization and retrieval of knowledge. What I think is additionally compelling is how Camillo was (seemingly) working toward a more precise understanding of how memory serves to form and generate new ideas. There are many elements to explore in terms of the generative functionality, but for now I will cover only that of language and metaphor.

Imagery can be visual, something that we see in front of us with our eyes. Imagery can also be evoked through speech or language, to compel or instigate our own formulation or recollection of an image, or set of images, that correlate to linguistic, textual, or speech acts. The image of metaphor is often something held in the mind, tangible as a result of cognition and always related to or reliant upon a present tactile, physicality.

According to Camillo, metaphor is effectively employed through speech, through the performance of speech, that is to say, theater. Metaphor isn’t an image (unless perhaps you’re viewing a cartoon or a comic) — to speak or write employing metaphor requires language.

And while metaphor is effective to enable comprehension and understanding, it is also a vital tool (I would argue) in the formulation and generation of new ideas, new concepts. Without getting too tangential, metaphor is also culturally distinct in terms of understanding and application — so not only is the Memory Theater something particularly individual, but also something that has and is impacted by more universal and cultural elements. The Theater of Memory is contingent upon a broader cultural theater and connected to culturally relevant applications of metaphor — so much to discuss on this topic, but I will save that for another post.

As we continue to consider the implications of AI, especially in a generative function, it is interesting to examine the contributors who pre-date our understanding of these concepts in modernity. I, of course, think this is particularly useful in framing how we consider the evolution of these modalities, though I acknowledge that stems from my academic background in philosophy and realize that for some this falls more into the category of fun-fact as opposed to requisite for the future of computing, AI, and human cognition.

Either way, I think Camillo is a particularly good example of how in many ways we are often thematically and conceptually aligned with our predecessors in more ways than we realize.

Note: If this piece was intriguing to you, please consider reading Memory Theater a novel by Simon Critchley which I read back in October and would highly recommend.

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Melissa Morano Aurigemma
Exceptional Capital

Philosopher, artist, poet, etc, etc by night and by day Chief of Staff at Exceptional Capital