Magazine article The Spectator

He Shopped till He Dropped

Magazine article The Spectator

He Shopped till He Dropped

Article excerpt

RUDOLF II AND PRAGUE: THE COURT AND THE CITY

edited by Eliska Fucikova

Thames & Hudson, L48, pp. 792

The Habsburg Emperor Rudolf II (1552-1612), king of Hungary and Bohemia and (from 1576) Holy Roman Emperor, was one of those splendid slackers which even the most businesslike of families will occasionally throw up. Like the Bavarian Ludwig II, 300 years later, he was the despair of his advisers, and has been the cynosure of serious-minded historians ever since for having more interest in a new unicorn's horn, a saucy Italian painting or some unwashed English alchemist than in protecting the empire. And yet the greatest kings have something of Rudolf about them, a sense that for a fig they'd give the whole thing up and just go and have some fun for a change - even Frederick the Great, with his off-duty flute-playing and acres of gilt. And who, looking at our own dynasties, has not sometimes thought that, really, George IV was the best of a bad lot?

Rudolf has exerted a fascination over the Czechs ever since, who adore him for being the first of their Habsburg rulers to accede to the request to decamp permanently from Vienna and learn their language. One of the best of Karel Capek's plays, Vec Makropulos, is about the long aftermath of one of Rudolf's experiments; in its transformation into the greatest of Janacek's operas, it is familiar throughout the world. But I suspect the real reason the Czechs are so fond of him is the same sneaking reason the Bavarians still carry a torch for Ludwig II; he was a past master of the art of shopping.

This mind-bogglingly huge and lavish volume charts only some of Rudolph's purchases, but it is enough. If you want to know what an intelligent man of the late 16th century could conceivably be interested in, this is the place to look. There were no limits whatever to what Rudolf could afford, or, seemingly, to what he might be interested in. It can't have taken long before every shyster in Europe, hearing that it was easy to gain entry to the Emperor's presence with the promise of some curious and rare object, set off on the long journey to Prague. We have it on good authority that Rudolf was capable of abandoning the affairs of state to stand in silence for three hours before a still life. No wonder alchemists, clockmakers, painters and that trade which has now vanished, but was clearly a sensible career choice in the 1580s, handlers of unicorns' horns, found it worth their while to go to Prague; the word on the Emperor's spending habits spread as far as distant Scotland and Spain, and, at times, the imperial court must have resembled Portobello Market.

And here a great deal of it is, gathered together after its dispersal in the Thirty Years war: mining compasses, views (horrid) executed in jasper and agate, a `Portrait of the Duke Heinrich Julius of Braunschweig-Luneburg' in engraved glass, rhinoceros-horn goblets, halberds, the court baker's coat-of-arms, and several thousand other pieces of admittedly fascinating tat, including so many sextants one wonders whether Rudolf, like Shakespeare, was under the impression that Bohemia had a coastline.

There is constant amazement to be had out of Rudolf's collecting, and historians of science will find this a richly rewarding volume. Serious developments, like the sextants and, astonishingly, a hypodermic syringe, lie next to pieces of the usual 16thcentury lunacy, alchemy, narwhals' horns and various hints of occult practices. It was an age before the separation of what we now call magic from science, and it is not to be expected that Rudolf and his explorers of the black arts of alchemy and the hermetic mysteries drew a clear line between their activities and those of chemical and medical experiments which actually led to something. …

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