The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci

Optimized-ricci_matteo--400x300Let me ask you something:

If you had the cure for cancer, to what lengths would you go to get it into the hands of the people?

I’m guessing you would not rest until you could see the world freed from the disease in all its manifestations.

Matteo Ricci did not have the cure for cancer, but as we learn in The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci by Jonathan D. Spence he did have the next best thing: A simple recipe for eliminating forgetfulness.

Not only that, but Ricci’s recipe helps with memorizing entire books and large volumes of vocabulary. Most impressively, Ricci developed a means for memorizing how to write in Chinese.

Yes, you really can memorize how to understand and sound those crazy characters, and even memorize the stroke order.


The Freakish Willpower Of A Memory Wizard


As an Italian Jesuit priest and missionary, Ricci’s memory techniques were so powerful that some of the people in China who heard him recite their books forward and backward thought he was a wizard. In some cases, people saw him as a religious threat because Ricci also believed he had the ultimate salve for the human condition: Christianity.

Indeed, as Jonathan D. Spence suggests in The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, “by impressing the Chinese with his memory skills, Ricci hoped to interest them in his culture; through interesting them in his culture he hoped to draw them to an interest in God.”


Talk About Ambition!


Although Ricci’s proselytization had only middling results in China, he was a friend of memory techniques, and we can learn a lot from him about how to use mnemonics at a much higher level.

He wrote about his approach to memory and quoted the scholars from whom he learned the Memory Palace technique in a book called Xiguo Jifa. It took me forever and a day to find a copy of it, but finally I did and made sure to pack it up and take it with me during a recent move:



Speaking of books, Ricci was said to have the ability to memorize them cover to cover – and recite them forward and backwards.

But is this a useful skill? You be the judge.



But memorizing entire books aside, as with all interesting lives, Ricci’s was filled with drama. Along with his many thrills, chills and spills, this “wizard” of the dark mnemonic arts we can learn …


The Many Dangers Of Using Memory Techniques


The first danger with using memory techniques is that as your memory grows stronger, so do your powers. You may even find that special new powers grow, abilities that you did not anticipate.

And, as all fans of Spider-Man know …


With Great Power Comes Great Responsibility


This is certainly true, but those of us living today can probably ignore the idea that using mnemonics fuses your brain with the cosmos. But it was a common concern in the sixteenth century, the flames of which Giordano Bruno had no problem fanning.

But for Ricci’s contemporaries, the threat was real. Being accused of magical powers regularly led to imprisonment, disfiguring torture and public execution. Often all three.


We can also probably dismiss the idea that rosemary helps with memory improvement, something promised by Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance, pray you, love, remember.”

Other than that, the rest is golden. Drawing on Spence’s book about Ricci, we can now turn to …


Matteo Ricci’s 5 Memory Palace Tips For Total Memory Mastery


1. Cultivate eloquence by using familiar buildings.

Ricci grew up during a time when fortresses were taking on more prestige than cathedrals in European cities. This historical circumstance meant that Ricci could use the best of both worlds.

And you can too by visiting the most modern architecture where you live and the oldest remaining buildings. You can transform these buildings into well-formed Memory Palaces simply by following a few simple principles. This free Memory Improvement Kit teaches you each of these, so grab it now.

The great thing about many civic buildings is that they’re well-planned. You can also usually find a floor plan on one of the walls. If not, a guard or other official will probably know where it is and let you take a photograph for later reference.


Get Freakishly Insane Results With This DIY Memory Palace Strategy


Or, for very good practice, you can sketch out a floor plan of the building yourself. This activity translates your immediate impressions through your muscles and other representation systems directly into your memory, and if you can start memorizing information before you leave the site, all the better.

For more ideas about the kinds of buildings that make great Memory Palaces, check out the How To Find Memory Palaces episode of the Magnetic Memory Method podcast.

The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci Magnetic Memory Method

The most important point Ricci draws out is that familiarity breeds eloquence when it comes to creating top-notch Memory Palaces. As he noted in his letters, even the biggest and most chaotic cities he visited during his travels became small and manageable in his mind through familiarity.

For us, this means spending more time visiting the homes of our friends and maximizing the value of all the Real Estate surrounding us. Even the most sprawling metropolis can provide you a tightly organized system of Memory Palaces if you take it just one corner cafe at a time.


This “Best Friend” Secret May Be The Best Way To Get Ahead With Memory Techniques Ever


2. You Don’t Have To Use Memory Palaces On Your Own

Memory improvement takes places in your mind and your mind alone …

Or does it?

Not for Ricci.

As Spence unearths, Ricci and his friend Lelio Passionei created Memory Palace systems together while studying in Rome. Twenty years later, Ricci still reflected on these Memory Palaces. No doubt they were even more memorable to him than others because he did not create them alone.

