“Whoever wants to live in Central Europe must never sober up.” Writer Bohumil Hrabal
“Beer is a sign of national identity, a medium of camaraderie, a gift from heaven and a character from a story.” Craig Cravens
The slim spires of Gothic architecture are the dominant feature of the Prague‘s centuries-old skyline, the city known as “Hundred-Spired Prague”, (Stovezata Praha). And it was there I decided to spend a few days right after my 36th birthday, in February 2016. Beer, Bohemian glass and beautiful architecture are perhaps the first things that come to my mind when I think of Prague and Czech Republic in general. It was the first foreign country my mom visited in 1989 and back then, it seemed to her, as a Soviet citizen, to be the pinnacle of wealth and abundance. Of course, it felt different to me. One thing that caught me off guard was just how similar Belarusian, my mother-tongue, was to Czech language.
First of all, let’s get one thing straight – Czech republic is not located in Eastern Europe. Czechs never tire of pointing out that Prague lies to the west of Vienna and it is closer to Dublin than Moscow. It is indeed, the “Heart of Europe”! It is also the birthplace of Antonin Dvorak, Franz Kafka, the religious reformer Jan Hus, and the father of modern psycho-analysis Sigmund Freud.
Nearly three hundred castles and chateaux are scattered throughout the Czech lands and no other city possesses such a wealth of unspoiled historical structures from so many different periods. Countless European cities have been bombed and burnt and torn down and rebuilt again that their physical history survives in stray fragments or not at all. But Prague is the time’s showcase, exhibiting beautiful, eclectic bits from each successive era. Here, Gothic towers neighbor 11th-century courtyards, which lead to Baroque and Renaissance houses with 20th-century bullets embedded in their walls. Art Nouveau hotels abut formerly socialist department stores that now sell French perfume and American sneakers. Through a combination of luck, circumstance, and obstinance, Prague has stockpiled ten centuries of history.
Despite the manicured beauty of the city, I found its citizens to be depressed, indifferent or cynical. Czech national character was influenced by the small size and uncertain existence of the nation – a sense of national pride in an almost 300-year history of Hussitism and an acute sense of humiliation in another 300 years of subjugation. As a result, a pattern seemed to have developed: in times of assured statehood the Czech people strove for the ideals of humanity; in times of peril, they lowered their heads to save the national body. Pushing this argument even further, Chalupny, a Czech sociologist, suggested that the epoch of degradation created a sense of inferiority in the Czechs which is often repugnantly manifested as contemptuous rudeness to those beneath them and a fawning servility to those above them.
- Rick Steves “Prague & the Czech Republic”
- “Czech & Slovak Republics” by Lonely Planet
- Frommer’s “Prague & the Best of the Czech Republic”
- “Prague” by Eyewitness Travel Guides
- Fodor’s “Prague & the Best of the Czech Republic”
- “Twentieth Century Czechoslovakia: The Meanings of its History” by Josef Korbel
- “Prague in Danger” by Peter Demetz
- “Disturbing the Peace: A conversation with Karel Hvizd’ala” by Vaclav Havel
- “Summer Meditations” by Vaclav Havel
- “Open Letters. Selected writings, 1965-1990” by Vaclav Havel
- “To the Castle and Back: Reflections on my Strange Life as a Fairy-tale Hero” by Vaclav Havel
- “Gottland. Mostly True Stories from half of Czechoslovakia” by Marius Szczygiel
- “Culture and Customs of the Czech Republic and Slovakia” by Craig Cravens
- “Time’s Magpie: A Walk in Prague” by Myla Goldberg
The region was settled as early as the Paleolithic age. Around the 5th-4th centuries BC, the earliest inhabitants in the region of today’s Czech Republic were Celtic tribes known to the Romans as Boii, hence the word “Bohemia.” Around the area where present-day Prague stands, the 2nd century map of Ptolemaios mentioned a Germanic city called Casurgis. The first Slavs settled here in the 5th-6th centuries, having migrated from the northeast. The homeland of the ancient Slavs was present-day Ukraine and Belarus, however between the 4th and the 6th centuries, tribes of nomadic Huns invaded from the east pushing the Slavs down into the central and southeastern parts of Europe.
According to the Chronicle of Fredegar, some of the Slavs living on what is now Czech territory, mainly in southern Moravia, were exposed for a number of years to violence and marauding raids from the Avars, whose empire stretched across the territory of present-day Hungary. In 623, the Slavic tribes, united by the Frankish merchant Samo, revolted against the oppression. “So it happened that he self-founded the first Slavic empire. He married then twelve Slavic women, had with them twenty-two sons and fifteen daughters and happily ruled for 35 years. All other fights, which under his leadership Slavs fought with the Avars, were victorious,” the Frankish chronicler Reich (called Fredegar) wrote about Samo in the oldest extant written report by the Slavs in the Czech lands.
Later Samo and the Slavs came into conflict with the Frankish empire whose ruler Dagobert I wanted to extend his rule to the east, but Dagobert was defeated in the memorable battle of Wogastisburg in 631. After Samo’s death, his empire seems to have disappeared. Since it was created to unite Slavs to defend against Avars and Franks and to facilitate Slavic plundering expeditions against their neighbors, once the danger had passed, the united empire disintegrated. However, these remnants continued their further development and became the core foundation for the future Great Moravian Empire, which lasted until 907 and included Bohemia, Moravia, and parts of today’s Slovakia, Poland, Germany and Hungary.
In 863, the Great Moravian leader Rostislav (846-869) decided his denizens required the earthly and otherworldly benefit of Christianity. Fearing Germanic political expansion and moreover wanting the Gospel to be preached in Slavic rather than Latin, Rostislav asked the Byzantine Emperor Michael III (836-867) for religious and political aid, writing to him, “Though our people have rejected paganism and observe Christian law, we do not have a teacher who can explain to us in our language”. Emperor responded by dispatching two missionaries, the brothers Cyril and Methodius, to Moravia, who officially brought Christianity to the Slavs. Before their departure, Cyril, a linguist, philosopher, and diplomat, devised a written alphabet for the Slavic language called “Glagolitic” (during this early period, all Slavic languages were nearly identical). The alphabet was based on the Slavic dialect spoken in their hometown on the Balkan peninsula and was composed of a mixture of Greek and other eastern letters. Cyril’s followers created the simpler Cyrillic alphabet from Glagolitic, which is still used by Russia, Bulgaria, Serbia, Ukraine and Belarus.
Around 907 Germans and Hungarians destroyed the Great Moravian Empire. Bohemia became the seat of the Czech lands, and in 950 the Bohemian Kingdom became a fief of the Holy Roman Empire. Prince Borivoj presided over the new Czech state. He is the first historically documented member of the Premyslid Dynasty, which lasted from 870 to 1306. Borivoj was baptized by Methodius and moved his seat to Prague around 885. According to legend, Borivoj’s decision to be baptized was fairly pragmatic. Once on a visit to a Moravian prince, he was forced to sit beneath the dinner table and dine with other pagan guests since only Christians could sit at the table. When Methodius explained to Borivoj the manifold advantages and opportunities offered by Christianity, he had himself immediately baptized and returned to Bohemia with priests of the Slavic rite.
The next most renowned ruler of Bohemia is another Premyslid by the name of Prince Vaclav, or Wenceslas (in English), who was eventually canonized for his lifelong devotion to the church. Wenceslas was murdered by his brother and successor Boleslav I at a mass in 935 and was beatified as the patron Saint of the Czech lands. Wenceslas was not a warrior, and it was eventually his continual appeasement of the Germans that led his brother to take his life. Today his is a controversial figure, but most Czechs consider him a symbol of the essential “goodness” of the Czechs. His statue sits at the top of Wenceslas Square in Prague.
During the rule of the Premyslid dynasty, Prague became a major commercial area along Central Europe’s trade routes. In the 12th century, two fortified castles were built at Vysehrad and Hradcany, and a wooden plank bridge stood near where the stone Karlov (Charles) Bridge spans the Vltava today. Vaclavske namesti (Wenceslas Square) was a horse market, and the city’s 3,500 residents rarely lived to the age of 45. In 1234, Stare Mesto (Old Town), the first of Prague’s historic five towns was founded. Encouraged by Bohemia’s rulers, who guaranteed German civic rights to western settlers, Germans founded entire towns around Prague, including Mala Strana (Lesser Quarter) in 1257. Important to mention that the influx of German monks and priests into Bohemia proceeded apace and already by 1100, the Slavic Church officially ceased to exist, religiously and politically the Czechs allied themselves with Rome, and Latin replaced Slavic as the language of both liturgy and literature.
The Premyslid dynasty reached its zenith under Otakar II (1253-1278) when military conquests stretched Bohemia all the way to the Adriatic. In 1278, however, Rudolf of Habsburg killed Otakar. Bohemia and Moravia were plundered and occupied for 5 years, and all the southern territories were lost. Prague endured years of foreign occupation and invasion. Things eventually calmed down, and through various marriages and alliances, the Czech kingdom became an administratively sovereign state within the Holy Roman Empire. The Premyslid dynasty of the Czechs ended with the 1306 death of teenage Vaclav III, who had no heirs. After much debate, the throne was offered to John of Luxemborg, husband of Vaclav III’s younger sister, a foreigner who knew little of Bohemia. It was John’s firstborn son who left the most lasting marks on Prague.
The zenith of Bohemia’s medieval glory came under Karl IV (Charles IV), who was crowned King of the Czech lands in 1346, when his father died fighting in France, and is known as otec vlasti or the “Father of the Homeland”. He spoke and wrote in Czech, Latin, German, French, and Italian and is the only Czech to ever be elected Holy Roman Emperor. When Charles came to Prague, the castle was in ruins; he set about reconstructing the castle along with the entire city, summoning Europe’s foremost architects and transforming Prague into one of Medieval Europe’s preeminent cultural and commercial centers. He almost single-handedly ushered in Prague’s first golden age, making it the third-largest city in Europe (after Rome and Constantinople). He commissioned St. Vitus Cathedral construction at Prague Castle, as well as a bridge that would eventually bear his name. It was also King Charles who founded in 1348 the first university in Central Europe, Charles University, which was meant to follow the grand examples of the universities in Paris and Bologna.
While Charles IV was the most heralded of the Bohemian kings, the short reign of his son Vaclav IV was marked by social upheaval, a devastating plague, and the advent of turbulent religious dissent. One hundred years before Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenburg, the Czech Jan Hus, a theologian and rector at the Charles University, preached in Prague (1369-1415) and led a proto-Protestant movement agitating for, among other things, church services conducted in Czech rather than Latin, communion in both kinds (with bread and wine) for lay persons, and a cessation of the selling of indulgences. Hus began preaching in the Bethlehem Church in Czech in 1402 and garnered a large following. Naturally, the ruling Catholics voiced their disapproval of Hus, and when he refused to obey, he was excommunicated. Hus was then summoned to Constance and promised safe conduct, but upon arrival, he was remanded into custody. When he refused to recant his teachings, Hus was accused of heresy and burned at the stake on July 6, 1415. Understandably, the Czechs were livid, the nobles proclaimed themselves Hussites, and the university publicly declared itself for communion in both kinds. The chalice became the symbol of the Hussite movement. Between 1416 and 1419 papal loyalists were expelled from churches in Prague and elsewhere and replaced by Hussites; church lands were seized and monasteries suppressed. This was the beginning of the Hussite revolution.
In response, the Catholic Habsburgs attacked in 1420, but the Hussites repulsed attack after attack by their better-armed foes, led by the one-eyed warrior Jan Zizka (1360-1424). Zizka made his army into the most feared in Europe. Simply the sound of his chanting soldiers was enough to strike terror into the opposing forces. Today, the statue of Jan Zizka on horseback, the largest equestrian statue in the world, sits atop Vitkov hill in Prague. Zizka began his military carrier blind on one eye, and an arrow eventually blinded the other. He fought his final battles totally blind and died of the plague in 1424 on the eve of a planned conquest of Moravia and Silesia. Procopius took his place and defeated the German in two great battles in 1427.
George of Podebrady was the last Czech kind, and his line was succeeded by the Belarusian-Polish Jagiellonian Dynasty. Then in 1526 the rule of the Czech lands passed to Ferdinand I of Habsburg, which began nearly four centuries of Habsburg rule over Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia. Ferdinand undertook a process of centralization in his lands and tried to strike a balance between Protestants and Catholics. Habsburg Emperor Rudolf II (1552-1612) ascended to the throne in 1576 but uncharacteristically for a Hubsburg chose to live in Prague rather than Vienna. This led to what became Prague’s second golden age. Rudolf invited the great astronomers Johannes Kepler and Tycho Brahe to Prague and endowed the city’s museums with some of Europe’s finest art. The Rudolphinum, which was recently restored and houses the Czech Philharmonic, pays tribute to Rudolf’s opulence.
Rudolf was relatively tolerant to the city’s Jews, even hiring for a time the head of the Jewish community, Mordechai Maisel, to manage his financial affairs. Many of the splendors of Prague Jewish quarter, Josefov, were built during this time. Rudolf brought many benefits to Prague but ultimately failed to resolve the ever-present split between Catholics and Protestants, setting the stage for the coming Thirty Years’ War in Europe, a conflagration that eventually torched the entire continent and had no peer in terms of destruction until the World Wars of the 20th century. Prague has the dubious distinction as being the place where the war started. Conflicts between the Catholic Habsburgs and Bohemia’s ever-present Protestant nobility came to a head on May 23, 1618, when two Catholic governors were thrown out of the windows of Prague Castle, in the Second Defenestration.
Finally, on November 8, 1620, the Czechs were defeated at the battle of Bila Hora (White Mountain), the most devastating event in modern Czech history. The Habsburg Emperor Ferdinand quickly took revenge. He entered Prague and publicly executed 27 Czech nobles on the Old Town Square (27 crosses were installed on the ground of the square to commemorate this execution). The president of Charles University had his tongue cut out and nailed to the block before he was beheaded. The heads of 12 executed men were mounted on the tower of Charles Bridge for 10 years. Then the purges began. The indigenous Protestant nobility and intelligentsia were destroyed. Everyone either fled the country or converted to Catholicism, which became the only religion permitted in the kingdom. Bohemia’s population was reduced by half, its economy was in ruins, and German, rather than Czech, was made the official language of state. Czech was reduced to the language of cooks, peasants, and the countryside, while the Hubsburgs went on to rule over the Czech lands for the next 300 years.
In the late 18th century, a nationalistic movement swept across Europe, initiated primarily by a German philosopher, Johan Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803). Herder hypothesized that a nation was not simply a random group of people brought together by chance and ruled over by a leader. A nation was an ethnically distinct group, and each nation possessed its own specific characteristics. Naturally, this idea appealed greatly to the Czechs who were still under Habsburg rule and compelled to conduct their affairs in German. At the end of the 18th century, the Czechs began developing their own form of nationalism. In the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution drew Czechs from the countryside into Prague, where a Czech National Revival began. Some sought the salvation of the nation in the revitalization of the Czech language; others sought it in a revival of Hussitism and linked the people’s well-being to the spiritual demands of Christianity and its standards of morality; still others sought to capture in a romanticized poetic way the unique qualities of Slavdom.
