The Memory Palace

The Memory Palace: A Book of Lost Interiors, by Edward Hollis, Counterpoint, Berkeley, 2014

I first came across the idea of the memory palace in Joshua Foer’s book Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything, Allen Lane, 2011 – as a technique for remembering things. However, that’s not how the term is used here, but as the sub-title says it’s a ‘book of lost interiors’. Most of them are ‘reconstructed’ or described from written sources; a disappointment from my point of view is that there are only half-a-dozen illustrations in the book. So, I’ll add this one – a portrait of Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II in the guise of Vertumnus, the Roman god of plant life, growth, and the change of seasons, compiled of fresh fruit and vegetables. (Rudolf features quite a lot in the book).

Archimboldo Rudolf

Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1530-1593); from

In this book Hollis argues “the rooms we live in are always more than just four walls. As we decorate these spaces and fill them with objects and friends, they shape our lives and become the backdrop to our sense of self” (from the jacket blurb).

After the introduction, the book is structured into six sections – Architecture, Furniture, Objects, Décor, Commodities, and Images. This wasn’t quite what I was expecting – I also wasn’t expecting quite so much about his grandmother and her sitting room, either. However, it was an interesting book, although it sometimes took some reading before he revealed which building/room, etc he was talking about.

After his introduction, he begins the Architecture section with a ‘purple room’ – I thought that Roman emperors born ‘in the purple’ just meant they were born while their fathers were emperor, but born ‘in the purple’ was actually to be born in a certain room. I knew that purple was a rare colour (extracted from murex shells) and so the colour meant great status. The Megale Palation (the great palace) contained the purple room – and something else I learned: the word palace comes from Palatine (the hill in Rome where the palace was located). However, this chapter begins around the year 1000, or just before, so he is talking about the Byzantine empire based in Constantinople – the Emperor Constantine is Constantine Porphyrogenitos (literally: ‘born in the purple’) not the ‘great’ Constantine of 700 years earlier who founded the city of Constantinople.

The next chapter is headed “Domus Aurea” (the golden house), which he begins with the finding of the ancient sculpture the Laocoon in 1506, and leads on to the ‘golden house’ of Nero and in the next chapter to Augustus. Thus ends the ‘Architecture’ section.

The ‘Furniture’ section takes us to the Middle Ages and initially to Westminster Abbey and the stone of Scone (after a brief diversion through “granny’s” house). Then to Winchester and the round table, followed by a chapter on the origin of the exchequer as a cloth and one on the King’s Bench at Westminster: “In 1178 Henry II decreed that five judges could sit at the King’s Bench in order to pass judgement in his name. His authority was devolved upon King’s Bench itself; and, reinforced by its new dignity, that piece of furniture began to change”. (p. 102) A chapter on the Palace of Westminster or the Houses of Parliament seems at first oddly placed in the furniture section, but it seems it has often been too small to seat the required numbers: “An engraving made of the old House in 1834, the year of its incineration, shows that it had always been too small and too confrontationally arranged for reasoned, democratic, debate”. (I realise illustrations add to the cost of a book, but I wish he had included this illustration.)

The Objects section begins with a cabinet of curiosities – the wunderkammer – ‘wonder room’ (or kunstkammer – ‘art room’) of the late Renaissance and especially that belonging to the arch-collector, Emperor Rudolf II who moved his court from Vienna to Prague.


This is not Rudolf’s wunderkammer, but the earliest pictorial record of a natural history cabinet – the engraving in Ferrante Imperato‘s Dell’Historia Naturale (Naples 1599) from:

The whole ‘Objects’ section is on various aspects of Rudolf’s wunderkammer and moves between different dates – World War II and just after, exhibitions trying to reconstruct the wunderkammer in the late 20th and 21st centuries as well as the late 1500s and 1600s – I found this a bit confusing at times. Most of the ‘Décor’ section is on Versailles and ‘Commodities’ is on the Crystal Palace – the London exhibition of 1851 and the glass and iron structure built to house it, with an interesting chapter called ‘spending a penny’ – using the ‘water closets’ at the exhibition which required a penny entry.

The ‘Images‘ section is set around the mid-20th century – films (e.g. the set for Gone with the Wind) and television (e.g. televising Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953). While interesting, I suppose I was expecting more ‘lost interiors’ from earlier historical periods.

An aside: New Zealand didn’t get television until 1960 – “New Zealand’s first non-experimental television transmission went to air on 1 June 1960”.[1] Our family didn’t get one until the late 1960s. I still remember pre-television evenings – which involved listening to radio programmes, reading, playing cards – and the excitement when in the later 60s my neighbours got a TV set. My parents were probably forced to buy one to keep me at home! And it was many years later before we got a TV at our ‘bach’ (cottage) at Pukerua Bay.

So, would I recommend the book? Yes, for anyone who enjoys such topics – just don’t expect a lot of illustrations. Hollis’s first book was called The Secret Lives of Buildings, which I haven’t read but will keep an eye out for. (I subsequently read it and wrote the post about it – click link).

See also my book review on the Rococo Interior (many of which are now ‘lost’ or moved to museums!)


[1] Television in New Zealand:


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