Thursday, January 25, 2007

Memory Palaces

Advance Warning: Apologies to readers who are looking for the politics of technology in this post. I’m on vacation for a few days and so this entry perhaps only tangentially reflects information culture.

For rhetoricians, the city of Bologna, Italy is one of the major world cities for the development of the profession, a place where great Latin teachers have raised sarcophagi on public pedestals, and Saint Dominic was laid to rest. I’ve also made a pilgrimage to Bologna, because it is a place associated with the followers of Dominican-trained Giordano Bruno, the great pedagogue of the “memory palace” from the early modern period. (You can check out some period illustrations at this site.) In my research, I have noticed that memory palaces often come up in scholarship and artwork about digital culture surprisingly often.

Being in Bologna has also filled me with some sadness, because it is a place that I saw for the first time through the eyes of my friend from graduate school, Wendy America Hester, a woman of many languages, great taste, boundless atheism, and the best adopted middle name of anyone I know, who strangely doesn’t seem to be adequately memorialized on the web. It was through Wendy that I first learned about the artworks of Joseph Cornell, the writings of Walter Benjamin, the paintings of Artemisia Gentileschi, much of what I know about the Baroque period and the Russian language, the back story on the Museum of Jurassic Technology, basic principles of movie set dressing, and the archiving system for visual materials at The New York Times. (I had never thought about metadata for visual images until Wendy explained procedures at her former job for the Times.) Because of Wendy, I see small details in movies and large curatorial principles in museums that I would otherwise never notice. As one of her advisors Juliet Flower MacCannell has said, it’s a shame that Wendy’s writings about “the collector,” her academic specialty, were never published before she died.

Bologna is a city in which the collector has a special role. The university museums at the Palazzo Poggi are filled with Enlightenment era oddities and curiosities that include gory wax reproductions of human organs and clay fetuses in various stages of gestation. I went to the city’s major art museum and was struck by the mixture of the academic and the grotesque hanging on the gallery walls: Francesco Mazzola dello il Parmigianino painted a Madonna who looks like she is about to eat the Christ child, Ercole de Roberti’s head of Mary Magdelene is almost obscene with its lolling tongue, Antonio di Bartolomeo Maineri’s produced an unintentionally comic St. Sebastian stuck with arrows complete with a clown-like onlooker, and the pastel colored central figures of Francesco del Cossa’s Mary and Jesus with St. Peter and St. John are given less detail than either the geekily precise model of the holy city or the well bookmarked book. That’s not to say that there aren’t great paintings there: a luminous and sketchy Christ on the Cross by Titian, Rafael’s wonderful St. Cecilia, a Paradiso by the Master of Bologna. Although he is mercilessly lampooned by Mark Twain in Innocents Abroad, I have also come to like Guido Reni, one of Bologna’s native sons, who has wonderful portraits of women: his mother, a turbaned sibyl, and the women whose babies are sacrificed in the slaughter of the innocents. I also learned about Bologna’s native daughter Lavinia Fontana, whose work I will look for in future. (She also did this "Portrait of a Girl Covered in Hair.")

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