If you’re creating Memory Palaces all alone, you could be limiting your success. Check out this post on how to play memory games using your childhood with a friend to maximize the potential of your memory and the Memory Palaces you want to use.

3. Flexibility is king

All memory techniques involve encoding information, storing it, consolidating it and then decoding it when you want access to it later.

But many people think that using a Memory Palace and visual memory techniques requires creating perfect images. They sweat and labor and fight with their minds to come up with 100% accuracy.


The Best Way To Prevent Failure Is To Stab
Perfection In The Heart And Leave It For Dead


Not only is 100% accuracy not necessary. It also rarely works. There is rarely a one-to-one correspondence between what you want to memorize and the images you use to memorize that info.

What you need instead of verisimilitude is flexibility and trust. Don’t let yourself get caught up in the rabbit hole of perfectionism.


Ricci, as Spence tells us in The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, often made adjustments, getting things just right enough to trigger the right memories at the right time.

It’s almost like getting a car engine running just well enough to get it on the road until it can either repair itself or coast based on that initial momentum. When it comes to mnemonics, that’s usually all you need.


Do The Right Work


Ricci did this not only in his mind but in his religious teachings as well. Indeed, to communicate the larger ideas of Christianity, Ricci often adjusted the Gospels so that the visual pictures he had fashioned could do, as Spence puts it, “the right work.”

Our takeaway as memory enthusiasts is that it really all comes down to flexibility and letting your mind fill in the blanks once you’ve got mnemonic imagery that is good enough to do the right work.

4. Information Can Be Broken And Put Together Again

Ricci had the mind of a strategist. Instead of trying to memorize Chinese ideographs as a whole, he would allow them to be as complex as he found them, but cut them into pieces so he could better create images for them.

By doing this, he had an easier time compounding multiple meanings onto the same ideograph.

Spence gives the example of “yao,” which may mean to want, to need, shall and fundamental. To fit all of these possible meanings into the single mnemonic image he placed in his Memory Palace, Ricci saw a Muslim tribeswoman from the Xixia territories. She has fundamental beliefs that oblige her to do certain things. In other words, her fundamental beliefs require that she wants, that she needs and that she shall.

Once created, Ricci places this image of the woman in his Memory Palace so “she will stay there, in the quiet light that suffuses the Memory Palace, calm and unmoving, for as long as he chooses to leave her.”


How Do You Stack Up When It Comes 
To Breaking Things Down?


The point being that most, if not all pieces of information can be broken down into multiple components. Even the smallest words, in a language like Chinese Mandarin, can be separated to learn better and memorize tone structures.

The Magnetic Memory Method for language learning takes this approach a step further by using Bridging Figures that we can apply to numerous similar word pieces and the various combinations they make with other sounds to form complete words.

Using the MMM, you can also trigger both the sound and the meaning of the word using the actions and interactions of the Bridging Figure in your Memory Palace.

Cool Stuff Or What?

5. Study As Many Memory Masters As You Can

It was common during Ricci’s time to quote from a number of different sources. We still do this in many books today, but in the world of memory, you’d be hard-pressed to find too many references to books written by other memory trainers. Many want you to think that they’ve got the best “system” and no one else exists.

That’s fine and dandy for branding and marketing purposes (though it’s ultimately destructive in the age of the Internet). Luckily, Ricci had no such concerns, nor did Spence. Here are just a few of the many names who come up:


Hear Be The Root Of All Eloquence


Cypriano Soarez. De Arte Rhetorica.

Spence thinks Ricci first learned about Memory Palaces in this book. Cypriano connects the structured placement of images to help recall information to the eloquence of the thesaurus (thesaurus eloquentae), which he calls the “root of all eloquence.”

Pliny’s Natural History.

In this book, Pliny apparently cites a number of memory experts, passages that Ricci translated and placed in his own book.

Frances Panigarola. Ars Reminiscendi.


War. What Is It Good For? Absolutely …


Ricci may have met Panigarola personally, a man said to have used one hundred thousand stations in a very large number of Memory Palaces. He apparently used a lot of puns to make his images memorable. These images tended to reference current political disputes and wars between nations.


Tip: Since wars involve a lot of historical figures and over-the-top activities, the history of war is a ripe source for exaggerated imagery and intensely memorable personalities.

We can also see that many of the mnemonists of Ricci’s era tended to use mnemonic imagery appropriate to their times. We, on the other hand, can use the Internet to examine swaths of history and come up with images as old as cave drawings and as new as Banksy. We’re in the finest moment of all times to be fully and completely visual. We are rich.

Guglielmo Gratarolo (sometimes spelled Gratoroli). De Memoria Reparanda.


