Although he only spent two years in Prague, from 1599 until his death in 1601, Tycho Brahe was successful in becoming a central figure in the history of Czech science. This is due in no small part to his contribution to one of the most illustrious periods in pre-modern Czech history, the reign of Rudolf II.
Since 1526, the Habsburg dynasty had provided the historical lands of Bohemia and Moravia, the modern-day Czech Republic, with their king. The Catholic Habsburgs ruled from Vienna, and were often involved in conflict with their largely Protestant Bohemian subjects. Rudolf II ascended the throne in 1576. As a politician and a monarch, he had poor judgement and was somewhat incompetent; but he was passionately interested in science and art.
Rudolf moved his court to Prague in 1583, and the city soon became a magnet for artists and scientists of every kind, from astronomers to alchemists. Rudolf also extended Prague Castle in some style, giving it a suitably distinguished appearance. Rudolf’s close associates included court physician and astronomer Tadeáš Hájek z Hájku (1525-1600), who knew of Tycho Brahe’s work and invited him to Prague. They were joined in 1600 by Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), making Prague one of the most important astronomical capitals in Europe.
Rudolf’s final years were characterised by intense political intrigue, and after his death in 1611, the court was moved back to Vienna by his successor, Mattias. Only a few years later, in 1618, the tension between the Protestant Czechs and the Catholic Habsburgs resulted in the Thirty Years’ War, laying large areas of Bohemia to waste and bringing an abrupt end to Prague’s time as a centre of European Culture. In the Czech conscience, the darkness from this unhappy period only serves to further illuminate Rudolf’s era as a golden age.
By Associate Professor Peter Bugge, Aarhus University.