Thursday, 5 August 2010

Corner of Koperníkova Street

Nikolaus Copernicus, after whom this street is named, never visited Prague, though his revolutionary books did. Rudolf II's court was filled with astronomers and alchemists, one of whom, the Danish scientist Tycho Brahe, possessed a copy of Copernicus's controversial work which placed the sun, rather than the earth, at the centre of the universe.

Not wishing to offend the Catholic Church, Tycho developed his own system which attempted to reconcile the geocentric and new heliocentric models, by suggesting that while the other planets did indeed circle the sun, the sun itself still orbited the earth. Hmm.

More successful were Brahe's numerous accurate measurements of stars, including the supernova of 1572. He made more observations than anyone up to that date - bequeathing his knowledge in turn to his assistant in Prague, Johannes Kepler. But Brahe (who was also responsible for the observatory at Benátky nad Jizerou, northeast of the city)  was, like his orbits, rather eccentric. He kept a pet moose and a dwarf, lost his nose in a duel, replacing it with a copper one, and was possibly murdered on the orders of the Danish king.  He is buried in the church of Our Lady before Týn in the centre of Prague.

For a long time I assumed the plaque to be a depiction of the infant Copernicus measuring the universe. Later I thought this might be the infant Christ at the carpenter's bench. But of course these symbols (including the three small shields or escutcheons) are the ancient signs of the mediaeval trades of masons, craftsmen and architects, and are probably simply a record of the construction of the building. L.P, which I had mistakenly assumed to be the initials of the builder, stands for Léta Páně, the Czech equivalent of Anno Domini.

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