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© Martin Mařák

Prague So close to the stars

According to one legend, Prague’s magnificent destiny was prophesied even before its founding: “I see a great city whose glory will touch the stars.” These words utter by the mythical Princess Libuše supposedly determined the place in the deep forests around the river Vltava where the first inhabitants were to build a castle and thus the foundation for a new town.

An inexplicable connection between the city and the stars, astronomy and astrological magic is characteristic of Prague to this day. Perhaps it is even thanks to some lucky star that Prague has managed to escape all major wars and disasters, allowing it to retain its unique character, in which architectural styles from an entire millennium blend into one picturesque whole whose parallel you will not find anywhere else in the world.

Prague’s mysterious atmosphere has again and again captivated its visitors, among them the most prominent personalities of science, art and politics, who stopped at this crossroads in the middle of Europe or even tied their fate to the city for a longer time. But gives Prague its grace and beauty? What is her secret? From whence comes the “inexplicable supernatural" that the Czech writer Jakub Arbes notices in Prague? We never seem to find a simple answer, because something is hidden beneath the surface in Prague which is eludes our daily experience and defies our understanding. Whoever wants to get to know Prague must know something about her – something which cannot be read in even the best-researched guidebooks. That means only one thing – it is necessary to see her, to walk through her streets, and to see with your own eyes the city of eccentrics and visionaries, the restless heart of Central Europe, as it once was described by the German writer Oskar Wiener. Not even the best poem or novel can capture even a fraction of her mystery and beauty.

King of charlatans and scientists

Prague experienced perhaps its greatest period of prosperity during the reign of Rudolf II (†1621). One of Czech history’s most noble eccentrics, he turned Prague into the capital of his empire and amassed treasures of enormous value here. The castle treasury was full of gadgets and curiosities, but it also boasted the one of the most magnificent art collections of the period. Only a fraction of that valuable but ill-fated collection can be admired at the Prague Castle Picture Gallery today. There you will find works by Veronese, Dürer and Hans von Aachen and others. 

During the reign of Rudolf II, Prague lived in the eccentric spirit of its sovereign. The atmosphere was favourably inclined to astrologists, metaphysicians and all manner of charlatans. The emperor’s enchantment with the stars attracted to Prague top astronomers and alchemists in equal measure. According to legend, the picturesque Golden Lane at Prague Castle was inhabited by men of the secret craft, and the lane has been preserved almost unchanged to this day.

In Prague lived also Giordano Bruno. He was later burnt at the stake for his belief that neither the Earth nor the Sun was the centre of the universe and that the universe was infinite. he wrote two treatises during his unsuccessful wait for acceptance into the service of Emperor Rudolf II: One of them he dedicated to the emperor, perhaps in farewell. It was titled One Hundred and Sixty Articles Against Contemporary Mathematicians and Philosophers.

Thanks to Emperor Rudolf II, Prague became a meeting point for two of the most important figures in the history of astronomy. Their relationship and the long period in which the cause of Tycho Brahe’s death remained a mystery has sparked the imagination of historians and writers around the world. In Prague, you will find traces of both of these great astronomers at every step

The astronomer’s apprentice and the mysterious death of the teacher

Tycho Brahe is considered to have been the best and the most accurate observer of the night sky, whose discoveries were surpassed only sixty years after the invention of the telescope. He settled in the court of Rudolf II after leaving Denmark following a disagreement with King Christian IV. Although he was a scientist, he worked in the emperor’s service as an astrologer, and a story is told that he even predicted that the emperor’s fate would be closely tied to the life of his favourite lion. According to legend, Rudolf actually died a few days after the animal’s death.

Legends have also long been told about the death of Tycho Brahe himself. Reportedly he died from a rupture of the bladder while observing a solar eclipse; another legend says the cause of the rupture was an excessive timidness that prevented him rising from the feast table before the emperor. Newer hypotheses worked with the assumption that he poisoned himself, or even that he was murdered by someone. According to one version, his murderer was a Swedish nobleman acting on the instructions of King Christian IV, and according to another one it was his assistant Johannes Kepler, eager to get at the astronomical notes which Brahe had over amassed over his 40-year career. In this cruel way, the young Kepler would have been able to further his own brilliant career.

The 400-year-old mystery reached its denouement only recently. In January 2009, Denmark requested a new exhumation of Tycho Brahe’s body, which is buried in Týn Church on Old Town Square. The next year, a Danish team of scientists arrived in Prague to study the remains and to determine whether the death could have been caused by mercuric chloride poisoning. Archaeologists exhumed Brahe’s remains in a tin coffin on November 15th. Inside they found parts of long bones, ribs and part of the skull, which were transported to the Na Homolce Hospital in Prague for further study using computer tomography. Two years later, a report was issued that Brahe died in Prague of natural causes, not poisoning.

Exhumed remains of Tycho Brahe

After more than four centuries, Johannes Kepler was exonerated of false suspicions. This eminent scientist began as an assistant to Tycho Brahe in Prague and he helped in accurately calculating the planetary orbit of Mars. After Brahe’s death, Kepler took his place as the imperial mathematician and astrologer and continued his own work. It was in Prague that Kepler discovered and also first published, in the book Astronomia Nova, the first two of his three laws of planetary motion around the Sun, which refined the foundations of astronomy. The validity of his ideas was experimentally confirmed by science until half a century ago, and even many years later they helped rocket designers to launch the first artificial satellites and space probes.

The Old Town Astronomical Clock, also known as the Orloj, is probably the best preserved medieval astronomical clock in the world. It was installed on the tower of the Old Town Hall in 1410. Its creator was Jan Ondřejův, called Šindel, and the clockwork itself was made by Mikuláš of Kadaň. The medieval heart of the clock, the gears with 365, 366 and 379 teeth which ensure the movement of the hands for the Sun, Moon and zodiac, have been preserved and are still functional. At the end of the 15th century a calendar was added, and it was replaced in 1866 with a new one painted by the artist Josef Mánes. Jan Ondřejův (c. 1375–1454) was an outstanding medieval astronomer, mathematician and physician, and his work was praised by Tycho Brahe.

The Orloj is actually an astrolabe – a sort of universal analogue computer based on a mechanical principle, which shows the apparent position of celestial bodies in the sky. On the Orloj it is possible to read which zodiacal sign the Sun is currently in, and you can also find out the Sun’s distance above the horizon, the time of its rise and set, the days of solstices and equinoxes, and more. The hand with a small golden star shows astral time. The sophisticated technical apparatus was complemented in the 18th century with moving figures of the twelve Apostles, which parade by in the upper part of the clock at the top of the hour.

According to legend, the functioning of the clock is also linked with the fate of the Czech lands. As long as the machine is working, everything is more or less fine, but should it stop, things may go badly. The last such event occurred in 2001, shortly before midnight on New Year’s Eve, when a small problem caused the clock (now running on an electric mechanism) to stop running – and in August 2002 Prague was hit with a disastrous flood.