Posts Tagged ‘rudolf ii’

Prospero, who art thou?

November 21, 2011

It is popular to run to the historical visage of the famous physician, astrologer, and scrier, John Dee, as a probable influence whenever the stereotype of the bearded, crystal gazing, and be-robed wizard appears in literature or mythology. Dee has been suggested for Soloman of Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis, Prospero of the Tempest, Faust of the Faust legends, and many other similar wizard-like personages over the centuries. And there is no doubt he has been the major influence on the archetype mage/wizard/alchemist/necromancer… but is it always correct to look only to him as the sole source?

John Dee: The (almost) Universal Mage Icon

John Dee has been suggested as an inspiration for the character of Soloman, the leader of the fictional scientific utopia of Bensalem, in The New Atlantis. But Rosalie Colie, in her 1955 article, Cornelis Drebbel and Solomon de Caus: Two Jacobean Models for Salomon’s House (Huntington Library Quarterly, Vol. 18, No. 3, May, 1955), bypassed Dee. Instead she suggested that the Soloman of Bacon’s utopia could have been partially inspired by Cornelis Drebbel, the alchemist and inventor, and his contemporary, Solomon De Caus. This may be correct in part, for the reasons she has given. Mostly her argument is based on the inventions and experiments described in Bensalem, and in that she does have a point. But rather than the model for the leader of New Atlantis, I personally think that Drebbel is more likely the model for the character who relates the story, who visits the island with his fellow shipwrecked crewmates. I feel this way for several reasons. First of all, back to reality: Drebbel was invited to Rudolf II’s court to present the Emperor with one of his perpetual motion clocks, which were the rage of Europe at the time. While there, Drebbel became Rudolf’s chief alchemist, and also, purportedly, the manager and creator of the royal fireworks displays. In 1612, after Rudolf’s brother Matthias usurped Rudolf, Drebbel was briefly jailed, and almost executed. It was with a promise of return, in a letter from King James, that Drebbel was allowed to return safely to London… along with, significantly, a bounty of 1,000 ducats.

Cornelis Drebbel: The (sometimes) Mage Icon

Now it would be expected that this near fatal sojourn of Drebbel’s would be familiar to Bacon… and right around the time that Bacon was apparently formulating the concept of New Atlantis. In fact, the two men had rooms at Eltham Palace, Drebbel for his experiments in perpetual motion and hydraulics and artificial cooling; Bacon for… well don’t we wish we knew, exactly? But it is reported he “had rooms” there, and so would have been familiar with Drebbel and his experiments. But we don’t have to guess, as Bacon did write of several of these… that is, the cooling experiments, and underwater boats. And, of course, as Colie points out, many of these inventions appear in The New Atlantis. In any case, there is a parallel between the protagonist/relater of the New Atlantis story and Drebbel. Both men went away and visited a place where science and experiments were funded by the state. And both came back to report on their experiences there, and both received a bounty from the state on their leaving… Drebbel, as I said, 1,000 ducats, and the New Atlantis narrator, 2,000 ducats.

Rudolf II The (never chosen) Mage Icon

But then if not Drebbel or DeCaus, who would Soloman, the leader and founder of Bensalem, be modeled on? I feel he is more probably based on Rudolf II than John Dee, or Drebbel or De Caus. Like Rudolf, Soloman spent the fortunes of the nation on the pursuit of knowledge, and collected and honored those who achieved great things. The author of the work, Francis Bacon, was promoting the idea that the state should fund scientific experiment, for the ultimate good of its citizens. Rudolf, for all his inconsistency and unpredictability, and his very short reign, was trying to do just this… to collect and use all the scientific and artistic knowledge of the world, to solve problems and improve the state of humanity. Well, that and  to make gold from lead, to fund his armies, and so protect his interests  and position.  Drebbel was more an experimenter in such a system, he was not a leader. Rudolf II was more the model and hope for, I think, a new beginning of state-run scientific funding and experimentation, and I believe he is the true model for Bacon’s Soloman.
Also worthy of mention, with some parallel to the concepts of New Atlantis, is the experience of Tycho Brahe. He was given the island of Hven by the Swedish government, so that he could pursue his experiments in astronomy. This was purportedly at a greater cost to the nation, a full 7% of the national budget, than any previous or later funding of a scientific project. So in this story, we have an island, a scientist, and scientific funding… no doubt this was of great interest, and possible influence, to Bacon, in writing of his similar concepts in his Utopia. And interestingly, Brahe was later welcomed into the court of Rudolf II, pet moose and all. So we might suspect a cross influence on the history of Brahe, to the story of The New Atlantis, even if I am correct and Rudolf was the model for Soloman.
As for Faust, I can’t disagree with an attribution, in part, to Dee. There was an actual Dr. Faust, which historians do believe was a partial basis for the character, while assuming that many of Dee’s attributes filled out the fictional character. Faust plied his magic, but did not run a state, he was not a leader. Faust uses his powers for purely selfish ends. In the Marlowe version, Faust summons two magicians, Valdes and Cornelius, whose names are somewhat reminiscent of Basil Valentine, and Cornelius Drebbel. But I do not know if this has ever been an issue with scholars of Marlowe, and so it is idle musing on my part. At least, again, with his books and magic, the character of Faust is certainly reminiscent of John Dee, and not of Rudolf at all.

