The Prague of Habsburg emperor Rudolf II is cloaked in legends. It teemed, so the popular image has it, with scholars and astronomers, astrologers and antiquarians, alchemists and artists, and all sorts of other mystical, magical types. Born in Vienna in 1522, Rudolf, aka the Holy Roman Emperor, decided in 1583 to move his residence to the city on the Vlatva (or Moldau, as he more likely called it), capital of Bohemia, of which he was also king.
Rudolf II by Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1590-91)
He set about turning his Prague into a centre for the sciences and the arts, acting as a patron to scholars and artists from all over Europe. An air of esotericism and mystery permeates Rudolfine Prague, particularly thanks to men Rudolf himself invited or welcomed to his court, such as the astronomers and Court Mathematicians Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler, the mystic and mathematician John Dee and his colleague the occultist and crook Edward Kelley, both of whom attempted to converse with angels and indulged in alchemy. Another famed alchemist who plied his trade in Prague was the charlatan Marco Bragadino.
To all this we can add tales such as that of the golem, the creature made from clay by Rabbi Loew, and Prague in the reign of Rudolf II was a veritable, seething hotbed of magic and mysticism. There is even Golden Lane (Goldenes Gässchen, Zlatá ulička), the street with the quaint little multi-coloured houses within the walls of the Hrad (Prague Castle); in the old days it may have been the home of goldsmiths and other craftsmen and castle workers, but is now associated with the alchemists Rudolf is supposed to have welcomed to his court. In the 19th century, if not earlier, its German name (German being widely used in Prague at that time) was Alchemistengasse – Alchemists Lane – perhaps in an attempt to attract tourists. (Alchemistengasse acquired even more of a sense of mysticism when Franz Kafka’s sister Ottla lived there; Franz would go and stay as he found it a conducive environment for writing his strange little stories.)
Into all this, or so the mythographers of Rudolfine Prague like to tell us, came Marco Bragadino, also known as Mamugnà. Bragadino the alchemist lived (where else?) on Golden Lane. He would walk through the streets of Prague dressed all in black and with two huge black dogs alongside him, scaring the locals. He dazzled all with his pieces of gold and had a big falling out with his rival Edward Kelley, causing him to flee from the city.
It is worth quoting in full Angelo Maria Ripellino’s account of Mamugnà, in his Magic Prague, as it conveys so much of the popular, mythical stereotype of the city, steamrolling the centuries and the “demonic” visitors into one.
My account cannot ignore the Greek Mamugna of Famagosta, who arrived in the city on the Vltava with two black mastiffs, indeed black devils (much as in Tichy’s canvases the satanic Paganini arrives in Prague in a rickety pitch-black coach wearing a scaly stove-pipe hat). Mamugna passed himself off as the son of the Venetian Marco Antonio Bragadin, who had been captured and skinned alive by the Turks during the fall of Famagusta. He had himself addressed as conte serenissimo and gave opulent soirées with the gold he extracted from his Prague patrons. Kelley’s enmity placed limits on his success, however, so Mamugna fled. He met his end in 1591 on a gilt gallows in Munich and landed in a pauper’s grave together with the carcasses of his demon mastiffs.
Ripellino used as his sources Czech writers from the late 19th/first half of the 20th century, although they tend not to bother with things like citing sources. But, we can nonetheless see their efforts in this period to construct a mystical, magical view of Prague, alchemists and all. Josef Svátek, in his Obrazy z kulturních dejin ceských (1891), mostly gives the usual story, of how Bragadino and his two black dogs went for a brief period to Prague, the ‘El Dorado of alchemists’. Bragadno and Kelley, then at the full height of his glory, attempted to secure access to the emperor Rudolf, but in this they were unsuccessful. The chronology Svátek gives for Bragadino is that he went to Venice in 1578, where he remained for ten years, after which he took himself to Vienna and then Prague.
Paganini by František Tichý (1947)
Karel Pejml, in Dějiny české alchymie (1933), claims that the ‘calculating and ruthless Greek’ went first to Greece, although follows Svátek’s chronology in every other detail. Pejml has an obvious distaste for Mamugnà, whom he keeps dismissing as a ‘boaster’, describing the black mastiffs, his constant companions, as ‘demons’. So far this is a standard account, but Pejml then inserts a number of extraordinary innovations into his life of Bragadino, which do not make an appearance elsewhere.
