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The Magic Circle of Rudolf II: Alchemy and Astrology in Renaissance Prague

3.75  ·  Rating details ·  162 ratings  ·  30 reviews
Rudolf II—Habsburg heir, Holy Roman Emperor, king of Hungary, Germany, and the
Romans—is one of history's great characters, and yet he remains largely an unknown figure. His reign (1576–1612) roughly mirrored that of Queen Elizabeth I of England, and while her famous court is widely recognized as a sixteenth century Who's Who, Rudolf 's collection of mathematicians, alchemi
Hardcover, 320 pages
Published August 22nd 2006 by Walker Books (first published May 25th 2006)
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Alex Sarll
I've been aware of Rudolf II for a long time; as host to John Dee and Giordano Bruno he looms large in one of the key books which shaped me, John Crowley's Aegypt. And Prague is the only city outside Britain to which I've ever felt the need for a return visit. But until now I'd never read a whole book on the man, and there are layers to him. Yes, he was the reclusive monarch distracted from his realm and responsibilities by higher, madder dreams. Yes, we all know by now that in the early modern ...more
Sep 17, 2007 rated it it was ok
It's very interesting to learn about all of the people associated with Rudoplh, such as Johannes Kepler, John Dee, Guiseppe Arcimboldo, et al, but Peter Marshall repeats whole sentences multiple times in the book and makes the strangest word choices throughout. This book could be about half its length and there wouldn't be any information missing. I'm glad that I learned about this intriguing and enigmatic figure, but a much better book is either still to be written or, at least, yet to be trans ...more
Sep 16, 2009 rated it liked it
I gave this book three stars because it had enough meat to get me through it but the writing is definitely a two star effort and GoodReads doesn't allow me to assign a half-star.

I was very disappointed in this book. The writing is dry and technical with little love or verve on the subject. Some of the chapters were fantastic, as was the one on John Dee, but the latter part of the book focuses on Rudolf's decline and it reads like a rendition of a list of facts.

I wanted more. More on the alchem
Lauren Albert
I found it surprisingly bland. It was a straight-forward narrative though it picked up a bit at the end when Marshall discusses the connection between the alchemists and later science.
Chris Feldman
Jul 26, 2009 rated it did not like it
Highly flawed, with a number of factual errors followed by unsupported hypotheses. Not recommended.
Jul 21, 2014 rated it did not like it
Having read Peter Marshall's book about Alchemy, 'The Philosophers Stone', which was bursting with factual inaccuracies and wildly credulous, unreferenced assertions, I did not have the highest hopes for this, but I attempted it because I wanted to read a biography of the eccentric Holy Roman emperor Rudolf ii. Where at least his 'Philosophers Stone' book had a certain amount of verve despite its many flaws, 'The Magic Circle' (my copy was titled the Theatre of the World), felt like it had been ...more
Jul 24, 2007 rated it liked it
I give this book three stars because its subject matter is fascinating and the writing is not bad. The author, however, is not a historian and often falls into old-fashioned and misleading generalizations about what he sees as the enlightened Renaissance, the superstitious Middle Ages,fanatical Spain, obscurantist Catholicism, and tolerant Protestantism. He also is guilty of errors subtle (the meaning of the term "Utraquist") and obvious (he says that Carlos V expelled the Jews from Spain in 149 ...more
Jan 09, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
Oh what a time to have been alive! When Prague was a bigger city than London or Paris, filled with interesting people. Arguably the concentration of talent that Rudolf collected in Prague during his reign sparked the Scientific revolution as well as a revolution in art.

Peter Marshall's book does justice to this extraordinary character, painting him in the larger than life colours he deserves. A must read for anyone interested in the period.
Douglas Summers-Stay
Jun 10, 2019 rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
I had a difficult time finding any books about Prague at the end of the 1500s but this one satisfied my curiosity thoroughly. Rudolf II gathered all the big names in alchemy and astrology to his capital of the Holy Roman Empire. John Dee and his earless criminal companion Kelley (who broke his legs trying to escape Rudolf's tower), Tycho Brahe and Kepler, Bruno and Scotus were all there. One of the alchemists greatest successes was creating oxygen from saltpeter and using it in a submarine. It w ...more
Sep 18, 2017 rated it liked it
bought this book and a bar of lead hoping to turn it into gold only to find that it's the wrong season - now i got this lead sitting under my bed and i can't use it outside until winter solstice...thanks a lot
I'm not one to write reviews but I felt the need to defend this book due to some asinine reviews on here.

This book is an intriguing account of Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf the 2nd, his Hapsburg upbringing, his glorious and eccentric court at Prague and his wide ranging interests from collecting art and precious stones to alchemy and the occult.