As the economy grew, Prague’s Czech population increased in number and power, eventually overtaking the Germans by around midcentury. In 1866, the Czech people threw open the doors to the gilded symbol of their revival, the neo-Renaissance National Theater (Narodni divadlo), with the bold proclamation “Narod Sebe” (“The nation for itself”) inscribed over the proscenium. Then, in 1890, at the top of Wenceslas Square, the massive National Museum Building (Narodni muzeum) opened, packed with exhibits celebrating the rich history and culture of the Czech people.
During the National Revival, the Czechs were still under the Austrian Monarchy, and so they began agitating for more autonomy from Vienna. When WWI erupted in 1914, after the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo, Czechs were in no way eager to fight for their Austrian overseers, although an estimated 1.4 million Czech soldiers fought in World War I, of whom some 150,000 died. When called up for service, many defected in droves and even formed a coordinated fighting force in Russia comprising of 90,000 volunteers, which became known as the Czechoslovak Legion. When the empire collapsed at the end of the war, the Czechoslovak republic was proclaimed in Prague on October 28, 1918, and on November 14, the National Assembly elected Tomas Masaryk (in absentia) the Republic’s first president.
Before the war, Masaryk was a famous public intellectual, philosopher, and proto-feminist (he took the last name of his American wife, Charlotte Garrigue, as his middle name). He taught philosophy at Charles University, and during the war fled first to Rome, then to Paris, where he, together with Edvard Benes (who succeeded Masaryk as president), founded the Czechoslovak National Council and then a provisional government in 1918. Viewed in retrospect, the audacity of this duo as it set out in the spring of 1915 to achieve an independent Czechoslovakia as manifest. There was no home front support. In Europe and America little was known about the Czech lands, and nothing at all of Slovakia. Of course, some readers of Shakespeare “knew” that according to “A Winter’s Tale”, Bohemia was on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea; lovers of music enjoyed the works of Smetana and Dvorak; and, most importantly of all, Prague ham was internationally popular. In the configuration of world politics, where expediency always gets more attention than justice, none of the Allied powers even considered dissolving the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Despite all odds, after prodigious work in Europe and America, Masaryk finally convinced the US, France and Britain of the workability of a united Czecho-Slovak State as a counterbalance to German and Austrian hegemony in Central Europe. The Pittsburg Agreement was signed in May of 1918, supporting the foundation of a united Czech and Slovak state. Finally on October 28, the new Czechoslovak Republic was declared with Prague as its capital, incorporating the lands of Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia and parts of the Kingdom of Hungary (Slovakia and the Carpathian Ruthenia) with significant German, Hungarian, Polish and Ruthenian speaking minorities.
Between the world wars (1918-1938), Czechoslovakia was an island of democracy, prosperity and freedom in Central Europe surrounded by authoritarian and fascist regimes. The First Czechoslovak Republic inherited only 27% of the population of the former Austria-Hungary, but nearly 80% of the industry, which enabled it to successfully compete with Western industrial states. In 1929 compared to 1913, the gross domestic product increased by 52%. It was the tenth most industrialized country in the world, comprising of more than 14 million people (with a nationality breakdown, according to the 1930 census, of 5,5 million Czechs, 3,5 million Slovaks and 3,2 million Germans, etc.). During the early years, the leaders of the republic devoted themselves to harmonizing the demands of these various nationalities and at the same time transforming the country in a modern European nation.
With the arrival of the Great Depression, however, industrial reforms lagged due to lack of money and resources, and ethnic conflicts exacerbated. The Slovaks and Ukrainians felt they had not been granted the degree of autonomy they have been promised, and by the middle of the 1930s, a large number of Czechoslovakia’s German-speakers – who were massed mainly along the German and Austrian borders in the so-called Sudetenlands – were claiming discrimination by the Czechs and agitating for secession from Czechoslovakia to link up with Greater Germany. In the 1935 elections, Konrad Henlein, the leader of the Sudeten German Party (which he founded in 1933), won 67.4% of all German votes, and the party thereby became the most powerful group in the Czechoslovak parliament. At the behest of Adolf Hitler, Henlein made increasingly racial demands on the Czechoslovak government, demanding complete autonomy for the Sudetenlands and that they be placed under Hitler’s direct protection. In May of 1938, his party won 92% of all German votes in Czechoslovakia.
Germany annexed Austria in March of 1938, and all the German political parties in Czechoslovakia, except the Social Democrats, refused to participate in the Czechoslovak government. In April of 1938, Henlein repeated and escalated his demands, and the Czechoslovak government offered yet further concessions. Henlein, however, refused to negotiate and fled to Germany. Hitler officially declared his support for a self-determined Sudetenland on September 12, 1938. When Hitler pressed, Britain and France, anxious to avoid war, urged Benes, then the president of Czechoslovakia, to relent and surrender the Sudetenlands. On September 29, 1938, the dictators of Germany and Italy and the PMs of Britain and France gathered together in Munich to sign the so-called Munich Agreement, according to which Czechoslovakia was to surrender to Germany its borderlands. The Czechs were neither invited nor consulted. The British PM Neville Chamberlain defended the decision to give the Czechs to Hitler in an infamous radio address: “How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas-masks here because of a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing.” A little less than a year later, Britain was digging trenches.
The capitulation precipitated on outburst of national indignation. In demonstrations and rallies, the Czechoslovaks demanded the government stand strong and defend the integrity of the state. A new cabinet, under General Jan Syrovy, was installed, and on September 23, a decree of general mobilization was issued. The Czechoslovak army was highly modernized and possessed an excellent system of frontier fortification. The Soviet Union announced its willingness to come to Czechoslovakia’s assistance if the Western powers would join the fray. The West, however, declined, and the President Benes resigned, fled to London, and created a Czechoslovak government in exile. At the time of Munich both voices spoke: the one, to defend Czechoslovakia’s humanistic convictions by military means; the other, to preserve them by passive moral resistance. Of course, the dilemma was never that simple: there were too many unknowns. Benes had grave doubts about the army’s ability to offer meaningful resistance; he believed that resistance was suicidal, and he wanted the nation to live. His opponents saw in capitulation the preservation of the nation but without honor, without dignity, without ideals. What neither side fully realized was that in capitulation, the nation suffered both death and demoralization.
On September 30, 1938, at 17.00, General Syrovy went before the microphone to announce the nation’s capitulation to its people. He said that sometimes it was more difficult to live than to die for one’s country. Millions of people shared his view, unable yet to see that it would be more difficult to vegetate in the ruins of a country that for years had believed in freedom and progress. In 1918, Czechoslovakia gained independence without firing a shot, twenty years later, on October 1, 1938 the nation was conquered without firing a single shot.
In the final analysis, the decision to capitulate was exclusively the responsibility of the Czechoslovak government. Taking into consideration all the aspects of such decision, its immediate as well as its far-ranging consequences, the dilemma is fundamentally reduces to the question of political ethics. Does a nation have a moral obligation to defend its rightful position against violence, even in the most adverse circumstances? Or is it morally justified in attempting to assure its biological survival, to “live to fight another day”, at the cost of even the temporary loss of its moral integrity and fundamental values? Czechoslovak historians have engaged in the Munich controversy ever since the signature of their government appeared on the Munich dictate. Those who try to justify the capitulation point to what the devastating consequences of resistance would have been; those who favor opposition to German aggression find support for their position in the subsequent demoralization of the nation. Other scholars analyze the Munich disaster in the light of the class struggle and see the capitulation as a deliberate act of treason. It is certain that Munich was a catastrophe for Czechoslovakia, which haunts the conscience of its people whenever they country faces similar critical decisions, as it had on two occasions since 1938.
Czechoslovakia lost one-third of its territory along its western and northern borders, which included its best military reinforcements, natural defenses and vast economic resources. At the incitement of Hitler, Poland and Hungary took advantage of the situation to seize long-disputed border territories. Altogether, Czechoslovakia lost 4.8 million people, one-fourth of whom were Czechs. The Slovaks, too, benefited of the Czech’s weakness, and ancient and recent grievances against the Czechs came bubbling to the surface – Slovaks always felt like the second-class citizens in the First Czechoslovak Republic. So they declared an autonomous government and elected Josef Tiso as their president. On March 13, 1939 Hitler summoned Tiso to Berlin, and the following day the Slovak Diet convented and unanimously declared Slovak independence. Tiso immediately banned all opposition political parties and instituted Nazi-inspired censorship, as well as the deportation of Jews (during the war, over 73,000 Slovak Jews were sent to concentration camps).
Not content with the Czechoslovak borderlands, Hitler marched into Prague on March 15, 1939 and announced from the Prague castle the creation of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. Officially, the Protectorate was an independent state within the German Reich, but this was only on paper. The Czech government had no power in matters of defense, foreign affairs, or economics. In reality, the Protectorate was a puppet government under the Hitler’s control. Emil Hacha, the nominal Czech president appointed by Hitler, did his best to keep concessions to the Germans to a minimum. He compared the situation of the Czech people in the Protectorate to finding yourself in a locked room with a dangerous madman, advising: all you can do is obsequiously agree and pretend to follow orders, so the madman doesn’t throw himself on you; at the same time keep your eye on the door and wait for it to open to freedom. The people, though again humiliated, were this time clearly in no position to rebel and, with what was nearly a sign of relief, settled into the grim and total reality of occupation. From now on, there would be no burden of moral choice. However, in a world of crime it’s impossible to remain on the outside. Many things explain the attitude of the Czechs, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t affected by what happened. They bore a sense of shared guilt, though they might not have been aware of it.
The silver lining to occupation rather than military defeat, however, was that the city of Prague, unlike many capitals of Europe during WWII, suffered only minor damage. The Germans needed Czechoslovakia’s armaments industry and agriculture for their war. Thus, the widespread terror and destruction didn’t exist. Throughout the occupation, Czech books continued to be published, and films continued to be made. As under the Austrians, German was the officially recognized language of the Protectorate, but signs were in both Czech and German. Terror was used mainly against intellectuals, Communists and Jews. In September 1941, Reinhard Heydrich of the Nazi SS was appointed Deputy Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moravia. He established his headquarters in Prague and soon after created a concentration camp in the town of Terezin, or Theresianstadt, an old Bohemian fortress town 48 kms north of Prague. Heydrich expelled the Czech population of the town in November 1941 and transformed it into a camp for Jews from the Protectorate.
Terezin was seen by the world as a “model” concentration camp. In 1944 the Red Cross was invited to inspect it, and the results can be seen in the movie “Theresienstadt”. Actually, Terezin was a way station on the journeys to the camp at Auschwitz. Of 139,517 inhabitants of the camp between 1941 and 1945, 87,063 were transported to the east. Also 33,521 people died there over the same period. In a surreal twist, however, cultural life in the camp flourished. The inmates published newspapers and schooled their children. Classical music concerts took place, and 25 theatrical productions were performed, often with very elaborate set designs. One was Smetana’s “The Bartered Bride”, which had its Terezin premier in 1943. Please read more about it in my “Terezin, Czech Republic. February 2016” blog.
In May of 1942, Czech commandoes who had been trained in London parachuted into Prague and assassinated Heydrich. As a reprisal, the Gestapo and SS hunted down and murdered the Czech agents, resistance members, and anyone suspected of involvement in Heydrich’s death – over 1,000 people were executed. In addition, Hitler ordered the small Czech mining village of Lidice to be destroyed. All 172 men and boys over age 16 in the village were shot on June 10, 1942. The women were deported to Savensbruk concentration camp where most died. 90 young children were send to the camp at Gneisenau, with some taken later to Nazi orphanages if they looked German enough. The town itself was then destroyed, building-by-building, with explosives and then completely leveled until not a trace remained. Grain was planted over the flattened soil, and the name was erased from all German maps. Later, Germans would use the same method in Belarus and Ukraine, sans deportation, as it became too costly and time consuming – they simply burnt all citizens alive, eradicating over 5,295 villages in Belarus alone.
In May of 1945, as US army liberated the western part of the country, General George Patton was told to hold his troops at Plzen and wait for the Soviet army to sweep through Prague because of the Allied Powers’ agreement made in Yalta months before. On May 9, 1945, the Soviet army freed Prague and an estimated 140,000 Soviet soldiers died in liberating Czechoslovakia from German rule. On his return from exile in England, Edvard Benes ordered the expulsion of 2,5 million Germans from Czechoslovakia and the confiscation of all their property. Meanwhile, the Czechoslovak government, exhausted and bewildered by fascism, nationalized 60% of the country’s industries and many looked to Soviet-style Communism as a new model. It is easy to understand why. The Czechs and Slovaks recalled the betrayal by the West at Munich; they also recalled the problems of capitalism during the Great Depression; finally the Soviet Union had the psychological advantage because it was the Red Army that had liberated Prague. After WWII, Communism was extremely popular throughout Europe. Right-wing fascism was the great evil of the 20th century, and many thought capitalism had been instrumental in the rise of fascism.
After the war, the Soviet Union had taken over all of Central and Eastern Europe. As Winston Churchill put it: “From Stettin in the Baltic to Triest in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent. Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe.” In Czechoslovakia, the Communists were close to holding a majority in the parliament. Then in the parliamentary elections of 1946, the Czech Communist Party garnered nearly 38% of the vote, the largest share obtained by any party. At this point, it was simply another political party, but as soon as the Communists seized power, they arranged a putsch in February 1948 with staged demonstration and strikes. The non-Communist ministers resigned, as did president Benes; and Jan Masaryk, the son of the founder of Czechoslovakia who was at the time the Foreign Minister, fell from his office’s window to his death. It is not clear whether his death was a homicide or a suicide. After February 1948, Czechoslovakia became a Soviet satellite until November 1989. The government staged elaborate mock trials, imprisoning and executing thousands of innocent people in an attempt to secure its power through fear, intimidation and murder. The only woman to be officially executed was Matilda Horakova, a former member of Parliament and one of the most prominent Czech feminists of the interwar period. The most notorious political trial was the Slansky Process, 1951-1952, in which the Jewish deputy premier Rudolf Slansky, who had ordered Horakova’s death, was executed on charged of an antigovernment conspiracy. A mother of my friend Philip, Zuzana Justman wrote and directed a documentary based on this events, called “A Trial in Prague”. Even after Stalin’s death in 1953 and Nikita Khrushchev’s historic denunciation of Stalin at the 20th Party Congress in 1956, political terror didn’t abate in Czechoslovakia until the 1960s and the advent of the Prague Spring.
