Convincing proposal that one of the most inept and eccentric European rulers in a turbulent age was the ultimate promoter of the arts and sciences in Western culture.
With good reason, British cultural historian Marshall (The Philosopher’s Stone, not reviewed, etc.) devotes considerable attention to the years that a teenaged Hapsburg prince spent at the court of his uncle, Phillip II of Spain. Future Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II (1552–1612) became fully “Spaniolated” (as one English emissary reported to Elizabeth I) in his courtly and personal manners, but watching Uncle Phillip barbecue heretics and wield the dreaded Inquisition as a weapon against his political foes led Rudolf to reject rigid Catholic intolerance of other beliefs. The court he later founded at Prague’s Hradcany Castle (to escape the irritating bustle of Vienna) established that city as an island of tolerance in sectarian-riven Europe. Shy, dyspeptic and melancholy to the point of clinical depression, Rudolf had a regrettable tendency to put off important political decisions, even his own marriage, which were boring in comparison to his preoccupation with alchemy, astrology and the sciences. But he assembled a fascinating collection of both authentic and charlatan brainpower under his patronage. Prague became a beacon to the likes of mathematician Johannes Kepler, who paid his bills doing astrological charts for nobility, and Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe; their collaboration produced the momentous Laws of Planetary Motion. Marshall suggests that his subject may have been the “greatest patron of the arts” who ever lived. Rudolf’s reward? A lonely death, and historians’ judgment that he was a weak, ineffectual ruler.
A revelatory biography, particularly for Americans whose history classes treat Eastern Europe as the far side of the world.