Described by a noted contemporary as “the greatest art patron in the world,” Rudolf II Habsburg (1552–1612), king of Hungary and Bohemia, and Holy Roman Emperor, raised court patronage in post-Renaissance Europe to a new level of breadth and extravagance. The thriving city and era over which he reigned, from 1583 until his death twenty-nine years later, is known as Rudolfine Prague. Seat of the emperor almost uninterruptedly from the mid-fourteenth century, Prague became, under Rudolf’s guidance, one of the leading centers of the arts and sciences on the continent. His taste for outstanding decoration and fantastic imagery were legendary, while his ambition and insight as a patron and collector changed the way art would be viewed by future generations.
Prague was founded in the late ninth century around the castle district of Hradcany, the oldest of the city’s four districts, and became the imperial residence during the reign of Charles IV in the 1300s. Rudolf II, son of Maximilian II, was named Holy Roman Emperor in 1576, and returned the court to Prague in 1583, after its temporary relocation to Vienna. As the city once again became the political and cultural focus of the empire and Hradcany earned the status of a royal town, Rudolf II brought into his service some of the most important European artists, architects, scientists, philosophers, and humanists, turning Prague into what has been referred to as a “Parnassus of the arts.” The astronomers Tycho Brahe (1546–1601), who was made Imperial Mathematician in 1599, and Johannes Kepler (1571–1630), who first served as Brahe’s assistant and then succeeded him in 1601, established observatories in Prague. The emperor’s ambitions as an architectural patron are evidenced by his redesign and expansion of the castle, the construction of a new town hall and archbishop’s palace, and the commissioning of several new churches. Yet, it was in painting, sculpture, and the decorative arts that Rudolf’s impact was most celebrated and distinct. Among the artists who came to the imperial court were the painters Bartholomeus Spranger (1997.93), Hans von Aachen, Pieter Stevens, and Roelandt Savery (1999.223); the miniaturists Joris Hoefnagel (63.200.4) and his son Jakob Hoefnagel; the sculptor Adriaen de Vries (41.190.534); the goldsmiths Paulus van Vianen and Wenzel Jamnitzer (17.190.620); and Aegidius Sadeler, who, as Imperial Printmaker (from 1597), popularized the emperor’s image (51.501.6469) and disseminated knowledge of his artists’ works. Foreign artists were especially prized by Rudolf because they gave international weight to his domain and satisfied his taste in art—for Italian and Netherlandish work, in particular, fostered at the Habsburg court in Spain, where he was educated.
Rudolf’s unrivaled passion for collecting culminated in one of the greatest of princely Kunstkammers, which contained small bronzes, works in cut stone, medallions and ivories, books and drawings, coins, scientific instruments and natural objects, as well as some paintings. Often dismissed as an unsystematic cabinet of curiosities intended for amusement or wonder, Rudolf’s Kunstkammer probably served as a place of refuge or serious contemplation, and indeed reflected, in an ordered way, the broader scientific and artistic interests of the court. Gerhard Emmoser’s dazzling celestial globe with clockwork (17.190.636), Female Nude (17.190.467), Apollo (41.190.534), Allegory of Virtues and Vices at the Court of Charles V (17.190.745), listed in the early seventeenth-century inventory of the collection, exemplify this close association. The intricate and colorful allegorical portraits of Rudolf II painted by Giuseppe Arcimboldo point to the direct collaboration that took place between artists and scholars. Rudolf also amassed a collection of paintings numbering in the thousands. Italian works were common, including those by Paolo Veronese (10.189), Correggio, and Leonardo da Vinci; as were works by northern European masters, including Albrecht Dürer and Pieter Bruegel the Elder.
In addition to stimulating culture in Prague through enlightened patronage and collecting, Rudolf II offered direct support of the arts, visiting his artists in their workshops and raising the status of the local painters’ guild from the level of a craft to that of a liberal art. Soon after the emperor’s death in 1612, his collections and court entourage were largely dispersed, leaving little in situ. The legacy of Rudolfine Prague, while apparent in some of the surviving buildings and landscaping of the old city, is best appreciated in the works of art commissioned and collected by one of Europe’s most influential and adventurous patrons.