Prague has been a mysterious city since ancient history
Magic Prague, City of a Hundred Spires, City of Fate…these are all names associated with Prague, and rightly so. From her inception, Prague has had a magical, mystical feel and a deep-rooted connection to the spiritual. From the first named people group to inhabit these parts, the Celtic Boii, came Prague’s mystic druid beginnings. The Slavic tribes who followed brought their own flavor of pagan spirituality that was slowly absorbed and interwoven in the Christianity introduced to the Bohemians of 10th century Prague. Each footprint left by History as she tread through Prague, left a deeper and more distinct path into the next unfurling of the magic in her folds. Alchemy is the most recent, and perhaps the most captivating, of these tracks.
Call it the perfect marriage of a spiritually drenched city and the modern sophistication that comes with being the seat of authority for the Holy Roman Empire. Rudolf II was drawn to the mysticism of Prague’s past, and wanted to further his own occult interests while prompting his Empire into the next realm of enlightenment and modernity through alchemy.
The alchemy in Prague was magical, mystical, yet deeply rooted in science. The techniques used by the alchemists such as sublimation, distillation, and the codifying of their discoveries, plus the way they recorded their experiments for further knowledge and reproduction are all methods commonly relied upon in modern science. Alchemists all throughout Europe made veritable contributions to science and contemporary economy and medicine with discoveries such as phosphorous, zinc, metallic arsenic, how to create porcelain (which had previously been a lucrative Chinese industry), and the proposition that illness or disease was caused by foreign bodies that could be chemically treated.
Even so, all throughout Europe, including Prague, many alchemists were thought of as charlatans, yet Rudolf II believed in their ability to find the hidden ultimate truth embodied in the base elements. He read occult books voraciously, studying the secrets passages the way that theologians study ancient texts of the Bible. He worked his own experiments in a personal laboratory on the castle hill in Prague, earning him the nicknames the Mad Emperor and the Crazy Alchemist. And, he hired some of the leading alchemists of his time from around Europe to come to Prague for patronage. Under his provision, many alchemists and astrologers studied, experimented, and wrote in laboratories (some obvious and others hidden) throughout the city.
Prague alchemists at the court of Rudolf II
Among the more interesting and well-known personalities working for the Emperor in Prague were men such as Edward Kelley and John Dee. John Dee taught mathematics in England, advised the Queen (and many believe was her spy), held consultations with Emperor Rudolf II, met with other noblemen and kings of the time, and collaborated with Edward Kelley. Dee eventually discontinued his alchemy work with Kelley in Prague, returning to England when he was about 60 years old. But, his fellow countryman, Kelley, remained at court with Rudolf II.
Kelley worked on the castle hill with other alchemists in a grand, elaborate laboratory designed and paid for by none other than Rudolf II. It was set up in the Mihulka Tower (also currently known as Powder Tower for its subsequent stint as a cannon bastion and later being used as a store house for the military’s gunpowder). The Emperor closely monitored their work, following their minor successes and sometimes major failures along the path to discover the Philosopher’s Stone.
The work Kelley did in Milulka Tower was largely encouraged by his claim to be able to transmute base metals into gold. Rudolf II believed Kelley when he said he had the key to unlocking the secret process of finding or creating the Philosopher’s Stone. This greatly enticed Rudolf II to further sponsor Kelley’s work. He wanted to have more gold, eternal youth, unlimited health, and all the other boons that the Stone possessed. But, in turn, when it became obvious that Kelley could not produce what he had promised, Rudolf II had him arrested and imprisoned.
First, he was imprisoned in the Krivoklat Castle and then again in the Hnevin Castle in Most. Even though he was allowed full range of movement on the castle grounds (basically, he was on house arrest) the famous, or rather, at the time of his imprisonment, the infamous Kelley tried to escape from his prison. He was unsuccessful in his attempt, only gaining a broken leg in the process, thus ironically further limiting his movement. Eventually, he drank a poison and died shortly afterwards. But, during his imprisonment periods, according to some sources, Kelley was also held prisoner in Golden Lane’s White Tower.
This tower prison was intended for housing prisoners of noble ranks. The people housed there were often granted more freedoms than in other prisons, being able to roam the halls freely by day, but it was still prison and the prisoners still often met unpleasant fates. Most notably, some of the noblemen from the Estates Uprising (Battle of White Mountain) were held here before their execution on Old Town Square in 1621.
Alchemy in the Old Town in Prague
But, Kelley and Dee were not the only alchemists working for Rudolf II. Nor were the emperor’s alchemists alone in the city working to unlock the mysteries of the universe through their dark art. Deep under Kozi Street in Old Town, alchemy was performed beneath one of the oldest homes in Prague. It was a secret laboratory (not discovered until 2002 when a great flood washed out part of the street covering it) located where a series of tunnels converged. Based on the journals and recipes found, and the fact that one of the tunnels led directly to the castle, it seems that these alchemists secretly worked directly for the emperor or at least cooperated with his alchemists on Castle Hill.
Another house in Old Town, on Zatecka Street is also known to have been the dwelling of several alchemists in Prague. The locals all believed that these men had made a pact with the devil to work their magical brand of alchemy. When, eventually, the men went missing and the only clue to their whereabouts was a hole in the roof, it cemented local lore into “truth” that the alchemists were doing the devil’s work.
Whether the alchemists in Prague were charlatans, mad men, precursors to chemists, or magicians, they each added a unique flavor to the melting pot of Prague Alchemy…a flavor that is still evident even today when walking the 21st century streets of Prague.
Written by Rebekah Sramkova