The thaw finally came about in the Czech lands partially due to the agricultural disasters of collectivization of the 1950s; workers were unhappy that the enormous constructive activity did not lead to an improvement in their living standards or quality of life. By 1963, the economy was so bad that Czechoslovakia actually had a negative growth rate. Social criticism arose in the 1960s among students and the intelligentsia, who called for political and economic changes. A man named Alexander Dubcek became the head of the Communist party of Czechoslovakia in March of 1968, and this is technically the beginning of the Prague Spring. Censorship ceased to exist, and there was a great outpouring of public sentiment against the government. Over a few months, Czechs and Slovaks challenged the official policies of the Communist government and made plans for dramatic changes in public life. What they wanted was a form of socialism better suited to what they considered their own democratic traditions and their historic links with the West. Milan Kundera wrote of the Prague Spring: “The Czech nation tried to create at last (and for the first time in its own history as well as in the history of the world) a socialism without the all-powerful secret police, with freedom of the written and spoken word, public opinion that was heeded and served as the basis for politics, a freely developing modern culture, and people without fear; it was an effort in which Czechs and Slovaks stood again for the first time since the end of the Middle Ages in the center of world history and addressed their challenge to the world”.
The new brand of socialism became known as “socialism with a human face”. It was not capitalism they wanted, but socialism with no censorship and with no limitation of civil liberties. In June, 1968, came a statement called “2,000 Words” which became the most eloquent document of that period. It shook the top echelon of the Party, even among the supporters of the reform movement, and it created a furor in Moscow. The statement was addressed to “workers, farmers, scientists, artists and all people” and was signed by some 150 persons, including prominent scholars, writers, and artists, 3 Olympic champions, and most importantly, perhaps, by many workers and farmers. It contained a scathing attack on the past practices of the Party, which had caused it to become a “power organization… attractive to egotists, avid for rule, to calculating cowards and to people with bad consciences.” In this situation, it continued, “Parliament forgot how to proceed; the government forgot how to govern and the directors how to direct… Still worse was that we all but lost our trust in one another. Personal and collective honor declined.” Then pointing to the many officials who still opposed change, the appeal insisted that there must be no slackening of effort, that the “aim of humanizing this regime” must be fulfilled. “Let us demand the resignation of those who have misused their power… who have acted brutally or dishonestly… Let us establish committees for the defense of freedom of expression.” As to fears of outside intervention, “2,000 Words” stated, “faced with all these superior forces, all we can do is to start nothing but attempt to hold our own. We can assure our government that we will back it – with weapons if necessary – as long as it does what we give it the mandate to do, and we can assure our allies that we will observe our alliances, friendship, and trade agreements.” The statement concluded with what was to prove an ironic prophecy: “The Spring has now ended and will never return. By winter, we will know everything.”
Czechs and Slovaks began to air their grievances and came to terms with their Stalinist past, and art flourished like never before. But this didn’t last long. Dubcek and his supporters found themselves caught between the escalating radical appeals of their people and the increasingly conservative demands of the leader of the Soviet Union, Leonid Brezhnev. Finally on August 21, 1968, more than 200,000 Warsaw Pact troops rolled into Prague to bring the Czechs back into line. Believing that they’d be welcomed as liberators, these soldiers from the Soviet Union, Poland, East Germany, Bulgaria and Hungary were bewildered when angry Czechs confronted them with rocks and flaming torches. 58 people were killed and the hopes of an entire generation were crushed. Dubcek was forced to repeal his reform doctrines in Moscow, and when he returned to Prague, he was replaced by Gustav Husak. 14,000 Communist officials and 500,000 party members refused to renounce their beliefs in reform and were summarily expelled from the Communist Party. This was the end of the Prague Spring and the beginning of “Normalization”. There was little armed resistance to the invasion and subsequent totalitarian rule, but there was some passive resistance. In January 1969, a student named Jan Palach set himself on fire to protest the invasion, and his suicide was to be followed by the self-immolation of other students until Soviet forces withdrew. On his deathbed, however, Palach, in extreme agony, urged and finally convinced the students not to carry out the plan.
Husak’s regime demanded obedience and conformity in all spheres of life. He returned the country to an orthodox command economy, emphasizing industry and central planning, and increased ties with the Soviet Union. In the 1980s, nearly 80% of Czechoslovakia’s foreign trade was with Communist countries, 50% of which was with the USSR. Czech culture was stifled when strict censorship was reinstituted, and intellectual life in general was purged of critical thinking. An estimated half million people were removed from official positions, and thousands emigrated.
The most common attitudes toward public life after the 1968 invasion were apathy and passivity. Most Czechoslovak citizens ignored public political life and retreated during the 1970s into private consumerism, seeking scarce material goods – new cars, country houses, household appliances, and access to sporting events and entertainment. Unlike in other Communist countries such as Poland, the Czechoslovak resistance movement was small; but a few organized dissident groups were active. The most famous called itself Charter 77, a “loose, informal and open association of people” committed to human rights. On January 6, 1977, their manifesto appeared in newspapers throughout the West. It was signed by 243 people – among them, artists, former public officials, and other prominent figures, including the country’s most famous dissident, Vaclav Havel. The group became the focus for the regime’s reprisal, when signatories were arrested, interrogated, and dismissed from their places of employment.
In 1989 the Communist governments in Central and Eastern Europe collapsed. Following the reforms of Michail Gorbachev in the USSR in the mid-1980s – Гласность и перестройка – Poland and Hungary took advantage of the reformist mood of the region and began a series of protests of their respective governments. In East Germany, the citizens rose up and brought down the Berlin Wall. Czechoslovakia’s Communist Party, however, refused to bend. On January 15, 1989, a peaceful demonstration took place on Prague’s Wenceslaus Square in memory of Jan Palach. Then, on November 17, a student march in honor of Jan Opletal, who had been shot by the Nazis, became a massive anti-government demonstration. As part of marchers nonviolent campaign, they held signs calling for a dialogue with the government. Against police warnings, they paraded from the southern citadel at Vysehrad and turned up National Boulevard (Narodni trida), where they soon met columns of helmeted riot police. Holding their fingers in peace signs and chanting, “Our hand are free”, the bravest 500 sat down at the feet of the police. After an excruciating standoff, a crowd of 50,000 was cornered by police, over 500 were beaten and more than 100 arrested. Demonstrations spread throughout the country in the subsequent days, culminating in a massive march of 750,000 protesters on Letna Hill in Prague. Here the leading dissidents and opposition movements, with Havel at their head, formed the opposition group – and future governing party – Civic Forum. They demanded that the Central Committee of the Communist party resign and that all political prisoners be released. On Wenceslas Square, the protesters jungled their keys, a signal to the Politburo that it was time to go. On December 3, the government resignation was negotiated and this victory became known as the Velvet Revolution, named both for the nonviolent nature of the transition and for Havel’s favorite rock band, the Velvet Underground.
On December 29, a predominantly Communist Parliament met in Prague Castle and elected Vaclav Havel, a world-renowned playwright as a President of Czechoslovakia. A coalition government was created, and the first free elections since 1946 took place in June 1990 without incident. However, the economical reforms and modernization of the new republic didn’t come easy. In the early 1990s, the expected foreign investments failed to materialize on the required scale, and the economy fared more poorly than expected. Slovakia suffered disproportionally during the transition to a market economy and in June 1992, the Slovak parliament voted to secede from the Republic. On January 1, 1993 Czechoslovakia once again ceased to exist, becoming the Czech and Slovak Republics. The “Velvet Divorce” as it was called, was unexpectedly amicable. The truth to be told, the Czechs and Slovaks had never considered living together until Tomas Masaryk roped together the two nations to create the First Czechoslovak republic in 1918 after the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. But in the end, despite fundamental similarities in language and culture, the Czechs and Slovaks never really managed to create a common national Czechoslovak identity.
Prosperity eventually returned to the country by the end of the 1990s and the Czechs realized a long-held foreign policy goal in 2004 by joining the EU.
February 20, 2016
“You should travel to Prague when the days are long, so you will be rewarded by a fair view as the train crosses the placid River Vltava…You have had your first glimpse of Prague, and it was beautiful, so you set about endeavoring to enter into the spirit of the place, to absorb its atmosphere and to study its character. For every ancient city that has stood up against adversity and overcome it has a very definite character of its own. And it is a mysterious and wonderful thing this character, this cachet of a great city….” wrote B. Granville Baker in “From a Terrace in Prague” in 1923. Forget the long days, as even in the midst of winter, the bands of German, Chinese, Russian and American tourists descend upon Prague in great quantities. However, the rainy and dark February days allowed me to duck onto narrow, cobbled side streets to find them deserted and to feel time straddling centuries the way Prague straddles its river.
I arrived to Vaclav Havel airport early in the morning and since I had no luggage, I decided to take a public transportation to my hotel, which turned out to be easier than easy. At the arrival hall, I purchased a transfer ticket (32 kc, appx $1.5) to bus #119 which took me to the metro stop “Divoka Sarka” and from there, by metro I went straight to “Mustek” station. It took me no longer than 90 minutes for this journey. I booked a room at the Hotel Liberty, located at the “border” of the Old and New Towns and literally 5 meters from the metro station. My room was available so, after taking a nap (my birthday party the night before went till the wee hours of the night), I walked out of the hotel, wisely equipped with an umbrella.
Even though over 1.2 million people live in Prague, the “tourist” area is relatively compact and consists of 5 neighborhoods organically merged together – Old Town (Stare Mesto), Jewish Quarter (Josefov) and New Town (Nove Mesto) lie to the east of Vltava River while Castle Quarter (Hradcany) and Little Quarter (Mala Strana) lie on its western side. With 4 full days in Prague I felt confident to see them all. Two things became apparent in Prague – the rain would never stop and anywhere I go, I would be surrounded by the beautiful architecture.
Since I brought DK Eyewitness Travel guide book with me, I decided to take advantage of its detailed Street-by-Street walking tours and headed straight to the Old Town (Stare Mesto) – the heart of the city and the first stop of every visitor. You can cross the entire area in 30 minutes, if you don’t get distracted by its charming ambience and picturesque buildings. When in the 11th century the settlements around the Castle spread to the right bank of Vltava, a marketplace appeared in what is now Old Town Square in 1091. Houses and churches sprang up around the square, determining the random network of streets, many of which survived till today. The area gained the privileges of a town in 1231, when it became an important stop on trade routes, and in 1338, it acquired its own Town Hall. The town’s original walls are long gone, but their line can still be traced along the streets of Narodni trida, Na Prikope and Revolucny, and the main gate – the Powder Gate – still survives. To ease the devastation of frequent flooding by the Vltava River, the level of the town was gradually raised, beginning in the 13th century, with new construction simply rising on top of older foundations (many of Stare Mesto’s buildings have Gothic interiors and Romanesque cellars). A huge fire in 1689 contributed to much rebuilding during Catholic Counter-Reformation of the 17th and 18th centuries, giving the formerly Gothic district a Baroque face.
My hotel was located on Na Prikope street, the name means “At the Moat” and harks back to the time when the street was indeed a moat separating the Old Town from the New Town (until it was filled in at the end of the 18th century). This was the haunt of Prague’s German cafe society in the 19th century. Today the pedestrian-only Na Prikope is prime shopping territory. Sleek modern buildings have been sandwiched between baroque palaces, and latter cut up inside to accommodate casinos, boutiques, and fast-food restaurants. The new structures are fairly identical inside, but a few are worth a look, such as Ziba and Slovansky dum (#22) – this late-18th building has been tastefully refurbished and now houses fashionable boutiques, restaurants and a Western-Style multiplex cinema.
Once I reached the small triangular Republic Square, I knew I arrived to the beginning of my “tour”. I have to admit, that I always get stressed when I see a map of a new place, as I have a need to visit every location, otherwise, it feels like a failure to me. That is why Prague was a perfect destination for me, as even in a few winter days, I could leisurely explore most of its historic sites.
The Divaldo Hybernia (Hybernia Theater) stands opposite to the entry to the Old Town. Originally built in 1652-1659 as a Gothic church and monastery of St. Ambroise by Irish Franciscans (“Hybernia” is Latin for “Irish”, hence the name), it was later abolished under the Josephine Reforms in 1785. Instead, it was turned into a Bouda Theater in 1792 and reconstructed into the present Empire style between 1808-1811. For years after, the building served as a large exhibition hall until it was rebuilt and refurbished as a Theater, starting its new page with a premier of a Czech musical “Golem” on November 23, 2006.
Across the street, the Prague’s most prominent Art Nouveau building – Municipal House (Obecni dum) (p. 2) stands on the site of the former Royal Court Palace, the king’s residence between 1383 and 1485. Abandoned for centuries, what remained was used as a seminary and later as a military college. It was demolished in the early 1900s to be replaced by the present cultural center (1905-1911) with its exhibition halls and auditorium, designed by Antonin Balsanek assisted by Osvald Polivka. The exterior is embellished with stucco and allegorical statuary. Above the main entrance there is a huge semi-circular mosaic entitled “Homage to Prague” by Karel Spillar. It is set between sculptures representing the oppression and rebirth of the Czech people. Inside, topped by an impressive glass dome, is Prague’s principal concert venue and the core of the entire building, the Smetana Hall, sometimes also used as a ballroom. The interior of the building is decorated with works by leading Czech artists of the first decade of the 20th century, including Alfons Mucha (who decorated the Hall of the Lord Mayor with impressive, magical frescoes depicting Czech history; however, it is accessible only as a part of a guided tour). There are numerous smaller halls, conference rooms and offices, as well as cafes and restaurants. On 28 October, 1918, the Municipal House was the scene of the momentous proclamation of the new independent state of Czechoslovakia.
Right next to the Municipal House is the big, black Powder Gate (Prasna Brana) (p.1). There has been a gate here since the 11th century, when it formed one of the 13 entrances to the Old Town. In 1475, king Vladislav II Jagiello laid the foundation stone of the New Tower, as it was to be known. A coronation gift from the city council, the gate was modeled on Peter Parler’s Old Town bridge tower built a century earlier. The gate had little defensive value; its rich sculptural decoration was intended to add prestige to the adjacent palace of the Royal Court. Building was halted 8 years later when the king had to flee because of the riots. On his return in 1485, he opted for the safety of the Castle and since then, the kings never again occupied the Royal Palace. The 65m-tall tower marks the beginning of the Royal Route, the traditional processional course along which medieval Bohemian monarchs paraded on their way to being crowned at Prague Castle. It also was the east gate to the Old Town on the road to Kutna Hora. The gate acquired its present name when it was used to store gunpowder in the 17th century. The sculptural decoration, badly damaged during the Prussian occupation in 1757 and mostly removed soon afterwards, was replaced in 1876. Early in the 20th century, the tower was the daily meeting place of Franz Kafka and his writer friend Max Brod. On the tower’s west side, facing Old Town, you can see a statue of King Premyslid Otakar II, under which is a bawdy relief depicting a young woman slapping a man who’s reaching under her skirt.
