Early Modern Times – Bohemian rhapsody

Early Modern Times - Bohemian rhapsody

Dear readers,

I write to you from the historic Czech town of Cesky Krumlov! (Apologies for the lack of diacritical symbols–invented by the religious reformer Jan Hus–as they don’t appear very well in this blog format: some will protest, of course, but these days everyone’s a diacritic.) I’m co-teaching a seminar in Baroque culture and history offered by Dalhousie’s Fountain School of Performing Arts, which takes place in this southern Bohemian town, a few hours’ drive south of Prague and not far from the Austrian border. We hope to make our students into true Krum-lovers; you too should Czech out this course.

Cesky Krumlov was for the most part a Catholic stronghold throughout the early modern period, though it was not unaffected by the upheavals in the wake of the Protestant Reformation. At times, it could be thought to play a pivotal role in central European games of strategy, such that one might name it ‘Chess-key’ Krumlov. Former Hussites (to the Catholics, shameless hussies too) aligned uneasily with Protestants in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in their struggles against the ruling Catholic Hapsburg dynasty. Although their enemies might label them mis-Hapsburgs, they ruled over Bohemia with an iron hand. Together with their Spanish cousins, the Hapsburg motto was ‘A.E.I.O.U.’: perhaps Austriae est imperare orbi universo, i.e., ‘Austria is to rule the whole world’ (other possible renderings of ‘A.E.I.O.U.’ evoke similar world-dominating aspirations)–which only goes to show how the Hapsburgs were ‘a-vowelled’ as well as avowed Catholic imperialists. The Austrian empire, then, was far more centralised than the loose confederation of the Holy Roman Empire to which Bohemia also belonged since the 11th century. Voltaire may have quipped that it was not Holy, not Roman, and not really an Empire; but the peripatetic role of the Holy Roman Emperor in trying to arbitrate between the multiple overlapping and fluid jurisdictions of the Germanic states meant that he was a sort of Holey Roamin’ Umpire.

The most memorable Hapsburg ruler in the sixteenth to early seventeenth centuries was arguably Rudolf II, the ‘Renaissance King’ given his patronage of the arts and sciences (including of such figures as the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe and, more briefly, the English occult philosopher John Dee). Artists like Giuseppe Arcimboldo, however, depicted Rudolf as the Roman god Vertumnus (pictured above). Rudolf may have been delighted by it, but Arcimboldo was surely commenting on the emperor’s ‘fruity’ rulership, which ended in his deposition due to madness. Or does the pink-red pear representing his proboscis along with the heavy cost of his governance mean that it is a painting of Rudolf the red-nosed reign-dear?

More disturbingly, Rudolf’s illegitimate son Don Julius, who moved into Cesky Krumlov in 1608, tried to seduce a townswoman in the castle; when she resisted, he murdered her with his own hands and then threw her corpse out a window. It is thought that her ghost haunts Krumlov Castle still. It is shocking, however, that a local restaurant is named after Don Julius without acknowledging this sinister history. This does not bode well for its cuisine, given the bad taste of the restaurant’s name.

More on defenestration, particularly in Prague, in next Sunday’s blog post.

‘Til then,

Simon Kow

Director, Early Modern Defenestration Studies Program

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