The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci

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In 1577, the Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci set out from Italy to bring Christian faith and Western thought to Ming dynasty China. To capture the complex emotional and religious drama of Ricci's extraodinary life, Jonathan Spence has shifted away from conventional biographical techniques, and he relates his subject's life to several images that Ricci himself created - four images derived from events in the Bible and others from a book on the art of memory that Ricci wrote in Chinese and circulated among members of ...
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Overview

In 1577, the Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci set out from Italy to bring Christian faith and Western thought to Ming dynasty China. To capture the complex emotional and religious drama of Ricci's extraodinary life, Jonathan Spence has shifted away from conventional biographical techniques, and he relates his subject's life to several images that Ricci himself created - four images derived from events in the Bible and others from a book on the art of memory that Ricci wrote in Chinese and circulated among members of the Ming dynasty's elite. A rich and compelling narrative about a remarkable life, The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci is also a significant work of global history, juxtaposing the world of Counter-Reformation Europe with that of Ming China.

"Breaks new gound for Chinese historical studies...a major achievement of historical research."--American History Review

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What People Are Saying

From the Publisher
Praise for The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci:
 
“An extraordinarily delicate achievement . . . Resembles the portrait of an age.”
The New York Times Book Review
 
“A gripping portrait of late-sixteenth-century cultural history in both the West and the East.”
Natalie Zemon Davis, Princeton University, author of The Return of Martin Guerre
 
“An extraordinary tour de force, a work of literature and at the same time a remarkable wide-ranging use of historical sources. This is the kind of history that most people in the profession cannot even begin to write.”
John King Fairbank, Harvard University
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780670468300
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 11/1/1984
  • Pages: 368
  • Product dimensions: 1.00 (w) x 1.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Jonathan Spence's eleven books on Chinese history include The Gate of Heavenly Peace, Treason by the Book, and The Death of Woman Wang. His awards include a Guggenheim and a MacArthur Fellowship. He teaches at Yale University.

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Read an Excerpt




Chapter One

BUILDING THE PALACE


In 1596 Matteo Ricci taught the Chinese how to build a memory palace. He told them that the size of the palace would depend on how much they wanted to remember: the most ambitious construction would consist of several hundred buildings of all shapes and sizes; "the more there are the better it will be," said Ricci, though he added that one did not have to build on a grandiose scale right away. One could create modest palaces, or one could build less dramatic structures such as a temple compound, a cluster of government offices, a public hostel, or a merchants' meeting lodge. If one wished to begin on a still smaller scale, then one could erect a simple reception hall, a pavilion, or a studio. And if one wanted an intimate space one could use just the corner of a pavilion, or an altar in a temple, or even such a homely object as a wardrobe or a divan.

    In summarizing this memory system, he explained that these palaces, pavilions, divans were mental structures to be kept in one's head, not solid objects to be literally constructed out of "real" materials. Ricci suggested that there were three main options for such memory locations. First, they could be drawn from reality—that is, from buildings that one had been in or from objects that one had seen with one's own eyes and recalled in one's memory. Second, they could be totally fictive, products of the imagination conjured up in any shape or size. Or third, they could be half real and half fictive, as in the case of a building one knew well and through the back wall of which one broke animaginary door as a shortcut to new spaces, or in the middle of which one created a mental staircase that would lead one up to higher floors that had not existed before.

    The real purpose of all these mental constructs was to provide storage spaces for the myriad concepts that make up the sum of our human knowledge. To everything that we wish to remember, wrote Ricci, we should give an image; and to every one of these images we should assign a position where it can repose peacefully until we are ready to reclaim it by an act of memory. Since this entire memory system can work only if the images stay in the assigned positions and if we can instantly remember where we stored them, obviously it would seem easiest to rely on real locations which we know so well that we cannot ever forget them. But that would be a mistake, thought Ricci. For it is by expanding the number of locations and the corresponding number of images that can be stored in them that we increase and strengthen our memory. Therefore the Chinese should struggle with the difficult task of creating fictive places, or mixing the fictive with the real, fixing them permanently in their minds by constant practice and review so that at last the fictive spaces become "as if real, and can never be erased."

