Almost like a fairy-tale figure, Rudolph II is the main actor in the story of Prague. Son of Maxmilian II and mentally ill Mary of Spain, he was born and raised in Madrid and received strict Catholic education. From an early age, he showed interest for mystique, legends and rituals. He became Czech king in 1576 and soon afterwards moved the whole Habsburg court from Vienna to Prague making it the centre of Europe.
Films are trying to depict Rudolph as a true renaissance man who was clever and self-assured, but in fact he was very secretive and liked to spend time reading and studying astrology. Rudolph wasn’t very attractive and had the typical Habsburg appearance – a prominent nose and a huge lower lip. Although his advisors wanted him to marry for political reasons, he couldn’t care less. His mistress, Catherine di Strada, was the uncrowned queen of Prague and gave him many children.
The king hosted many great artists at the Prague Castle, including world-known painter Arcimboldo, who made allegorical portraits of Rudolph. Alchemists and scientists like Tycho de Brahe or Johannes Kepler were Rudolph’s personal friends and Prague was their home at the time. Rudolph, a passionate collector, had agents all over the world buying paintings, statues and mystical writings for him. Unfortunately, most of this has been transported from Prague to Vienna, a great part of it was stolen by the Swedish during the Thirty Years War.
Due to marriages between cousins in Habsburg dynasty, mental illnesses were very common. Rudolph’s diagnosis isn’t very clear, but he suffered from depression and attempted suicide. He also had syphilis and couldn’t walk towards the end of his life. His son, Julius d’Austria, was a psychopath and brutally slaughtered his fiancée.
We couldn’t actually call Rudolph II a ruler, because he let the nobles make all the decisions. In times he felt manipulated, yet his priorities were art and mystical teachings. He tried not to accentuate his Catholicism in public and more or less tolerated the Protestants and Jews. His younger brother Mathias, who was king of Hungary, wanted to take the Czech Crown for himself and fought against Rudolph’s army. Rudolph hired bravos, but his eccentric lifestyle had drained the country financially and so he couldn’t pay for them. He had to give the crown to Mathias in 1611 and died a year later, all alone at Prague Castle.