During the Renaissance, writing was the privileged epistemological structure. Objects had marks written upon them, signatures, messages, that demanded reading and interpretation. Natural and artificial things were thought of in much the same way as manuscripts and texts. An accumulation of objects and an accumulation of texts signified in the same way, and were displayed mixed together in the same spaces. In the Memory Theatre of Camillo, for example, images carried the same messages as words, sometimes words were used, sometimes pictures. In Giganti’s ‘museum’ in Bologna, the objects and the texts together represented the unity of the world. In Imperato’s ‘museum’ in Naples, what we would now call objects and what we would now call books said the same thing: the stuffed and mounted pelican told the same story as the words in the Physiologus. Knowing consisted of ‘relating one form of language to another form of language; in restoring the great unbroken plain of words and things; in making everything speak’ (Foucault, 1970:40).
Shortly after the beginning of the seventeenth century this profound relationship of language with the world was dissolved. From then on, words and things would become separated. Henceforward the eye was destined to see and only to see, the ear to hear and only to hear. Thus an enormous reorganisation of culture came about (Foucault, 1970:43)
Up to and during the sixteenth century, the empirical domain of things was perceived as a complex of kinships, resemblances, and affinities that were endlessly interwoven; and the interweaving of language and things in a space common to both presupposed a privilege on the part of writing (Foucault, 1970:3). Knowledge meant knowing and relating all the dense layer of signs with which a thing may have been covered, in making everything speak. The proper function of knowledge was interpretation.