biweekly links 9-21-2016

Brief this week as I’m prepping a scene for a live reading on October 8 (details to come):

biweekly links 4-6-2016

biweekly links 12-9-2015

Infographic: Women Onstage and Offstage in Elizabethan England – includes Shakespeare’s “Dark Lady”, early actresses, and cross-dressing.

From Magic to Science: The Intriguing Ritual and Powerful Work of Alchemy – discusses the philosopher’s stone in the context of spiritual transmutation and eternal life.

More Bard: review of Ross Duffin’s “Shakespeare’s Songbook”. “Shakespeare’s audience would more likely have gained their knowledge of myth and history from popular song than from Ovid…” – parallels to the current popularity of the broadway musical “Hamilton”.

More magic: Academy of Arcana opens doors downtown Santa Cruz, aiming to be nexus for mystical community. Part school, store, library, museum, and salon, they provide “secular instruction in history, lore, [and] practice of mystical traditions”. And their proprietor bears a striking resemblance to Dumbledore/Dee.

a tale of two alchemy museums part 2: Museum of Alchemists and Magicians of Old Prague

If Speculum Alchemiae provides an example of a real alchemy lab, the Museum of Alchemists and Magicians of Old Prague reflects the fantasy. And that’s not a bad thing.

This former residence of Edward Kelley’s in the Donkey in the Cradle house (many of Prague’s older buildings have names based on their “signs”) placed him conveniently near the royal court in Hradčany (Castle Town). The tower and its spiral staircase date from the sixteenth century but I’m not sure about the rest of the house.

spiral staircase
I ran into a lot of spiral staircases in Prague, but this was the tightest, steepest, and oldest

My chief interest was the top floor of the tower where Kelley allegedly had his alchemical lab. Though the reproduction of his study seemed plausible I doubt any of the items were original.

reconstruction of Edward Kelley's study near a window with candle, desk, velvet upholstered chair and sideboard with goblet
Dee’s diaries suggest Kelley enjoyed the finer things – velvet chair and wine goblet fit right in

Explanatory text describes Kelley’s life and sticks to the known facts – mostly. The writer, Vincent Bridges, suggested an association between Kelley, Shakespeare as a spy (?) and the “Dark Lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets. He’s one of only two scholars I’ve found that espouse this notion so I don’t know what to make of it, but there you are.

Included are wax models of historical figures, most notably a flying Rudolf II (?) and one of Kelley himself, complete with (alleged) wooden leg:

Back of Kelley wax mannequin, showing wooden leg

The “lab” got still more theatrical as I went along, including artfully arranged broken glass representing a lab accident, a homunculus, planets on strings, and a 6 foot long bellows.

6 foot long bellows
Not sure these existed but it’s awfully impressive, isn’t it?

I can’t finish without mentioning Kellyxir, the alchemy-themed bar attached to the museum. Winding glassware adorns the ceiling and “Mrs. Kelley’s” menu includes alcoholic and non- “elixirs” with names that translate loosely to “wonder medicine of the mountains”, “the key to awakening” and the like. I had something called “bear milk” with rum which was quite pleasant. It was a fun afternoon.

ceiling of Kellyxir alchemical pub with glassware and tubing
Alchemical ceiling of Kellyxir, courtesy Charlotte Dries

With its fanciful (?) stories and funhouse trappings the Museum of Magicians and Alchemists of Old Prague has as much to do with real alchemy as Hollywood does with real life. But it works. The historical Edward Kelley was something of a showman so I think he’d approve of black-lit magical circles and flying emperors in his old home!


a tale of two alchemy museums part 1: Speculum Alchemiae

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.

Speculum Alchemaie entrance, with signage and plants and bottles on display

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”:

Cabinet of curiosities and bookcase
Books and curiosities. “We’re just humble apothecaries, not doing anything weird, I swear”

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.

Chandelier featuring multiple horned heads of Moses
All of these are Moses’ head; horns are due to erroneous translation of “halo”.

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:

brick-lined stairway underground

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.

terraced furnace with lots of alchemical glassware. Stuffed crocodile suspended from ceiling
Most of the equipment is reproduction with a few extant pieces. Note stuffed crocodile at upper left – these show up in paintings of alchemical labs with ridiculous frequency

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.

Heavy metal door to tunnel
Door to Old Town Square tunnel. Appears to be bricked up – I don’t know if that’s before or after excavation

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.

as above, so below: the big messy subject of alchemy

One of the (many) subjects I’m researching for the book is Renaissance alchemy. Both John Dee and Edward Kelley practiced it and the latter made his name in Bohemia when he successfully “transmuted” gold. As such I need to have some idea of what they were really doing.

Getting my head around this topic remains a chore. I had to wade through a ton of books that looked promising only to discover they were about something completely different (nineteenth century and later “new age” fads using alchemical transmutation as a metaphor for self improvement) or only tangentially related (medicinal alchemy – fascinating! – but no). Facsimiles and translations of historic primary sources exist (the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Digital Image Collection has high-res scans) but the language and imagery are so laden with symbolism that they are almost impenetrable to non-academics.

Finally I located what may be the only “beginner’s” guide to good old-fashioned gold transmuting-type alchemy, Lawrence Principe’s Secrets of Alchemy. It covers the history of alchemy (transmutation and otherwise) from ancient times to the twentieth century and clearly explains the rationale behind beliefs that seem ridiculous to modern minds.

To hilariously simplify: early modern alchemists assumed that all metals were compounded from salt, sulfur, and mercury. Starting from this incorrect assumption it followed logically that altering the proportions or qualities of one or more of these could turn one metal into another.

They weren’t just guessing or making stuff up randomly either. Practitioners were methodical in their experiments and recorded recipes and outcomes. Of course nobody really turned lead into gold but their results were dramatic enough to suggest it was possible.

Principe followed a few historic recipes himself and came up with results similar to what was described, provided he used period-accurate supplies (raw ore instead of purified modern chemicals). William Newman’s Chymistry of Isaac Newton project performed some of Newton’s experiments and includes both videos of their experiments and a modern explanation of what’s really going on.

What I need for my story are:

1) a process (or slight of hand) that produces convincing fake gold, and

2) a process that results in enough pure gold for Kelley to think he’s actually transmuted gold

And my chemistry-illiterate self needs to write these in a way that is both engaging and believable without getting bogged down in detail that will bore the reader.

Oh yeah. This will be fun.

Selected sources:

Harkness, Deborah. The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution. Yale University Press, 2007.

Newman, William R., editor. The Chymistry of Isaac Newton ( Retrieved April 7, 2015.

Principe, Lawrence M. The Secrets of Alchemy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.

For the psychological angle: Jung, Carl. Psychology and Alchemy. Princeton University Press, 1977.

For the history of medicine angle: Ball, Philip. The Devil’s Doctor: Paracelsus and the World of Renaissance Magic and Science. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006.