    How on earth had such a system first evolved, the Chinese might well have asked, and Ricci anticipated the question by summarizing the ancient Western tradition that ascribed the idea of memory training through precise placement to the Greek poet Simonides. As Ricci explained (giving the nearest approximation he could provide in Chinese for the poet's name):


Long ago a Western poet, the noble Xi-mo-ni-de, was gathered with his relatives and friends for a drinking party at the palace, among a dense crowd of guests. When he left the crowd for a moment to step outside, the great hall came tumbling down in a sudden mighty wind. All the other revelers were crushed to death, their bodies were mangled and torn apart, not even their own families could recognize them. Xi-mo-ni-de, however, could remember the exact order in which his relatives and friends had been sitting, and as he recalled them one by one their bodies could be identified. From this we can see the birth of the mnemonic method that was transmitted to later ages.


    It was this general facility for remembering the order of things that had been elaborated into a system over the succeeding centuries; by Ricci's time it had become a way for ordering all one's knowledge of secular and religious subjects, and since he himself was a Catholic missionary Ricci hoped that once the Chinese learned to value his mnemonic powers they would be drawn to ask him about the religion that made such wonders possible.

    Matteo Ricci had traveled a long road in order to win this chance to present his mnemonics to a scholarly Chinese audience. An Italian, born in the hill town of Macerata in 1552, Ricci became a novice in the Jesuit order in Rome in 1571 and, after extensive training in theology, humanities, and science, followed by a five-year apprenticeship in India and Macao, entered China in 1583 to undertake mission work. In 1595, by which time he had become fluent in the Chinese language, he took up residence in the prosperous administrative and commercial center of Nanchang, in the eastern province of Jiangxi. At the very end of 1595 he gave expression to his newfound confidence in his own language skills by writing out, in Chinese ideographs, a book of maxims on friendship drawn from various classical authors and from the church fathers. He presented this manuscript to a prince of the Ming ruling house who was living in Nanchang and had frequently invited him to his palace for drinking parries. At the same time he was beginning to discuss his theories on memory with local Chinese scholars and to give lessons in mnemonic techniques. His description of the memory palace can be found in a short book on the art of memory which he wrote out in Chinese the following year and gave as a present to the governor of Jiangxi, Lu Wangai, and to Governor Lu's three sons.

    The family that Ricci was seeking to instruct in mnemonic skills stood at the apex of Chinese society. Governor Lu himself was an intelligent and wealthy scholar who had served in a wide variety of posts in the Ming dynasty bureaucracy. He knew the country well, for he had been stationed at various times in the far southwest, on the east coast, and in the north, and he had performed with distinction in each of the main areas of Chinese administration: the judicial, the financial, and the military. Now he had reached the peak of his career, as a provincial governor, and was preparing his three sons for the advanced government examinations; he himself had passed these exams with distinction twenty-eight years before, and knew along with all his contemporaries that success in the exams was the surest route to fame and fortune in the imperial Chinese state. Thus we can be almost certain that Ricci was offering to teach the governor's sons advanced memory techniques so that they would have a better chance to pass the exams, and would then in gratitude use their newly won prestige to advance the cause of the Catholic church.

    In the event, however, though the governor's children did extremely well in the exams, this does not seem to have been because of Ricci's mnemonic methods but rather because of diligent study along traditional Chinese lines of repetition and recitation, aided perhaps by the mnemonic poems and rhyming jingles that were part of current Chinese memory practice. As Ricci wrote later that same year to the general of the Jesuit order, Claudio Acquaviva, the governor's eldest son had read the memory book with care, but had remarked to one of his confidants that "though the precepts are the true rules of memory, one has to have a remarkably fine memory to make any use of them." And in a letter to a friend in Italy with whom he had first written out the rules for building memory palaces, Ricci observed that, although the Chinese in Nanchang "all admired the subtlety of the system, not all of them were willing to take the trouble to learn how to use it."

    Ricci himself saw nothing odd or particularly difficult in building memory palaces. He had grown up with them, together with a whole range of other techniques for fixing the subjects of one's schooling in the memory. Moreover, these skills were a fundamental part of the curriculum that Ricci had studied in his classes on rhetoric and ethics at the Jesuit College in Rome. Ricci was probably introduced to the idea of memory palaces by way of the scholar Cypriano Soarez, whose textbook on the basic lessons of rhetoric and grammar, the De Arte Rhetorica, was required reading for Jesuit students in the 1570s. After leading his readers through the fundamentals of classical usage and sentence structure, and giving them examples of tropes and metaphors, metonymy, onomatopoeia, and metalepsis, allegory, irony, and hyperbole, Soarez introduced them to the art of memory placement, which he ascribed to Simonides and called the root of all eloquence, the "thesaurus eloquentiae." He noted how the system held words in order as well as things, and could be used for an "infinite progression" of terms. The students should practice creating dramatic images of various kinds, and designing locations for them: palatial buildings or spacious churches would be among the best.

