Memory Forum

Giordano Bruno’s Memory System

by Josh Cohen on November 27, 2010

Here is a fascinating webpage about Giordano Bruno’s memory system.

Frances Yates reconstructed Bruno’s mnemonic wheel based on his book De Umbris Idearum. De Umbris Idearum can be downloaded here. Unfortunately, I’ve only seen it available in Latin so haven’t been able to read it.

Giordano Bruno memory wheel

Bruno’s sytem has a few similarities with the Dominic System and the person-action-object (PAO) system, where different images can be combined to expand the image vocabulary:

In the first fixed ring the practitioner will assign a mythological or heroic figure to each letter. Bruno provides some examples : A Lycaon; B Deucalion; C Apollo; D Argos … (see De Umbris Idearum [PDF], pp. 107 ff). The letters of the second ring correspond to an action or a scene associated with each figure. The examples provided are: AA Lycaon at a banquet; BB Deucalion and pebbles; CC Apollo and Python; DD Argos and some cattle (ibid, p. 112). Thus rotating the first inner ring operates permutations between the figures and their action. Further permutation occurs when the third wheel is set in motion. It contains attributes or enseignes which can be easily passed from one figure to another. Bruno provides only four examples and leaves the rest to the imagination of his reader. These are : AAA, Lycaon at a banquet with a chain; BBB, Deucalion and pebbles with a headband; CCC, Apollo and Python with a baldric; DDD, Argos and some cattle with a hood. This way the systems makes it possible to create combinations of letters representing words, acronyms or syllables to be remembered by means of animated images mixing the attributes and accustomed actions of familiar mythological figures.

BAA: B Deucalion A at a banquet A with a chain
MAD: M Perseus A at a banquet D with a hood
CAD: C Apollo A at a banquet D with a hood
COD: C Apollo O and Proserpina D with a hood

Deucalion at a banquet with a chain. Perseus at a banquet with a hood.” It isn’t exactly a PAO system, but it has a familiar sound.  I hope I can eventually find a copy of De Umbris Idearum in English so I can read the entire description of Giordano Bruno’s technique.

Photo of Eutruscan 'Chimera di Arezzo'

A chimera

Yates’ full memory wheel reconstruction can be viewed here [PDF]. Some of Bruno’s great imagery is described here. An excerpt is below:

The Seven Images of Mars

The First Image of Mars is a Man armoured and riding upon a Lion upon whose Helm a Vulture strikes with it’s beak. He is a Man of most ferocious appearance.
Second: A Man armed with Broad-Sword and Spear upon whose Helm is a form resembling a Chimaera from whose mouth shoot sparkling flames.
Third: One who casts sulphurous Fire with his right hand, having taken hold with his left of the neck of a Leopard which he rides against it’s will.
Fourth: A Man having in his right hand a Sword unsheathed and dripping with blood and in his left a human Head whose countenance is burnt as if by the sun.
Fifth: A Man of tawny colouring riding upon a Wolf, dressed in Red garments and bearing a heavy Sceptre of Iron.
Sixth: A ravished and very beautiful Virgin before a Man who turns away from her: they are together in an Ivory-White Chariot drawn by two Dog-Headed Apes.
Seventh: A Leopard and a Tiger fighting, on both sides are two helmeted men threatening each other with drawn Swords.

I believe the Mnemonic images described above can be found in English in On the Composition Of Images, Signs & Ideas.

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    { 5 comments… read them below or add one }

    1 James March 10, 2011 at 11:50 am

    I don’t suppose you archived any of the material from the Bruno site? It would seem that it has otherwise been lost to the aether.

    2 Josh March 10, 2011 at 1:05 pm

    I just checked and it has been removed. I just emailed them to see if the URL changed.

    3 Josh March 12, 2011 at 5:00 pm

    They got back to me and the new URL is here:
    http://warburg.sas.ac.uk/index.php?id=446

    4 Steven Harms August 6, 2013 at 9:47 am

    Fascinating. I have loved Bruno since I first learned of his death at the hands of the Catholic church as a martyr for heloicentrism. It’s interesting how he took important stories of Ovid to supply a lot of the imagery. That work, itself, is so full of images that, in the classical or renaissance eras that it must have been a wonderful source for creating palaces.

    Curiously, I just got into mnemnotechnics so that I might memorize “The Metamorphoses” better :)

    5 Henry Barth December 26, 2013 at 12:11 am

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