Rudolf II of Habsburg. Emperor and alchemist

His name has always been associated with magic and mystery, but also with pursuit of knowledge and tolerance. His work and his mind have marked a city and an era which is still remembered today, exactly 400 years after his death.

Rudolf II of Habsburg was born in Vienna at 18:45 on July 18th 1552, third son of Emperor Maximilian II and Mary of Spain. His grandfather Charles V had been the absolute monarch of the largest Empire ever: an endless territory that extended from Madrid to Vienna, from Naples to Brussels, from Prague to the distant lands of Mexico. An Empire over which, as they used to say, the sun never sets.

In 1556, when Charles V abdicated, his empire was divided in two: his son Philip II was to reign in Spain and over the possessions of Catholic Monarchs, while his brother, Ferdinand, over the Eastern part of the House of Austria. As head of the Empire, Ferdinand was succeeded by his son the Archduke Maximilian and, in turn, by his son Rudolf. The young Rudolf was educated at the Spanish court. He lived in Madrid and at El Escorial and very soon proved to have a rather complex personality. He opposed the marriage to his cousin the Infanta of Spain and never got married, therefore, did not even take advantage of the important political card of marriage. In 1571 Rudolf returned to the court of Vienna, where he was crowned first King of Hungary and Bohemia, and then in 1576, Emperor of the Germanic Holy Roman Empire. Since the very beginning, the young emperor had to deal with the religious opposition between Catholics and various Protestant denominations, but it was soon quite evident that Rudolf was more interested in arts, sciences and in the hidden and sublime secrets of nature rather than in political issues and wars of religion.  In 1582 Rudolf leaves Vienna and moves to Prague. This decision, besides other political reasons, was also determined by other factors such as the search for beauty, but above all in the esotericism and architectural charm that the esoteric Emperor Charles IV had brought to the city. With Rudolf, Prague experienced its golden age. The new capital and frontier town of the Empire, home to diverse cultures, under the Emperor’s leadership was to make great progress in science, tolerance and free thought. During his reign, spread across two eras, Emperor Rudolf II turned Prague into an ideal city by creating a favourable climate, conducive to the advancement of knowledge and circulation of ideas; a kind of heavenly Jerusalem of sciences, an established utopia that reacted vigorously against any form of decline in the areas of knowledge after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. Thanks to his patronage, Rudolf made Prague the jewel case of the highest and most advanced knowledge of his time.

But there is a dark side to Rudolf’s complex and multifaceted personality: an aspect that was to earn him the ambiguous fame which, even today, his name still evokes. As a solitary individual, prone to depression, Rudolf was obsessed by the desire to know things and was ready to do anything to achieve this goal. He believed that everything we see is part of a whole and of a harmonious order. In this hidden aspect of reality, the wise, the magician and artist are basically the same thing and Alchemy is the supreme science in order to understand the ultimate secrets of nature and thus overcome the laws that govern it.

Rudolf was literally obsessed by this science and at court, all the guests that were invited by the emperor in person, found themselves among the brightest and enlightened minds of the time. In exchange for protection, magicians, alchemists, astronomers, scholars and artists helped him to achieve his goal: to search for the philosophers’ stone and elixir of immortality, the symbols of supreme knowledge. Before him, his father, the Emperor Maximilian II, had already gathered around him an elite group of historians, antique dealers, collectors and scientists. Rudolf kept much of the staff of his father’s court and was greatly involved in printing new and old books that he accumulated in large libraries such as one at the Strahov Monastery in Prague. Under his reign, the study of pharmacy and mineralogy were fostered and great advances were made in the study of the stars and their movements. Very important personalities attended Rudolf’s court, such as the likes of John Dee, the English astrologer and cabbalist, Giordano Bruno, the philosopher and populariser of the hermetic tradition, the dark magician Edward Kelley, the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe and the great mathematician and astronomer John Kepler.

Rudolf filled his Kunstkammer with objects from his most varied interests, with art collections and rare, exotic objects. Various kinds of scientific experiments were carried out at the Castle, to which the Emperor attended in person. Rudolf II was very erudite and chose his scientists very carefully, submitting them to difficult trials and – contrary to how he has been depicted today in various films or in certain type of literature – he was not easily deceived. However, thanks to his support, new astronomical instruments were invented and Kepler was able to develop the famous three laws that are at the basis of modern cosmology.

Moreover, artists such as Giuseppe Arcimboldo and many others lived in the palace thanks to the Emperor’s great passion for arts, which allowed him to gather the works of many artists into a collection which is now one of the most important for that period.

In the social field, Rudolf was able to maintain a certain stability among the social classes, which led to period of peace and order.

In matters of religion, though nominally a Catholic, he did not take part in religious persecution, but conceded – contrary to other European courts – religious freedom. This allowed him to pursue his studies and manage his court scientists and scholars. But the golden era that Prague was experiencing thanks to its emperor, who loved beauty and mystery, was destined to end soon.

Quite often these personalities, for whom the Emperor provided protection, caused a certain amount of embarrassment and led to conflicts with the Church of Rome, which suspected him of heresy, or even worse, of being a patron of necromancers. Moreover, his frequent depressions and interest in the occult sciences, together with the fact of being the grandson of Joan of Aragon known as “Joan the mad woman” and his anti-conformism, fuelled a certain amount of   speculation in Catholic circles that he was crazy and demoniac.

The imperial ambition of his brother, Matthias of Habsburg, the continuous pressure of the Vatican and the pretensions of the Protestant nobility, continually undermined the delicate balance that Rudolf was trying to maintain, and this was broken when Matthias, after taking control of Austria, Hungary and Moravia advanced with an army, backed by Spain and Rome, towards the capital of the Empire. When they triumphantly entered Prague in 1611, Rudolf was forced to abdicate and retire to his castle, where he died a year later, in 1612.

But, before giving up the Czech crown, Rudolf II, the betrayed Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and lover of the occult sciences, cast a terrible curse over Prague and the whole Czech nation:

“Prague.., ungrateful Prague, I have made thee famous and now you drive me out, me your benefactor … May you be crushed by vengeance and may damnation befall you and the entire Czech nation!”

This is what he said, and his ominous words soon revealed to be a sort of prophecy. Shortly after the seizure of power by Matthias, who proved to be unable to control and deal with the delicate situation that had arisen, conflicts between Catholics and Protestants resulted in the famous Defenestration of Prague, which gave rise to the bloody and terrible Thirty Years’ War. A War that from 1618 to 1648 tore apart the heart of Europe and left Prague at the mercy of foreign armies and the famous Battle of the White Mountain, on November 8th, 1620 when Bohemia lost its independence for 300 years.

The death of Rudolf II meant the end of an era, the Renaissance and religious tolerance. After him came a new regression of ideas, of free thought and the downfall of occult sciences.

As historian Peter Marshall wrote: “The Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire died as a failing, lonely and depressed man, but together with his collaborators and lovers of Truth, had contributed to creating in Prague’s renaissance period, a cultural revolution that still continues to reverberate to this day”.

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