    But such vague suggestions would hardly give one the full range of memory techniques, or even the principles behind them. Ricci would have learned the details from several other authors. One would have been Pliny, whose Natural History Ricci also read in school, and whose passage on the great memory experts of the past he translated into Chinese in his 1596 memory book. Others would have been several writers of the first century B.C. and the first century A.D., such as the author of a Latin work on rhetoric called Ad Herennium, or Quintilian, who wrote about memory in his handbook on oratory. These books gave detailed information on how to construct memory buildings and the images one would place in them. As the author of Ad Herennium explained:


We ought, then, to set up images of a kind that can adhere longest in the memory. And we shall do so if we establish likenesses as striking as possible; if we set up images that are not many or vague, but doing something; if we assign to them exceptional beauty or singular ugliness; if we dress some of them with crowns or purple cloaks, for example, so that the likeness may be more distinct to us; or if we somehow disfigure them, as by introducing one stained with blood or soiled with mud or smeared with red paint; so that its form is more striking, or by assigning certain comic effects to our images, for that, too, will ensure our remembering them more readily.


Such a description carried particular force, since throughout the Middle Ages the author of Ad Herennium was believed to be the revered Cicero himself.

    Quintilian elaborated on the same topic by explaining what sort of places one would use to store the images one had chosen:


The first thought is placed, as it were, in the forecourt; the second, let us say, in the living room: the remainder are placed in due order all round the impluvium and entrusted not merely to bedrooms and parlours, but even to the care of statues and the like. This done, as soon as the memory of the facts requires to be revived, all these places are visited in turn and the various deposits are demanded from their custodians, as the sight of each recalls the respective details. Consequently, however large the number of these which it is required to remember, all are linked one to the other like dancers hand in hand, and there can be no mistake since they join what precedes to what follows, no trouble being required except the preliminary labour of committing the various points to memory. What I have spoken of as being done in a house, can equally well be done in connection with public buildings, a long journey, the ramparts of a city, or even pictures. Or we may even imagine such places to ourselves.


    Despite these attempts at explanation, the system sounds elusive and abstract to readers today. But if we digress a moment to provide a modern focus and context, perhaps we can sharpen our view of how Ricci sought to interest the Chinese in his memory theories by creating combinations of images, fixed in place, which through an association of ideas or a specific mnemonic rule would in turn yield, instantly, a required piece of information. Let us imagine a modern medical student facing an oral examination that reviews her work on bones, cells, and nerves. The student has in her head a whole memory city, neatly laid out in wards, streets, lanes, houses, containing all the knowledge she has acquired so far in her schooling; but facing the examiners she pays no attention to the wards of history, geology, poetry, chemistry, and mechanics. Her energy is concentrated on the three-story Physiology House in Body Lane, where, in separate, rooms, the disparate, powerful, evocative images she has been creating in each evening of study are in place—around the walls, between the windows, on chairs, beds, tables. Three questions are fired at her: she must name the bones of the upper limbs, the stages of cell division in meiosis, and the order of nerves passing through the superior orbital tissue in the skull. Her mind races to the Upper Body Bone Room, at the top of the stairs on the second floor, where, in the third position from the door, a Canadian Mountie in a brilliant scarlet jacket sits on his horse with a manacled, distraught figure tied to the horse's crupper: from there it takes her only a fraction of a second to glide to the Cell Room in the basement where, near the furnace, a magnificent but savagely scarred African warrior is standing, a look of ineffable boredom on his face, despite the fact that he grasps with each huge hand the upper arm of a beautiful African girl; and as swiftly the student's thoughts wing to the top floor Skull Room where, reclining on a bedspread patterned on the stripes and colors of the flag of France, a voluptuous naked woman reclines, her little fist clutching a crumpled stack of dollar bills. The student's answers to the three questions come quickly. The image of the Mountie and his captive has at once given her the sentence Some Criminals Have Underestimated Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the first letter of each word yielding the correct list of scapula, clavicle, humerus, ulna, radius, carpals, metacarpals, and phalanges. The second image, of the Lazy Zulu Pursuing Dark Damosels, gives the student the stages of cell division in meiosis as leptotene, zygotene, pachytene, diplotene, and diakinesis. The third image, the Lazy French Tart Lying Naked In Anticipation, yields the order of nerves in the skull's upper orbital tissues, to wit, the lacrimal, frontal, trochlear, lateral, nasociliary, internal, and abducens.

