Giulio Camillo's L'idea del Teatro

Kate Robinson (Classics: University of Glasgow)

Giulio Camillo's L'idea del Teatro, or, The Idea of the Theatre, - is a slim book that was published in the middle of the sixteenth century. L'idea del Teatro, once it eventually got to print - and this took a long time and came about in a very circuitous fashion - was a popular work, going through a number of re-editions in Florence and Venice. In fact, the collected writings of Giulio Camillo were published again, as recently as 1990.[1]  

In his time, Camillo was a famous man, and subsequently his work was referred to by a number of writers and artists during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, including Ariosto and Rousseau. And he has inspired a number of contemporary artists, including, for example the writer Umberto Eco ( Teatro magico di Giulio Camillo, 1998), the composer John Fuller (The Theatre of Memory, Proms, 1981) and the video artist, Bill Viola (The Theatre of Memory, video installation, 1985). I began my work on Camillo in 1998. As a practising sculptor, my first response was visual, and I have included with this paper a number of images that were directly inspired by the text of Camillo's L'idea.  
And yet, despite his fame, Camillo has certainly not been without his critics. He was at the centre of a long and bitter feud with Erasmus. The historian, Tiraboschi, writing in 1824, said that Camillo's Theatre was a "vain and incredible thing".[2] Within the last fifty years, he has variously been called the "peak of absurdity" [3], "an amusing...imposter",[4] and most recently the "great actor of the Renaissance".[5] Perhaps Camillo provoked such a mixed response because L'Idea del Teatro is such an unusual book. Essentially about the planets and the layout of the heavens, it also touches on medicine, myth, philosophy, theology and social commentary. The broadness of Camillo's scope, in itself, however, was not necessarily unique. Other writers of the period were equally wide-ranging in their treatment of themes. What marks out Camillo is his reliance on the visual image - on the sign - to reveal his meaning. L'Idea contains over two hundred distinct visual metaphors, which are graphically described in text, although there are no drawings, as such. Interesting parallels can be made with the book and Renaissance hieroglyphic and emblematic systems. L'Iidea del Teatro is an intensely visual book.  
Throughout the Medieval period and during the Renaissance, complex conceptual visual memory systems were constructed in order to enable the recall of information.[6]Very often, these conceptual systems would be based on the idea of imagining an environment and filling this imaginary space with strange visual signs/objects - these could be sculptures, or people, or as one famous treatise on memory said: an image should be grotesque - stained with blood, or clad in a purple cloak, or humorous - in order for it to stay lodged in the mind. These visual mnemonic signs themselves became more and more multi-layered and self-referential. L'idea del Teatro is a book that describes one of these complex memory systems, and, as its title suggests, used the concept of a Theatre in which to place its multifarious signs.  

Elephant at the level of Mercury
L'idea del Teatro: image by KR

Giulio Camillo was born in Friuli, in the north east of Italy, very close to Venice, in around 1480. He made his living as an orator and teacher of rhetoric. His manuscript work includes treatises on language, focusing on differentiations and nuances of form. He promoted the use of his local Friulian dialect, and was involved in a long-running debate on innovation versus imitation. [7] Printing had just been invented, and was in full swing at this time.[8] By the year 1500, when Camillo was twenty, Venice had as many as 417 printing houses. Venice is not a large town, and by my estimate that figure says that maybe around ten percent of the whole population was specifically devoted to developing this new medium. Giulio Camillo, however, never had a book published in his lifetime. I believe that this may have been because he was distrustful of some of the developments being made in printing at the time. He was not alone in this. A number of the intellectual luminaries of the day also felt that certain knowledge should be reserved for the use of a chosen few, and not made known to the public at large. The publication of Copernicus's text, for example, about the arrangement of the solar system, was, famously, delayed until the very weeks before he died.