Inside, I bought a combined ticket (valid for 3 months, 300 Kc – $14) allowing me to visit all 4 towers of Prague – The Powder Tower, The Old Town Bridge Tower, The Town Belfry by St. Nicholas’ Church and The Little Quarter Bridge Tower. Even though, a look from one of either towers is enough to have an idea of Prague from the bird-view, I have no regrets visiting them all, especially since there were never any other tourists at the top.
One of the oldest streets in Prague, pedestrian Celetna Street (Celetna Ulice) (p.3) follows an old trading route from eastern Bohemia. Its name comes from the plaited bread rolls that were first baked here in the Middle Ages. Foundations of Romanesque and Gothic buildings can be seen in some of the cellars, but most of the houses with their picturesque signs are Baroque remodelings. At #34, the House of Black Madonna is home to small collection of Czech cubism, including paintings, sculpture, furniture, architectural plans and applied arts. The Knights Templar used to hold meetings at the Temple, at #27. After the abolishment of the Knights Templar in 1312, secret meetings were held by the Knights in the basement. The building then became a hospital, and later, a private home in 1784. #29 was a Golden Angel Inn, where Mozart used to stay and Jorge Luis Borges commemorated the street in his story “The Secret Miracle” assigning to the main character, Jaromir Hladik a residency on this street in March, 1939.
To the north of Celenta Street is the Church of St. James (Kostel Sv. Jakuba) (p.4). This attractive Baroque church was originally the Gothic presbytery of a Minorite monastery. The order (a branch of the Franciscans) was invited to Prague by Kind Wenceslas I in 1232. It was rebuilt in the Baroque style after a fire in 1689, allegedly started by agents of Louis XIV. Over 20 side altars were added, decorated with works by painters such as Jan Jiri Heinsch, Petr Brandl and Vaclav Vavrinec Reiner. The tomb of Count Vratislav of Mitrovice (1714-1716), designed by Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach and executed by sculptor Ferdinand Brokoff, is the most beautiful Baroque tomb in Bohemia. The count is said to have been accidentally buried alive – his corpse was later found sitting up in the tomb. Hanging on the right of the entrance is a mummified forearm. It has been there for over 500 years, ever since a thief tried to steal the jewels from the Madonna on the high altar. According to legend, Virgin grabbed his arm and held on so tightly it had to be cut off by the monks. (The truth may not be far behind: the church was a favorite of the guild of butchers, who may have administered their own justice.) Because of its long nave, the building’s acoustics are excellent and many concerts and recitals are given here. Don’t forget to check out a magnificent organ built in 1702.
The huge, traffic-free Old Town Square (Staromestske namesti) (p.7) ranks among the finest public spaces in any city. It has been Prague’s principal public square since the 10th century, and served as its main marketplace until the beginning of the 20th century, when rows of merchants’ stalls used to fill the cobbled plaza. Over the centuries, Old Town Square’s size and location has made it an epicenter for celebrations, cataclysms, political enunciations, and executions. In the 14th century, King Wenceslas threw massive parties here once the market had closed for the night; in 1422 the radical Hussite preacher Jan Zelivsky was executed here for his part in storming the New Town’s Town Hall three years earlier; in 1600 the square hosted the world’s first public dissection of a corpse. 27 white crosses embedded in the square’s paving stones, at the base of Old Town Hall, mark the spot where 27 Bohemian noblemen were killed by the Austrian Habsburgs in 1621 during the dark days following the defeat of the Czechs at the Battle of White Mountain. The square was the headquarters of the Resistance during the 1944 Prague Uprisings, in which 5,000 Czechs died in 4 days of fierce fighting against the Nazi occupation. In 1948, a time when Communists were still popularly viewed as the country’s liberators, massive crowds gathered here to hear the words of Czechoslovakia’s first Communist president. I haven’t witnessed any demonstrations on the Square during my visit, but definitely enjoyed the nightly open-air impromptu performances, in rain and fog. If you can ignore the tourists, it is a great place to stop and look around, absorbing all the beauty of this square. Dominating Art Nouveau monument of Jan Hus is a convenient meeting place for tourist and a focal point for souvenir hawkers and freelance guides. Cafes and shops the pastel shades of after-dinner mints line the square’s periphery. Their Baroque roofs are interrupted at one end by the Gothic tower of the 13th century bell-house and at the other by an ornate 15th century astronomical clock that every hour unleashes a mechanical morality play from 2 cuckoo-clock windows.
Some of Prague’s colorful history is preserved around the Old Town Square in the form of its buildings. On the north side, the Pauline Monastery is the only surviving piece of the original architecture. The east side boasts two superb examples of the architecture of their times: the House at the Stone Bell (built in the 14th century for the father of Charles IV), restored to its former appearance as a Gothic town palace, and the Kinsky Palace (p.9). This lovely Rococo palace, designed by Kilian Ignaz Dientzenhofer, has a pretty pink and white stucco facade crowned with statues of the four elements by Ignaz Franz Platzer. It was bought from the Golz family in 1768 by Stepan Kinsky, an Imperial diplomat. Franz Kafka’s father, Hermann Kafka, was a haberdasher, whose store was located on the ground floor of the palace. The palace also contained a German school – where Franz Kafka himself studied for 9 misery-laden years. The palace also served as a home to Baroness Bertha von Suttner, a secretary to Alfred Nobel and herself the first female recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1905. In 1948 Communist leader Klement Gottwald, used the balcony to address a huge crowd of party members – a key event in a crisis that led up to his coup d’etat. Presently, the National Gallery uses the Kinsky Palace for art exhibitions.
Across from Kinsky Palace, on the northern end of the Square is a massive monument to the religious reformer and Czech hero – Jan Hus Memorial (Pomnik Jana Husa) (p.10). As I mentioned in the “History” part of this blog, Hus was burnt at the stake after being pronounced a heretic by the council of Constance in 1415. The present monument by Ladislav Saloun was unveiled in 1915 on the 500th anniversary of Hus’ death. It shows two groups of people, one of victorious Hussite warriors, the other of Protestants forced into exile 200 years later, and a young mother symbolizing national rebirth. One patriot holds a chalice (cup) – in the medieval Church, only priests could drink the wine at Communion. Since the Hussites fought for their right to take both the wine and the bread, the cup is their symbol. The dominant figure of Hus emphasizes the moral authority of the man who gave up life rather than his beliefs. This romantic depiction of Hus, who appears here as tall and bearded in flowing garb, is disputed, as historians claim that real Hus was short and baby-faced. Nevertheless, Hus looks proudly at Tyn Church which became the headquarters and leading church of his followers. A golden chalice once filled the now-empty niche under the gold bas-relief of the Virgin Mary on the church’s facade. After the Hubsburg victory over the Czechs in 1620, the Hussite chalice was melted down and made into the image of Mary that shines from that spot night over the square today.
The spiky-topped 80m high Church of Our Lady before Tyn (Kostel Matki Bozy pred Tynem) (p.8, no photos, free entry), or “Tyn church” is early Gothic, though it takes some imagination to visualize the original in its entirety because half of the building is strangely hidden behind the contemporaneous four-storey Tyn School. Hence, the entrance to the church is through the Old Town Square arcades, under the house at #14. One of the best examples of Prague Gothic, the church’s exterior is in part the work of Peter Parler, an architect responsible for many of Prague’s iconic sights (including Charles Bridge and St. Vitus’s Cathedral). The present church was started in 1365, however the construction of its twin black-spired towers began later, by King Jiri of Podebrad in 1461, during the heyday of Hussites. On the norther side of the church is a beautiful entrance portal (1390) decorated with scenes of Christ’s passion. Much of the interior, including the tall nave, was rebuilt in the Baroque style in the 17th century. Some Gothic pieces remain, however: look to the left of the main altar for a beautifully preserved set of early Gothic carvings, sculptures of Calvary and a pewter font (1414). The main altar itself was painted by Karel Skreta, a luminary of the Czech Baroque. The oldest pipe organ in Prague stands inside this church, built in 1673 by Heinrich Mundt, it is one of the most representative 17th-century organs in Europe. The Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe, one of Rudolf II’s most illustrious “consultants” (who died in 1601 a few days after bursting his bladder), is buried near the chancel.
Behind the church is the Tyn (or Ungelt) Courtyard (Tynsky Dvur), with its numerous architectural styles. This fortified courtyard was the commercial nucleus of medieval Prague, a sort of caravanserai for foreign merchants. Here, the traders (usually German, as “ungelt” means ‘customs duty” in German) would store their goods and pay taxes before setting up stalls on the Old Town Square. Notice that, for the purpose of guaranteeing the safety of goods and merchants, there are only two entrances to the complex. After decades of disuse, the courtyard had fallen into such disrepair by the 1980s that authorities considered demolishing it. But now, marvelously restored, the Ungelt courtyard is the most pleasant area in the Old Town for dining outdoors (weather permit) and shopping. And of course, it is a location of the House of the Golden Ring (Dum u Zlateho Prstenu) – City of Prague’s Gallery.
Church of St. Nicholas (Kostel Sv. Mikulase) (p.11 – don’t confuse with the Chram Sv. Mikulase, located in Little Quarter) stands on the northern part of the Square, separating the Old Town from Josefov (Jewish Quarter). One of the oldest churches in Old Town, St. Nicholas was originally built in 12th century in Gothic or Romanesque styles (remains of the old walls can still be seen in the cellar). In its glory days, the church used to have 16 altars, where up to 3 Holy Masses were served daily, sponsored by the most prominent Old Town families. It was used as a parish church until Tyn Church was completed in the 14th century, and as a place for meetings of the City Council until the Old Town Hall was built in 1338. During the Hussite Wars and in the 16th century the church was used by Hussites, however after the battle of the White Mountain in 1620, it became part of a Benedictine monastery. The present church was designed (1732-1839) by Prague’s own master of late Baroque, Kilian Ignaz Deintzenhofer. In 1781 after the religious reforms of the Austrian Emperor Joseph II, the monastery was dissolved and the church building was sold to the Old Town City Council for a small price. The building was then used as a storehouse and later as a music hall. In WWI the church was used to the troops of Prague garrison. The colonel in charge took the opportunity to restore the church with the help of artists who might otherwise have been sent to the front. After the WWI in 1920, the newly established Czechoslovak Hussite Church found its new home here. This church is probably less successful in capturing the style’s lyric exuberance that its namesake across town, however, its facade is pretty dramatic, studded with statues by Antonin Braun. The interior is compact, with beautiful, large crown-shaped chandelier and an enormous black organ that overwhelms the rear of the church. The dome has frescoes of the lives of St. Nicholas and St. Benedict by Kosmas Damian Asam. If you are in the mood, attend one of the evening concerts given in the church.
A colorful array of houses of Romanesque or Gothic origin, with fascinating house signs, graces the southern side of the Old Town Square. The block between Celetna Street and Zelezna Street is especially attractive, hosting a tourist information center, as well as a number of outdoor restaurants, cafes and galleries. The following houses I would describe from left to right (east to west). Storch House – the late 19th century painting of St. Wenceslas on horseback by Mikulas Ales appears on this ornate Neo-Renaissance building, also known as At the Stone Madonna. At the Stone Ram – the early 16th century house sign shows a young maiden with a ram. The house has been referred to as At the Unicorn due to the similarity between the one-horned ram and a unicorn. Next peach building is At the Stone Table, it is followed by a mint-colored U Lazara (At Lazarus’s) – Romanesque barrel vaulting testifies to the house’s early origins, though it was rebuilt during the Renaissance. The ground floor houses the Staromestska restaurace. Right before Zelezna Street is At the Golden Unicorn building.
Past Zelezna Street, buildings don’t get any less beautiful. White house At the Storks, is followed by At the Red Fox – a golden Madonna and Child look down from the Baroque facade of an originally Romanesque building. Next building is At the Blue Star, followed by a bright blue house – a home to Prague’s Starbucks Cafe. Entrance to Melantrichova Passage, which has been commemorated in a famous painting by Vaclav Jansa (1898), is guarded by an early 18th century stone statue of St. Anthony of Padua, located at the corner of At The Ox building, named after its 15ht century owner, the burgher Ochs. This passage leads directly to the New Town’s Wenceslas Square, passing a ton of shops.
The west side of the Old Town Square is adorned by the Old Town Hall, with its tourist-attracting Astronomical Clock and a small attractive building, called House U Minuty (#3 in the Old Town Square). This Gothic house was built at the beginning of the 15th century probably in the place of a broken alley as a two-storey small home with a backyard. In 1430 a part of the neighboring house was attached to it and in 1564, the low third floor with a lunette ledge was added. Sgraffiti, created in two stages – in 1600 and in 1615 and restored in 1920s, depict a mix of Biblical motifs, scenes from the Renaissance life and of ancient Greeks. Initially, the house served as a pharmacy called “The White Lion”, however, it was later converted into a tabacco store “U Minuty”. It was Franz Kafka who made this house famous, as he and his family lived here from 1889 till 1896.
Little street to the left of U Minuty leads into Little Square (Male Namesti) adjacent to the Old Town Square. Though, it can’t boast as much history as its larger companion, excavations have proven that Male Namesti was a prime piece of real estate as far back as the 12th century. Archeologists turned up bits of pottery, evidence of medieval pathways, and human bones from the late 1100s, when developers committed the medieval equivalent of paving over cemetery to build a shopping mall. There is a beautiful iron fountain dating from around 1560 in the center of the square. The colorful painted house at #3 (V.J. Rott) was originally a hardware store and now it hosts a hotel “U Rotta” and a Hard Rock Cafe. It is not as old as it looks and is decorated with colorful paintings by the 19th century artist Mikulas Alex. However, look around the square and you surely would be able to find some authentic Gothic portals and Renaissance sgraffiti that reflect the place’s true age.
Once I completed a circle around the Old Town Square and soaked in its pastel colors and atmosphere, it was time to check out its jewel – Old Town Hall (Staromestka Rodnice) (p.12). One of the most striking buildings in Prague, it was established in 1338 after King John of Luxemburg agreed to set up a town council. The councilors of the Old Town bought a magnificent patrician house of the Volflin family and adapted it for their purposes. Over the centuries a number of old houses were knocked together as the Old Town Hall expanded, and it now consists of a row of five colorful Gothic and Renaissance buildings, most of which have been carefully restored. The impressive 60m tall tower was first built in the 14th century and it offers a spectacular view of the city. The Town Hall has played a significant role in the history of both Prague and the Czech state – George of Podebrady was elected the King of Bohemia here and Jan Zelivsky was decapitated in its courtyard, it witnessed the execution of the 27 nobles in the Estates Uprising in 1620 as well as the destruction by the Nazis in 1945.