Our Mamugnà, he says, worked in the service of Jan Zbyňek Zajíc, a real-life Bohemian nobleman with a fascination for alchemy. Bragadino in fact worked for Zajíc in his castle in Újezd, which housed an alchemical library, presumably beavering away in an effort to concoct gold. Poor Zajíc was eventually cheated out of lots of money by Bragadino. Pejml also tells us the same story about Bragadino and Kelley and their falied attempts to win the favour of Rudolf II.
Bragadino was born in Famagusta on the island of Cyprus, the most easterly outpost of the Venetian empire, in around 1545-1550. His family name was Mamugnà, although no other instances of such a name are known. It is said that he claimed to be the son of Marcantonio Bragadino, the Captain-General of Famagusta. The Mamugnà family may simply have been under the patronage of Marcantonio Bragadino; nevertheless, Marco adopted his name and dropped the Mamugnà. In August 1571 the Ottoman Turks succeeded in their efforts to conquer Cyprus and, so the story goes, had Marcantonio Bragadino tied to a post in the main square and his skin peeled off. Mamugnà was among the many refugees who fled the island and headed west.
Marco Bragadino, by Dominicus Custos or Hans von Aachen.
Bragadino reappears in Italy, flitting between Venice and various small towns in Lombardy, with a sojourn in Florence and excursions to France. He piled up heavy debts and took monastic orders in order to escape his financial obligations. Bragadino wasn’t, however, the type to spend his days in endless prayer and contemplation, and eventually absconded from his monastery. By late 1589, however, he was to be found residing in Brescia now a rich man, entertaining nobles and spending lavishly. Bragadino’s explanation for his sudden and inexplicable wealth was that he had the power to turn quicksilver into gold. He now began to attract the wealthy and powerful, such as the Duke of Mantua, who paid Bragadino handsomely for his alchemical services, although he doesn’t seem to have got much in return. Word of his activities reached the authorities in Venice, who now began to keep an eye on Bragadino. He tricked the highly respected Venetian count, Marcantonio Martinengo into believing he had produced gold in his presence, which inspired the Venetian Senate to invite Bragadino to live in Venice at the city’s expense and in return produce gold for it.
Once ensconced in Venice he embarked upon a sumptuous lifestyle, not neglecting also to cultivate a mysterious demeanour through his choice of black clothes and the accompaniment of his two huge black dogs. As Grete de Francesco, who wrote her biographical sketch of Bragadino using the archival material gathered by Ivo Striedinger, remarks: ‘Between these two monsters the sumptuously clad adventurer, whose piercing dark eyes looked out from under heavy dark brows, made an almost demoniacal impression.’ A demon, as Ripellino said.
Bragadino would, on occasion, conjure up small amounts of gold, through trickery and deceit – enough to maintain an all-important group of influential supporters – and it was even reported in the Fuggerzeitung newspaper of the day that he “changed a pound of quicksilver into gold some days ago”. But, aside from the odd nugget, he wasn’t producing the quantities of gold that Venice had hoped for. Muttering was heard and doubts publicly aired. Bragadino then came up with a ruse: he would place the magic substance with which he turned quicksilver into gold into the public mint, but it would take at least seven years for it to produce a significant amount; in the meantime, he would continue to live off the Venetian public purse.
Discontent against him grew. Ditties were being sung against him and his big black dogs:
L’ha do cani che se belli
Et alcuni vuol che quelli
siano tutti indemonia:
O che sorte ha sta Citta;
(He has two dogs which are handsome, and many say they are bewitched. O what luck this City has!)
Bragadino sniffed the wind, saw which way it was blowing, got out of Venice and removed to Padua. Here, he received a letter from the heavily indebted Wilhelm V, Duke of Bavaria who invited him to Munich to make gold. To get there from Padua he had to cross the Alps and pass through the Habsburg lands. Bragadino is said to have made appearances in Innsbruck and Vienna; if he went to Prague as well, this would have been the time for it.
The execution of Marco Bragadino by Jan Luyken, 1699.