Camillo devoted years of his life to developing "The Theatre". Rumours and gossip spread about the creation of this "mind and soul, artistically wrought",[9]although it is debatable whether Camillo actually constructed anything tangible. When he was between forty and fifty years old, Camillo took up an invitation from the King of France, François 1st, to live in Paris. Word had spread from Italy of Camillo and his Theatre, and François - who was a very wily, shrewd man, and who had a keenly developed aesthetic sense - was keen to get a piece of the action. By all accounts Camillo seemed to have had a productive time in the city, and François paid him a hefty fee to research and develop his theories. He was given a comparable amount, in fact, as had been awarded by François to Leonardo da Vinci. François only made one stipulation: Camillo must not tell his "secret" to anyone else but himself - the King. Camillo remained true to this condition right up until the months before he died.
6 Camillo stayed in Paris for about seven years, but eventually, the funds from the King began to dry up and Camillo decided to return to Italy. We do not know how much of his ideas he had clarified by this time, but certainly Camillo had not divulged his theory to anyone else at this point. During the latter part of 1543, or very early in 1544, he accepted an offer brokered by his agent, Girolamo Muzio, to go to Milan. Here, in Milan, at the court of the Marchese del Vasto, after much persuasion, Camillo finally dictated his great idea to Girolamo Muzio. Muzio transcribed everything that Camillo said over the course of seven days and nights. The manuscript was completed early in February 1544. Three months later, on the 15th of May, Camillo died. 
Muzio and the Marchese del Vasto, however, even though they had gone to great lengths to persuade Camillo to divulge his secret ideas to them, decided not to publish Camillo's manuscript, and L'idea languished. It was not until six years later that it was to receive a wider public, when the manuscript arrived at the printers, and L'idea del Theatro was finally published in 1550, in Florence, by Lorenzo Torrentino.  

Celestial Streams
L'idea del Teatro: image by KR


So, what was in L'idea del Theatro? What did it contain to convince Muzio and del Vasto to delay its publication, though they had gone to such lengths to attain the manuscript? The work is about the creation of the world and the layout of the heavens. Written in Italian, the book is arranged in seven sections in which Camillo speaks of a system that, as he says, makes "scholars into spectators".[10]He is imagining a "theatre" in its original sense - as a place in which a spectacle unfolds:

"Following the order of the creation of the world, we shall place on the first levels the more natural things...those we can imagine to have been created before all other things by divine decree. Then we shall arrange from level to level those that followed after, in such a way that in the seventh, that is, the last and highest level shall sit all the arts...not by reason of unworthiness, but by reason of chronology, since these were the last to have been found by men."

The Theatre, then, is to be understood in terms of time. It is a spatial representation of chronology - a kind of clock of epochs. I think we should understand that what he conceived was fundamentally a structure of conceptual relationships rather a building of wood or stone, and it is on that level that his work bears most fruit.  

9 The entire Theatre, says Camillo, rests on Solomon's Seven Pillars of Wisdom. Placed above the Pillars of Wisdom, are the planets. Above these are a further six levels. There are the levels of the Banquet and the Cave - these are about nature and the elements, about the primeval creation of things. Then there are the levels of the Gorgon and Pasiphae - both ancient Greek mythical motifs - which are about spiritual man and nature. And then there are the levels of "The Sandals of Mercury" and Prometheus - which are to do with art and man, or man using technology - which was everything from making windmills, to creating viaducts or sewing. Camillo was writing at a time when encyclopaedias were being created and it was thought that it was possible to collate every known fact about the world, and that everything was cosmically connected. So inside his astronomical world system we not only get theories about planetary arrangement but also about how the planets affect our health and every other aspect of our lives. 
10 Camillo describes doorways placed on each of the levels beneath which the scholar, or spectator, may view images to represent, and to remember, salient features of that position within the arrangement. Behind the doorway to "Banquet" on the first level, for instance, "we shall find the Breadth, or...Magnitude of Being, made in the shape of a pyramid", which Camillo says symbolizes "the Father, the Word...and the Holy Spirit", as well as "a representation of Pan", whose body was meant to represent the supercelestial, the celestial and the inferior world, and "the Fates", symbols of "the beginning...the effect and of the end" of an event.  
11 The naming of the levels in effect creates a kind of grid system to the whole plan. It is a grid system to enhance memory, and also to affect the interpretation of a given symbol or image - a kind of grid of meaning. But rather than what we would now have - a Cartesian graph, for example, based on numeric values - the values in Camillo's scheme are based on language and myth. This is not to say that Camillo did not value number itself. Camillo's philosophy and working method was based on the conviction that the sum total of all things - all material, every topic - as well as every word, was reducible to a number of finite elements. He was attempting a synthesis of the two - a synthesis between mathematics and verbal/visual language. In Camillo's scheme, rather than saying "doorway b3" you could say "the doorway at Mercury on the level of the Cave".  
12 In all, there are approximately two hundred distinct visual metaphors described in Camillo's plan, although there are no drawings, as such. When I initially read about them I was very taken with the richness of the symbolism and the layers of myth that was apparent - if obscure - in Camillo's schema. It was obvious that Camillo was trying to describe something very complex and that the work was multi-layered. I remember being drawn to the Theatre because I really felt as though Camillo was telling a story, not in the way that a narrative painting might tell a story, but in the sense that there were connections between each of the images, across the space of the Theatre, that he intended the viewer to pluck images from across the entire network of the Theatre and use them to reconstruct, reassemble, a meaningful pattern - a three-dimensional visual language.   

