Curious

07 18 rudolph ii portraitHoly Roman Emperor, Rudolf II, was born on this day in 1552 in Vienna. Rudolph was also King of Germany, King of Bohemia and King of Hungary. He became something of a recluse, rarely leaving his palace in Prague. He ruled at a difficult time when, as Holy Roman Emperor, he was meant to be Catholic, but a lot of his subjects were not. He tried to occupy the middle ground and it didn’t really work out too well for him. He was eventually deposed by his more ambitious brother. All this makes him sound rather dull, but he really wasn’t.

Rudolf was an enthusiastic patron of both the arts and sciences. This meant his court harboured all sorts of interesting people. Under his rule, Prague had a reputation for being full of dissidents, heretics and heliocentrists. The idea that the earth might go round the sun, instead of the other way round was not a popular one. In 1599, he made Tycho Brahe, who is probably my favourite astronomer ever, his court astronomer, after he was exiled from his home country of Denmark. But Rudolph was also fascinated by alchemy and the occult. Both of these subjects were, at the time, every bit as credible as astronomy. In the 1580s, he was visited by the famous mathematician and alchemist John Dee along with his questionable friend Edward Kelley, who Rudolph later locked up in a castle.

07 18 rudolf IIThe Emperor was an extremely keen collector of both art objects and scientific instruments. As well as collecting well-known artists like Dürer and Brueghel, he commissioned many new pieces. This unusual portrait on the left is Rudolph as Vertumnus, the Roman god of the seasons. The artist’s name is Giuseppe Arcimboldo, he did a lot of paintings like this, but mostly they have titles like ‘winter’ or ‘the librarian’. This is the only one I could find that is of a specific person.

Rudolf amassed an amazing ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ that included one hundred and twenty astronomical and geometrical instruments and more than sixty clocks. His collection was the finest in Europe and it occupied three large rooms of his palace. As the private collection of a recluse, not many people got to see it, so we can’t be sure of everything that it contained. Certainly he kept a live lion and a tiger, which roamed freely about the castle. We know this because there are documents relating to the payment of compensation to those who had been attacked by them or, if it had gone particularly badly, to their families. Rudolf himself insisted that he owned a grain of earth from which God made Adam, two nails from Noah’s Ark, a basilisk and some dragons.

Rudolf never married, but it is rumoured that he had numerous affairs at court with both men and women. He had several illegitimate children, one of whom seems to have suffered from schizophrenia and did some terrible things. Rudolf was a member of the Habsburg dynasty, who suffered terribly from inbreeding and do not have a happy history of mental stability. Rudolph himself seems to have suffered from bouts of melancholia, which was common in his family. Two of his favourite objects were a cup made of agate, which he believed to be the Holy Grail, and a six foot long horn, which came from a narwhal, but Rudolf thought it had belonged to a unicorn. When he was at his lowest he liked to take these two things, draw himself a magic circle with a Spanish sword, then just sit in it.

Some believe him to be one of the owners the Voynich Manuscript, a very interesting document which I mentioned briefly when I wrote about Edward Kelley. It has been carbon dated to some time in the early fifteenth century and is written in an unknown language. It has defied all attempts to translate it. Most of the illustrations are botanical and there are some with what look like star charts. But some are really weird. There are a lot of drawings of naked women that also feature an elaborate system of pipes. They seem to be conveying something really specific, but we have no idea what. So, naturally, they make everyone who sees it really want to know what it says. It seems to contain information about plants, medicine, biology, astronomy and cosmology. It doesn’t appear to be written in code, but rather in some, now lost, language that is possibly Middle Eastern in origin, but no other examples of the language have ever been found. If you’ve never come across it before, you can find a facsimile here

07 18 voynich cropped by me.

Rudolf, as you may gather, was a deeply superstitious man. Tycho Brahe once informed him that he shared a horoscope with his favourite lion cub. When it died, years later, the Emperor shut himself up in his rooms and refused all medical attention. He died three days later. His successors were less enthusiastic about his collection. It was packed away and forgotten about. Later, much of it was stolen when Swedish troops attacked Prague Castle in 1648 and many of its items later ended up in the hands of Queen Christina of Sweden.

Eccentric

12 14 tycho braheToday is the birthday of Tycho Brahe, who was born in 1546 at his ancestral home of Knutstorp Castle in what was then Denmark, but now Sweden. Brahe was an astronomer who, although he worked without a telescope, produced extremely comprehensive and accurate planetary and astronomical observations. He first became interested in astronomy at the age of thirteen when he witnessed a solar eclipse. He was particularly fascinated because it had been predicted. In 1572, he was lucky enough to witness the birth of a supernova, and clever enough to recognise it for what it was.

