Saturday, August 05, 2006

Book Review: "The Magic Circle of Rudolf II"

Cultural historian Peter Marshall's forthcoming The Magic Circle of Rudolf II: Alchemy and Astrology in Renaissance Prague (Walker & Company) offers a look inside one of what must have been among the most fascinating royal courts of Europe in the late sixteenth century, that of Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II. A curious scientist at heart, Rudolf's tastes ran more to observation, experimentation and study than to governance: he brought some of the "most creative, original and subversive minds" of Europe to live and work in his presence, and in doing so allowed the seeds to be laid for great advances in the worlds of art and science which would bear fruit in the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution.

Marshall provides five pillars of influence that contributed to the atmosphere Rudolf created at Prague: Neoplatonism, hermeticism, Cabalism, magic, alchemy and astrology. As a young man Rudolf's interest in the occult was piqued - this translated into a lifelong obsession with alchemical processes, the Philosopher's Stone and associated corollaries. Since Rudolf had the funds to indulge his fancies (and the power to avoid the long arms of the Inquisition), he was able to amass massive collections of natural curiosities and artistic wonders in his palaces, and to create alchemical laboratories (where upwards of two hundred men could work at a time!) in the pursuit of his goals.

A fair portion of Magic Circle is given over to short biographical sketches of many of the talented artists, scientists and alchemists that enjoyed Rudolf's patronage over the years. From the artist Giuseppe Arcimboldo (whose major works are figures from Rudolf's court, including my favorite "The Librarian", actually Rudolf's court historian Wolfgang Lazio) to the English duo of alchemists and prognosticators John Dee and Edward Kelley to Giordano Bruno (later burned at the stake for his acceptance of Copernican cosmology) and astronomers Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler (among many others), Rudolf created a safe haven for scientific (including what we would today call pseudo-scientific) and artistic exploration to occur, even as the quakes of Reformation and Counter-Reformation were being felt throughout the rest of Europe.

Of course the idyll couldn't last, and Marshall's retelling of Rudolf's decline, ouster and death (and the eventual sacking and dispersal of his collections by the Catholic and Protestant forces over the years) is depressing (but well done). While Rudolf's faults as an administrator are clear, his acceptance and toleration of dissent and openness to new ideas and beliefs are just as admirable in a historical leader as we might find them today.

A fine work indeed.