When speaking of magic and magicians, we must look to 16th century Prague. Emperor Rudolph II, the nephew of Charles V, had chosen Prague from amongst all the capitals of his kingdoms to be his residence. At the time, Prague was still a medieval city. The famous Charles IV Bridge that spans the Moldau, covered with statues, leads to an interlacing of back streets and alleyways that are lined with enormous and somber palaces. Irregular and eccentric squares are dominated by church clock towers. The banks of the river are home to one of the richest and most fertile ghettos in Europe. The old synagogue is surrounded by the homes of Jewish intellectuals. This is where the greatest thinkers came together, thinkers who not only studied tradition, but also threw themselves into more adventurous areas.
On the other side of the quarter, roads lined with orchards wind and weave, climbing towards the upper city, home to the cathedral of Saint Vitus and the royal palace, the Hradschin. The ruling emperor bore little resemblance to his predecessor. Charles V was concerned with terrestrial matters and Rudolph II with the celestial. An informed and educated patron, he attracted many great artists of the time, and soon all domains and disciplines of art and creativity were represented at Court. He loved the strange, and so he protected the mannerists, in particular the painter Arcimboldo, whose subjects were represented under the form of objects such as fruit and vegetables, like the produce which inspired his portrait of Rudolph II.
The emperor also became one of the finest collectors of precious objects. Aside from semi-precious stones and rare marbles, he also had a great collection of objects whose sole purpose was to please the eyes. In particular, he collected bezoars, small stones that formed in the livers of animals. They resembled large eggs, like those of an ostrich only gray in color, and were believed to be a remedy against poison and subsequently became very popular amongst the richest Europeans. Rudolph Ii had them set in gold and covered in emeralds. He also had a large collection of books and manuscripts, an avid reader, always curious.
The emperor welcomed the world’s most important thinkers and researchers in all domains of speculation, from astrologists to alchemists to magicians, but also mathematicians and scientists such as Kepler, and theologians like Bruno, who was ultimately burned by the church for thinking a bit too freely. His Court was where the boundaries and limitations of knowledge were always being pushed. He called for Brahe to come from Denmark, who had portray land beneath the frozen poles on his globe, He called from London John Dee, the astrologist of Queen Elizabeth, who refused to reveal the secrets of his chemistry and alchemy experiments that he performed surrounded by various stills and clouds of odiferous smoke. And what was the outcome of this great gathering? We know the individual works of each, but what did they achieve together, around the person of the emperor? The principal resource at their disposal was probably this climate of openness and tolerance, of curiosity, an environment where the limits of knowledge could be pushed to the extreme, the freedom to plunge into the unknown and discover the secrets of the universe.
The rabbi Loew, a beacon of Jewish culture, was also living in Prague at the time and certainly in contact with the gathering intellectuals and thinkers. The creation of the famous Golem is attributed to the rabbi. He molded the form of a man out of terracotta. He slid a piece of paper bearing a cabalistic inscription beneath the tongue of the sculpture. After reciting this same couplet, the statue began to move. The rabbi had created the perfect servant, an assistant incapable of disobedience. However, over time the Golem began to acquire a life of its own. One night, the Golem left the house and began to cause trouble in the ghetto, eventually committing crimes. The residents of the ghetto were fearful, and spoke of a creature that that was invulnerable to any arm, of Herculean strength, that destroyed anyone it encountered. The rabbi realized he had gone too far and needed to destroy his creation.
The rabbi is buried in the Jewish cemetery of Prague. His tomb is venerated by pilgrims, who leave a small stone behind so that their wishes might come true. As for Rudolph II, his curiosity and tolerance were not qualities held in high regard by his family, the Hapsburgs; it also didn’t help that Rudolph II was largely disinterested in politics. So his brother Matthias had him dethroned and took his place, keeping his brother as a prisoner in his castle until his death.