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Tag: De umbris

Eco: Bruno: Ars Combinatoria & Infinite Worlds, 3


Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), a mnemonic diagram, which appears towards the end of Cantus circaeus (Incantation of Circe), 1582, which also appears on the cover of Opere mnemotecniche, Vol. 1: De umbris idearum, 1582, Rita Sturlese, et al, ed. This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author’s life plus 100 years or less.

“In her critical edition of De umbris (1991), Sturlese gives an interpretation of the use of the wheels that differs sharply from the “magical” interpretation given by Yates (1972). For Yates, the wheels generated syllables by which one memorizes images to be used for magical purposes.

Sturlese inverts this: for her, it is the images that serve to recall the syllables. Thus, for Sturlese, the purpose of the entire mnemonical apparatus was the memorization of an infinite multitude of words through the use of a fixed, and relatively limited, number of images.

If this is true, then it is easy to see that Bruno’s system can no longer be treated as an art where alphabetic combinations lead to images (as if it were a scenario-generating machine); rather, it is a system that leads from combined images to syllables.

Such a system not only aids memorization but, equally, permits the generation of an almost unlimited number of words–be they long and complex like incrassatus or permagnus, or difficult like many Greek, Hebrew, Chaldean, Persian or Arabic terms (De umbris, 169), or rare like scientific names of grass, trees, minerals, seeds or animal genera (De umbris, 152). The system is thus designed to generate languages–at least at the level of nomenclature.

Which interpretation is correct? Does Bruno concatenate the sequence CROCITUS to evoke the image of Pilumnus advancing rapidly on the back of a donkey with a bandage on his arm and a parrot on his head, or has he assembled these images so as to memorize CROCITUS?

In the “Prima Praxis” (De umbris, 168-72) Bruno tells us that it is not indispensable to work with all five wheels because, in most known languages, it is rare to find words containing syllables with four or five letters.

Furthermore, where such syllables do occur (for instance, in words like trans-actum or stu-prans), it is usually eash to devise some artifice that will obviate the necessity of using the fourth and fifth wheel.

We are not interested in the specific short cuts that Bruno used except to say that they cut out several billion possibilities. It is the very existence of such short cuts that seems significant.

If the syllabic sequences were expressing complex images, there should be no limit for the length of the syllables. On the contrary, if the images were expressing syllables, there would be an interest in limiting the length of the words, following the criteria of economy already present in most natural languages (even though there is no formal limit, since Leibniz will later remark that there exists in Greek a thirty-one-letter word).

Besides, if the basic criterion of every art of memory is to recall the unfamiliar through the more familiar, it seems more reasonable that Bruno considered the “Egyptian” traditional images as more familiar than the words of exotic languages.

In this respect, there are some passages in De umbris that are revealing: “Lycas in convivium cathenatus presentabat tibi AAA. . . . Medusa, cum insigni Plutonis presentabit AMO” (“Lycaon enchained in a banquet presents to you AAA . . . Medusa with the sign of Pluto presents AMO”).

Since all these names are in the nominative case, it is evident that they present the letters to the user of the system and not the other way around. This also follows from a number of passages in the Cantus circaeus where Bruno uses perceivable images to represent mathematical or abstract concepts that might not otherwise be imaginable or memorizable (cf. Vasoli 1958: 284ff).

That Bruno bequeathed all this to the Lullian posterity can be seen from further developments of Lullism.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 137-9.

Eco: Bruno: Ars Combinatoria & Infinite Worlds, 2


Ettore Ferrari (1845-1929), Giordano Bruno Burned at the Stake, a bas relief on the plinth of the monument to Bruno in Campo de’Fiori square in Rome. This photo by Giovanni Dall’Orto © 2008. The copyright holder of this photo allows anyone to use for any purpose, provided that the copyright holder is properly attributed. Redistribution, derivative work, commercial use, and all other use is permitted.  


“Thus this language claimed to be so perfect as to furnish the keys to express relations between things, not only of this world, but of any of the other infinite worlds in their mutual concordance and opposition.

Nevertheless, in its semiotic structure, it was little more than an immense lexicon, conveying vague meanings, with a very simplified syntax. It was a language that could be deciphered only by short-circuiting it, and whose decipherment was the privilege only of the exegete able to dominate all its connections, thanks to the furor of Bruno’s truly heroic style.

In any case, even if his techniques were not so different from those of other authors of arts of memory, Bruno (like Lull, Nicholas of Cusa and Postel, and like the reformist mystics of the seventeenth century–at whose dawn he was to be burnt at the stake) was inspired by a grand utopian vision.

His flaming hieroglyphical rhetoric aimed at producing, through an enlargement of human knowledge, a reform, a renovation, maybe a revolution in the consciousness, customs, and even the political order of Europe. Of this ideal, Bruno was the agent and propagandist, in his wandering from court to European court.

Here, however, our interest in Bruno is limited to seeing how he developed Lullian techniques. Certainly, his own metaphysics of infinite worlds pushed him to emphasize the formal and architectonic aspects of Lull’s endeavor.

One of his mnemonic treatises, De lampade combinatoria lulliana ad infinita propositiones et media inveniendi (1586), opens by mentioning the limitless number of propositions that the Ars is capable of generating, and then says: “The properties of the terms themselves are of scant importance; it is only important that they show an order, a texture, an architecture.” (I, ix).

In the De umbris idearum (1582) Bruno described a set of movable, concentric wheels subdivided into 150 sectors. Each wheel contained 30 letters, made up of the 23 letters of the Latin alphabet, plus 7 letters from the Greek and Hebrew alphabets to which no letter corresponded in Latin (while, for instance, A could also stand for Alpha and Alef).

To each of the single letters there corresponded a specific image, representing for each respective wheel a different series of figures, activities, situations, etc. When the wheels were rotated against each other in the manner of a combination lock, sequences of letters were produced which served to generate complex images. We can see this in Bruno’s own example (De umbris, 163):

Giordano Bruno, De umbris, 163

Reproduced from Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, James Fentress, trans., Blackwell: Oxford, 1995, p. 136, from Giordano Bruno, De umbris idearum, 1582, p. 163. 

In what Bruno called the “Prima Praxis,” the second wheel was rotated so as to obtain a combination such as CA (“Apollo in a banquet”). Turning the third wheel, he might obtain CAA (“Apollo enchained in a banquet”). We shall see in a moment why Bruno did not think it necessary to add fourth and fifth wheels as he would do for the “Secunda Praxis,” where they would represent, respectively, adstantia and circumstantias.

In his “Secunda Praxis,” by adding the five vowels to each of the 30 letters of his alphabet, Bruno describes 5 concentric wheels, each having 150 alphabetical pairs, like AA, AE, AI, AO, AU, BA, BE, BO, and so on through the entire alphabet.

These 150 pairs are repeated on each of the 5 wheels. As in the “Prima Praxis,” the significance changes with every wheel. On the first wheel, the initial letter signifies a human agent, on the second, an action, on the third, an insignia, on the fourth, a bystander, on the fifth, a set of circumstances.

By moving the wheels it is possible to obtain images such as “a woman riding on a bull, combing her hair while holding a mirror in her left hand, accompanied by an adolescent carrying a green bird in his hand” (De umbris, 212, 10).

Bruno speaks of images “ad omnes formationes possible, adaptabiles” (De umbris, 80), that is, susceptible of every possible permutation. In truth, it is almost impossible to write the number of sequences that can be generated by permutating 150 elements 5 at a time, especially as inversions are allowed (De umbris, 223).

This distinguishes the art of Bruno, which positively thirsts after infinity, from the art of Lull.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 135-7.

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