Giulio Camillo's "Theatro della sapientia": Theatres of Knowledge in the Early Modern period

  • Oscar Seip

Student thesis: Phd


Giulio Camillo was one of the most famous humanists of the sixteenth century. He attended the courts of some of the most powerful men and women of his time, including the French King Francis I, Pope Paul III, and the Marchese del Vasto Alfonso d'Avalos and his wife Maria d'Aragona. In addition, Camillo also participated in some of the most influential cultural and intellectual circles of his time. Indeed, he could count amongst his friends and peers, fellow humanists and artists such as Pietro Bembo, Pietro Aretino, Sebastiano Serlio, and Tiziano Vercelli (Titian). Camillo was mostly known for his encyclopaedic and rhetorical device, which he would later call a theatre. This theatre was a physical structure based on a classical amphitheatre, which used a combination of allegorical images and alchemical signs to organise a vast collection of textual excerpts from classical authors, excerpts which were stored beneath the images in small drawers or pigeonholes. In practical terms, Camillo's theatre was an encyclopaedic and rhetorical device, which fostered the rapid retrieval of textual information in order to aid the composition of poems and speeches. More generally speaking, the theatre was designed to be a microcosm of the macrocosm, capable of encompassing all things, words, and actions, both human and divine. Previous scholarship on Camillo, and his theatre, has been predicated on the posthumously edited and printed "Idea del theatro" (1550). This scholarship has explored Camillo and his theatre in terms of its importance as a rhetorical device for the development of the art of memory, Neo-Platonic and esoteric traditions such as Hermeticism and Kabbalah, as well as its contribution to Renaissance iconographical and emblematic traditions. However, in the last decades a number of manuscripts have resurfaced which have been attributed to Camillo, and contain partial descriptions of the theatre. In contrast to the printed "Idea del theatro", these manuscripts evidence a greater concern for Hermetic-Aristotelian cosmology and a kinship with the genre of the commonplace-book. This illuminates a different aspect of Camillo's work that has been less explored to date. Specifically, it draws attention to Camillo as a participant in intellectual movements that influenced new scientific thought. In addition, this study takes Camillo and his theatre as a case to study the impact that the theatre - as a physical structure, a mental architecture, a book and manuscript title, and a new vision of the natural world - had on the development of early modern cultural and intellectual traditions. It argues that Camillo's theatre represents a new standard of knowledge, which revolves around changing notions of spectatorship, as well as the use of observation and action as a means of performative research. In so doing, this thesis has the additional aim of reassessing and acting as a corrective to the branch of historical biography that has characterised Camillo as an esoteric, underlining his importance to the understanding of the development of mainstream early modern cultural and intellectual traditions.
Date of Award1 Aug 2021
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorStephen Milner (Supervisor) & Jerome Brillaud (Supervisor)


  • Idea del theatro
  • Theatro della sapientia
  • Digital Humanities
  • Giulio Camillo
  • Early Modern period
  • Information management
  • Anatomy theatre

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