Monday, November 23, 2009
There are two reasons why I'm obsessed with illustrations from early-17th-Century treatises on alchemy and esoteric knowledge. The first is that this was a crucial period in Western thought, when old constraints on thought were breaking down and new ideas were bubbling up and recombining in an unparalleled ferment, creating cultural strands that have persisted through to today.
The medieval tradition of the "art of memory" -- itself a misunderstood and misinterpreted version of classical mnemonic techniques -- was undergoing a kind of baroque efflorescence. Its ambitions branched out from its original goal of helping to memorise speeches; the idea now was that by committing the right symbolic emblems to memory, one could sculpt one's mind and bring it into harmony with the greater cosmos. Modern authors have drawn on these concepts, and the Renaissance "Memory Palace" appears in Stanwick's Stations of the Tide and Harris' Hannibal, while the "memory theatre" of Valerio Camillo -- an even more elaborated outgrowth of the same tradition, that one might describe as a look-up table for the universe, or a kind of architectural search-engine -- occupies one of the plot strands in Carlos Fuentes' Terra Nostra. Frances Yates' book on The Art of Memory is crucial if you really want to understand how Renaissance kabbalistic-hermetic philosophy informed much of contemporary science fiction (to the extent that as one reviewer puts it, "Giordano Bruno, who was burned at the stake in 1600, probably appears in more science fiction novels than anyone else").
This efflorescence hybridised with parallel developments in the alchemical tradition, which acquired the same faith in the powers of visual imagery. The result was an intellectual environment where anything seemed possible, and total frauds received the same level of credence as learned scholars, because both were making equally bizarre claims... rather like today, really. This is what Frances Yates described as "The Rosicrucian Enlightenment". And don't get me started on how much The Baroque Cycle draws on all this.
Mainly, though, I like them because they look like illustrations from an alternative-universe guide to etiquette.