Presently, the far left building hosts the Temporary art exhibitions and serves as an entrance to the Tower. The next bright red building contains the Old Town Coat of Arms adopted in 1784, it sits above the inscription, “Prague, Head of the Kingdom”. The following building is a former house of Volflin of Kamen, the original owner of the building. Its late Gothic main entrance to the Town Hall was carved by Matthias Rejsek. And of course, the Tower with its Astronomical Clock is hard to miss.
Crowds congregate in front of Old Town Hall’s Astronomical Clock (Orloj) to watch the glockenspiel spectacle that occurs hourly from 8.00 to 23.00. Built in 1410 by the master Mikulas of Kadane, the clock has long been an important symbol of Prague. According to legend, after the timepiece was remodeled in 1490, clock artist Master Hanus was blinded by the Municipal Council so that he couldn’t repeat his fine work elsewhere. In retribution, Hanus threw himself into the clock mechanism and promptly died, leaving the clock out of kilter for almost a century. As strange as it sounds, but you have to be a rocket scientist to determine the time of day from this timepiece; it is easier to look at the other clock on the very top of Old Town Hall’s tower for this. This astronomical clock, with all its hands and markings, is meant to mark the phases of the moon, the equinoxes, the seasons, the days and numerous Christian holidays.
When the clock strikes an hour, a kind of politically incorrect medieval morality play begins. Two doors slide open and the statues of the Twelve Apostles glide by, while the 15th century conception of the “evils” of life – a skeleton, symbolizing Death, kneeling and turning an hourglass upside down, a preening Vanity admiring itself in a mirror, a corrupt Turk nodding his head, and an acquisitive Jew – shake and dance below. At the end of the WWII, the horns and beard were removed from the moneybag-holding Jew, who’s now politely referred to as Greed. The four figures below these are the Chronicler, Angel, Astronomer and Philosopher. Apostles parade past the windows above the clock, nodding to the crowds. One the left side are Apostle Paul (with a sword and a book), Thomas (lance), Jude (book), Simon (saw), Bartholomew (book), and Barnabas (parchment); on the right side are Peter (with a key), Matthew (axe), John (snake), Andrew (cross), Philip (cross) and James (mallet). Finally, a cock crows and a trumpet blares to mark the end of the spectacle, all to the ignorant enthusiastic applause from the crowds below.
On the upper face, the disc in the middle of the fixed part depicts the world known at the time – with Prague at the center, of course. The gold sun traces a circle through the blue zone of day, the brown zone of dusk (Crepusculum in Latin) in the west (Occasus), the black disk of night, and down (Aurora) in the east (Ortus). From this the hours of sunrise and sunset can be read. The curved lines with black Arabic numerals are part of an astrological “star clock”.
The sun-arm points to the hour of the Roman-numeral ring; the top XII is noon and the bottom XII is midnight. The outer right, with Gothic numerals, reads traditional 24-hour Bohemian time, counted from sunset; the number 24 is always opposite the sunset hour on the fixed (inner) face. The moon, with its phases shown, also traces a path through the zones of day and night, riding on the offset moving ring. On the ring you can also read which houses of the zodiac the sun and moon are in. The hand with a little star at the end of it indicates side-real (stellar) time.
The calendar wheel beneath all this astronomical wizardry, with 12 seasonal scenes celebrating rural Bohemian life, is a duplicate of one painted in 1866 by the Czech Revivalist Josef Manes (original is in the Prague City Museum). Most of the dates around the calendar wheel are marked with the names of their associated saints; 6 July honors Jan Hus.
Even though I didn’t catch one of the guided Old City Hall tours (which takes you to the Chapel of the Virgin Mary, Old Council Hall, Brozik Assembly Hall and Roman -Gothic underground cellars), I bought a ticket to the top of the tower (open 9.00 – 22.00, 120 Ks – $5.50). I slowly wandered to the upper floor, passing a spectacular entrance hall, filled with mosaics after designs by the Czech painter Mikulas Ales. I could have taken an elevator but I optioned for the ramp, which was adorned with posters infusing me with information about the Town Hall and the Tower, from its very creation to present day.
The tower’s viewing gallery offered perhaps the best views of the city – from Tyn Church to Prague Castle. It is a place to take a moment and look around!
It was already getting dark, so I slowly proceeded back to my hotel, passing by a few interesting sights. Prague’s oldest Estates Theater (Stavovske Divadlo) (p.5) was built by Count Nostitz in 1783 and is one of the finest examples of Neo-Classical elegance. It became an early symbol of the emerging high Czech culture with the Greek theme “Patriae et Musis” (Fatherland and Music) etched above its front columns. Patronized by upper-class German Praguers, it was later named after the local nobility, the Estates. It is a mecca for Mozart fans (sadly, I wasn’t able to get a ticket). On 19 October 1787, Mozart’s opera “Don Giovanni” had its debut here with the maestro at the piano conducing the orchestra. Prague audiences were quick to acknowledge Mozart’s genius: the opera was an instant hit here, though it flopped nearly everywhere else in Europe. “My Praguers understand me,” Mozart was quoted to say. He wrote some of the opera’s second act in Prage at the Villa Bertramka, where he was a frequent guest. In 1834 the musical “Fidlovacka” premiered here. One of the songs “Gde domoj muj?” (“Where is my Home”) became the Czech national anthem. Czech director Milos Forman returned to his native country to film his Oscar-winning “Amadeus” (1984), shooting the scenes of Mozart in Prague with perfect authenticity at the Estates Theater. But the statue of Mozart’s “Commendatore” character just outside the theater, is a haunting sight, especially after dark.
Right next to the theater is Karolinum (p.6) – the core of central Europe’s oldest university founded by Karel IV (Charles IV) in 1348. The chapel, arcade and walls still survive, together with a fine oriel window, but in 1945 the courtyard was reconstructed in Gothic style. In the 15th and 16th centuries the university played a leading role in the movement to reform church (after all, Jan Hus was its rector). On January 18 1409, in an effort to increase his voting bloc in maneuvering to regain the crown of Holy Roman Emperor, Vaclav IV slashed the voting rights of the university’s German students and lecturers. The “Decree of Kutna Hora”, as it was known, meant thousands of Germans left Bohemia in disgust, and the previously world-beating university became considerable more parochial. After the battle of the White Mountain, the university was taken over by the Jesuits. Charles University now has facilities all over Prague, and the original building is used only for some medical faculty offices, the University Club and occasional academic ceremonies.
Facing the Estates Theater is Church of St. Gall (Kostel Sv. Havla) (p.14). Dating from around 1280, this church was built to serve an autonomous German community in the area known as Gall’s Town (Havelske Mesto), which in the 14th century merged with the Old Town. In the 18th century the church was given a Baroque facelift by Giovanni Santini-Aichel, who created a bold facade decorated with statues of saints by Ferdinand Brokoff. Rich interior furnishings include paintings by the leading Baroque artist Karel Skreta, who is buried here.
Prague’s best-known open-air market has been held in Havelska Street since the middle ages, selling flowers, vegetables, toys and clothes. It is still there today, in case you want to get a healthy snack or souvenirs. It is a fun place to browse for crafts as the sellers would usually be the artists (or the farmers).
After getting some not-so-healthy Czech street-food for dinner and happily devouring it in my room, I grew restless so I left the hotel for an evening walk around Prague. And I have to say, the city looked even more attractive and romantic at night!
February 21, 2016.
After a good and very comfy night of sleep, I was ready to dive back into the streets of Prague. I got up before 7.00 to enjoy an early tourist-free walk in Old Town and to see the Astrological Clock “precession”. On my way to the Old Town Square, via Melantrichova Street, I stopped by the portal of the house called “At the Two Golden Bears” (Dum u Dvou Zlatych Medvedu) (p.13). The present Renaissance building was constructed from two earlier houses in 1567. The portal was added in 1590, when a wealthy merchant, Lorenc Stork, secured the services of court architect Bonifaz Wohlmut, who had designed the spire on the tower of St. Vitus’s Cathedral. This ornate portal with reliefs of two bears is one of the most beautiful Renaissance portals in Prague. Magnificent arcades, also dating from the 16th century, have been preserved in the inner courtyard. They say that there are corridors underground that go from the basement of the house to Church of Our Lady before Týn and the Old Town Hall. In 1885 Egon Erwin Kisch, known as the “Furious Reporter” was born here. He was a German speaking Jewish writer and journalist, feared for the force of his left-wing rhetoric.
Quiet morning by the Tower was indeed very enjoyable, even though I wasn’t the only person on the Square – a few dozen tourists already gathered by the Clock and the outdoor restaurants have started seating clients for breakfast.
Today, my plan was to continue exploring the old city, following the guidebook and perhaps, visit the Prague Castle. At night, I had a performance at the State Opera, which I was really looking forward to. From the Old Town Square, via Male Namesti, I proceeded towards my first stop – Marianske Square.
Marianske Square (Marianske Namesti), (p.20) is dominated by the two statues, located in the corners of the forbidding Town Hall, built in 1912. One illustrates the story of the long-lived Rabbi Low finally being caught by the Angel of Death. The other is the Iron Man, a local ghost condemned to roam the Old Town after murdering his mistress. A niche in the garden wall of the Clam-Gallas Palace houses a statue of the River Vltava, depicted as a nymph pouring water from a jug. There is a story that an old soldier once made the nymph sole beneficiary of his will. Municipal Library, located on the Marianske Square, was built between 1925 and 1928 and was originally intended to serve as a cultural institution with exhibition, lecture and concert halls. Today, the building houses a representative apartment of the Prague’s Mayor which is furnished in an Art Deco style and the 2nd floor is used as the City Gallery.
Clam-Gallas Palace (Clam-Gallasuv Palac) (p.19) is located on the corner of the Square with Husova Street. The interior of this magnificent Baroque palace had suffered during its use as a store for the City Archives, but has now been carefully restored. The palace, designed by Viennese court architect Bernhard Fischer von Erlach, was built in 1714-1718 for the Supreme Marshal of Bohemia, Jan Gallas de Campo. The Gallas family died out in 1757, and at that point the palace was inherited by Kristian Filip of Clam, son of Gallas’ sister, hence the hyphenated name. Its grand portals, each flanked by two pairs of Hercules sculpted by Matthias Braun, give a taste of what lies within. The main staircase is also decorated with Braun statues, set off by a ceiling fresco “The Triumph of Apollo” by Carlo Carlone. The palace has a theater, where Beethoven performed some of his works and twice a year it hosts a multi-genre festival “Opera Barocca”. Even if you don’t have a guide book, it would be very hard to miss the impressive giant statues looming over the narrow Husova Street.
Just 50m further, along the same street is Church of St. Giles (Kostel Sv. Jilji) (p.17). Despite a beautiful Gothic portal on the southern side, the inside of this church is essentially Baroque. Founded in 1371 on the site of an old Romanesque church, it became a Hussite parish church in 1420. Following the Protestant defeat in 1620, Ferdinand II presented the church to the Dominicans, who built a large friary on its southern side. It has now been returned to the Dominicans, religious order having been abolished under the Communism. The vaults of the church are decorated with frescoes by the painter Vaclav Vavrinec Reiner, who is buried in the nave before the altar of St. Vincent. The main fresco, a glorification of the Dominicans, shows St. Dominic and his friars helping the pope defend the Catholic Church from non-believers.
If you see a body hanging from a poll at the end of Husova Street, your eyes aren’t betraying you. If you look closer (and you are familiar with historical figures), you will recognize the father of psychoanalyses – Sigmund Freud, though in my opinion, the statue looks awfully like Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. So here he is, hanging in the wind. In fairness, I have to say that locals redesigned even the most boring and ordinary concepts to make them look new and appealing, like, for ex. the street water drain pipes.
If you turn right just under the hanging statue, you are at the charming, relatively quiet Betlemske namesti, a place of one of Prague’s most important churches – Bethlehem Chapel (Betlemska Kaple) (p.18). The present chapel is a reconstruction of a hall that served as a main chapel of Charles University in 1348. The followers of the radical preacher Jan Milic z Kromerize in 1391-1394 attended his masses here as well as those of Jan Hus’, between 1402-1412. Influenced by the teachings of the English religious reformer John Wycliffe, Hus condemned the corrupt practices of the Church, arguing that the Scriptures should be the sole source of doctrine. While meant primarily for students and faculty, services were open to the public, and standing-room-only crowds of more than 3,000 were the norm when Hus preached. After the Protestant worship was outlawed in 1620, the building was handed over to the Jesuits, who rebuilt it with six naves. In 1786 it was almost demolished, but excavations carried out after WWI uncovered the original portal and three windows. In 1950s, the chapel was reconstructed following old illustrations, descriptions and traces of the original work. Only the southern wall of the chapel is new. You can still see some original parts in the eastern wall: the pulpit door, several windows and the door to the preacher’s quarters. These quarters, including the rooms used by Hus and others, are also original, and now used for exhibits. Some remnants of Hus’s teachings can also be read on the inside walls. Unfortunately, I arrived too early and the chapel was still closed.
Just around the corner is Anenske Namesti, one of Prague’s smallest square and home to the former St. Anne’s Convent, a 14th century Baroque complex of Dominican Order which was in use since 1313 till 1782. After the convent was dissolved, its premises served as, among other things, a printing press for the publisher of the Journal of the Austrian Royal and Imperial Postal Service, and a paper store. It is now used by the National Theater.
On the spit of land besides the Vltava, a former Neo-Renaissance waterworks has been turned into Smetana Museum (Muzeum Bedricha Smetany) (p.24) a memorial to the father of Czech music. His museum contains documents, letters, scored and musical instruments detailing the composer’s life and work. However, my main intention was to check out a wonderful river-bank patio adjacent to the Museum which offered the incredible views of Vltava River, Charles Bridge and the Castle.
After taking a fare share of photos, I backtracked to Prague’s most important avenues – Charles Street (Karlova Ulice) (p.21). Dating back to the 12th century, this narrow, winding street was part of the Royal Route. Many original Gothic and Renaissance houses remain, most converted into shops. A cafe at the House at the Golden Snake (#18) was established in 1714 by an Armenian, Deodatus Damajan, who handed out slanderous pamphlets from here. It is now a restaurant. Look out for At the Golden Well (#3) which has a magnificent Baroque facade and stucco reliefs of saints including St. Roch and St. Sebastian, who are believed to offer protection against plagues. Among the cafes, antique shops and other decorated houses, be sure to look out for this Art Nouveau statue of the legendary Princess Libuse, surrounded by roses (#22/24). Legend says that Princess Libuse was a founder of Pemyslids and a head of a West Slavic tribe. She took notice of the discord among her clansmen, and succeeded her father to become the first woman ruler. Choosing a humble ploughman (Premysl-Orac) as a consort and ruler, she began a dynasty that was to last 400 years.