The Weirdest Way To Use Emotions To Make Information Memorable


Gratarolo’s key tip is that the images we create should be so powerful that they “move one to laughter, compassion or admiration.” We could add to this disgust, fear and even anger. As people who need to remember, we need all the help from our emotions we can get.

Gratarolo also appears to have been the first to use something akin to what we now call the Person Action Object technique (PAO).

“After designing a memory location on conventional lines, he then positioned in each an object – a chamber pot, a box of salve, a bowl of plaster were his first three examples – and then had separate figures, each based on individuals he knew well and each carefully named, jolt the scene into mnemonic action. Thus in rapid sequence Grataroli presented his friend Peter as picking up the chamber pot full of urine and pouring it over James, Martin putting his finger in the ointment box and wiping it over Henry’s anus, and Andrew taking some plaster from the bowl and smearing it over Francis’s face. If one could link these vignettes by pun, analogy, or association of ideas to given concepts, one could be guaranteed never to forget them.”


That Truly Is Disgustingly Unforgettable!


Ignatius Loyola. Spiritual Exercises.

Loyala stressed that Jesuits be mentally present at Christ’s death. “No violent detail is to be avoided,” he wrote, quoting Ludolfus of Saxony.

By focusing on the extremities, the priests would not only better remember the Gospels. They would strengthen their overall abilities with memory techniques.

Host von Romberch. Longestorium Artificiose Memorie.

Romberch described entire memory cities to be divided by categories such as shops, libraries, slaughter yards and schools. How specifically this kind of division should work is not clear.

Nor is his suggestion to use “memory alphabets.” These were to be based on the logical combination of humans, plants, animals and objects.

Of all Ricci’s contemporaries, Romberch seems to have been most closely aligned with the Magnetic Memory Method. The ability to use general methods to create specific systems for specific memory purposes is perhaps the most profound approach we have.


Hater’s Gonna Hate …


Not everyone in Ricci’s time held memory techniques and mnemonics in high esteem.

In Of the Vanitie and Uncertainties of Arts and Sciences, Cornelius Agrippe said that the “monstrous images” required by mnemonics dulled the mind. He even went so far as to suggest that mnemonics “caused madness and frenzy instead of profound and sure memory.”

Erasmus and Melancthon agreed and Rabelais went out of his way to mock memory techniques. In Gargantua, the title character learns to memorize bizarre books of grammar and the commentaries written on them by Bangbreeze, Scallywag and Claptrap.


The Worst Thing You’ll Smell All Day


Although Gargantua can recite these books backward and forwards, Rabelais does not present the skill in a virtuous light. Instead, Gargantua “became as wise as any man baked in an oven” and when speaking to him about his memorized knowledge, “it was no more possible to draw a word from him than a fart from a dead donkey.”

Those who mocked memory techniques and the ability to use a Memory Palace really missed out.


But Their Loss Is Our Gain …


… and their mockery contributed to the preservation of these extraordinary techniques for learning, memorizing and recalling anything.


The Enduring Tragedy Of
The Memory Palace Of Matteo Ricci


Sadly, Ricci spent so much time in China, but apparently wasn’t aware of the countless Chinese mnemonists capable of memory feats that made his abilities pale in comparison. So although we get a wealth of information in his writing about the Western mnemonic tradition, Ricci could not expose us to the untold treasures of the Chinese memory wizards as part of his extraordinary career.

For this reason, I’ve been inspired to start learning Mandarin Chinese. Two weeks deep into the language, my results using several Memory Palaces to memorize Pimsleur dialogs has been even more successful than anticipated.

I’ll be talking more about exactly what I’m doing, so stay tuned and be sure that you’ve got my free Magnetic Memory Method Memory Improvement Kit so that you’re subscribed for notifications and can learn the techniques to use along with me.

And like Ricci …


Use Knowledge To Change The Entire World For The Better


Until next time, keep busy learning and practicing the art of memory. And as always, keep yourself Magnetic! 🙂

Further Resources

Mandarin Chinese Mnemonics And Morning Memory Secrets

12 Responses

  1. Hi Anthony,
    A fascinating story today about Signor Ricci in China. Your mention of his work on the use of churches and fortresses in the building of memory palaces reminded me of a visit I made last week into the new Frank Gehry building here in Sydney. Named The Dr Chau Chak Wing Building (Business Faculty building at University of Technology Sydney),

    it has been described as “a beautiful squashed down brown paper bag”. And it truly is beautiful so I must explore its curved lines again and figure out how to use its memory palace potential.

    I am also thinking that Australian Aboriginal dreamtime stories are also another riff on the memory palace myth, where the landscape serves as a memory canvas for a culture stretching back many thousands of years.


    1. That building certainly does look like a squashed paper bag. And it’s very memorable-looking too.

      I like the idea of using the Aboriginal stories in this way. I have a contact you might like to speak about who works with the Arrernte. She wrote about using the Magnetic Memory Method to learn some of their language in Learning an Aboriginal Language: A Quick & Dirty Guide to Learning Vocabulary.