Proteus at the level of the Neptune
L'idea del Teatro: image by KR


For the time, Camillo expresses some radical views in L'idea del Theatro. He is sceptical, for example, that we should take as literally the idea that the world was created in seven days; he suggests that the earth moves; and, crucially, that the relationship of the sun to the earth does not agree with the prevailing religious and scientific orthodoxy.  

14 L'idea was dictated to Muzio only a matter of months after Nicolaus Copernicus's Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres was published in 1543. In the Revolution of the Heavenly Spheres Copernicus proved mathematically, for the first time, that the sun, and not the earth, was at the centre of the universe. Camillo and Copernicus may in fact have met in the early years of the fifteenth century at either the universities of Bologna or Padua. While I am not suggesting that Camillo's work can be described in the same terms as a mathematical astronomer, there is, I believe, a heliocentric core to Camillo's L'idea. If Camillo had a "secret", known only to the King of France, it was that the sun had pride of place in the universe. 


[1] Camillo Delminio, Giulio, L'idea del Teatro e altri scritti di retorica (Turin: Edizioni RES, 1990).

[2] Quoted in Wenneker, Lu Beery, An Examination of L'idea del Teatro of Giulio Camillo, including an annotated translation, with special attention to his influence on Emblem Literature and Iconography (Unpublished PhD Thesis: University of Pittsburgh, 1970), p102.

[3] Bolgar, The Classical Heritage, (Cambridge University Press, 1954), p.434.

[4] Levi (Ed), Collected Works of Erasmus 6 Ciceronianus (University of Toronto Press, 1986), n.308, pp.562-563.

[5] Giulio Camillo Delminio De L'Imitation, translated into French by Francoise Graziani with introduction and notes by Lina Bolzoni, (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1996).

[6] See Carruthers, Mary, The Book of Memory (Cambridge University Press, 1990); Bolzoni, Lina, trans. Jeremy Parzen, The Gallery of Memory: Literary and Iconographic Models in the Age of the Printing Press (University of Toronto Press, 2001); Yates, Frances, The Art of Memory (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1966).

[7] This concerned the European wide debacle, instigated by Erasmus, on "Ciceronianism". For a history of Ciceronianism, see Sandys, J.E. Harvard Lectures on the Revival of Learning (Cambridge University Press, 1905). For discussions about Camillo's and other responses see G.W. Pigman, III "Imitation and the Renaissance Sense of the Past: The Reception of Erasmus' Ciceronianus", Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies 9 (1979): 155-77; Watson, Elisabeth See, Achille Bocchi and the Emblem Book as Symbolic Form (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

[8] Johann Gutenberg is accredited as the first printer, with the first Bible in Latin in Mainz, Germany, in 1450, igniting the revolution in print that was to change the whole world.

[9] From a description of the Theatre in a letter to Erasmus from Zwichem, 8th June 1532. See Allen, Erasmus' Epistles: 2632, 2682, 2657, 2716, 2810 and 3032.

[10] Camillo Delminio, Giulio, L'idea del Teatro (Florence: Torrentino, 1550): 14.

eSharp issue: autumn 2003. © Kate Robinson 2003. All rights reserved. ISSN 1742-4542.