Rudolph II: The Alchemist’s Emperor

The Holy Roman emperor, King Rudolph II is a mysterious figure. He failed as a politician but earned a place in history for his pursuit of beauty and knowledge.

Feb 15, 2023By Barbora Jirincova, PhD History

rudolph ii alchemist emperor


Rudolph II (1552 – 1612), the melancholic emperor, the patron of alchemists, and the collector of arts. He assembled a fascinating collection of art and his patronage of painters and sculptors gave birth to a completely new style — Northern Mannerism. At his court, not only alchemists with their magic but also astronomers and scientists made great discoveries.


However, he also started a war with the Ottoman empire, resulting in a debacle and a Hungarian revolt. He lacked a taste for politics. Suffering from severe mental illness, Rudolph loved solitude and evaded his duties and people in general. But he did have lovers — many of them. To add to the personal tragedy of this king, his illegitimate son turned out to be a monster who had to be imprisoned.


The Divided World of Rudolph II

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Phillip II, by Sofinisba Anguissola, 1573, via Museo del Prado


Rudolph lived during the dusk of the renaissance world. The first baroque buildings already stood, and slowly the baroque mentality crept over Europe. Rudolph II was the son and successor of the Holy Roman Emperor, and Czech and Hungarian king Maximilian II, and a cousin to the Spanish king Philip II. He was raised in Madrid and was provided with a rigorous Catholic education. Meanwhile, in Hungary, the Turks moved their border furthermore West, into the heart of Europe.


In the small Czech kingdom, the miracle of religious tolerance sprang up. A rare flower on the battlefield of confessions, soon to be trampled over by the more radical thinking of both Catholics and Protestants. It was this world that young Rudolph was to rule over.

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The Character of Our Renaissance Emperor

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Rudolf II, Emperor of Austria (1552-1612), by Alonso Sánches Coëllo, 1567, via the Royal Collection


Everyone said Rudolph II was a bright boy. But in his genes, mental illness was hiding. Rudolph’s great-grandmother Johana the Crazy brought it to the family, and every time a cousin married a cousin, this disposition grew stronger. The Habsburgs often married a each other. Rudolph’s strict ceremonial upbringing and his uptight, rigorously religious mother only worsened the illness. Rudolph would suffer from manic depression and, later, schizophrenia and paranoia.


Furthermore, his Spanish education made it difficult for Rudolph to compromise on the complicated matters of Central European politics. Because, as they told Rudolph, Spanish monarch never negotiated with his subjects and definitely not with the Protestants. So, when the young prince became a Holy Roman emperor and Czech king, he had to learn new ways to do politics. In Madrid, he got the worst education possible for the role he was meant to play.


Rudolph’s Family

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Allegory of the Turkish War, by Hans von Aachen, 1603 – 1604, via Kunsthistorisches Museum


When Rudolph II became an emperor, his worst trouble was not the Turks or the Protestants. It was his relatives who drove him crazy. He tried to rule and tried his best, but his Spanish relatives kept haunting him. They wanted him to simultaneously uproot the “heretics” in the Czech and Hungarian kingdoms, fight the Protestant princes in the Empire, and battle the Turks in Hungary. His uncle Charles was presented as an example of a fine Catholic prince who never wavered and systematically destroyed Protestant power in his Styrian lands. In comparison, Rudolph had to negotiate and step carefully — a weakness, they said.


The Troublesome Younger Brother

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Emperor Matthias as Archduke with Baton, by Lucas van Valckenborch, 1583, via Kunsthistorisches Museum


Furthermore, Rudolph II had a younger brother, Mathias. This duke’s most prominent trait was his self-belief. His ambitions far exceeded his abilities. Rudolph knew it; Mathias did not. And he would constantly bother Rudolph asking for money, more responsibilities, and pleas for help when some of his missions went wrong.


What was worst, Mathias was scheming with his Spanish relatives and Catholic politicians. They petitioned Rudolph together. They wanted to know what he was about to do with the heretics in Prague and the Turks in Hungary. They wanted to know when Rudolph would get married. He did not have an heir, but Rudolph did not want to get married. Slowly the depression in Rudolph’s head was joined by paranoia. After seven years in Vienna, he got fed up with his relatives, Mathias, and the Spaniards on his court. He moved the whole court to the heart of Europe, that “heretic” Czech kingdom.


Rudolph’s Court in Prague

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Rudolph II and Tycho Brahe in Prague, by Eduard Ender, 1855, via


In Prague, Rudolph II felt free. Far from his Spanish relatives, far from the Turks, safe from family plots. Slowly he lost interest in his rule. Czech aristocrats had fought for their political and religious rights with both Rudolph’s father and grandfather, so they were only too happy to do the politics with their king.


Rudolph created a court full of artists, alchemists, and scientists. Charlatans took vast amounts of money from him while searching for the love potions and the Sorcerer’s stone. But natural scientists, like Tycho de Brahe and Johannes Kepler, worked for Rudolph and made their discoveries. The emperor never hesitated to fund their experiments. He was present to most of them in person, eager to know more about the world, and he paid bright minds and charlatans alike.