      She might lend some insight on this for you on the use of their stories in this way – and maybe even know some stories that not everyone gets access to every day.

      And I’d love to hear how that works for you as you work with the technique. 🙂

    1. Thanks for this question, Chris. Yes, I’ve talked about that here.

      Do you know the Major Method? I have a quick tutorial on it here. Most people find it more than sufficient for most purposes. It takes about 5-10 minutes to learn and with maybe 20 minutes of practice, you’re good to go.

      What I also like about the Major Method (sometimes called the Major System) is that it integrates easily with memorizing symbols in equations, formulas and the like.

      I’m also looking into how Chinese memory systems like Ricci’s dealt with numbers. Spence makes no reference to it in his book on Ricci, but there’s definitely something.

      What kinds of number memorization do you want to work with?

  2. I would like to ask is using the memory palace by choosing 5 objects per room more effective than just choosing a room and placing one object in it?

    1. Thanks for this question, Samuel!

      The answer to your question depends on skill level. At the beginning I recommend that people start with one piece of information per room. As an example, you could have the associative-imagery interact with the largest piece of furniture.

      When you’ve got this ability established, I next recommend using the four corners of the room to get used to the art of journeying.

      Following this, you can add all kinds of levels of complexity, including using the same room more than once by adding a feature (like making one version green, another version make of ice, etc.) That’s advanced stuff, but great mental exercise and you can work up to getting great results.

      Hope this helps and look forward to hearing back from you sometime with your results! 🙂

  3. Hi Anthony and Magnetic Memory readers!

    Before I knew about mnemonics I used to watch a TV cable channel about buildings and home constructions and car repairs because I liked to see how workers build or re-build buildings, homes or cars.

    For me it was fun. Now that I know about Memory techniques it is even more interesting.

    Knowing that a construction can help us later to save time to find things, persons or for information we want, I now have a way that we can broke down and organize information to learn it.

    For me there is still a challenge with my time, people and noise around me but it looks like that I am starting to find a light in, like you said, small blasts of effort. I still need to work with my patience, focus, time to work, time to sleep, and emotions (people who I love take my time and I cannot discuss with them about that). However, I need to continue.

    1. Thanks for this, Maricela.

      Yes, TV shows are very rich and rewarding sources of Magnetic Imagery.

      Keep working in short blasts. It will help you a great deal. Even if time is completely abundant, I would still suggest people work this way.

  4. Strange, this doesn’t show up in the podcast feed. Is that a mistake or on purpose? Just mentioning in case there’s a glitch. Interesting as always, thanks.

      1. Hi Anthony, thanks for writing back. I use the Podcast Addict app on my Android phone. I’m subscribed through that to the Apple podcast feed for your podcast. When I look at the list of podcasts in the app, this episode doesn’t show. When I look at the list of episodes of your podcast on the apple podcasts’ website on my laptop, I don’t see it there, either. I’m using Windows 10/Mozilla browser. To try to find this episode on my laptop, I just went to the page of your podcast on apple podcasts’ website and hit the ‘show 10 more episodes’ button. On that, I see the episodes from the 17th (objective vs subjective reasoning) and the 24th (11 benefits of critical thinking that rapidly change your life) but nothing between (this episode on this page is from Feb 22nd 2021). And that corresponds to what’s in my podcast addict app.

        I actually listened to your last podcast ‘Better than the memory palace?’ and heard you talk about the Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci and his book on memory techniques and then googled him, which is how I found this page on your site (just in case you’re wondering how I found a page about an episode of your podcast I had no knowledge of 🙂 ).

        I’m not sure what’s going on, but I don’t think it’s just me (?) since I also don’t see this episode referenced on your apple podcasts’ page on my computer. Anyway, I hope you had a happy weekend and hope this is helpful. 😉

        1. Thanks, James.

          I’ve never used or even heard of that app, so can’t check.

          I’m not sure what’s going on either, but people are playing this episode every day, so I’m not sure what’s going on. I’ll submit the issue anyway to see if the podcast host I use can find anything.

          Thanks again for raising the issue.

          How are things going with your memory improvement goals? Anything I can do to help you reach your goals?

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Anthony Metivier is the founder of the Magnetic Memory Method, a systematic, 21st century approach to memorizing foreign language vocabulary, names, music, poetry and more in ways that are easy, elegant, effective and fun.

Dr. Metivier holds a Ph.D. in Humanities from York University and has been featured in Forbes, Viva Magazine, Fluent in 3 Months, Daily Stoic, Learning How to Learn and he has delivered one of the most popular TEDx Talks on memory improvement.

His most popular books include, The Victorious Mind and… Read More

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