The morning Mass has just ended and people started to pour out of the Cathedral of St. Clement (Katedrala Sv. Klimenta), (free entry, no pictures allowed) located on Charles St. What was unusual is that every person in this parish was Ukrainian and all they talked about was the recent invasion of Crimea by Russia (later on I would see quite a few peaceful protests all over town, equipped with Ukrainian blue-yellow flags and banners condemning Russian aggression). I struck up a conversations with one of the attendees, an old Ukrainian woman, who told me the name of the church and despite heavy traffic heading out of the door, she pushed me into the church. On the site of the present cathedral was originally the Romanesque Church of St. Klement that was part of the Dominican monastery from 1432 to 1556 when the Jesuits took over. The present Baroque style the church acquired in 1712-1715 – outwardly sober outside, but very decorative inside, where a single-nave is illuminated by eight large windows. In 1931 the church of St. Klimenta was converted into a Greek Catholic Church and now serves as a main gathering place for the Ukrainians in Prague.
Cathedral of St. Clement is a part of a large historic complex, Clementinum (Klementinum) (p.23). In 1556 Emperor Ferdinand I invited the Jesuits to Prague to help bring the Czechs back into the Catholic fold. They established their headquarters in the mentioned above monastery of St. Clement, hence the name Clementinum. This soon became an effective rival to Carolinum, the Ultraquist university. Expelled in 1618, the Jesuits were back two years later more determined than ever to stamp out heresy. In 1622 the two universities were merged, resulting in the Jesuits gaining a virtual monopoly on higher education in Prague. They believed 2/3 of population were secret heretics, searched for books in Czech and then burnt them by the thousand. Between 1653 and 1723 the Clementinum expanded eastwards. Over 30 houses and 3 churches were pulled down to make way for the new complex. The Jesuits built a resplendent library, displaying fabulous ceiling murals that portray the three levels of knowledge, with the “Dome of Wisdom” as a centerpiece. Next door, the Mirror Chapel is a symphony of reflective surfaces, with acoustics to match. Mozart played here, and the space still hosts occasional chamber music concerts. The Astronomical Tower in the middle of the complex was used by Johannes Kepler, and afterward functioned as the ‘Prague Meridian” where the time was set each day. At high noon a timekeeper would appear on the balcony and wave a flag that could be seen from the castle, where a cannon was fired to mark the hour. When in 1773 the pope dissolved their order, the Jesuits had to leave Prague and education was secularized. The Clementinum became the Prague University library, today – the National Library.
Prague’s first Jesuit church, the Church of the Holy Savior (Kostel Sv. Salvatora) was built here in several stages from 1578–1714. Major artists contributed to the remodeling work. Initially these were mainly the architects Carlo Lurago and Francesco Caratti. The line of columns and stucco-work in front of the entrance was created by Giovanni Bartolomeo Cometa, while the statues in the portico are the work of Johann-Georg Bendl: Church Fathers, saints, evangelists, Christ and the Virgin Mary. They are dramatically lit up at night. Both towers were raised and a cupola was added to the roof in 1714. The Early Baroque interior is richly decorated with stucco; the confessional, decorated with statues of the twelve apostles, is particularly noteworthy. The underground crypt contains a large tomb for members of the Jesuit Order, including the guardian of the Czech language, Bohuslav Balbín.
The small picturesque square between the church and the Old Town Bridge Tower is Knights of the Cross Square (Krizovnicke Namesti) (p.25) and it offers fine views across the Vltava, if you manage to elbow your way to the bank. In the middle of the square is a Neo-Gothic statue of Charles IV leaning against a sword and holding the deed of foundation of Charles University in Prague. The women around the pedestal symbolize the school’s four subjects: the art, medicine, law, and theology. The statue was made in 1848 on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of Charles University. Vine column is the only part that was left from wine bureau located in Knights of the Cross Square in 1358 – 1783; it is topped with the statue of St. Wenceslas, who is the patron of wine-growers. The bureau was responsible for administering regulation in regard to wine production. From the square, you can also see the remains of the original paving of former Judith bridge, the predecessor of Charles Bridge, around the column.
On the north side is the Church of St. Francis (Kostel Sv. Frantiska), once part of the monastery of the crusading Knights of the Cross with the Red Star. The order was founded by St. Agnes of Bohemia in 1233. They built a Gothic church, a monastery and a hospital by the Judith Bridge. They maintained the bridge and collected customs and usage charges there. Their main activities were charitable – they took care of ill and poor people. That’s why their monastery was one of the few not destroyed by Protestant Hussites in the 15th century: Hussites appreciated their helpfulness in the society. The present church was rebuilt in Baroque style in the 17th century. The plans were made by French architect Jean Baptiste Mathey, who was probably inspired by the St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome – it has a large cupola and a nave with a ground plan in the shape of a cross. Remains of the original Gothic church are preserved in the underground chapel, called “bottom church”. It is decorated with extraordinary artificial stalactites and contains tombstones of important figures of the order and some fragments of the former church. The statues of Bohemian saints are decorating the facade of the church, while its interior was decorated by the most important artists of the era (cupola is covered with a fresco painting “The Last Judgement” by V. V. Reiner.)
The striking Old Town Bridge Tower (Staromestska mostecka vez), dominates the western part of the square and serves as a grand entry to the Charles Bridge. It was also used as a passage for the royal coronation processions because it was located on the Royal Route. Its richly ornate 1357 design was made for Charles IV by Petr Parler, the architect who drafted the Gothic plans for St. Vitus’s Cathedral and built the bridge. The original east side of the tower (facing the square) remains pristine, with coats of arms of the Bohemian king and Holy Roman Empire. Shields also depict each territory under the auspices of the Bohemian crown at that time. Above the east-side arch, seated to the right of the standing statue of St. Vitus, is Charles himself, and on the left is a statue of his ill-fated son, Wenceslas IV, who lost the crown of the empire. Above them are a guarding Bohemian Lion and the statues of the Czech patrons St. Sigizmund and St. Adalbert. The tower’s western side was severely damaged in a battle against invading Swedish troops in 1648. The Swedes were never able to penetrate the gate and sack the Old Town, and in memory of that struggle, this side of the tower has never been fully repaired.
The tower is finished not only by the battlement but also by a tall slate roof, rising nearly 50m high. Since I had a “4 tower” pass which I purchased the day before at the Powder Tower, I took an opportunity to climb up and see the square, as well as the bridge from the Old Tower Bridge Tower gallery (just 138 steps). The first and second floors have a unique beam ceilings, while the top floor contains the Gothic statue of tower keeper (Veznik). And the views…. a video speaks louder than words, so enjoy!
Historic pedestrian Charles Bridge (Karluv Most) is Central Europe’s longest bridge and Prague’s most celebrated structure, connecting the Old Town with the Little Quarter. In better weather it must be one of the most pleasant and entertaining 520m strolls in Europe, however on a rainy Sunday morning in February, I found it cold, wet and … walkable. I am still not sure where the anticipated crowds of tourists were at that time. Bridges had previously been built at this location, but all were washed away by floods. After a major surge in 1342, Emperor Charles IV decided against repairing the old bridge and instead commissioned an entirely new structure. Initially called the Stone Bridge, it was Prague’s only pass across Vltava for more than 400 years. According to legend (and the bridge has long fueled a local love of legends), Charles wanted to make the bridge as strong as possible and thus mixed egg in with the mortar. Czech citizens sent in hundreds of eggs from all over the country. Another Charles bridge legend is tied to numbers. According to medieval records, the bridge’s foundation was laid in 1357. In the late 1800s, an amateur astronomer noticed a curious combination of numbers, leading to a popular theory about Charles IV. Charles is known to have been interested in numerology and astrology, and was likely aware of the significance of this date: July 9 at 5.31 in the morning. Written out in digits (as a year, month, day, hour and minute) – it’s a numerical palindrome: 135797531. It is said that Charles must have chosen that precise moment (which also coincides with favorable positioning of the earth and Saturn) to lay the foundation stone of the bridge. Further “corroboration” of this remarkable hypothesis was provided by the discovery that the end of the bridge on the Old Town side aligns perfectly with the tomb of St. Vitus (in the Castle’s cathedral across the river) and the setting sun at summer solstice. In the absence of accurate 14th-century records, this intriguing proposition has delighted the modern Czech imagination. But even the most auspicious numbers couldn’t protect the bridge from periodic damage caused by floods, ice, and inept repairs.
Int he 17th century, there was no statues on the bridge – only a cross, which is still a part of the 3rd sculpture on the right. The gilded Hebrew inscription from the Book of Isaiah celebrates Christ (“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts”). The inscription was paid for by a fine imposed on a Prague Jew – the result of a rivalry within the Jewish community (fellow Jews turned him in for mocking a cross). In the space between the 3rd and 4th statues after the cross, there is a small brass relief depicting a floating figure with a semicircle of stars above him. This marks the spot where St. John of Nepomuk, the national saint of Czech people, was tossed off the bridge into the river. The relief is a replica of a Baroque original that was badly damaged by a flood in 1890, marred by protesters in 1920s, and finally removed by the Communists. Devout pilgrims believe that touching the relief of St. John will make a wish come true (which doesn’t explain a group of Chinese tourists eagerly rubbing it). Further down the bridge, there is a Baroque statue of St. John of Nepomuk which always draws a crowd. John was a 14th-century priest to whom the queen confessed all her sins. According to a 17th century legend, the king wanted to know his wife’s secrets, but Father John dutifully refused to tell. He was tortured and eventually killed by being thrown off the bridge. When he hit the water, five stars appeared. The shiny plaque a the base of the statue depicts the heave-ho. Notice the date on the inscription: this oldest statue on the bridge was unveiled in 1683, on the supposed 300th anniversary of the martyr’s death.
The statue was such a hit that the church commissioned another 21 of them, which were created between 1698 and 1713. Since then, the number has increased to 30 (and every guide book has a map of the bridge with detailed description of each statue). It is worth mentioning that the statues played an important propaganda role in helping the rulers at the time to introduce Catholicism to the Protestant Czech masses. The reasoning went something like: “We will dazzle them with art and they will convert.” It worked, as over the generations, the Czech gradually went back to Catholic belief and the statues became such a fixture on the bridge that it is impossible to imagine it without them.
Congratulations, we finally made it to another Prague’s area – Little Quarter (Mala Strana). This charming neighborhood is low on blockbuster sights but high on ambience as this part of the city was least affected by recent history. Hardly any new buildings have taken place here since the late 18th century and the quarter is rich in splendid Baroque palaces and old houses with attractive signs. Founded in 1257, it is built on the slopes below the Castle hill with magnificent views across the river to the Old Town. It was home to the merchants and craftsmen who served the royal court. The area was almost devastated twice in its history: during the battles between the Hussites and the Prague Castle garrison in 1419, and then during the Great Fire of 1541. Though not nearly as confusing as the labyrinth that is Old Town, the streets in Little Quarter can baffle, but they also bewitch, and today the area holds embassies, Czech government offices, historical attractions, best hotels (like Mandarin Oriental) and galleries mixed in with the usual glut of pubs (as they call bars), restaurants and souvenir shops.
The other end of Charles Bride is crowned with the Little Quarter Bridge Towers (Malostranske mostecke veze). The higher tower was modeled after the one across the bridge and was built under the rule of King George of Podebrady in the second half of the 15th century to replace an earlier Romanesque tower. It is 43.5m high and represents a rare surviving example of the post-Hussite Gothic style. Connected to it by a walkway is the smaller Judith’s Tower – the only remaining part of the original Prague crossing, Judith’s Bridge, which was destroyed by floods in 1342, and subsequently replaced by Charles Bridge. Inside the Tower is an exhibition dedicated to the eventful history of Charles Bridge, with graphic descriptions of the invading armies that have crossed it. And since it was also included into my ‘Tower package”, I got to climb it too!
Since the Middle Ages, the Bridge Street (Mostecká Ulice) has linked Charles Bridge with the Little Quarter Square. Throughout the 13th and 14th centuries, the area to the north of the street was the Court of the Bishop of Prague. It was destroyed during the Hussite Wars, but one of its Gothic towers is preserved in the courtyard of the house called At the Three Golden Bells (it can be seen from the higher bridge tower). The street is lined with a mixture of Renaissance and Baroque houses. As you walk up to Little Quarter Square, look out for the house called At the Black Eagle on the left. It has rich sculptural decoration and a splendid Baroque wrought-iron grille. Kaunic Palace, also on the left, was built in the 1770s. Its Rococo façade has striking stucco decoration and sculptures by Ignaz Platzer.
The focal point of this neighborhood is the cobbled Little Quarter Square (Malostranske Namesti). It has been the center of life in the Little Quarter since its foundation in 1257. It had started life in the 8th century as a large market place in the outer bailey of Prague castle. Building sprung up in the middle of the square dividing it in half – a gallows and pillory stood in its lower part. Most of the houses around the square have a medieval core, but all were rebuilt in the Renaissance and Baroque periods. The center of the square is dominated by the splendid Baroque church of St. Nicholas. The large building beside it was a Jesuit college. Along the upper side of the square, facing the church, runs vast Neo-Classical facade of Liechtenstein Palace. In front of it stands a column raised in honor of the Holy Trinity to mark the end of a plague epidemic in 1713. Other important buildings include the Little Quarter Town Hall with its splendid Renaissance facade. Beside it stands the Smiricky Palace (#18) – its turrets and hexagonal towers make it an unmistakable landmark on the northern side of the lower square. It was here that Czech nobles gathered on May 22, 1618. The next day they threw two Habsburg councillors out of a window in Prague Castle, setting off the Thirty Year’s War. The Baroque Kaiserstein Palace is situated at the eastern side. On the facade is a bust of the great Czech soprano Emmy Destinn, who lived there between 1908 and 1914. She often sang with the famous Italian tenor Enrico Caruso.
It was almost 11.00 and since I was trying to make it to the Changing of the Guard ceremony at the Castle (which takes place every hour, but includes the fanfare only at noon), I decided to skip a visit to the Church of St. Nicholas, but use my last ticket of the “Tower tour” to climb the church’s 79m tall Belfry. Although this Baroque belfry, which was also used as a fire tower and the night watchman residence, was constructed together with St. Nicholas’ church, its greater part was built after the church was finished by the outstanding Baroque architect, Kilian Ignaz Dientzenhofer (belfry was completed by Anselmo Lurago according to the original plans). The construction was completed in 1755, however two years later, the building was damaged during the Prussian siege of Prague. The tower’s height is the same as the adjacent cupola and the gallery, which is open to the public, is 65m tall and has 299 steps. At first, it may seem that the tower and the church represent the same building, however, the belfry has always been a standalone structure and, more interestingly, has always been the municipal property of the Little Quarter. Hence it has its own street address and a separate entrance from the square. In the 1960s, it served as an observation post of the state police, which monitored the western countries’ embassies residing nearby. The plaque on the ground floor informed me about 22(!!!) rules of visiting the Town Belfry and the spaces along the staircase contained an apartment staged with furniture and belongings of the municipal employee who often used to live there with his family during the time of his public service. It didn’t look very comfortable and according to the records, the inhabitants often complained about the cold and difficulties with heating. The apartment consisted of a few small rooms and a black kitchen. The panoramic views from the top were magnificent, of course!
