Chapels and Chapters: Paolo Quattrone on rhetoric and the art of memory

Professor Paolo Quattrone began this semester’s seminar series at the Centre for the History of the Book with a wide-ranging discussion of accounting, rhetoric, and the administration of the Jesuit Order.

If these seem unlikely topics to crop up at the Centre’s seminar series, it’s because they are; indeed, as a Professor at the University of Edinburgh Business School, Quattrone himself may seem an unlikely choice. The majority of past speakers have had their feet firmly planted in the field of humanistic studies; however, Quattrone (who, incidentally, also holds the position of Dean of Special Projects at the College of Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences) has produced research that realises the connections between our respective disciplines. From the beginning of the seminar, Quattrone connected the dots between business and humanistic studies by drawing attention to the importance of etymology in realising the link between rhetoric and accounting. The etymology of the word ‘inventory,’ for example, comes from the Latin inventio, the first of the five canons of rhetoric. This type of interdisciplinary enquiry is exactly the kind of research welcomed by book historians and exemplified by the field of the History of the Book as a whole.

Quattrone presented a complex, many-branched discussion that made impressive use of the short time permitted. Engaging in a historical analysis of Jesuit practices of spiritual self-accountability, accounting, and recordkeeping, Quattrone explained that the accounting techniques of the Jesuit Order were rhetorical in nature and engaged users through links with the art of memory. Quattrone’s supporting arguments were equally as complex, each brimming with the potential for further discussion, and it would be impossible to do them individual justice here. As such, I will focus on one aspect that I found particularly engaging: rhetoric as a composition of imageries.

Imagines agentes are visualizations that allow the imaginer to recollect memories through association. Images of trees and/or wheels are often used but, as Quattrone explained, manuscripts, books, and even physical spaces also work. These images are not only effective in memory recollection, but can also be used to construct visions of truth. In her book, The Craft of Thought, Mary Carruthers explains how the route of the liturgical procession in the Abbey of Centula-St-Riquier is an example of rhetoric in practice: each space that the faithful has to precede through asks them to experience an image – a painting, for example, or a prayer – ultimately resulting in a vision of God at the end of the procession. The church is a rhetorical machine, providing the means for the faithful to search for the truth. However, the construction of truth reached through these visions will always be incomplete, inviting reflection rather than providing representation. Quattrone then suggested the similarities between this physical procession and the imaginary journey undergone by the Jesuits during their Spiritual Exercises, before revealing a parallel comparison, between the ‘moral inventory’ composed by each Jesuit exercitant as they accounted for their sins and the accounting inventories created by and for the Jesuit administration.

Building on this, Quattrone asked us to consider the church as a ‘text’, suggesting that the principles necessary for arranging the physical space of a church are no different for the space of a text. This made me consider the ‘path’ we follow when reading a work of fiction: at each space – whether defined by scene, page, or chapter – the reader is asked to experience an image, ultimately reaching (if the book is a good one!) a form of understanding, or ‘truth’, by its conclusion. The book, like the Abbey of Centula-St-Riquier, provides no concrete answers, but is instead a tool that assists the reader in their search, again inviting reflection rather than providing representation. A book, therefore, must also be a rhetorical machine.

The Jesuits were renowned for the emphasis they placed on the value of a classical humanist education, and indeed, Quattrone has shown the importance of the humanistic study of rhetoric to the development of Jesuit accounting. By providing a means of reflecting on possible futures, rather than accurately representing financial transactions, the Jesuits practiced accounting almost as an art form, in much the same way the Ancient Greeks practiced rhetoric. Quattrone believes that this form of accounting has died, replaced with a standardized system that relies on quantifiable truths and ‘big data.’ However, perhaps consideration should be given to the fact that in continuing to explore and publish on this matter, Quattrone is keeping the old, ‘humanistic’ accounting alive. Not only that, but by crossing the traditional boundaries between academic disciplines and publishing research that extends across different fields and reaches new audiences, he is imbuing it with a new life.


Report by Holly Sanderson, MSc student in Book History and Material Culture, University of Edinburgh.

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