The Museum of Alchemy: Prelude to Prague

The original ovens and vials remain in the alchemy laboratories.
The original ovens and vials remain in the alchemy laboratories.

Prague is just the right size for wandering around and stumbling upon great finds. Our discovery of the Museum of Alchemy was a complete accident as we walked through the Old Town toward the Jewish Quarter. In fact, the subterranean rooms were only recently re-discovered, following the floods of 2002 when clean-up workers found the entrance to the lab rooms and catacombs beneath this home at Haštalská #1. The museum opened in 2012.

What’s more, dozens of formulas for elixirs were found intact, as were glass vials and tubes made on site. The experiments and magic potions involved dozens of herbs suspended in alcohol or opium, and a variety of metals which the alchemists attempted to change to gold. The preparations promised eternal youth, love, long memory, and more.

The glass-making furnace
The glass-making furnace

The lab was active in the 16th Century, and supported by King Rudolf II. The laboratory rooms were reportedly connected to the castle and town square by tunnels running under and along the Vltava River (known as Moldau in German). The building itself goes back to medieval times, and is located along the oldest trade routes from Europe to the Far East.

The building survived the major fire of 1689, only to be surrounded by legends of strange and fiery events. The lore includes sightings of a carriage pulled by goats, all aflame as they passed by. Ventilation issues, explosions, and experiments gone wrong might explain these reports, but inexplicably, the house was spared from demolition for reconstruction of the Jewish Quarter in the late 19th Century.

The fiery chandelier in the drawing room.
The fiery chandelier in the drawing room.

Over the years, the rooms above ground served as a home and shop. Today, the entrance room, a few steps down from street level, is lined with elixirs made according to the original recipes (but without opiates), for sale. The laboratory (entrance fee 200 Koruna, or about US$10) is accessed only with a guide. Inside, the primary salon is decorated with various symbols of the occult, original items found in the area, and styled as a 17th Century drawing room. It includes a bookcase loaded with skulls, feathers, carvings, test tubes, and powders. The walls and ceiling are decorated with paintings of the four elements. A secret door, of course, opens to a stairway leading down to the laboratory rooms.

One of the carvings opens the door to the secret staircase.
One of the carvings opens the door to the secret staircase.

A series of dimly lit rooms opening from a narrow hallway, the lab was a complete production facility. The glass vials were made right there, ventilation was supplied through chimneys, and stepped ovens provided a range of temperatures for cooking the mixtures.

With a tour of the Museum of Alchemy under our belt, we could see Prague’s Jewish Quarter and Town Square in a different light, and feel the layers history and mystery at our feet.

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9 thoughts on “The Museum of Alchemy: Prelude to Prague”

  1. That’s an interesting unique place to visit, love unusual places especially with dark history and occult trappings, thanks for sharing this place.

    Reply
    • Yes, Noel, it is amazing to think of Prague and its trade route, its Jewish history, and its strong place in the development of science, industry, and nationalism. Great for any kind of history buff.

      Reply
  2. If you visit Prague its worth exploring the local historical architecture.
    For me walking through the streets of historical Prague, is like walking through a gallery of all major European architectural styles, spanning a thousand years of architectural history in enchanting colors and shapes and, it is interesting to discover how these splendid buildings shaped the history of the Czech Republic and in contrast, how history shaped the designs of many of these buildings and what they came to symbolize in an historical context.

    In the historical center of Prague you can walk past the Municipal House, the Art Nouveau jewel of Prague, that is covered in floral motives, gilded wroth iron curved around beautifully shaded stain glass.

    And continue through the Gothic and neo-Gothic styled powder tower going to the Celetna street , covered with Baroque palaces with Gothic interiors and Renaissance courts yards. On the way you encounter the unique Cubist house at the Black Madonna with its straight angular lines, then continues on to the medieval Ungelt compound with its Renaissance palace , past the heavily Baroque St. James Church and into the Old town Square with its legendary Astronomical clock. Which is followed by the Art Nouveau Jewish Quarters with its ancient synagogues.

    Reply

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