I took this trip hoping to get a stronger sense of place for my characters and settings. How do cobblestones feel underfoot? Are the winding streets cramped or pleasantly busy? How high are ceilings?
Though many of the sites in my book still exist their use has changed dramatically: the Charles Bridge is full of vendors and performers; a former house is now a pizza joint, etc. So I itched to visit Speculum Alchemiae, an extant sixteenth century alchemical lab open to the public.
The museum is a short walk north of Old Town Square in the old Jewish quarter. From the signage and oddly-shaped bottles you’d think it’s a quaint novelty shop.
Given alchemy’s sketchy reputation (rife with charlatans but with high possible payoffs) practitioners had good incentive to hide their activities. In this case an apothecary’s shop served as the “front”:
When the docent said Tadeáš Hájek owned the original shop my ears perked up. He served as Rudolf II’s personal physician and he vetted all alchemists bidding for royal patronage…including Dee and Kelley.
At this point I was so busy having an “OMG they could have been here!” squee that I almost missed the explanations of the frescoes and the very strange chandelier.
Spikes in the earth, air, fire, and water frescoes directed “energy” (go with it) to the central spire on the chandelier that points to the labs below.
The stairs to said labs are hidden behind the bookcase and accessed Batcave-style with a twist and pull of a small statue:
The ceilings are low and the rooms compact. I imagine that when in use it must have been hell: the stink of experiments and bodies, lots of burning/breakable material in close quarters, and the constant threat of explosive accidents or prying eyes.
Whoever built this took the need for quick escape into account. Three tunnels lead out of the lab: one to Old Town Square, one to the barracks (the quickest way out of town) and one that goes under the Vltava River (!) and up the hill (!!) to Prague Castle.
This last put my jaw on the floor. The difficulty and expense of construction plus the need to keep it secret illustrates how important alchemy was to Rudolf II and his court. If I weren’t so focused on my book I’d be tempted to research Renaissance mining and earthworks to figure out just how difficult…but I digress.
Archeologists found a recipe book during excavation, and a monastery in Brno distills the elixirs for sale in the museum store based on the old formulas (minus illegal/dangerous ingredients). The docents didn’t know what became of the original recipe book or, strangely, who did the original excavation of the labs.
This jarred me enough to follow up with the owner and the Museum of the City of Prague, neither of whom had answers. I find it difficult to believe there aren’t any records of a ten-year excavation! I don’t need the information for my book but I’d love to see the original field notes and discover who holds surviving artifacts. Anyone have any suggestions?
Even with these unanswered questions Speculum Alchemiae is a fantastic example of what a real alchemical lab would looked like and how alchemists hid their experiments. If Dee and Kelley diddn’t walk those very corridors they will in my book – it’s just too good not to include in overheated, sulfurous glory!
Next time: Kelley’s old house at the Museum of Alchemists and Magicians of Old Prague.
Two years and one first draft later, I finally made my long-coveted research trip to Prague.
I’d wanted to go since I started researching the book 2 years ago. Turns out many of Dee and Kelley’s old Bohemian haunts still exist and, as they say, there’s nothing like the real thing. Besides, any excuse to travel!
I did so much that the past 2 weeks feel like a month, but in a good way. Despite my efforts to not to do ALL THE THINGS at once I couldn’t resist the Prague Castle after dark walking tour my second night.
For three hours our guide took us through the huge castle complex and regaled us with stories of weird Prague: the golem, the imprisoned violinist, Tycho Brahe and his metal nose. Normally crowded with tourists, at night it’s fairly empty, and the cold and rain made it even more evocative.
And the view:
Historic Prague is geographically small – most of it is visible in the picture above – but so much is packed into those endlessly winding little streets!
More in the coming weeks: two very different alchemical labs, a gorgeous library, Renaissance science bros. But to keep this book related:
Special thanks to my friend Charlotte Dries, who had the good sense to have a quality camera with her at all times!