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Rudolph II

Duration:
45 minutes
First broadcast:
Thursday 31 January 2008

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the coterie of brilliant thinkers gathered in 16th century Prague by the melancholic emperor Rudolph II.

In 1606 the Archdukes of Vienna declared:

“His majesty is interested only in wizards, alchemists, Kabbalists and the like, sparing no expense to find all kinds of treasures, learn secrets and use scandalous ways of harming his enemies…He also has a whole library of magic books. He strives all the time to eliminate God completely so that he may in future serve a different master.”

The subject of this coruscating attack was the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolf II, and his court at Prague. Rudolph had turned Prague into a collector’s cabinet for the wonders and curiosities of the age – the great paintings of Northern Italy were carried to him over the Alps, intricate automatons constructed to serve drinks, maps and models of the heavens were unwound and engineered as the magnificent city of Prague itself was rebuilt in the image of its dark and thoughtful patron in chief.

But Rudolf’s greatest possessions were people - the astronomers Johannes Kepler and Tycho Brahe, the magus John Dee and the philosopher Giordano Bruno had all found their way to his city. Far from the devilish inquisitor of the archdukes’ imaginations, Rudolf patronised a powerhouse of Renaissance ideas.

With Peter Forshaw, Postdoctoral Fellow at Birkbeck, University of London and an Honorary Fellow of the University of Exeter; Howard Hotson, Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Oxford; Adam Mosley, Lecturer in the Department of History at the University of Wales, Swansea.

  • Further Reading

    Evans, R.J.W. Rudolf II and His World: A Study in Intellectual History, Oxford, 1973; 2nd ed. with new bibliography, 1984. The fundamental synthetic work on the subject.

    Fucíková, Eliska, James M. Bradburne et al., eds. Rudolf II and Prague: The Court and the City, London, 1997. A huge and lavishly illustrated exhibition catalogue with thirty short introductory essays to various aspects of Rudolphine Prague.

    Kaufmann, Thomas DaCosta, The School of Prague: Painting at the Court of Rudolf II, Chicago and London, 1988. An important scholarly treatment of a key aspect of Rudolf’s patronage.

    Prag um 1600: Beiträge zur Kunst und Kultur am Hofe Rudolfs II [Prague circa 1600: contributions on art and culture at the court of Rudolf II]. 2 vols. Freren , 1988. A lavish and learned exhibition catalogue.

    Trevor-Roper, Hugh, Princes and Artists: Patronage and Ideology at Four Habsburg Courts 1517-1633, London, 1976. Ch. 3: Rudolf in Prague. A lively introduction.

    Volcelka, Karl, Rudolf II und seine Zeit [Rudolf II and his age]. Vienna, 1985. The most recent survey, beautifully illustrated.

    Encyclopedia of the Renaissance, ed. Paul F. Grendler. 6 vols., New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1999. Vol. 5, pp. 372-4.

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