Faust! Watch out! He does not play fair!

Drebbel is the accepted influence for the alchemist Subtle of Ben Johnson’s “The Alchemist”. And Johnson had some interest in Drebbel’s work, we know, as he mentions his perpetual machine in another play. The Subtle character has his magic, and his books, but he is more of a charlatan than a respected purveyor of the “Arts”. From what I understand of Drebbel’s reputation at times, he may have owned a bit of a similar, negative reputation. But at least in this instance, the wizard of choice is Drebbel, and not John Dee.

Sir John Geilgud as Prospero... with prop book

Finally, the character of Prospero, the magical “Right Duke of Milan”, is usually attributed to John Dee, and sometimes, in part, to Drebbel. And of course it would be hard to argue with Prospero being slightly autobiographical to Shakespeare, as many surmise. But I see other parallels which point again, for me, to Rudolf II. Prospero, like Rudolf, is a leader of his realm, while a Dee or Drebbel were really servants to the crown, merely participants in the society. I wouldn’t insult the memories of either man with a comparison to either Ariel or Caliban. But like those two characters, they served, and did not lead. It is true that Prospero not only gives orders to his magical assistants, but also uses the “dark arts”, himself. But this alone should not label him “Dee”, as the same could be said of Rudolf, who had a great interest in the alchemic arts, and dabbled in his own experiments, and wandered about in a long robe covered with mystical symbols. Rudolf was somewhat “Dee-like” in his own right.
Of greater interest, and possibly the trump card to my Prospero-is-Rudolf argument, is that Prospero was usurped by his brother, just as Rudolf was usurped by his brother, Matthias. Both men were nobles, who were unjustly thrown from power, and both, by their brothers. Of course the real story of Rudolf II ends there, in tragedy, while the story of Prospero begins 12 years earlier, in tragedy, and ends in triumph. But I don’t think that this coincidence should be ignored, especially considering the others I have noted. In addition, the timing of the play fits precisely… it was first performed in 1611, the same year that Rudolf was forced from power. Seen in this light, the play could be seen as a hopeful, fantastic and imaginative dream, in which Rudolf, as Prospero, regains his throne from his brother.
Unfortunately Rudolf died before the next known performance of the Tempest, which was at the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Frederick of the Palatine. But this event also points to Rudolf as Prospero, because Frederick was groomed for, and tragically placed in, the very position Rudolf lost… Holy Roman Emperor… only a few years later. In a sense, if Rudolf failed to attain the retribution which Shakespeare may have imagined in the likeness of Prospero, Frederick succeeded… if all too briefly. The Winter King lost his lands, and the title, in the Battle of White Mountain in 1620. But perhaps the running of this play at the wedding had a hopeful political message for the young couple, and for anyone who knew it was performed there, if I am correct.

Frederick V Elector Palatine & Princess Elizabeth: "Starcrossed" does not come close to describing what happened next.

The historical and contemporary concept of the bearded mage certainly has much to owe to John Dee, but it would be unfair to exclude the powerful influences and contributions to the “wizard lore” that Rudolf II and Cornelis Drebbel made, especially when considering the context at which such wizards were written into literature. All our Prosperos were not, and are not, John Dee. Perhaps not even the original Prospero, the Rightful Duke of Milan… or, should that be of Austria-Hungary?


The “Real” Book of Prospero, and Drebbel’s Scarlet Red

September 21, 2009

Every manuscript of Shakespeare’s is long lost, and almost every shred of his writing. A few signatures, and a few questionable lines in the plays of others, is all we have of his. And, as far as I know, all the costumes of the original performances, the props… there is nothing left. But imagine if there existed a real book, not a prop book, which symbolized one of the most important concepts in one of Shakespeare’s most important and influential works? This is arguably the case, and I actually held this book in my hands.

Cornelis Drebbel, from his "Elements"

Cornelis Drebbel, from his "Elements"

The character of Prospero, from the Tempest, is sometimes described as an autobiographical one. I agree with that line of thought… I do like the idea that Prospero voiced for Shakespeare his leaving the theater, of giving up his art for retirement. But besides the biography of Prospero, it is concurrently argued that he is partially inspired, and based on, Rudolf II of Prague, and Cornelis Drebbel. Robert Grudin makes this case in his 1991 article, “Rudolf II of Prague and Cornelis Drebbel: Shakespearean Archetypes?” (The Huntington Library Quarterly, Vol. 54, No. 3 (Summer 1991), pp. 181-205). After drawing similarities to the sciences and “magic” of both men to the works of Shakespeare, and to Prospero and his magical island, he concludes, “Shakespeare took aspects of both Rudolf and Drebbel for his characterization of Prospero.”