Rudolf cared more about his intellectual pursuits than the responsibility which came with his title. This was a time of great religious conflict yet Rudolf
Jan 04, 2013 rated it it was ok
As I wrote for my Amazon review: If the reader expects to learn much about "Alchemy and Astrology in Renaissance Prague" that reader is in for a disappointing read! As another reviewer noted, each chapter seems to be written to stand alone and there is much repetition from chapter to chapter and the story seemed to loop back onto itself much too much. The reader, for example, is REPEATEDLY REPEATEDLY AND REPEATEDLY told what "Kunstkammer" means and REPEATEDLY REPEATEDLY AND REPEATEDLY told who t ...more
Laura Jordan
Nov 22, 2014 rated it liked it
So I did find at least two chronological errors -- "Sunday, 13 February 1592," could not have been "the centenary of the great expulsion of the Jews from Spain by Rudolf's grandfather, Charles V" (95) as Charles V wasn't born until 1500, and "the Edict of Nantes of 1608" (220) was, in fact, in 1598 -- which means there were probably a bunch more I didn't catch. But on the whole, I did enjoy this book -- lot of fun tidbits about Tycho Brahe's metal nose made of electrum and the supposed powers of ...more
May 01, 2012 rated it liked it
A good explanation of Prague's diversity, why the Holy Roman Emperor lived in Prague rather than Vienna, how Rudolf provided a welcoming environment for scientists (and "scientists") and artists. How, in fact, he helped usher in the Age of Reason. All while juggling the pressures of the Vatican, various branches of Protestants, and the increasing threats from the Ottoman Empire.
Mar 11, 2012 rated it it was ok
I agree with some of the other reviews here. Fairly bland read for such an interesting time in history, with such interesting people. It started off stronger than it finished. Some chapters felt more like a listing of people involved, not a lot of depth. Oh well!
It was an interesting book. I did like the parts about Brahe and Kepler and how Rudolf's rule brought artists and scientists etc to Prague. Did not like the parts that sounded as if the author believed in horoscopes as much as Rudolf II did. Fascinating emperor though.
Rather good.
Mar 24, 2016 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
How could I resist a book with this title? The illustrations on the jacket are also enticing.

This is the story of Rudolf II (1552-1612), the Holy Roman Emperor who lived in Hradcany aka Prague Castle. One of his ancestors was Charles IV who built the Charles Bridge.

Peter Marshall brings medieval Prague to life and allows one to step back in time to "see the hordes of alchemists, astrologers and magicians, soothsayers, fortune-tellers, charlatans, swarming on the gloomy streets of Old Town."

Feb 28, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Overall I liked the book. I thought the writing had a nice flow to it and found learning about an eccentric slice of Holy Roman Empire history to be engaging and worthwhile in and of itself. There were, however, certain points that were driven home to the point of being repetitive. How many times do we really need to be told that Rudolf II was melancholic and may well have suffered from manic depression? How often do we need to be reminded that he was more concerned with his curiosities than his ...more
James Mclallen
Jan 04, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
I read it for pleasure and it delivers the goods. It's a fine jumping off point for a larger set of ideas. The bibliography is quite valuable in that respect. The negative comments here seem to expect more than the book is capable of delivering.
Umberto Tosi
Oct 14, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Marshall brings Rudolf II and his circle alive in this assiduously researched, well written history of Rudolf's complex, obsessive visionary reign that presaged modernity - little known among English speaking readers, yet formative of our own history.
Charlene Mason Gallego
Being in Prague, I wanted to educate myself on the history of the place, without getting buried in a tome. This was the perfect history read. It was interesting and entertaining and has given my visit to Prague much more depth.
Feb 02, 2008 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: No one
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Kathy  Petersen
The title says it all, or rather most of it.
Jan 25, 2010 rated it really liked it
Not well written, but a good portrait of the time and place.
Shane Hall
An engaging look at one of history's more tragic and misunderstood monarchs. To Rudolf II we owe so much.
Dec 30, 2013 rated it really liked it
Absorbing look at how the strange, insular Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II laid the foundations for modern science.
Shawn Martin
rated it liked it
Mar 24, 2011
David Hernandez
rated it really liked it
Jul 10, 2015
Phil Grant
rated it it was amazing
Jan 27, 2017
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Peter Hugh Marshall (born 23 August 1946, Bognor Regis, England) is an English philosopher, historian, biographer, travel writer and poet. He has written fifteen books which are being translated into fourteen different languages. He wrote, presented and partly filmed the 6-part HTV series 'Voyage Around Africa', first shown in 1994. He also wrote and presented the two-part series 'Celtic Gold: A V ...more

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