The Nightshirt Sightings, Portents, Forebodings, Suspicions

Juniper of Pistoia (or, sex and the art of memory)

Lately I’m obsessed with Peter of Ravenna. All the histories on the art of memory mention him as the first profit-minded memory wizard to actually write a popular manual on the subject (late in the 15th century) — a book aimed at regular people trying to get ahead in business, law, or whatever. His book, The Phoenix, was a down-to-earth, practical guide, in plain language, one that didn’t assume the reader was going to be trying to memorize the Psalms or the Virtues or whatever theological nonsense. Although based on the classical principles (places, vivid images, etc.), he knew the memory art could be a useful tool for people in whatever walk of life — not just monks and scholars.

What’s cool about Peter of Ravenna is that he was, as far as I know, the first to speak completely frankly about the use of sex in creating vivid memory images. If you’ve tried these techniques yourself, you may have discovered that sexy images work particularly well. And there’s no doubt in my mind that the Dominican monks who honed their memory skills during the Middle Ages figured this out, and kept silent about it. But here, in 1491, is Peter’s frank description:

I usually fill my memory-places with the images of beautiful women, which excite my memory … and believe me: when I used beautiful women as memory images, I find it much easier to arrange and repeat the notions which I have entrusted to those places. You now have a most useful secret of artificial memory, a secret which I have (through modesty) long remained silent about: if you wish to remember quickly, dispose the images of the most beautiful virgins into memory places; the memory is marvellously excited by images of women … This precept is useless to those who dislike women and they will find it very difficult to gather the fruits of this art. I hope chaste and religious men will pardon me: I cannot pass over in silence a rule which has earned me much praise and honour on account of my abilities in the art, because I wish, with all my heart, to leave excellent successors behind me.

I just came across the above quote in Paolo Rossi’s Logic and the Art of Memory (it’s on p. 22), and I was so delighted. One of the little details in Yates’ The Art of Memory that had left an indelible mark on me years ago was her note about the same fellow (p. 120):

On images, Peter makes use of the classical principle that memory images should if possible resemble people we know. He gives the name of a lady, Juniper of Pistoia, who was dear to him when young and whose image he finds stimulates his memory!

I can totally see Dame Yates blushing at this. Apart from this one tiny mention, Peter’s old flame Juniper is lost to history, but to me this 15th century hottie from Pistoia burns as bright as Bruno, Lull, Simonides, or any of the other stars in the Ars Memoria firmament.


I am a science writer and armchair Fortean based in Washington, DC. Write to me at eric.wargo [at]

2 Responses to “Juniper of Pistoia (or, sex and the art of memory)”

  • “Burns as bright as Bruno” – yowsa, did you mean to say that? He may have been incendiary, but was he that combustible?

  • 🙂 I wrote that so long ago I don’t remember if I intended that or not!