The Theatre of the World by Peter Marshall

When Prague was truly magical
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In 1600, if you were an alchemist, astrologer, magician or cabalist, the place to be was Prague. Under the reign of Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor, King of Hungary and Bohemia, obsessive collector, melancholic paranoid and host to an elite that included some of the greatest names in late Renaissance science and art, Prague became the mystical capital of Europe.

In his search for the elusive philosopher's stone, the holy grail of alchemy that provided among other things immortality, Rudolf gathered a who's who of occult intelligentsia. He played patron to such magical luminaries as John Dee, Queen Elizabeth's astrologer; the Polish alchemist Michael Sendivogius; Michael Maier, author of the exquisite alchemical allegory Atalanta Fugiens; the legendary Rabbi Loew, master of the Golem; the cabalist Heinrich Khunrath; and the heretical hermeticist Giordano Bruno. But Rudolf's court included other outstanding figures as well. There were the painters Giuseppe Arcimboldo and Hans von Aachen, who, while creating canvases celebrating the achievements (actual and imaginary) of their patron, laid the foundations for Mannerism. While under Rudolf's wing, the astronomer Tycho Brahe, as famous for his metal nose (the original was lost in a duel) as for his meticulous celestial observations, laid the groundwork for modern astronomy. It was only left for Johannes Kepler, perhaps the most significant recipient of Rudolf's admittedly intermittent largess, to take Tycho's measurements and with his laws of planetary motion, bring us into the modern world.

Yet, as Peter Marshall's very readable history shows, Rudolf's quest for mystical enlightenment and Faustian hunger for knowledge did little to ease the anxieties and insecurities that plagued him throughout his life. Rudolf was one of history's great procrastinators, a Hamlet on the throne of Christendom. His policy of "wise hesitancy" postponed the catastrophe of the Thirty Years War and kept alive his dream of a united Christian Europe, steadfast against the ever-threatening Turk. Yet in the end it was his inability to deal with the realities of politics and his incorrigible retreat into the pleasures of the senses and the pursuit of the mysteries that brought about his downfall. Accused of sorcery by the church, in 1611 he was deposed by his ambitious brother Matthias; less then a year later he died, a broken man. A few years after this, Christendom collapsed into carnage.

Marshall makes clear that Rudolf was too sensitive and dreamy a soul to prosper in the brutal milieu of Renaissance realpolitik. His beginnings, though illustrious, weren't enviable. Son of Emperor Maximilian II, at birth Rudolf wasn't wrapped in his mother's arms but in the freshly slaughtered carcass of a lamb. His mother, a morose and fanatical Catholic, daughter of Charles V of Spain and Isabella of Portugal, showed him no love. This early lack of motherly warmth was responsible for Rudolf's inability to make human contact, even with his mistresses (he never married), but it also encouraged his humanist tolerance toward other faiths: during his reign, Protestants and Jews enjoyed, for the most part, a rare acceptance in an otherwise hostile Europe.

His early years in the Spanish court, subject to rigorous protocol and neurotic ritual observance, led to a highly reticent, introverted character. In many ways it's a shame he was Holy Roman Emperor; his real calling was as a collector, and under him Prague became an artistic as well as mystical lodestone. Rudolf sent his agents across the continent in search of works of beauty and genius with money, at least at first, being no object. His pride and joy were the fabulous Kunstkammer, a marvellous chamber of objets d'art and natural and human curiosities, and his Royal Gardens, which included a heated aviary, complete with dodo, a Deer Moat, and a menagerie filled with lions, tigers, bears and wolves. Rudolf had a fondness for lions and one special pet was allowed to prowl unsupervised amidst his artisans' workshops and alchemists' laboratories.

Gardens and Kunstkammer were part of the looming, Piranesi-like environs of Hradcany Castle, whose towering outline still dominates Prague today. Increasingly reclusive, eschewing the world, Rudolf created his own within the castle's walls, heaping up treasures, scholarly works and, often, the scholars themselves. Like a Bohemian Gormenghast, Hradcany became Rudolf's universe. Sadly, his last years there read like a gothic version of The Servant, with the irresolute, depressed Rudolf becoming the pawn of his valet. His reign as Emperor may have been a failure, but, as Marshall rightly argues, as an enabler of scientific, artistic and mystical insight, he has no peer.

Gary Lachman's 'Rudolf Steiner: An Introduction to His Life and Work' will be published next year