Sunday, July 17, 2005

Lina Bolzoni on memory, visual imagery, and narrative

from Lina Bolzoni's The Gallery of Memory: Literary and Iconographic Models in the Age of the Printing Press:

"The memory treatises of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries are filled with recommendations on how to remember an oration, a sermon, and, in particular, the narrative sequences that they may contain. The Ars memorativa written in Bologna in 1425 is rich with instructions of this nature. The model of writing and reading is powerful in this treatise: thanks to the art of memory, it claims, one reads what one wants to remember 'as in a mental book' [tamquan in libro mentali]. Places can be ordered in any fashion, but it is better to have an order that moves from left to right, 'like that which we follow when we write and read a physical book' [qualem tenemus in descriptione litterarum et lectione in libro materiali]. In the part entitled 'de ymaginibus sentenciarum' [the images of sentences], the author explains that in order to remember a narration, you need to divide it into different parts that reflect the essence of the things narrated. Each of the parts is then translated into an image: 'when you want to work with the images of the sentences, it is not necessary to use the single expressions of which the sentence is made up, but you must fully understand the substance of the thing and make a summary of it and compose an image of the summary.' At this point the images are positioned in the places of memory. The example give is that of Saint Marina (Saint Margaret of Antioch): her life is divided into twelve parts, each with a corresponding image. The figure of Saint Marina entering the monastery is to be positioned in the first [page 214 begins] place of memory; in the second place, her dying father, who forbids her to reveal that she is a woman; and so on.

"It is clear that the mnemonic procedure used here is identical to the procedure that a painter would follow if he wanted to represent the life of Saint Marina in twelve paintings. In the spaces of memory the model of writing lives alongside and overlaps with a model from the figurative arts.

"There is another very interesting comment in the manuscript about the perception of time that is best suited for the translation of a narration into a series of mental pictures. It is foreseen that the order of mnemonic places will reflect the order of events in the story. The spatial succession, therefore, visually translates the time of the story. 'Note, however,' warns the author, 'that everything must appear, not as belonging to the past, but almost as if it were to happen in the future or as it were present in the mind.' It would seem that at the moment that the time of the narration is translated into the space of the image, there is a sort of temporal distortion: the image is more effective if it does not refer to a past event but puts the event in the present, or even makes the images that tell (and recall) a story make us think of a time game played by Ariosto a century later in the Orlando furioso: in the castle of Tristan in canto 33 the tragic events of contemporary history are represented in a cycle of paintings. In this way, they are transported into the past, projected into the age of paladins, and recounted through images thanks to Merlin, the only painter who knew how to 'paint the future' (33.3.6). Ariosto thus plays with time by using the artifice of a feigned ecphrasis: the words are presented as if suggested by the images to which they themselves have given life, images that exist only in the space of a poem" (213-14).

[Note: See James Fentress and Chris Wickham's Social Memory, p. 47-51, on further discussion of (social) memory, images, and narrative, including the connection between medieval sermons and the visual art within churches:

Etienne Gilson has described the techniques used in a medieval sermon (1932). The central images were drawn from sacred scripture, and this automatically gave these images authority. These [page 50 begins] images were fixed in the listener's mind by rendering them as vivid, even as gruesme, as possible. A medieval sermon was like a fresco or a stained-glass window: it taught through a sucession of visual images (49-50).]

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At 9:41 AM, Anonymous Richard said...

Hey, John. Nice blog here. I need to work on my memory strategies. My recall isn't the best!

At 6:32 PM, Blogger John said...

My memory is horrible, which, I think, explains my interest in it. One of the more interesting books I've seen on memory improvement is Intelligent Memory: Improve the Memory that Makes You Smarter by Barry Gordon and Lisa Berger. While I've only skimmed parts of it and haven't yet worked with it in a way that would improve my memory, I think its has strong resonances with arts of memory and especially with Carruthers notion of memory as a machina memorialis. In their introduction, Gordon and Berger write:

"Intelligent Memory is the memory that 'glues' our thinking -- and the pieces of our ordinary memory -- together. Intelligent memory is both a thought or idea as well as a cognitive process, yielding what is often called critical or creative thinking. It's composed of three elements: pieces of memory (namely: experiences, information, and knowledge); the connections between these pieces; and the distinctive mental processing that mixes and matches the pieces and connections, creating more sophisticated thinking. Unlike ordinary memory, which weakens with age, Intelligent Memory can be strengthened with advancing years and improved by experience" (xi).


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