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Emperor Rudolph II's art treasures are reunited in Prague as the Czech republic seeks self-definition

A politically charged mega-exhibition about the Mannerist emperor/collector

New York

When the Swedes were recently asked to lend to the exhibition on Emperor Rudolph II that has just opened in Prague, they got worried. A mere three centuries or so ago, in 1648, they sacked Prague under the direction of Queen Christina, carrying off most of Rudolph’s wonderful art treasures to Stockholm. With all the current sensitivity about war booty, would the Czechs simply refuse to give the treasures back after the exhibition closed? So they have demanded—and received—written guarantees from the Czech government that everything will in fact be returned.

More recent history has reared its head in the case of the Prince of Liechtenstein, who has refused to lend in protest at the confiscation after World War I by Czechoslovakia of the family estates at Valtice and Feltrice in Southern Moravia. This expropriation was eventually confirmed by the Communists.

Despite this hitch, however, Prague is now once again home to many of the treasures collected by Rudolph and his immediate predecessors and successors in the city-wide exhibition, “Rudolph II and Prague: the imperial court and residential city as the cultural and spiritual centre of central Europe” (until 7 September).

Over 2000 works of art (from 178 Czech and overseas lenders) are on display, including exquisite goldsmiths’ work, cameos, semi-precious stone vessels, and paintings by Rudolph’s favourite artists Bartholomäus Spranger, Joseph Heinz, Adriaen de Vries, Hans van Aachen, Giuseppe Arcimboldo and Roland Savery, spread over seven locations from the Picture Gallery, Museum of Decorative Arts to the Imperial Stables and the Riding Hall of the Wallenstein Palace.

It is less than ten years since Rudolph and the Prague School were last celebrated, albeit on a slightly less overwhelming scale, with the exhibition “Prag um 1600” in the Villa Hügel, Essen, and the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, so the initial reaction from some has been an understandable “Haven’t we all seen this before?”

Yet in the wake of the tremendous political changes in Eastern Europe, the new Czech republic is anxious to re-establish itself culturally as well as politically. “The time of Rudolph II, when Prague was the centre of the Holy Roman Empire, was the brightest period in the Czech republic,” notes exhibition director Robert Vrum. “Prague was also the cultural and spiritual centre of Central Europe. Right now, when we are trying to be integrated into a world society, we need to show that we have a history before Communism. This is a debt that the Czech republic owes to its citizens.”

The current veneration of Rudolph in Prague is a relatively new phenomenon. Historians, while respecting Rudolph’s love of the arts, are quick to point out his possible mental illness and numerous political failings (the latter an unfortunate trait he shared with that other royal connoisseur Charles I).

Under Communism, the official view of Rudolph, as shown in the 1951 film “The emperor’s baker,” was that of a decadent slapstick fool, involved with crazy schemes and alchemists, his artistic pretensions ridiculed with a roomful of Mona Lisas sold to him by shifty art dealers (Rudolph’s fictitious twin, the baker of the title, is of course portrayed as virtuous and wise). But according to Mr Vrum, the frequently televised film, for all its broad propaganda, only increased Rudolph’s popularity among the Czechs.

The Rudolph of 1997 is a very different personality. He is now cast as a “New-Age” ruler, a man who in his crises of faith, tolerance, and curiosity about the natural world, speaks to a late twentieth-century audience. His religious tolerance of Protestants and Jews, which earned him rebukes and warnings from his political allies, is celebrated today, as are his investigations into mysticism, astronomy, the Cabala and the occult.

The exhibition was conceived and curated by Eliska Fuciková, the leading scholar of Rudolphine art, who is also an advisor to President Havel.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Rudolph as midwife to a new, European image of the Czechs'