After I came down from Belfry, I hurriedly proceeded towards the Castle hill, via a steep picturesque narrow street called Neruda (Nerudova Ulice), which used to be the last leg of the Royal Route. It is named after Jan Neruda, a famous Czech novelist who was born, lived in and wrote about Malá Strana (he lived in the house called “At the Two Suns” (#47) between 1845 and 1857). Up until the introduction of numbers in 1777 (in order to collect taxes more effectively), Prague’s houses were distinguished by signs. Nerudova’s houses have a splendid selection of heraldic beasts and emblems, carefully restored and protected by law. They represent the family name, occupation, or the various passions of the people who once inhabited the houses. As I made my way up slope, I saw “Red Eagle” (#6), “The Three Fiddles” (#12 – in the early 18th century three generations of the Edlinger violin-making family lived here), “The Golden Horseshoe” (#34), “The Green Lobster” (#43), “The White Swan” (#49) as well as the Old Pharmacy museum (#32). There are also a number of grand Baroque buildings in the street, including the Thun-Hohenstein Palace (#20, now an Italian Embassy) and the Morzin Palace (#5, now a Romanian Embassy). The latter has a facade with two massive statues of Moors (a pun on the name Morzin) supporting a semicircular balcony on the second floor. The archway at #13 is a prime example of the many winding passageways that give the Little Quarter its captivating ghostly character at night. On the corner with Jansky vrsek is Bretfeld Palace, which Josef Bretfeld made into a center of social gatherings starting in 1765. His guests included Mozart and Casanova. Another impressive facade is that of a Church of Our Lady of Unceasing Succour, the church of the Theatines, an order founded during the Counter-Reformation.
Once I reached the top of Neruda Street, I crossed into the Hradcany and the Castle area. This is where the history of Prague begun with the foundation of the Castle in 870s by Prince Borivoj. Its commanding position high above the river Vltava soon made it the center of the lands ruled by the Premyslids. The buildings enclosed by the Castle walls included a palace, 3 churches and a monastery. In about 1320 a town called Hradcany was founded in part of the Castle outer bailey. The Castle has been reconstructed many times, most notably in the reigns of Charles IV and Vladislav Jagiello. After a fire in 1541, the badly damaged buildings were rebuilt in Renaissance style and the Castle enjoyed its cultural heyday under Rudolph II. Since 1918 it has been the seat of the president of the Republic.
I arrived to Hradcany Square (Hradcanske Namesti) at 11.45 and had a few minutes to position myself for the best views of the Changing of the Guard ceremony and to look around. With its fabulous mixture of Baroque and Renaissance houses, Hradcany Square was the important point of medieval power – the kings, the most powerful noblemen and the archbishop lived here. Uphill from the gate is the Renaissance Schwarzenberg Palace (it has big, envelop-like rectangles scratched on the wall). This is where the Rozmberks “humbly” stayed when they were in town visiting from their Cezky Krumlov estates. The Schwarzenberg family inherited it and stayed there until the 20th century. The palace now houses the National Gallery. The flamboyant yellow Rococo palace across the square (with the three white goose necks in the red field – the coat of arms of Prague’s archbishops) is where the archbishop used to and still lives. Through the portal on the left-hand side of the palace, a lane leads to the Sternberg Palace, which presently hosts the European paintings of the National gallery’s collection. In his movie “Amadeus”, Czech director Milos Forman used the house #7 for Mozart’s residence, where the composer was haunted by the masked figure he thought was his father. For a brief time after WWII, #11 was home to a little girl named Marie Jana Korbelova, better known as Madeleine Albright. The black Baroque sculpture in the middle of the square is a plague column. Erected as a token of gratitude to the saints who saved the population from the epidemic, these columns are an integral part of the main square of many Habsburg towns. The statue marked “TGM” honors Tomas Garrigue Masaryk (1850-1937), a university professor and the first Czech president.
Promptly at noon a very ceremonial Changing of the Guard procession began and 10 minutes later, it was over. Until 1989, the guards wore rather drab khaki outfits, when Vaclav Havel asked costume designer Teodor Pistek (who costumed the actors in the film “Amadeus”) to redress them. Today, their smart navy blue outfits are reminiscent of those worn during the First Republic.
Standing on the square, I could also survey the Prague Castle (Prazsky hrad)– city’s most popular attraction. According to Guinness World Records, it is the largest ancient castle in the world – 570 m long and an average of 128 m wide – and it consists of a long series of courtyards, churches and palaces. During a formal renovation the main entrance to Prague Castle was stripped of some grand touches, but it was still impressive. Going through the wrought-iron gate, guarded at ground level by Czech soldiers and from above by the ferocious Battling Titans (a copy of Ignaz Platzer’s original 18th century work), I entered the First Courtyard, built on the site of old moats and gates that once separated the Castle from the surrounding buildings and thus protected the vulnerable western flank. The courtyard is one of the most recent additions to the Castle, designed by Maria Theresa’s court architect, Nicolo Pacassi, in the 1760s. Today it forms part of the presidential office complex.
The Matthias Gateway (Matyasova Brana), built in 1614 as a freestanding gate, was later incorporated into the castle itself. The gateway bears the coat of arms of the various lands ruled by Emperor Matthias. Once you go through it, notice the ceremonial white-marble entrance halls on either side that lead up to the Czech president’s reception rooms (closed to public).
I passed through the Matthias Gate into the 16th century Second Courtyard, centered on a Baroque fountain and a 17th-century well with beautiful Renaissance lattice work. Except for the view of the spired of St. Vitus’s Cathedral, the exterior courtyard offers little for the eye to feast on, hence most tourists quickly pass through it on the way to the ticket booth. Empress Maria Theresa’s court architect received imperial approval to remake the castle in the 1760s, as it was badly damaged by Prussian shelling during the Seven Year’s War in 1757. The second courtyard was the main victim of Pacassi’s attempts at imparting the classical grandeur to what had been a picturesque collection of Gothic and Renaissance styles. This courtyard also houses the rather gaudy, Chapel of the Holy Cross (Kaple Sv. Kruze), with decorations from the 18th and 19th centuries. On the courtyard left side is the entrance to the Castle Picture Gallery (p.1), featuring 16th-18th century European art, including the works of Rubens and Tintoretto. Just north of the gallery, the 1540 Power Bridge crosses the Stag Moat, where deer were raised for the royal table.
Two passages lead you to the following courtyard, take the left one (with arched roof) and once inside, look at your left. Here, easy to miss, is the remnants of the Church of the Virgin Mary. This church, the oldest at Prague’s Castle and the second oldest in Bohemia, was built between 882-884 at the wish of Prince Borivoj I. It is the burial place of Prince Spytihněv I (915) and his wife (918). It was rebuilt in the 11th century but then destroyed by fire in the 13th.
At the end of the passage I froze as the graceful soaring towers of St. Vitus’s Cathedral come into my view. And soaring they were, as I wasn’t the only one who tried, laying on the ground, to take a picture of a whole structure. It wasn’t immediately clear whether it was the courtyard that initially was built too close to the cathedral, leaving practically no space or the gigantic cathedral was erected in already existing courtyard. The outcome was grandiose and in many ways claustrophobic. Occupying the site of a Romanesque rotunda built in 929, it is the country’s spiritual heart and its largest church.
Once inside the Third Courtyard, I went into an 11th-century Old Provost building which housed the ticket office. Most of the outdoor spaces at the Castle are free to visit, however, St. Vitus’s Cathedral, Royal Palace, St. George convent, Golden Lane and others, require a ticket. I went for a combined ticket: entry (250 Kc – $11), 3 hour audio guide (350 Ks -$16 – requires an ID) and a photo-permit (50 Kc – $2.5). Allow at least 3-4 hours. I have to say that the audioguide was superb, I wish I had the time to get a “whole day audio tour”.
Tightly holding on to my ticket I joined a line of people trying to get inside the St. Vitus’s Cathedral (Katedrala Sv. Vita) (p.2) and looked at the western facade of the building. Begun in 1334, under the watchful eye of Charles IV, St. Vitus’s has undergone three serious reconstructions. The first architect was the French Matthew of Arras, and after his death, Swabian Peter Parler rook over the project. The tower galleries date from 1562, the Baroque onion roof was constructed in 1770, and the entire western part of the cathedral has begun in 1873 and was completed only in 1929, for the 1,000th anniversary of the death of St. Wenceslas. While it looks all Gothic, it is actually two distinct halves: the original 14th century Gothic area around the high altar and the modern Neo-Gothic nave. The western facade is decorated with statues of saints and guys in suits carved beneath the big round window (those are architects and builders who finished the church). The bronze doors are embellished with reliefs; those on the central door depict the construction history of the cathedral. The door on the left features representation from the lives of St. Adalbert (on the right) and St. Wenceslas (on the left). Inside the cathedral’s busy main body are several chapels, coats of arms of the city of Prague, a memorial to Bohemia casualties of WWI, and a Renaissance-era organ loft with an organ dating from 1757. According to legend, St. Vitus died in Rome but was then transported by angels to a small town in southern Italy and in 1355, to Prague. Since then, Vitus, the patron saint of Prague has remained among the most popular saints in the country.
Once inside the cathedral I paused to take in the vast beauty of its interior (p.26) – remarkable Gothic vaulted ceiling colored with lights filtered through the brilliant stained-glass windows, created by eminent Czech artists of the early 20th century. The cathedral was so big that despite hundreds of tourists it felt almost empty.
Mucha-Stained Glass Window (P.27) – this masterful Art Nouveau window was designed by Czech artist Alfons Mucha and executed in 1931. Notice Mucha’s stirring nationalism: Methodius and Cyril, widely considered the fathers of Slavic-style Christianity, are top and center. Cyril – the monk in black holding the Bible- brought the word of God to the Slavs. Methodius, the bishop, is shown baptizing a mythic, lanky, long-haired Czech man – a reminder of how he brought Christianity to the Czech people. Scenes from the lives of Cyril (on the left) and Methodius (on the right) bookend the stirring and epic Slavic story. In the center are a kneeling boy and a prophesying elder – that is young St. Wenceslas and his grandmother, St. Ludmila. In addition to being specific historical figures, these characters are also symbolic: the old woman, with closed eyes, stands for the past and memory; the young boy, with a penetrating stare, represents the hope and future of a nation. Mucha draws our attention to these figures through the used of colors – the dark blue on the outside gradually turns into green, then yellow, and finally the gold of the woman and the crimson of the boy in the center. In Mucha’s color language, blue stands for the past, gold for the mythic, and red for the future.
I continued to slowly circulate around the church. A slight incline near the middle marks the site where the 14th-century church merged with its more-recent half. The Royal Habsburg mausoleum (p.32) (within a black iron fence) contains the remains of the first Habsburgs to rule Bohemia, including Ferdinand I, his wife Ann, and Maximilian II. The tomb dates from 1590 when Prague was a major Habsburg city.
Close to the night altar (Neo-Gothic, circa 1910), there is the fascinating carved-wood “Flight of the Winter King” relief (p.34). It depicts the action after the Battle of White Mountain, when the Protestant King Frederic escaped over the Charles Bridge. Carved in 1630, 10 years after the famous event occurred, the relief gives us a pick at Prague in 1620, stretching from the Tyn Church to the Cathedral (half-built at the time, up to where I am standing right now). Notice that back then, the Tyn church was Hussite (hence the chalice is the centerpiece of its facade), the Charles Bridge didn’t have its statues and the old city walls stood strong.
Circling around the high altar, I passed graves of bishops, including the tomb of St. Vitus (p.38 with a rooster at his feet). The stone sarcophagi contain kings from the Premyslid dynasty (12th-14th centuries). Locals claim the gigantic, shiny tomb of St. John of Nepomuk (p.39) has more than two tons of silver. According to legend, when Nepomuk’s body was exhumed in 1721 to be reinterred, the tongue was found to be still intact and pumping with blood. This strange tale served a highly political purpose: the Catholic Church and the Habsburgs were seeking a new folk hero to replace the Protestant forerunner Jan Hus, whom they despised. The 14th century priest Nepomuk, killed during the power struggle with King Vaclav IV, was sainted and reburied a few years later with great ceremony in this luxurious tomb, replete with angels and cherubim (the tongue was enshrined in its own reliquary).
About 3 m after the tomb (above on the right) is a finely carved rood relief “The Plundering of the Cathedral by Calvinists” (p.40) circa 1630. It gives a Counter-Reformation spin on the Wars of Religion, showing the “barbaric” Protestant nobles destroying the Catholic icons in the cathedral after their short-lived victory.
Further ahead on the left is the biggest and most beautiful of the cathedral’s numerous side chapels – Chapel of St. Wenceslas (p.43, it is roped-off with two view-points, the best access is around the corner to the left). Constructed between 1344 and 1364, this fancy chapel houses the tomb of St. Wenceslas and is surrounded by walls encrusted with over 1300 precious and semiprecious stones. The scenes of the lower portions of the walls evokes heavenly Jerusalem to anyone entering with a 14th century mind-set. Above are frescoes, circa-1590, showing scenes of the saint’s life and a locked door leading to the crown jewels. A plaque outside the door in details describes each fresco. The Tupperware-toned stained-glass windows are from the 1950s. The Czech kings used to be crowned right here in front of the coffin, draped in red.
After about an hour in the Cathedral, I was ready to leave; I walked out of the door and turned left to the Third Courtyard. The contract between the cool, dark interior of St. Vitus’s Church and the brightly colored facades is startling. Noted Slovenian architect Josep Plecnik created the courtyard’s clean lines in the 1930s, but the modern look is a deception. Plecnik’s paving was intended to cover an underground world of house foundations, streets, and walls dating from the 9th through 12th centuries and rediscovered when the cathedral was completed (see a few archways through a grating in a wall of the cathedral). Plecnik added a few features to catch the eye: a granite obelisk to commemorate the fallen of WWI, a black-marble pedestal for the Gothic statue of St. George (original is in the National Gallery), an inconspicuous entrance to his Bull Staircase leading down to the south garden, and a peculiar golden ball topping the eagle fountain near the eastern end of the courtyard. Well, the 11 m tall obelisk was erected in 1928 – a single piece of granite celebrating the 10th anniversary of the establishment of Czechoslovakia and commemorating the soldiers who fought for its independence. It was originally much taller, but broke in transit – an inauspicious start for a nation destined to last only 70 years. Up in the fat, green tower of the cathedral is the Czech Republic’s biggest bell, nicknamed “Zikmund”. In June 2002, it cracked, and two month later, the worst flood in recorded history hit the city – the locals saw this as a sign.
