Thursday, 28 October 2010

Pond building history 2 - Jakub Krčín

The personality of Jakub Krčín is so legendary that it is sometimes hard to make out what is true and what has been embroidered in peoples' imagination. Perhaps it is because this brilliant builder and engineer, estate manager and regent over the vast Rozmberk empire, himself a gentleman landowner with several own fortresses and châteaux and a great number of own farms and villages, was so spread out - both in the astounding amount of work accomplished and in distances he must have travelled - that it's hard to imagine a single human being capable of such an achievement. We have the facts that are indisputable, and then we have the mysteries: the greatest mystery is connected to his grave. The grave is inside the church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary in Obdenice, but the curious thing is that although the gravestone bears Krčín's birth date of July 1535, there is no date of death. And when in 1944 the church underwent a thorough reconstruction, the Krčín grave was found empty. Curious, given that he himself oversaw the building of his sepulchre and the making of his gravestone, and curious given that there were plenty of family around him, so they should have had the date carved into the stone. He wrote his will on the 19th January 1604 but there is no record of his death or burial. And although guesses abound as to other places where he might have been buried, to this date no academic researchers or archeologists have found his remains.
Krčín studied at Prague University and then was employed as a land manager at a monastery in Borovany where he learnt his first pond-building skills from the experienced monks. But his main career started in 1562 when he entered into the service of the Rozmberks, where apart from ponds he designed and built more efficient sheep-farms, breweries, glass-works, mills, even silver mines. And he managed the running of the Krumlov castle - we still have his hand-written accounts in the Krumlov archive. He was obviously much valued as at the age of 35 he was made Regent of the whole Rozmberk 'empire'. But, as much as he was valued by his bosses, he was hated by the people who worked under him; he had a reputation of a cruel and impatient master – apparently, for example, he employed the local executioner as workforce supervisor at the building of the Rozmberk pond! No wonder then, that legends started to burgeon in people's minds. Often his brilliant calculations and engineering ideas seemed impossible to his workforce - they believed the only way that some of his more daring designs stood the tests of reality was because Krčín had a pact with Hell. They whispered that he walks the banks of his canals with black cats on his shoulder of a night, and when he built his own Krepenice fortress in a record time, people were convinced the speed was due to devils working for him in exchange for his soul. This especially as they observed noxious smoke issuing out of Krčín's chimneys on dark nights. This was the smoke from his alchemical laboratory. Whether he wanted to make philosopher's stone or just plain gold, or an elixir that would help him father a son and heir (he produced 6 daughters) we shall never know.
 But this was a time when Alchemy was a pursuit very much in vogue – especially here in Bohemia where the Emperor Rudolf himself, a man of burning interest in Nature, philosophy, and the arts and sciences of the time, was also passionate about alchemy, gathering around him in Prague not only top natural scientists, astronomers and artists of his time, but also alchemists and magicians. And Vilem Rozmberk – a man perhaps even richer than the Crown, wasn't going to be left behind, and his South Bohemian dominion became a meeting place for alchemists: Vilem even sheltered the English alchemists John Dee and Edward Kelly when they escaped Emperor Rudolf's wrath. But that's another story. Suffice to say that Krčín did labour on his own Opus. Well, who knows, perhaps he really managed to achieve the ultimate Elixir: perhaps he is still alive somewhere, hence the mystery of his empty tomb :-)
But what does make him truly immortal is his engineering genius, as all the ponds, and most of his other works have not only survived but are still in working order now.
Well, that's, in brief, the story of Krčín. I will do one more (and more sobre) blog just to finish the general history of the pond building.

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