Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor  

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Rudolf II (July 18, 1552 – January 20, 1612) was Holy Roman Emperor (1576–1612), King of Hungary and Croatia (1572–1608), King of Bohemia (1575–1608/1611) and Archduke of Austria (1576–1608). He was a member of the House of Habsburg.

Rudolf's legacy has traditionally been viewed in three ways: an ineffectual ruler whose mistakes led directly to the Thirty Years' War; a great and influential patron of Northern Mannerist art; and a devotee of occult arts and learning which helped seed the scientific revolution.


Patron of arts

Rudolf moved the Habsburg capital from Vienna to Prague in 1583. Rudolf loved collecting paintings, and was often reported to sit and stare in rapture at a new work for hours on end. He spared no expense in acquiring great past masterworks, such as those of Durer and Brueghel. He was also patron to some of the best contemporary artists, who mainly produced new works in the mannerist style, such as Bartholomaus Spranger, Hans Mont, Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Hans von Aachen, and Adrian de Vries. Rudolf's galleries were the most impressive in Europe at the time, and the greatest collection of mannerism to this day.

Many artworks commissioned by Rudolf were unusually erotic.

Rudolf's love of collecting went far beyond paintings and sculptures. He commissioned decorative objects of all kinds and in particular mechanical moving devices. Ceremonial swords and musical instruments, clocks, water works, astrolabes, compasses, telescopes and other scientific instruments, were all produced for him by some of the best craftsmen in Europe.

He patronized natural philosophers such as the botanist Charles de l'Ecluse, and both Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler attended his court.

Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor was to prove an even better patron than his father Maximilian II, Holy Roman Emperor was, and Spranger never left his service. The court soon transferred to Prague, safer from the regular Turkish invasions, and during his reign of 1576-1612, Rudolf was to become an obsessive collector of old and new art, his artists mixing with the astronomers, clockmakers, botanists, and "wizards, alchemists and kabbalists" who Rudolf also gathered around him.

Works from Rudolf's Prague were highly finished and refined, with most paintings being relatively small. The elongation of figures and strikingly complex poses of the first wave of Italian Mannerism were continued, and the elegant distance of Bronzino's figures was mediated through the works of the absent Giambologna, who represented the ideal of the style.

Prints were essential to disseminate the style to Europe, Germany and the Low Countries in particular, and some printmakers, like the greatest of the period, Hendrik Goltzius, worked from drawings sent from Prague, while others, like Aegidius Sadeler who lived in Spranger's house, had been tempted to the city itself. Rudolf also commissioned work from Italy, above all from Giambologna, who the Medicis would not allow to leave Florence, and four great mythological allegories were sent by Paolo Veronese. The Emperor's influence affected art in other German courts, notably Munich, and Dresden where the goldsmith and artist Johann Kellerthaler was based.

Working for Rudolf:

Giambologna (1529-1608), Flemish sculptor based in Florence
Adriaen de Vries (1556-1626), Flemish sculptor, pupil of Giambologna, who went to Prague
Bartholomeus Spranger (1546-1611) - Flemish painter, Rudolf's main painter
Hans von Aachen (1552-1615) - German, mythological subjects and portraits for Rudolf
Joseph Heintz the Elder (1564-1609) - Swiss pupil of Hans von Aachen
Paul van Vianen, Dutch silversmith and artist
Aegidius Sadeler - mainly a printmaker
Wenzel Jamnitzer (1507/8-1585), and his son Hans II and grandson Christof, German goldsmiths
Joris Hoefnagel, especially for miniatures of natural history
Roelant Savery, landscapes with animals and still-lifes


He kept a menagerie of exotic animals, botanical gardens, and Europe's most extensive "cabinet of curiosities" (Kunstkammer) incorporating "the three kingdoms of nature and the works of man". It was housed at Prague Castle, where between 1587 and 1605 he built the northern wing to house his growing collections.

By 1597, the collection occupied three rooms of the incomplete northern wing. When building was completed in 1605, the collection was moved to the dedicated Kunstkammer. Naturalia (minerals and gemstones) were arranged in a 37 cabinet display that had three vaulted chambers in front, each about 5.5 meters wide by 3 meters high and 60 meters long, connected to a main chamber 33 meters long. Large uncut gemstones were held in strong boxes.

Rudolph's Kunstkammer was not a typical "cabinet of curiosities" - a haphazard collection of unrelated specimens. Rather, the Rudolfine Kunstkammer was systematically arranged in an encyclopaedic fashion. In addition, Rudolf II employed his polyglot court physician, Anselmus Boetius de Boodt (c. 1550-1632), to curate the collection. De Boodt was an avid mineral collector. He travelled widely on collecting trips to the mining regions of Germany, Bohemia and Silesia, often accompanied by his Bohemian naturalist friend, Thadeus Hayek. Between 1607 and 1611, de Boodt catalogued the Kunstkammer, and in 1609 he published Gemmarum et Lapidum, one of the finest mineralogical treatises of the 17th century.

As was customary at the time, the collection was private, but friends of the Emperor, artists, and professional scholars were allowed to study it. The collection became an invaluable research tool during the flowering of 17th-century European philosophy, the "Age of Reason".

Regrettably, Rudolf's successors did not appreciate the collection and the Kunstkammer gradually fell into disarray. Some 50 years after its establishment, most of the collection was packed into wooden crates and moved to Vienna. The collection remaining at Prague was looted during the last year of the Thirty Years War, by Swedish soldiers who sacked Prague Castle on 26 July 1648. In 1782, the remainder of the collection was sold piecemeal to private parties by Joseph II, who was a lover of the Arts rather than the Sciences. One of the few surviving items from the Kunstkammer is a "fine chair" looted by the Swedes in 1648 and now owned by the Earl of Radnor at Longford Castle, UK.

Occult sciences

Astrology and alchemy were mainstream science in Renaissance Prague and Rudolf was a firm devotee of both. His lifelong quest was to find the Philosopher's Stone and Rudolf spared no expense in bringing Europe's best alchemists to court, such as Edward Kelley and John Dee. Rudolf even performed his own experiments in a private alchemy laboratory. When Rudolf was a prince, Nostradamus prepared a horoscope which was dedicated to him as 'Prince and King'.

Rudolf gave Prague a mystical reputation that persists in part to this day, with Alchemists' Alley on the grounds of Prague Castle a popular visiting place.

See also

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