This book note was published in the Australasian Journal of
81, No. 1, pp. 151–152; March 2003
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This translation of a classic and original work of intellectual
is beautifully done. Rossi’s book
Clavis Universalis was first published
in Italian in 1960, but Clucas translates the second, revised edition of 1983. The book is about Renaissance and 17th-century encyclopedism,
hieroglyphics and cryptography, the techniques of artificial memory, the history of rhetoric, changes in views about logic and method in the
scientific revolution, and new ideas about how language and images might reflect or capture reality. Frances Yates’s brilliant The Art of Memory,
published in 1966, has so far had much more influence in the English-speaking world. Despite warm citations and many points of contact with
Yates’s work, Rossi is less interested in uncovering hidden occult traditions, and more focussed on the way major 17th-century thinkers’ work
must be understood against the rich background of schemes for universal grammar and local memory. He shows that scholars working on
Bacon, Descartes, and Leibniz miss key references to this intellectual heritage. Half of the book  introduces relevant mnemonic, rhetorical,
linguistic, medical, and occult writings. Rossi includes illuminating discussions not only of Ramon Lull, Petrus Ramus, Cornelius Agrippa, Giordano
Bruno, and all, but also of fascinating minor writers like Guglielmo Gratorolo who systematized advice on medical aids to memory in the mid-16th
century, and the wonderful Johannes Spangerbergius, who classified various forms of amnesia in 1570. He then argues that polemic against the arts
of memory in both Bacon and Descartes coexisted with intense interest on their part in the supplementing of weak powers of natural memory by
various artificial aids and objects outside the boundaries of skull and skin. Rossi tells the strange stories of the great 17th-century encyclopedists
and universal language schemers—Alsted, Comenius, Wilkins, Dalgarno—making important connections between Wilkins’s scheme and worries
about methods for botanical classification in the early Royal Society. The final chapter is a tour de force on ‘the sources of Leibniz’s universal
character’, placing him (as Clucas neatly puts it) ‘at the “end” of a Renaissance intellectual tradition rather than reading him “forwards” as an
innovative precursor of modern formal logic’. Historians of science, linguistics, and philosophy have built on many aspects of Rossi’s work since
1983, and Clucas contributes an outstanding introduction which summarizes key strands of recent scholarship.
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Updated 15 May 2009.