And so Cornelis Drebbel, one of the most forgotten yet influential men of the Renaissance, is not forgotten in the works of Shakespeare. In this case his influence has to be surmised… his works are not directly mentioned as they are by Ben Jonson or Francis Bacon; nor is the character as obvious as Jonson’s Subtle of the Alchemist… also based on Drebbel. But knowing the profound influence Drebbel did have on his contemporaries, and the close relation Shakespeare must have had to the court of James, to Jonson, and to Bacon, there can be no doubt that Drebbel must have had an influence on Shakespeare.

Given that, then, let’s look at the one known (although little-known) possession of Drebbel’s still in existence: A little book of alchemy by Basil Valentine which, it seems, Drebbel carried with him in his pocket for years. This would be the 1603 edition of Basil Valentine’s 1603 “Of Natural and Supernatural Things”, rebound with his 1602 Treatise on the Tincture of Metals. This book was apparently given by Drebbel’s son in law, Abraham Keuffler, after Drebbel’s death, to John Winthrop (12 February 1606 – 26 March 1676), governor of Connecticut. Winthrop had an interest in all things scientific, and reported on many personal observations and experiments directly to the British Royal Society. Perhaps the book was given to Winthrop when he visited London in 1641-1643. At any rate, the book followed Winthop back to the Colonies, and eventually ended up in New York City, in the collection of his works and papers in the New York Society Library.

Owned by Drebbel? Gnomen in the Adler Museum

Owned by Drebbel? Gnomon in the Adler Museum

Of course I was very interested in seeing this book. In my years of studying Drebbel I was painfully aware that everything the man constructed or possessed had long since disappeared or lost his attribution… save one small gnomon in the collection of the Adler museum… a device constructed when Drebbel was only about 2 years old, but possibly owned by him… as it has his name engraved on it. And then I became aware of this book. I made an appointment to see it in person… it was described as having many “nota bene”… margin notes… and the idea that some of these notes would contain a clue to my work with the Voynich, or possibly give hints as to the interests and work of Drebbel in some personal way, was intriguing. But of course there was an element of interest in the emotional power such an object this book would possess for me… a book owned and carried by a man I had found to be so important to history, having influenced Bacon’s philosophies and the New Atlantis, and then, though indirectly, the foundation of the Royal Society.

As all things go, we are sometimes surprised at what we find when we are looking for something else. For although Drebbel is famous for many things, or at least, should be… his submarine, his isolating and production of oxygen, his fine engravings for Goltzius (and his own)… his perpetual machines… his fine optical devices, including the first quality twin-convex-lensed microscopes (one of which was the very device Faber peered through, and so first coined the term “microscope”)… although Drebbel can hold claim to these and many other discoveries and inventions, he was most known for his discovery of a process for manufacturing a brilliant red cochineal dye, the “Drebbel Red”. Drebbel himself was unable to successfully commercialize this process, but his two sons in laws… the Keufflers… did. And one of these sons, Abraham, is the above mentioned son in law who gave Winthrop Drebbel’s little alchemal.

The exact process Drebbel used, and exactly how he came to it, is and has been a subject of long debate. The author Amy Butler Greenfield recounts the history and impact of Cochineal dyes in her excellent book, “A Perfect Red”, and has a very insightful chapter on Drebbel and his process. She also experimented with the process herself, and has a webpage showing the procedure and results. It remains that the famous red dye of Drebbel figures greatly in the history and industry of Europe. Given that, it might then be understood the excitement I felt when I discovered that a few of the pages of Drebbel’s personal alchemal tome were splashed with an unusual and brilliant red stain! As I wrote to Ms. Greenfield, “…I was very surprised to see that several of the pages are stained with splashes of a red dye. Now of course this could be just about anything, including cranberry juice or cherry soda. But considering the controversies and interest, and the historical significance of Drebbel’s actual dye process, I thought I would bring this to your attention.”

Again, we cannot know what the red is on the pages of this book. Ms. Greenfield agrees. But considering the historical importance of this dye process, perhaps it might be of interest to someone, at some point, to test the spill. It would be, to my knowledge, the only existing example of Drebbel’s original red dye.

Amy Butler Greenfields experiment

Amy Butler Greenfield's experiment

So like Drebbel’s cloudy legacy, touching on so much, but so silently, this book sits un-noticed in a small collection in New York … and yet represents powerful influences on both literature, and possibly, science and industry. It conceivably reflects not only one of the most profound literary concepts, a book of Prospero, but also possibly contains the last remaining evidence of one of the most important discoveries of the real Prospero, Drebbel’s Scarlet Red.