The art of memory

by Frances A. Yates

Book, 1969



Call number


Call number



Harmondsworth : Penguin, 1969.

Original publication date


Physical description

439 p.; 20 cm

Local notes

This unique and brilliant book is a history of human knowledge.

Before the invention of printing, a trained memory was of vital importance. Based on a technique of impressing 'places' and 'images' on the mind, the ancient Greeks created an elaborate memory system which in turn was inherited by the Romans and passed into the European tradition, to be revived, in occult form, during the Renaissance.

Frances Yates sheds light on Dante’s Divine Comedy, the form of the Shakespearian theatre and the history of ancient architecture; The Art of Memory is an invaluable contribution to aesthetics and psychology, and to the history of philosophy, of science and of literature.

User reviews

LibraryThing member elenchus
Yates provides a fascinating account of both how memory systems worked in Classical and Mediaeval times (including an examination of differences between those approaches); and, a consideration of how & why the discipline altered almost to the point of being lost in the Modern era. This work links to two separate efforts: the earlier effort, Aby Warburg's intent to investigate human image-based memory, with special focus on Giordano Bruno; and the later effort being Yates's own prior publication, Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (1964). Yates was assisted in her research for The Art of Memory both by Warburg Library holdings, and by Warburg's personal assistant, Gertrud Bing.

Yates argues the flowering of the art of memory occurred in Classical era, known today through three primary texts.
● Cicero's De oratore
● the Ad Herrenium, an anonymous document long attributed (but falsely) to Cicero ("Tullius")
● Quintilian's Institutio oratorio

The memory arts changed between the Classical and Mediaeval eras, with much lost in transition (whether through misunderstanding or re-purposing). In effect, the use of memory arts shifts from rhetoric to ethics as part of the Scholastic project to meditate on heaven and avoid hell, a project less concerned with ready recall of massive amounts of specialized information as was useful among Roman Senators or other rhetors. Intriguingly, Yates suggests Dante's Divine Comedy and frescoe paintings may be usefully interpreted with "eyes of memory".

The work is a wondrous example of interdisciplinary scholarship, almost begging the question of how no-one before her pulled the story together, given the myriad clues found in documents familiar to modern scholars and historians. It comes down (as it often does) to the fact the documents were always of interest for other reasons and so the references to memory systems were glossed over, set aside (and never returned to), misinterpreted, or ignored entirely.


Emma Willard may have been a 19c practitioner: see her Temple of Ancient History chronographers (infographics).

An abridged reading, from a PDF of the first 4 chapters. Recently found an unabridged PDF, but I should purchase a reading copy and study the full argument. Based on the table of contents, Yates evidently examines one and perhaps two other transformations of mnemotechnics: the adaptation during the Rennaissance as influenced by Hermetic wisdom, and then modern adaptations with perhaps a return to an emphasis on rhetoric or recall from a mass of factual material.
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LibraryThing member le.vert.galant
There are enough reviews here describing the contents and quality of this book. For me, the best part was the palpable sense of discovery the author conveyed as she began to see how Simonides's artificial memory permeated Renaissance culture and became a hidden strand connecting Thomas Aquinas's Method to Raymond Llull's Art to Giordano Bruno's enigmatic Shadows and Seals and on to Shakespeare's Globe Theatre and Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz's invention of infinitesimal calculus.… (more)
LibraryThing member fm4d
Warning: Absolutely don't consider this book if you are interested in the Art of Memory (the actual art, not the book) but didn't read other, modern books or learned at least basic memory techniques or you will be let down. The book is a historical inquiry of how those techniques evolved and how they affected population, art, etc., but it is a very blurry since there is not much material and the book that were actually preserved are quite hard to understand and lack examples, therefore absolutely impenetrable for a beginner. What also does not help is the very dry style in which the book is written in - author focuses heavily on names, dates, historical facts which makes some parts quite hard to read.

Warning2: Main focus is on the 14-16 century where Art of Memory got mixed with magic and occult stuff and the result is quite uninteresting from the viewpoint of the modern practitioner.

Nevertheless it is still quite interesting reading and provides many valuable historical insights, but because the insights are purely historical and very remote from modern Art of Memory I can recommend it only to those who already know the practical side of this matter.

BTW: The author confesses that she has no practical skills or knowledge of memory techniques and I feel like it really made the book much less useful for me.
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LibraryThing member BoyntonLodgeNo236
A great book. Introduced me to concept of the "Memory Palace"
LibraryThing member RoyHartCentre
Must read for all Renaissance devotees and occultists
LibraryThing member DanielSTJ
This was a very interesting book with curious subject matter. It allowed me to broach the subject of "The Art of Memory" and to explore it in depth. It is adequately written and I believe good reading for those interested in intellectual pursuits.

4 stars.
LibraryThing member jontseng
Rather turgid treatment of the much-forgotten art of a good mnemonic.
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