He arrived in Munich in August 1590 and soon began the same trickery as in Venice. The Duke’s ministers were suspicious of Bragadino but Wilhelm himself was still in awe of him. Bragadino performed a magic trick in the presence of the Duke: boiling mercury, mumbling a spell, throwing in some potions and (without being seen) sprinkling some gold powder: a layer of gold was found to have lined the cauldron. Beyond this, Bragadino could make no more but he was not to escape so easily this time as from Venice: on 4 March 1591, his enemies at court had him arrested and detained at Grunwald castle, where he was condemned to death. On 26 April 1591, his head was chopped off. His two black dogs were killed with him, and dumped in the grave alongside their master.
When we first came across Mamugnà’s story in John Banville’s Prague Pictures (2008), we were intrigued by his tale and decided to track him down in Prague for ourselves. But, alas, this was to no avail. The Praguean storybooks take particular delight in such piquant and esoteric characters, but they gave little detail by which we could find the remains of Mamugnà in 21st-century Prague. In the Klementinum, we consulted his biography and compendium of all the voluminous source material on Bragadino, put together by Ivo Striedinger. Although written in tongues we do not excel at, it is quite clear from Striedinger’s book that Bragadino never set foot in Prague. We consulted other sources and found that works that are about Bragadino do not mention him as having ever being to Prague, even if they do discuss almost everywhere else he went. In contrast, works on magical, mystical Prague, tend to retell the tale of the alchemist Bragadino as one of the curiosities of 16th-century Prague. Striedinger’s book is packed with contemporary accounts of Bragadino, in versions of Italian and German. There is no mention in it, however, of his having been in Prague. Bragadino’s escapades in Venice and Munch were notorious and reported on weekly in the Fuggerzeitungen, yet the Fuggers never found him in Prague.
Prague, 21st century
RJW Evans, in his scholarly (i.e. consulting sources as opposed to retelling stories) account of Rudolf’s Prague hedges his bets and say Bragadino ‘perhaps visited Prague’, noting in a footnote that: ‘There is no evidence that the ‘count’ [for Bragadino may also have declared himself a count] ever visited Bohemia, though his portrait was certainly painted by the later Imperial artist Hans von Aachen’. Evans seems to forget that von Aachen was court painter in Munich at the time Bragadino was there but by the time he went to Prague Bragadino was dead. But, there is only one known portrait of Bragadino and this was by the printer and engraver Dominicus Custos, who worked for Rudolph in Prague. Although, Custos, who was born in Antwerp, settled in Augsburg, not that far from Munich, while this portrait allegedly by von Aachen is inscribed ‘Dominicus Custodis Antwerp’.
The conclusion, therefore, is that Bragadino never was at Prague. Rather, his story was transplanted to the city as part of the construction of the myth of ‘magic, esoteric Rudolfine Prague’. He was certainly a contemporary of Rudolf II, and this meant that it was necessary to take the most famous alchemist of the day on a detour and have him visit Prague too, if this image of Prague is to be historically validated. The elements of the Bragadino story that we know from his time in Venice and Munich are transplanted to Prague – his black dress, his two black dogs, his sneering, arrogant style. Bragadino and Kelley were set up as rivals to add spice to the stories of alchemists in Prague. Like the ‘satanic’ Paganini, he is another of the many mad geniuses to have burst into Prague. And, here again, Ripellino did not mean only the 19th-century Paganini, but the 20th-century one of František Tichý’s sketches too.
Who better than the Famagostian charlatan Mamugnà to be our spiritual guide in the journeys to be undertaken here?
 Angelo Maria Ripellino, Magic Prague, 1994 (Italian original 1973), p. 103.
 Josef Svàtek, Obrazy z kulturních dejin ceských, 1891, p. 48-49.
 Karel Pejml, in Dějiny české alchymie, 1933, p. 64.
 Horatio F. Brown, Studies in the history of Venice, vol. 2, 1907, p. 188.
 Grete de Francesco, The power of the Charlatan, 1939 (German original 1937), p. 53.
 Cited in Tara Nummedal, Alchemy and authority in the Holy Roman Empire, 2007, p. 16.
 De Francesco, The power of the Charlatan, p. 58.
 Birgit Magiera, ‘23. August 1590. Goldmacher Marco Bragadino freut sich’, published 23 August 2012.
 Ivo Striedinger, Der Goldmacher Marco Bragadino, 1928.
 RJW Evans, Rudolf II and his world, 1973/1984, pp. 202-203, n. 6.