Your browser (Internet Explorer 6) is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites. Learn how to update your browser.

Unit 50 – Hannibal Lecter’s Memory Palace

Difficulty: Medium

Time: 4 minutes 30 seconds

The passage below is an extract from Hannibal by Thomas Harris

The memory palace was a mnemonic system well known to ancient scholars and much information was preserved in them through the Dark Ages while vandals burned the books. Like scholars before him, Dr. Lecter stores an enormous amount of information keyed to objects in his thousand rooms, but unlike the ancients, Dr. Lecter has a second purpose for his palace; sometimes he lives there. He has passed years among its exquisite collections, while his body lay bound on a violent ward with screams buzzing the steel bars like hell’s own harp.

Hannibal Lecter’s palace is vast, even by medieval standards. Translated to the tangible world it would rival the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul for size and complexity.

We catch up to him as the swift slippers of his mind pass from the foyer into the Great Hall of the Seasons. The palace is built according to the rules discovered by Simonides of Ceos and elaborated by Cicero four hundred years later; it is airy, high-ceilinged, furnished with objects and tableaux that are vivid, striking, sometimes shocking and absurd, and often beautiful. The displays are well spaced and well lighted like those of a great museum. But the walls are not the neutral colors of museum walls. Like Giotto, Dr. Lecter has frescoed the walls of his mind.

He has decided to pick up Clarice Starling’s home address while he is in the palace, but he is in no hurry for it, so he stops at the foot of a great staircase where the Riace bronzes stand. These great bronze warriors attributed to Phidias, raised from the seafloor in our own time, are the centerpiece of a frescoed space that could unspool all of Homer and Sophocles.

Dr. Lecter could have the bronze faces speak Meleager if he wished, but today he only wants to look at them.

A thousand rooms, miles of corridors, hundreds of facts attached to each object furnishing each room, a pleasant respite awaiting Dr. Lecter whenever he chooses to retire there.

Fearfully and wonderfully made, we follow as he moves with a swift stride along the corridor of his own making, through a scent of gardenias, the presence of great sculpture pressing on us, and the light of pictures.

His way leads around to the right past a bust of Pliny and up the staircase to the Hall of Addresses, a room lined with statuary and paintings in a fixed order, spaced wide apart and well lit, as Cicero recommends.

Ah… The third alcove from the door on the right is dominated by a painting of St. Francis feeding a moth to a starling. On the floor before the painting is this tableau, life-sized in painted marble.

A parade in Arlington National Cemetery led by Jesus, thirty three, driving a ’27 Model-T Ford truck, a “tin lizzie,” with J. Edgar Hoover standing in the truck bed wearing a tutu and waving to an unseen crowd. Marching behind him is Clarice Starling carring a .308 Enfield rifle at shoulder arms.

1 – It can be inferred from the context of the passage that the ‘objects and tableaux (3rd paragraph) are primarily intended to be:

  • A. Disturbing
  • B. Artistic
  • C. Intangible
  • D. Unforgettable

2 – Based on the information in the passage it could be inferred that Cicero was most likely a(n):

  • A. architect
  • B. interior designer
  • C. philosopher
  • D. doctor

3 – Dr. Lecter stores Clarice Starling’s address on a mnemonic tableau beneath a painting. Which of the following addresses might he decode from the tableau?

  • A. 3327 Tindal, Arlington, VA 11308
  • B. 3300 Tintin, Richmond, VA 30800
  • C. 3327 Norfolk, Hampton Roads, VA 00308
  • D. 3327 Tindal, Arlington, VA 22308

Select text below to highlight the answers:

Q1: D
The palace is an intangible figment of Lecter’s imagination designed to enable him remember huge amounts of information. The objects in the palace are all mnemonics for facts he wants to remember. He therefore only has to remember the objects themselves. “vivid, striking, sometimes shocking and absurd, and often beautiful” could all be said to be properties of something that is memorable – which is the goal. Unforgettable is closest in meaning to memorable, which reflects the purpose of the memory palace.

Q2: C
Based on info from the passage we know that Cicero helped develop the idea for the memory palace, and wrote some rules for those wishing to construct one. Architect and interior designer are wrong because the palace is not a literal construction. Cicero was definitely a scholar of some sort and more likely to have been a philosopher than a doctor, given his work with theoretical and imaginary concepts. There is no reference to Cicero having medical expertise. The famous character, Dr. Lecter, is himself a psychiatrist, but this information isn’t present in the passage and so is not relevant.

Q3: D
Arlington Cemetery – suggests the place is more likely in Arlington than Richmond or Hampton
Jesus – 33
Ford – 27
Tin Lizzie – Tindal or Tintin (Tindal if Arlington)
J. Edgar Hoover – First and longest serving director of the FBI, where Starling worked (not relevant here)
Hoover wearing a ‘tutu’ – 22
Starling carrying a .308