Feature story Historical cities

Alchemy in Prague

Alchemy is a main theme for the Prague visitor and understandably so since it goes so very well with the twisted, bohemian mood of the city. There are alchemy bars, alchemy museums and all sorts of alchemic stories around, some of them even true, and as a visitor you can’t avoid it.

Alchemy was big among the learned in renaissance and early modern Europe, a sort of pre-scientific quest to understand nature and neither as crazy nor as underground as often portrayed, though an obvious field also for charlatans. Sure alchemists were trying to make gold, but how would they have known it wasn’t possible? In the process and among all failed experiments they managed to gain some new insights. Alchemy wasn’t generally done in secret labs but by the most high-ranking learned at royal courts.

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The Alchemist’s lair, as presented at the Speculum Alchemiae museum in Prague

The historical background to the present alchemy fuss in Prague revolves around the melancholic Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II (1552-1612). Rudolf was a great patron of occult learning. He moved the imperial court to Prague castle in 1583, where it remained for the rest of his life, and welcomed occult experts there such as John Dee and Edward Kelley. Astronomist Tycho Brahe was his court astronomer and astrologist, while sometimes active in the royal alchemy lab. Emperor Rudolf also met with the Jewish learned Rabbi Loew (Judah Loew ben Bezalel, dead 1609), legendary maker of the Prague Golem. You get the full story of Rudolf II and his magic circle in Prague in The Mercurial Emperor by Peter Marshall (Pimlico 2007).

There is a range of privately run museums in Prague focusing on alchemy. Most important the Speculum Alchemiae and the Museum of Alchemists and Magicians of old Prague. In Prague castle there is an alchemist’s laboratory to be seen. All these places are reconstructions centered on good stories. I found the cellar of the Speculum Alchemiae most fascinating, where you can take an excellent guided tour. It left me puzzled concerning what was fact and what was good stories though. The range of alchemist’s bars offer more or less curious alchemy-themed drinks.

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What is completely true is that the Danish astronomer and alchemist Tycho Brahe spent the years before his death in 1601 at the court of Rudolf II, doing many things but also alchemy, and Tycho was buried in Prague in the Church of Our Lady before Týn where his grave can still be seen. Chemical analysis of his preserved beard has shown high levels of mercury, possible due to alchemical activities.

Walking the winding, cobbled streets of central Prague, the intense pre-modern feel of it tells you there could be a black magician’s lab around any corner. Though alchemy in Prague is based on a true story, most of what meets the tourist’s eye is made-up props which, of course, is fully consistent with the theme of alchemy.

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