12 14 ptolomaic universeBrahe was born into a world where everyone believed that the stars were fixed and unchanging, hanging on a crystal sphere. It’s called celestial immutability. The universe then was built from a progressively smaller set of crystal spheres, one inside the other, with the earth at the centre. These spheres held all the stars and planets and also our sun and moon. This meant that nothing in them could change. So when a new light appeared in the sky, almost everyone thought it must be located somewhere between the earth and the moon. Brahe plotted its movement and realised that it must be much further away. In 1573, he wrote a book about it called ‘De Nova Stella’, the new star. So the ‘nova’ part of the word ‘supernova’ was coined by him. No one believed him very much, and he thought they were all pretty stupid. In his preface to De Stella Nova he says: “O crassa ingenia. O caecos coeli spectatores”, which basically means: “Oh thick wits. Oh blind watchers of the sky”. By observing and recording the movements of the heavens, he also realised that comets were not atmospheric phenomena, but must be objects that passed through the supposedly impenetrable crystal spheres.

12 14 tychonian systemAlthough Nicolaus Copernicus had, in 1543, published a theory that it was, in fact, the sun that was at the centre of the universe, The church weren’t very happy about it. Brahe came up with his own universe model where both the sun and the earth were at the centre. In Brahe’s geo-heliocentric universe, the sun and moon move round the earth, but all the other planets move round the sun. Everything rolls around inside the sphere of fixed stars. Quite how the sun and moon don’t occasionally crash into Mars in this model, I don’t know. But I bet he did, because he was all about measuring things.

But it’s really the other things in his life that I wanted to tell you about today. Tycho Brahe had a strange life and is really the most eccentric astronomer I’ve ever come across. When Brahe was two, he was pretty much kidnapped by a rich and childless uncle who raised him and paid for his education. His parents accepted this and let them get on with it.

In 1566, whilst at university, he attended the wedding of one of his professors. There, he became involved in a dispute with a fellow student over the legitimacy of a mathematical equation. Seventeen days later, they were still arguing about it. They decided to settle the matter with a duel. We don’t know who won but, although both parties survived and later made up, Brahe lost the bridge of his nose in the fight. Oh, I forgot to say, they were duelling in the dark. For the rest of his life Brahe wore a prosthetic nose made from metal. He had to stick it on with paste and keep a pot of spare paste with him at all times in case it fell off. His false nose is said to have looked very much like a real nose, so maybe he had it painted or something, because it’s not in evidence in any of his portraits. Of course, he might just have been sensitive about it. History records that his nose was made of silver and gold, but tests on his twice-exhumed body suggest that it was either copper or brass. Perhaps he had a gold and silver one that he kept for special occasions.

12 14 uraniborgTycho Brahe would have easily been able to afford a gold and silver nose if he’d wanted it, because he was extremely wealthy. At one point he owned one percent of all the wealth in Denmark. As well as coming from a wealthy family, he enjoyed the patronage of kings. He spent a year at the court of Rudolf II in Prague. Frederick II of Denmark gave him the island of Hven in Øresund. He built himself a castle and observatory there in 1576 called Uraniborg and in 1581 he built an underground observatory nearby at Stjerniborg where he found his measuring equipment was more stable and less affected by weather conditions. 12 14 stjerneborgHe lived with Kirsten Jørgensdatter and, although they were never formally married, they lived together for almost thirty years, until Tycho’s death, and had eight children. He kept a team of students at his observatory and his home seems to have been quite a busy place that required a large staff. He even had a court jester called Jeppe. Jeppe was a dwarf who Brahe was quite convinced had psychic abilities. Once during a dinner party the dwarf announced. “See how your people wash themselves in the sea.” Now, Tycho had sent two of his students off to Copenhagen and expected them back that day. Fearing them drowned, he sent someone up the tower to look out for them. The news was that there was an upturned boat on the shore and two men standing next to it who were dripping wet. Tycho was very fond of Jeppe and used to have him sit under the table during dinner and feed him scraps, which is, I suppose, what passes for fondness in sixteenth century Denmark.

12 14 elkNow that I’ve got you used to the idea of a man with a metal nose who kept a psychic dwarf under the dining table for special occasions, I’m going to mention the elk. Tycho Brahe had a pet elk, a moose, if you will. Quite a large animal. It lived with him in the castle and, when he went out anywhere, it would run alongside his carriage like a dog. The Elk, unfortunately, developed a taste for beer. We know about the Elk because of a letter a man called Lantgrave wrote to him, saying he had heard of an animal called a ‘rix’ that could run faster than a deer. Tycho replied that there was no such animal, but he had a tame elk that was pretty fast and he could send it over for an experiment. Landgrave replied saying ‘Yes please’ and he would swap it for a horse. The next letter from Tycho says that sadly, he could not send the elk because it had died after it got drunk and fell downstairs. Tycho had leant the elk to a friend to entertain his dinner guests. So the poor elk didn’t even die after falling downstairs drunk in its own castle. It died at a party.

Tycho himself met a rather unhappy end. There has been some speculation that he was poisoned after having an affair with the mother of the king. But, as I said, his body has been exhumed twice and no traces of poison have been found. Another possibility is kidney stones, but again this has been disproved. The most likely explanation is the traditional one. That he died from an infection caused by a burst bladder. This apparently happened because he felt it was bad form to get up in the middle of a banquet to relieve himself. Poor, duelling, dwarf-feeding, elk-owning Tycho Brahe died because of etiquette. He is said to have written his own epitaph: “He lived like a sage and died like a fool.” so perhaps he saw it coming.