One of the more successful alchemists has been overshadowed by the better-known Edward Kelley
An overlooked alchemist who was attracted to the court of Rudolf II is Michael Sendivogius, who, aside from the usual pursuits of turning base metal into gold, made some useful discoveries in chemistry and mining — or stole them from a rival.
In Prague, he eventually published The New Chemical Light, a treatise that was reprinted many times and even influenced Sir Isaac Newton centuries later. He also convinced Rudolf II that he could turn mercury into gold.
But Sendivogius’ story isn’t a straightforward one. The Polish-born alchemist, also known as Michał Sędziwój and Sensophax, had arrived in Prague sometime in the 1590s with the hope of meeting Emperor Rudolf II. He made the acquaintance of Edward Kelley, the famed charlatan from Britain, and John Dee. The pair had already worked their way into Rudolf’s good graces. Kelley promised to arrange an introduction, but this was the furthest thing from his mind. Sendivogius seemed to have been in possession of a good deal of alchemical knowledge, and Kelley wanted to get it from him and present it as his own.
Kelley offered to support him, using money from the emperor and other nobles he had been conning, until the meeting could be arranged. Kelley then sent Sendivogius to an estate in the village of Jílové, just south of Prague, to wait … and wait. Sendivogius in fact did not meet the Emperor until after Kelley died in 1597.
But his time was not wasted. He met another alchemist in Prague, the physician Mikuláš Löw of Löwenstein, and arranged to use his laboratory. Through his work at the lab he met Bavor Rodovský of Hustířany, an alchemist who also wrote a cookbook for fish and game.
He then encountered Ludvik Koralek of Těšín, who became his wealthy patron. Koralek had an alchemy lab in Prague at Uhelný trh 414/9 at a house known as At the Three Quills (U Tří per) or At the Wolf’s Gullet (U Vlčího hrdla), and Sendivogius made use of it as well, but made little in the way of original progress. The house is across the street from an inn that was later used by Mozart when he visited Prague.
He got into Koralek’s good graces by turning a nail and coat hanger into silver by holding them over hot coals. He also cured Koralek’s family of several diseases but his patron died in 1599, and Koralek’s wife accused him of malpractice. With his patron gone, Sendivogius was jailed for debt but somehow got free when plague broke out.
How he eventually came to his alchemical knowledge is a story in itself. Sendivogius traveled a lot between Poland, Bohemia, Moravia and Germany in search of the great secrets. He met Scottish alchemist Alexander Sethon, or Seton or Setonius, in Dresden. Sethon had been transforming base metal into gold, but refused to reveal the secret to Christian II, Elector of Saxony. Sethon was chucked into jail at Königstein Fortress in 1603 to contemplate his decision. While there, he was tortured on the rack, with molten lead and with other techniques meant to loosen the tongue.
Sendivogius helped him to escape in exchange for being let in on the arcane secrets. After much bribery he got Sethon released, but the Scottish alchemist refused to give up his secrets. Sethon, who could no longer walk, claimed he had paid too dearly for them. However, he did give Sendivogius some red powder, and died shortly afterward in 1604. Sendivogius married his widow, hoping she held the key to Sethon’s secrets.
Sendivogius’ great feat took place in 1604, when he boiled mercury and added a red liquid made from the powder to it and turned it to gold in the presence of Rudolf II. The emperor had the resulting gold turned into a medallion. He also placed a marble plaque with gold letters saying, in Latin, “Let another try what the Pole Sendivogius accomplished.” The duly impressed Rudolf named him an official adviser and helped him to publish his research. Some people speculate that Sendivogius’ 12 published alchemical treatises are actually the secret manuscripts of Sethon.
Sendivogius also eventually got a castle in the town of Kravaře as a gift from Rudolf and was invited to become a member of the Rosicrucians, a popular secret society of the time.
How this transformation trick was accomplished is not recorded, although it seems to have been replicated several times including in 1648 in Prague by a different alchemist, Labujardiere, in front of Ferdinand III, who also used the gold to make a medallion.
Everyone wanted the secret, and Sendivogius was waylaid several times. Kašpar Macák of Ottenburg sent cutthroats to capture him. He escaped from captivity in a tower by making a cloth rope. Another nobleman named Johann Müller von Mühlenfels, who also dabbled in fake transformations, arranged for Sendivogius to be kidnapped, robbed of his red powder, and put in a dungeon. He escaped, and Müller was executed by the Duke of Stuttgart for his role in the affair.
Emperor Ferdinand II granted Sendivogius a small life income sometime after 1620, and he spent much of his later years at Kravaře. Without his red powder, he put alchemy behind him and spent his time developing new engineering techniques for metal mines and foundries.
Michał Sędziwój was born Feb. 2, 1566 in Łukowica, Poland, to a branch of the noble Ostoja family. He adopted a Latinized version of his name, Sendivogius, and studied in Krakow but also traveled extensively, briefly attending schools in Vienna, Altdorf, Leipzig and at Cambridge.
He is credited with developing new ways to purify or create various acids, chemicals and metals. He also discovered that air is not a single element, but instead contains a component gas he called “food for life.” He found the gas could be created by burning saltpeter or nitre. He put this element into the center of his elaborate scheme of the universe. This was some 170 years before the discovery of oxygen by Carl Wilhelm Scheele and Joseph Priestley.
While Edward Kelley and John Dee claimed most of the fame in Prague, Sendivogius was very well-known in his native Poland. He appeared at the court of King Sigismund III Vasa around 1600 and the king, an amateur alchemist, conducted experiments with him. The chamber where he experimented in Kraków’s Wawel Castle is still preserved. He, like John Dee, also dabbled in international diplomacy.
Wealthy patrons after the death of Rudolf II in 1612 began to lose interest in alchemy and instead turned their attention to raising armies and other more tangible forms of public spending. Sendivogius died almost forgotten at his estate in Kravaře in 1636, without much fanfare.
Sendivogius has become a popular character in fiction, appearing in 1845 in Sędziwoj by the romantic writer Józef Bohdan Dziekoński. He is also in several Polish books by Andrzej Pilipiuk and the 2012 book The Man With the Devil’s Hand by Jarek Garliński. Prague-based German writer Gustav Meyrink used him as a character in a 1925 novel called Goldmachergeschichten.
In the 1980s, there was a character based on him in a Polish TV series.
Main image: Sendivogius demonstrating a transmutation of a base metal into gold before King Sigismund III Vasa, oil on board by Jan Matejko. Source: Wikimedia commons