At this colorful court, all religions were welcome. Jewish mystics, great Italian Catholic painters, and their Protestant colleagues from the Netherlands. It was a rare place in Europe that slowly but surely dragged itself toward religious war — and it gave birth to many a masterpiece.


The Rudolphian Renaissance in Prague

Rudoph II as Vertumndus, by Giuseppe Arcimboldo, 1591, via Skokloster Castle


Rudolph II is most renowned for his patronage of the arts. Not only did he acquire a considerable collection of paintings, but at his court, a new style emerged — Northern Mannerism. Names such as Bartholomeus Spranger, Hans von Aachen, Giusseppe Archiboldo, Aegidius Sadeler, or Adrian de Vries worked in Prague. His collection was full of exciting objects of either natural or mechanical origin. The paintings in his collection were often very erotic. His enemies repeatedly accused him of having loose sexual morals. Truth be told, Rudolph had many mistresses and never married.


Debacles of the Renaissance Emperor

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Portrait of Emperor Rudolph II on Horseback, by Aegidius Sadeler, 1586 – 1629, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art


Rudolph II, tried to be a good ruler from time to time but failed in the face of the complicated reality of Central European politics. After his death, the Thirty Years’ War would spring up from this boiling cauldron. Maybe not even a genius would have been able to rule successfully under these circumstances, however,  Rudolph II did make at least one major mistake. He started an offensive against the Turks, desiring to be the grand savior of Christianity. The war did not go well, and after 13 years, he had to sign a disadvantageous peace with the Ottoman Empire. His Hungarian subjects, who suffered the most under the war, revolted. The year 1606 marked the beginning of the fall of the Renaissance Emperor.


The War Between the Two Brothers

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Portrait of Rudolph II, by Aegidius Sadeler, 1603, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art


In 1606 Rudolph sunk into a fit of depression, one of the worst of his life. He lost all interest in politics. After years of plotting with other family members and Spanish diplomats, his brother Mathias saw an opportunity. The debacle in the war with the Turks made every politician allied with the Habsburgs certain that any ruler would be better than Rudolph. They signed a secret plot to make Mathias the head of the family instead of his older brother. Mathias joined forces with the revolting Hungarians the following year, and an open war between the two brothers started. The Austrian and Moravian aristocracy mainly went over to the younger brother’s side. The Czechs remained loyal. But not for the love of their Renaissance Emperor. They made him pay the price.


The Tragic Fall

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Rudolf II and Matthias II 1608 near Prague, 1908, via Wikimedia Commons


Rudolph II had to sign a Letter of Majesty, a document that gave the Czechs religious freedom. This document was a great victory after centuries of religious disputes in the Czech kingdom. So the Czechs supported their king, and Rudolph kept the Czech crown while Mathias swallowed his other titles. Any support Rudolph might have left in Catholic circles was lost.


Furthermore, Rudolph’s only surviving child, an illegitimate son Don Julio d’Austria, added to the king’s suffering. Julio inherited the poor Habsburgian genetics, mental illness in its worst form. He lived in Czech Krumlov, and the whole town feared his violent behavior. In 1608 Don Julio brutally murdered his mistress and further disfigured her corpse. Rudolph had no choice but to imprison his son, who died in the dungeon a year later.


Rudolph’s Final Mistake

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Archduke Leopold V, by Joseph Heintz the Elder, 1604, via Kunsthistorisches Museum


Rudolph could not reconcile himselfwith the religious freedom he gave the Czechs. Not from the point of his Catholic faith, which was dubious, to say the least. It was his pride that suffered. Rudolph’s mental illness was getting worse every day. So he made his final, fatal mistake. He invited his relative, Leopold od Pasov to invade Prague. After days of pillaging and fighting, the Czech estates and Prague townspeople managed to push the invaders away. Now even loyal Prague lost patience with their king.


The depressive paranoic puppet, once a bright young king, did not inspire any respect whatsoever. So, Mathias claimed the Czech crown as well and Rudolph died in seclusion one year later.


Rudolph II’s Legacy and Second Life

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Celestial globe with clockwork, by Gerhard Emmoser, 1579, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art


Was Rudolph II a bad Czech king and an even worse Roman emperor? His contemporaries thought so. He was reluctant to act when he should have and rash to start a war when diplomacy would have served him better. But his was a difficult choice. His Central European subjects saw him as uncompromising, while his Spanish allies regarded him as too lenient.


Seven years after his resignation, the most tragic war in Europe would break out. The causes of this war would be the same problems that Rudolph II could not solve: religious and political disputes. Rudolph had a severe mental illness, and his interests did not include politics, religion, or the pursuit of power. His love was for the arts, beauty, knowledge, and mystery. And thus, this is Rudolph’s legacy.


All the political accomplishments of his more skillful contemporaries would be lost in the tumult of war that was soon to come, but Rudolph’s collections and the knowledge of astronomers like Kepler would enrich humankind forever.

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By Barbora JirincovaPhD HistoryBarbora is a historian and a university teacher from the Czech Republic. She studies the history of women and the early modern ages. She holds a Ph.D. in history from Charles University in Prague, where she teaches. She is passionate about teaching history to the broader public. Understanding history can make the world a better place. She is also a contributing writer and copywriter and loves writing on various topics.