    In a medieval or late Renaissance world similar techniques would have had a different focus, and the images would have been appropriate to the times. As early as the fifth century A.D. one finds the philosopher Martianus Capella writing that Psyche, at her birth, had been given the most lovely presents, including "a vehicle with swift wheels"—the gift was Mercury's idea—"in which she could travel at an astonishing speed, although Memory bound it and weighed it down with golden chains." These were the chains of memory that stood for the stabilizing force of intellect and imagination on the human soul; they were not meant to be a metaphor for any idea of stasis. And how sharp still, more than a millennium later, must have been for Ricci and his contemporaries the memory image of Rhetoric as Capella painted her, that woman with "so rich a wealth of diction, so vast a store of memory and recollection," who held memory in her domain. Here was fifth-century Rhetoric:


A woman of the tallest stature and abounding self-confidence, a woman of outstanding beauty; she wore a helmet, and her head was wreathed with royal grandeur;, in her hands the weapons which she used either to defend herself or to wound her enemies, shone with the brightness of lightning. The garment under her arms was covered by a robe wound about her shoulders in the Latin fashion; this robe was adorned with the light of all kinds of devices and showed the figures of them all, while she had a belt under her breast adorned with the rarest colors of jewels.


Each decoration of her robe—light, devices, figures, colors, jewels—referred to aspects of rhetorical ornament and would be retained forever by the student who kept her in his head. And how perfect was the contrast between this glowing figure of Rhetoric and the terrible figure of Idolatry, given her lineaments by the fifth-century theologian and mythologist Fulgentius and then updated into a Latin mnemonic jingle by the fourteenth-century monk Ridevall. For Idolatry was depicted as a prostitute, a trumpet blaring above her head to give notice to all of her condition. Summoning up this figure from her resting place when the topic of idolatry had to be broached, one would at once recall the salient points of theological argument: she was a harlot because the unfaithful have abandoned God and fornicated with idols; she was blind and deaf because Fulgentius had taught that the first idol had been a dead son's likeness made by slaves to lessen the grief of the child's father, and she was blind and deaf to the true belief that should have banished such superstitions.

    How many such images could one or did one seek to retain in the memory palaces of one's mind? Ricci wrote quite casually in 1595 of running through a list of four to five hundred random Chinese ideograms and then repeating the list in reverse order, while Chinese friends described him as being able to recite volumes of the Chinese classics after scanning them only once. But such feats were not particularly startling: Francesco Panigarola, an older contemporary who may have taught Ricci memory arts either in Rome or in Macerata—the manuscript draft of Panigarola's little tract on memory method still reposes in the Macerata library—was described by acquaintances in Florence as being able to roam across a hundred thousand memory images, each in its own fixed space. As Ricci, echoing the past books on memory, told Governor Lu Wangai, it was the order and sequence of the places ready for images inside each building that were crucial to the mnemonic art:


Once your places are all fixed in order, then you can walk through the door and make your start. Turn to the right and proceed from there. As with the practice of calligraphy, in which you move from the beginning to the end, as with fish who swim along in ordered schools, so is everything arranged in your brain, and all the images are ready for whatever you seek to remember. If you are going to use a great many [images], then let the buildings be hundreds or thousands of units in extent; if you only want a few, then take a single reception hall and just divide it up by its corners.


    In her wonderfully erudite and comprehensive work on medieval and Renaissance mnemonic theory, The Art of Memory, Frances Yates mused over "what a Christianized artificial memory might have been like" and regretted the fact that "an Ars memorativa treatise, though it will always give the rules, rarely gives any concrete application of the rules, that is to say it rarely sets out a system of mnemonic images on their places." Matteo Ricci's Chinese version of a memory system cannot totally fill these lacunae, but it does give us a sense of how the traditional memory system could be adhered to on the far side of the globe.

