Wednesday, 4 February 2015

The Alchemists' Laboratory

Unlike the rest of Prague's Jewish quarter number 1 Hastalska survived the demolition and the redevelopment of the 19th century. Prior to that it survived the great fire of 1689. The house at number 1 might be said to have a charmed life. And there are plenty of legends to support that assertion. A chariot pulled by fiery goats was said to exit the house. Smoke, strange sounds and foul smells rose from the ground. There was talk that tunnels ran from the house to The Old Town Hall, under the river to the Castle, and to the Barracks.

An investigation in the historical records reveals that the possible cause of these legends - the building had been a centre of alchemical activity. Here in the 16th century, supported by the Emperor Alchemist Rudolf II, alchemists from across Europe gathered in their efforts to turn base metal into gold, to find the philosopher's stone and the elixir of eternal life. The alchemists went their ways and the house was used for more mundane affairs.

In 2002 the house survived another natural disaster - the flooding of the River Vltava. But when the waters subsidized, a hole had appeared in the basement where a wall had collapsed. Once the rubble was cleared a maze of tunnels was revealed together with a series of workshops with some of the alchemical equipment still in place. Every part of the alchemical process took place there - from drying the herbs, to distillation, to even creating the glass vials in which the elixir was stored. Spiralling stoves allowed alembics to heat to different temperatures. Vents and chimneys carried the smoke, steam and fumes up to the surface where they alarmed passersby.

The owner set about restoring the workshops to the state they would have been in at the time when John Dee and his fellow alchemists were working in the house. It is now open as a museum and is well worth a visit. You can even buy some elixir in the shop. One is a potion for lovers, even though it was made by monks. 

1 comment:

Yvonne Hertzberger said...

This is fascinating, especially that they found all those tunnels by accident after the flood.


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