Ars Memoriae, Robert Fludd: Theatrum Orbi

Theatrum Orbi -- Globe Theatre Stage Wall

Commentary on Theatrum Orbi

  1. Ambrose Mnemopolous Post author

    The above illustration is taken from Robert Fludd’s Ars Memoriae, Cap. X (1619). The image was printed just a few years after the Globe Theatre burned and was rebuilt atop the same foundation as the first playhouse. Fludd’s Ars Memoriae is a treatise on mnemonics, following the method used in antiquity by Cicero. The mnemonic system involves choosing images that signify what one wants to remember, and then superimposing these images onto architectural features. Fludd’s description of this system involves the architecture of a theatre. In the text just preceding the above illustration (Lib. I, Cap. IX), Fludd clearly indicates that he is describing a public theatre, such as the Globe Theatre where Shakespeare wrote and performed:

    “I call that a Theatre, in which all the actions of words, of sentences, of parts of speech or subjects, are demonstrated as in a public theatre, where comedies and tragedies are acted.”

    Modern scholarship typically holds that there is only one extant illustration of an Elizabethan public theatre: that of the Swan Theatre, which drawing was made by Johannes de Witt around 1596. This drawing is usually held to be the closest available approximation of what the Globe Theatre looked like.

    Dame Frances A. Yates posits the above illustration as a possible depiction of the Globe Theatre’s stage wall. The date of the image is contemporary with the second Globe Theatre, build atop the same foundation as the first, which burned down. Unlike the de Witt’s drawing, Fludd’s illustration shows five stage doors arranged according to Vitruvian principles, though adapted somewhat by placing two entrances on an upper level (though these upper entrances maintain the symmetry and numerical symbolism from Vitruvius’s description of the Roman theatre). The grid on the floor depicts the proper 2:1 proportions for a proscenium based on the Renaissance interpretation of Vitruvius.

    In describing the principles of his mnemonic system, Fludd emphasizes the importance of choosing architectural details from real buildings as the basis for memorizing symbolic images. Somewhat before the above illustration (Lib I. Cap. VI) Fludd makes clear:

    “… just as an image reflected from one mirror into another, and then still into others, loses its original clarity and strength, so an image of a place, reflected straight from reality, is stronger and clearer than if reflected from an imaginary place. It is therefore no good to feign new palaces, which have no existence, to use in the art of memory, for the fiction seduces the mind from the contemplation of reality. Therefore you should always take for the common place of your art (of memory) a real house, or castle, or palace, well known to you.”

    Fludd seems to make a pretty clear indication that the “Theatrum Orbi” in the engraving designates a real place — quite possibly the Globe Theatre.

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Robert Fludd's Ars Memoriae (1619), or, Art of Memory, is a treatise on mnemonics that follows a method used in antiquity by orators such as Cicero. Fludd's Ars Memoriae is found in the Technical History of the Microcosm, Sectionis II, Portio III.