    Furthermore, Ricci has left us, in his Chinese book on memory, one explicit group of images, each fixed in its own place and described in sequence. The first image was two warriors grappling, the second a tribeswoman from the west, the third a peasant cutting grain, the fourth a maidservant holding a child in her arms. True to his own injunctions about a simple way to begin a memory system, Ricci chose to place these images in the four corners of one specific room. This room was a reception hall, a fairly large formal space supported by pillars, which I take to be the entry way to the memory palace proper. Governor Lu or any beginner who was reading Ricci could follow him without difficulty on this first mental memory stroll; we can see them walking together to the door, entering the hall, and, turning to their right, perusing the images one by one.

    Once one grew familiar with the methodology, however, one did not have the sole choice of building ever larger and larger clusters of rooms and chambers. One could increase the content of given structures by placing ever more images within them. The only danger here was that the space might become too cluttered for the mind to seize easily on all the images it contained. But with that one caution one could introduce articles of furniture into the room, place small decorative objects of gold or jade upon occasional tables, and paint, the walls themselves in glittering colors. One could also use specific "pictures" to evoke the images, wrote Ricci, just as Quintilian had urged in the first century A.D., or as Ludovico Dolce had in mind in 1562 when he suggested as an example that certain works of Titian be remembered in all their intricate details by students interested in classical mythology. Ricci clearly knew the mnemonic effect of vivid illustrations, and his letters show that he was not only aware of religious books like Jeronimo Nadal's Commentaries on the Gospels, copiously illustrated with woodcuts, which the Jesuits were publishing with the aim of making every important moment in Christ's life fresh and vivid in the viewer's mind, but he even had his own copy of Nadal with him in China and wrote to friends in Italy that he found it invaluable.

    Just as Ricci left four memory images for his reception hall, so he left four religious pictures, each with a caption in his calligraphy and three of them embellished with his own commentaries: these were of Christ and Peter at the Sea of Galilee, of Christ and the two disciples at Emmaus, of the men of Sodom falling blinded before the angel of the Lord, and of the Virgin Mary holding the Christ Child. That these pictures have been preserved is due to Ricci's friendship with the publisher and inkstone connoisseur Cheng Dayue, who was introduced to him by a mutual friend in Peking in 1605. Cheng, who was about to publish a collection of Chinese calligraphy and graphics under the title of "The Ink Garden," was eager to include samples of Western art and handwriting, and requested Ricci to contribute some. Though Ricci, elaborately self-deprecating, confessed to Cheng that only "one ten-thousandth part" of Western culture could be of any interest to the erudite Chinese, he nevertheless consented, with the result that the following year his four pictures appeared along with his commentaries in Cheng's elegant volume. Such religious pictures could be confidently expected to fix in Chinese minds the details of dramatic passages from the Bible, whether these were from moments in Christ's life or from antecedents in the Book of Genesis. If arranged in rigorous sequence, like the memory images, they could be used to supplement the storage and retrieval mechanisms of the memory palace itself.

(Continues...)

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Table of Contents

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS vii
MATTEO RICCI: A CHRONOLOGY xiii
ONE BUILDING THE PALACE 1
TWO THE FIRST IMAGE: THE WARRIORS 24
THREE THE FIRST PICTURE: THE APOSTLE IN THE WAVES 59
FOUR THE SECOND IMAGE: THE HUIHUI 93
FIVE THE SECOND PICTURE: THE ROAD TO EMMAUS 128
SIX THE THIRD IMAGE: PROFIT AND HARVEST 162
SEVEN THE THIRD PICTURE: THE MEN OF SODOM 201
EIGHT THE FOURTH IMAGE: THE FOURTH PICTURE 232
NINE INSIDE THE PALACE 266
ABBREVIATIONS 269
NOTES 270
BIBLIOGRAPHY 319
INDEX 339
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  • Posted May 5, 2010

    A Wonderful Book for Many Reasons

    The "Memory Palace Of Matteo Ricci" was mentioned in an essay I read as a way to increase ones memory ability. It indeed did that for me but probably more important was the insight it offered on the life in China in the late 16th and early 17th centuries. And coupled with this was the description of the world of a small enclave of Jesuits (of whom Matteo Ricci was one) sent to China with the aim of converting the population to Christianity.

    Adding to the enjoyment of the book is marveling at the amazing amount of research that the author, Jonathan Spence accomplished. The facts presented did not disturb the flow of the story. Rather they enhanced it.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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    Posted April 29, 2009

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