The explorations of Emperor Rudolf II

by

Contributing Writer

The strides in Western culture that took place around the 16th century are all too often associated with the Italian Renaissance, but other centers of learning in Europe deserve equal attention. Of note is Prague, where Rudolf II, the Holy Roman Emperor from the House of Habsburg, supported developments in art, and sponsored research into the sciences, including mathematics, astronomy and alchemy. As a collector, Rudolf (1552-1612) amassed a wide range of artifacts from all these fields.

Now, some of these objects can be seen at The Bunkamura Museum of Art in an investigation of Rudolf’s legacy and passions. “The Empire of Imagination and Science of Rudolf II” assembles nearly 150 items, including paintings, prints and various rare objects, ranging from astrolabes to ostrich eggs, selected from Rudolf’s cabinet of curiosities, the largest such collection in Europe of his time.

The Habsburgs evolved from an 11th-century royal house in Switzerland to become one of the strongest political forces in Europe, ruling over numerous territories across the continent, often shifting their base and spawning many European kings and queens. By the 16th century, the Habsburgs had two power bases: Austria, where Rudolf II was born, and Spain, where he was brought up.

In 1576, on succeeding his father, Maximilian II, as Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolf moved the center of his empire from Vienna to Prague, in what was then known as Bohemia.

Rudolf has largely gone down in history as an apolitical, ineffectual leader who preferred to dabble with his curiosities than battle with his enemies. But recent re-examinations of this view have shown that not only was his patronage of the arts a vital part of the wider Renaissance, but that he was also more politically engaged than had been supposed.

He was steadfast against the spread of Islam into Europe and attempted to unify Christendom. Early in the exhibition, a painting titled “The Western Kings on Horseback” alludes to this situation. It shows four figures fighting, the one on the far left believed to be Rudolf II, facing off against the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire and is painted as an Edo Period (1603-1868) byōbu screen, perhaps created in Europe and brought to Japan.

In the grounds of Prague Castle Rudolf II also housed botanical gardens and a menagerie, with specimens, often sourced from faraway lands, including lions and exotic birds. Roelandt Savery was employed by Rudolf primarily to create paintings of these creatures, though the artist sometimes placed the animals in fantastic or allegorical scenarios, such as can be viewed in “Orpheus Playing to the Animals,” painted in 1625 after Rudolf’s death.

Key figures from the House of Habsburg are represented in the exhibition in portraits, as is Rudolf II himself. These include Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s famous interpretation of Rudolf as Vertumnus, the Roman god of the seasons and change. Here, Rudolf’s face is a composite of various vegetables, fruits and flowers, all painted in fine detail, attesting to the Emperor’s interest in the natural sciences and, in effect, his sovereignty over nature itself.

Arcimboldo was one of the court painters that Rudolf “inherited” from previous generations of Habsburg rulers. Also passed on to Rudolf was a certain taste for Italian artists, such as Titian, and German masters such as Albrecht Durer.

The style prevalent in Rudolf’s time, however, was northern mannerism, highlighted in the exhibition in the elongated, serpentine limbs of the figures of “Fame Leading Arts to Olympus” by Bartholomeus Spranger, who received many commissions from Rudolf.

Also invited to Prague were some of Europe’s most important astronomers, including Johannes Kepler and Tycho Brahe, whose portrait is on display. With increasing energy being put into seafaring explorations, astronomical data became extremely important, evidenced by the inclusion in the exhibition of an impressive display of celestial maps, astrolabes and other navigational tools.

“The Empire of Imagination and Science of Rudolf II” at The Bunkamura Museum of Art runs until March 11; open daily 10 a.m.- 6 p.m.; ¥1,600; www.bunkamura.co.jp/museum