March 1591. Giovanni Dolfin, Venetian Ambassador in Germany, reports to the Doge and Senate on the Holy Roman Emperor’s dangerous experiment with gunpowder. Rudolf II was a keen patron of the arts and amateur of the occult sciences. He very much liked the portrait Arcimboldo painted of him in the character of Vertumnus (above). Below for comparison is a more conventional rendition by Hans Von Aachen.
A week ago, while the Emperor was reading a book upon fireworks he suddenly conceived the idea to try an experiment with some spirits of wine and gunpowder. As he was leaning over the the boiling spirits, which had been boiled and re-boiled, and was therefore almost pure spirit, it flamed up and burned a part of his beard, both his eyebrows, and his cheek. Thank God he has suffered very little, though the danger was great. He is in retreat at present.