Thursday, August 6, 2009
Prague, in the late sixteenth century. was a flourishing centre of alchemy. The Hapsburg Emperor Rudolf II was known to be indulgent towards practitioners of the art, and unlike other less lenient German princes, never had one executed.
Alchemists from across Europe were attracted to the city. Some were scholars and serious researchers, seeking to interpret arcane Egyptian and Alexandrine texts. But many others were simply con artists, adept at disappearing before their alchemical gold was discovered to be gilt paint.
The most famous alchemists in 1580’s Prague were two oddly assorted Englishmen. Quite apart from his occult studies, Dr. John Dee was a brilliant and respected mathematician, astronomer and navigator. He was also official astrologer to Queen Elizabeth. On the other hand Dee’s partner, Edward Kelley, was by all accounts an inventive fraud with a criminal past.
In Prague in Black and Gold: The History of a City Peter Demetz says the idea that "Prague harbours more secrets of the magical, or mystical, kind than any other city in Europe” is "of rather recent origins." Italian scholar Angelo Maria Ripellino’s 1973 book Praga Magica, in Demetz’s words, “aimed to resuscitate the city as an eerie place of mystics, specters, madmen and alchemists, poets maudit and soothsayers of occult powers…”
On a recent trip to Prague, like many visitors before me I was eager to learn about the city’s occult and mystical traditions. However, it seems that the spiritus loci of present day Prague are not Dr. Dee and his fellow alchemists, but rather the golem, Alfons Mucha and Franz Kafka.
The Czech Republic’s only alchemical museum is located not in Prague but in the nearby town of Kutná Hora, where a building in the main square houses an alchemical laboratory in its cellars, and in an adjoining Gothic tower an alchemist's study filled with ancient books.
In Prague itself, hints of the occult past linger in the names of some hotels and clubs, and in a children’s picture book, The Alchemists of Prague, that I spotted in the Mucha Museum. Alchemist were rumoured to have practised their art in the Golden Lane, a narrow alley in the castle precinct, but that seems to be a myth based solely on the fact that goldsmiths had their workshops there. Several Czech websites suggest that Powder Tower on the castle grounds was an alchemical workshop -- but no hints survive in the tower itself, which now houses a permanent historical exhibit devoted to the Castle Guard.
Prague, in the 21st century, is a magical city; but in its winding streets and alleys, crowded now with souvenir shops, few traces of Dr. Dee and the old alchemical tradition remain.
(Left) The Powder Tower
(Right) The Golden Alley