The Theatre Of The World, by Peter Marshall

Rudolf II and the Philosopher's Stone; the true tale of a magical quest
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Prague was the cultural and esoteric centre of Europe for a few decades at the end of the 16th century, because of a Habsburg monarch who was more interested in art, and occult arts, than in politics.

Rudolf II, king of Hungary and Bohemia, was elected Holy Roman Emperor in 1576. He amassed the greatest art collection in the world, was patron to many artists, including Arcimboldo, and was instrumental in the development of Mannerism. Visiting diplomats learnt that the only way to gain an audience with Rudolf was to present him with a fine work of art, reveals Peter Marshall in this fascinating biography.

Marshall's previous work was The Philosopher's Stone: a Quest for the Secrets of Alchemy, so it's no surprise that he focuses on Rudolf's influence on esoteric enquiry. Rudolf was host to, among many others, the English magi John Dee and Edward Kelley, and Giordano Bruno, who developed a Theatre of the Memory and was later burned for heresy. Rudolf wanted the secret of the Philosopher's Stone, the magical elixir that could turn base metal into gold and also extend life indefinitely. He didn't need the gold; he wanted the metaphysical wealth of alchemy "to attain personal harmony" and "the moral and spiritual transformation of mankind".

Alchemists were also chemists; astrologers were also astronomers; and occultists were also scientists. Marshall argues that Rudolf's generous patronage of them "inadvertently laid the foundations of the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century". Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler, the astronomers, worked for him.

The thread running through this biography is of a melancholic man for whom the problems of real life were more than he could bear. Rudolf became more reclusive until he didn't set foot outside Prague castle. As the ostensibly Catholic ruler of a strongly Protestant country, Rudolf's balancing acts might have seemed more like a drunken stagger, but his "wise hesitancy" kept Europe from falling apart. The tragedy is that, within a few years of his death in 1612, the arrogance and bigotry of his successors plunged Europe into the religious conflict of the Thirty Years War.

Rudolf's fabulous collection was plundered by each successive invader of Prague. But not quite all was lost; the "hermetical and alchemical ideas" of Rudolf's Prague resurfaced a few years after his death in the Rosicrucian Manifestoes. They would influence esotericism for centuries to come.