The southern doorway of the cathedral is known as the Golden Gate (Zlata brana), an elegant, triple-arched Gothic porch designed by Peter Parler. Above is the 14th-century mosaic of the Last Judgement. It was commissioned in the Venetian style by King Charles IV, who, in 1370 was modern, cosmopolitan, and ahead of his time. The use of mosaic is quite rare in countries north of the Alps and this work was constructed from 1 million glass and stone tesserae. Jesus oversees the action, as some go to heaven and some go to hell. The Czech king Charles IV and his consort, Elizabeth of Pomerania kneel directly beneath Jesus and six patrons saints. On coronation day, they would walk under this arch, a reminder to them (and their subjects) that even those holding great power are not above God’s judgement. The royal crown and national jewels are kept in a chamber above this entry-way, which was cathedral’s main entrance for centuries while the church remained uncompleted.
The eastern side of the third courtyard is adorned with Old Royal Palace (p.4) – one of the oldest parts of the castle. From the time Prague Castle was first fortified in stone in the 11th century, the palace was the seat of Bohemian princes. The building consists of three different architectural layers. A Romanesque palace build by Sobeslav I around 1135 forms the cellars of the present building. Premysl Otakar II and Charles IV then added their own palaces above this, while the top floor, built for Vladislav Jagiello, contains the massive Gothic Vladislav Hall. During the period of Habsburg rule the palace housed government offices, courts and the old Bohemian Diet (parliament).
The best way to grasp the palace’s size is from within the Vladislav Hall (p.50) – the largest secular Gothic interior space in Central Europe. Benedikt Ried completed the hall in 1493. The room imparts a sense of space and light, softened by the sensuous lines of the vaulted ceilings and brought to a dignified close by the simple oblong form of the early Renaissance windows. In its heyday, the hall held jousting tournaments (even the staircase was designed to let a mounted solder gallop in – p.59), festive markets (giving nobles a chance to shop without actually going into town), banquets and coronations. In more recent times, it has been used to elect and inaugurate presidents.
To the right are the rooms of the Ludwig wing (p.51-53) which was built by Benedikt Ried only 10 years after the hall was completed, but it shows much stronger Renaissance influence. I passed through the portal into the last chamber of the Chancellery (bare, with nothing but the 17th century Dutch-style stove decorating the room). From these rooms two governors used to oversee the Czech lands for the Habsburgs in Vienna. In 1618 angry Czech Protestant nobles poured into these rooms and threw the two Catholic governors out the window. And old law actually permits this act – called defenestration – which usually targets bad politicians. Old prints on the wall show the second of Prague’s many defenestrations. The two governors landed, fittingly, in pool of horse manure. Even though they suffered only broken arms and bruised egos, this event kicked off the huge and lengthy Thirty Years’ War.
At the back of Vladislav Hall a staircase leads up to a gallery of the All Saint’s Church (p.58) – little remain of Peter Parler’s original work, but the church contains some fine works of art. Unfortunately, it was closed. The large room to the left of the staircase is the Diet Hall (Council Chamber) (p.57). It is a room with a fine Gothic ceiling, a crimson throne, and benches for the nobility who once served as the high court. It is interesting to notice the arrangement of the Diet’s furniture, which is all centered on the royal throne. To the sovereign’s right is the chair of the archbishop and benches for the prelates. Along the walls are seats for the federal officials; opposite the throne is a bench for the representatives of the Estates. The balcony on the left used to hold scribes recording the proceedings and not mixing with the aristocrats. By the window on the right is a gallery for the representatives of the royal towns. The portraits on the walls depict Habsburg rulers (including Maria Theresa), and the display case on the right contains replicas of the Czech crown jewels. The originals are locked up inside the cathedral.
Before exiting the Palace, pause at the door to consider the subtle yet racy little Renaissance knocker (you can play with it for a little sex in the palace). Across from the Royal Palace is Basilica and Convent of St. George (Bazilika Sv Jiri) (p.6). Founded by Prince Vratislav (915-921), the basilica predates St. Vitus’s Cathedral and is the best-preserved Romanesque church in Prague. It was enlarged in 973 when the adjoining St. George’s convent was established here by Benedictine nuns. The massive twin towers and austere interior have been scrupulously restored to give a good idea of church’s original appearance. However, the rusty red facade was a 17th century Baroque addition.
I went inside this beautiful-in-its-simplicity Basilica to see the burial place of Czech royalty. The effect is at once barnlike and peaceful. Notice the characteristic double windows on the gallery, as well as the walls made of limestone (the bedrock underlying Prague). In those early days, building techniques were not yet advanced, and the ceiling is made of wood, rather than arched with stone. Buried inside the church is St. Ludmila, widow of the 9th century ruler Prince Borivoj (her stone tomb is in the space just to the right of the altar). She became Bohemia’s first female Christian martyr when she was strangled on the orders of Drahomira, her daughter-in-law, as she knelt at prayer. Vratislav is another members of Premyslid dynasty buried here. His austere tomb stands on the right-hand side of the nave at the foot of the curving steps that lead up to the choir. The impressive Baroque grille opposite encloses the tomb of Boleslav II (963-999).
St. George’s Convent, the first convent in Bohemia, was established by Prince Boleslav II. His sister Mlada was its first abbess. Rebuilt over the centuries, the convent was finally abolished in 1782 and converted into barracks. In 1962-1974 it was reconstructed and today it houses the National Gallery collection of 19th century Czech art. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to check it out.
After leaving the St. George’s Basilica, I continued walking down hill to Golden Lane (Zlata Ulice) (p.7). The tiny, brightly painted ancient buildings of this picturesque, almost doll-like, street originally housed castle servants, perhaps goldsmiths, after whom the street was named. They were constructed in the late 1500s for Rudolph II’s 24 castle guards. A century later the goldsmiths moves in and modified the buildings. But by the 19th century the area had degenerated into a slum and was populated by Prague’s poor and the criminals. Well-written English texts explain the history of the lane and its cannon towers, which served as prisons. In the 1950s all the remaining tenants were moved and the area restored to its original intended state. These days, the dwellings are filled with a mix of shops and reconstructions portraying medieval life in the lane, including a pub and a goldsmith’s workshop. As a New Yorker, I could definitely learn from the former tenants about their ability to live in tiny spaces. Golden Lane has been home to some well-known writers, including the Nobel prize-winning poet, Jaroslav Seifert, and Franz Kafka who stayed at #22 with his sister for a few months in 1916-1917. He described his house on first sight as “so small, so dirty, impossible to live in, and lacking everything necessary.” But he soon came to love the place. As he wrote to his fiancee: “Life here is something special, to close out the world not just by shutting the door to a room or apartment but to the whole house, to step out into the snow of the silent lane.” Because of its name, legends have spread about the street being filled with alchemists huddled over the bubbling alembics trying to produce gold for Rudolph II. In fact the alchemists had laboratories in Vikarska, the lane between St. Vitus’s Cathedral and the Powder Tower.
Within the walls above Golden Lane, a timber-roofed corridor (entrance is between #23 and #24) is lined with replica suites of armor and weapons (some of them for sale), mock torture chambers, and the like.
Unfortunately, my 3 hours have expired and I really had to leave. Inconveniently, there is no ticket booth at the other end of Prague castle (though there is an exit), so I had to backtrack to the front in order to deposit my audio-guide and pick up my ID.
I have to admit that the best part of traveling in Europe in winter is that it is a theater season. Just a few weeks earlier, my husband and I attended Verdi’s “La Traviata” at La Fenice in Venice, and now, I was lucky to get a ticket to see another of Verdi’s opera “Macbeth” (I bought a ticket online a day before for 590 Kc – $27). However, there was a moment of confusion – while I thought I was buying a ticket for the Mozart’s Estates Theater (located 5 min from my hotel), the opera actually took place at the State Opera (Statni Opera). Once I realized that, I had to literally run to make it for my 16.00 performance. The first theater built on the same location, called The New Town Theater, was pulled down in 1885 to make way for the present building. This was originally known as the New German Theater, built to rival the Czech’s National Theater. A Neo-Classical frieze decorates the pediment above the columned loggia at the front of the theater. The figures include Dionysus and Thalia, the muse of comedy. With the most ornate interior of any venue in Prague, this theater has more than a touch of Phantom of the Opera – it is stuccoed and original paintings in the auditorium and on the curtain have been preserved. In 1945 the theater became the city’s main opera house.
And if my day wasn’t long and eventful enough, after the opera I wandered the streets of Prague for another couple of hours. Finally, it wasn’t raining, and tourists were congregating around the most important landmarks, so majority of the places and lanes in the Old Town were eerily empty. I walked back to the Charles Bridge (because every travel guide suggested taking a Bridge night stroll), I passed through Josefov (the Jewish town). Finally, Prague was exactly what I imagined it to be – ghostly, cold and beautiful.
February 22, 2016.
Absolutely unexpectedly, I found myself on a day tour to Terezin, Czech’s concentration camp. More about it you can find here.
I came back from the trip around 17.00 and spend a few hours browsing the New Town (Nove Mesto). Since my hotel was located on the border of two towns, almost facing the spacious boulevard-like Wenceslas Square, I really didn’t have to go very far. When the Old Town outgrew itself, the New Town, founded in 1348 by Charles IV, was carefully planned and laid out around three large central market-places: the Hay Market (Senovazne Sq.), the Cattle Market (Charles Sq.) and the Horse Market (Wenceslas Sq.). The high wall surrounded the newly developed 2.5 km2 area south and east of the Old Town, (twice as large as the Old Town) which was inhabited by tradesmen and craftsmen such as blacksmiths, wheelwrights and brewers. During the late 19th century, much of the New Town was demolished and completely redeveloped, giving it the appearance it has today. I started my tour around the New Town following the Street-by-Street guide of my travel book.
I started at the Wenceslas Square (Vaclavske Namesti) (p.1). This 750m long boulevard was originally built in the 14th century as a horse market; now its shops and hotels serve as a crash course in 19th-20th century architecture. Art Nouveau, Cubist, Functionalist, and new-Renaissance structures stand in unlikely cohabitation, beautifully ornamented facades neighboring blocky Communist building and post-Velvet Revolution constructions. At the head of the square stands a large equestrian statue of King Wenceslas. Erected in the same decade as the Jan Hus monument, it is one of Prague’s most symbolic sites, having served as a historical staging ground for a century of tumultuous events. The king (and his horse) witnessed Czechoslovakia’s declaration of independence in 1918, when thousands of Praguers filled Wenceslas Square to weep with joy as their first president announced the formation of the fledgling country. In 1938, the statue looked on as Czechs denounced the Munich Treaty, which offered up a piece of Czechoslovakia to Hitler in a futile gesture of appeasement; a year later, a staged rally would signify the arrival of Nazi fascism. Wenceslas Square was the place where throngs of student protesters were met by brute force during the country’s abortive and tragic attempt to temper Soviet totalitarianism in 1968, during which an 11 year old boy was shot dead on the steps of the statue as he pushed a Czech flag down the barrel of a Soviet tank. A year later, a Czech college student, Jan Palach became a national martyr when he burned himself alive here in protest of the Communist occupation; 800,000 Czechs joined his funeral procession when it filed past the statue a week later. When Vaclav Havel was still a dissident, he was arrested for placing flowers by the statue in commemoration of Palach’s death, and before Soviet Union dissolved in 1989, Havel stood before more than a quarter million Czechs who filled the square to witness Communism’s demised.
Diving into the first narrow alley on my right, I appeared on a side of the Church of Our Lady of the Snows (Kostel Panny Marie Snezne) (p.2). Charles IV founded this church to mark his coronation in 1347. The name refers to a 4th century miracle in Rome, when the Virgin Mary appeared to the pope in a dream telling him to build a church to her on the spot where snow fell in August. Charle’s church was to have been over 100 m long, but was never completed. The present towering building was just the presbytery of the projected church. Over 33m high, it was finished in 1397, and was originally part of Carmelite monastery. On the northern side there is a gateway with a 14th century pediment that marked the entrance to the monastery graveyard. In the early 15th century a steeple was added, but further building was halted by the Hussite Wars. The Hussite firebrand Jan Zelivsky preached at the church and was buried here after his execution in 1422. The church suffered considerable damage in the wars and in 1434 the steeple was destroyed. For a long time the church was left to decay, however in 1603 Franciscans restored the building. The intricate net vaulting of the ceiling dates from this period, the original roof having collapsed. Most of the interior decoration, apart from the 1450s pewter font, is Baroque. The monumental three-tiered altar is crowded with statues of saints, and is crowned with a crucifix. The Church’s southern perimeter is surrounded by the Franciscan Garden (Frantiskanska Zahrada) (p.3). Originally the physic garden of a Franciscan monastery, the area was opened to the public in 1950 as a tranquil oasis close to Wenceslas Square, with its fountain, rose-beds and a children’s playground. In the 1980s several of the beds were replanted with herbs, to match the ones cultivated by the Franciscans in the 17th century.
Via Vodikova Street I re-emerged in the middle of the Wenceslas Square, right across from the Hotel Europa (Hotel Evropa) (p.4). The Europa Hotel is a wonderfully preserved reminder of the golden age of hotels. It was built in highly decorated Art Nouveau style between 1903 and 1906. Not only has its splendid facade crowned with gilded nymphs survived, but many of the interiors on the ground floor have remained virtually intact, including original bars, large mirrors, paneling and light fittings. When I was there, the hotel was boarded up, apparently undergoing renovation.
The square is full of many other, unnoticeable at first, sights, such as Cafe Tramvaj (housed in a real red tram), standing next to Hotel Europa or a marble plaque “planted” at the edge of a flowerbed, dedicated to the victims of Communism. At the far end, right behind the Wenceslas’ Statue is National Museum (Narodny Muzeum) (p.5, closed for renovation in 2016). The museum is housed in the vast Neo-Renaissance building, designed by Josef Schulz as a triumphal affirmation of the Czech national revival and completed in 1890. The entrance is decorated with allegorical statues – seated by the door are History and Natural History.
Right before the National Museum I turned right on Mezibranska Street and then another right on Jecna to get to Charles Square (Karlovo Namesti). Prague’s largest square, since the mid-19th century it has been a park, hence it was covered by lawns, trees and statues of Czech writers. It was a quiet antidote to the bustling Wenceslas and Old Town Squares. The square began life as a vast cattle market when the New Town was founded. Other goods sold in the square included firewood, coal and pickled herrings from barrels. In the center of the market Charles IV had a wooden tower built, where the coronation jewels were put on display once a year. In 1382 the tower was replaced by a chapel, from which, in 1437, concessions made to the Hussites by the pope at the Council of Basle were read out to the populace. New Town’s Town Hall (Novomestska radnice), which stands on the eastern side, was the site of Prague’s First Defenestration – a violent protest sparkling the Hussite Wars in the 15th century.
By now, it was getting really late and the square and all the neighboring streets were unusually empty. I passed by the Church of St. Cyril and St. Methodius (Kostel Sv Cyrila A Metodeje). This Baroque church, with a pilastered facade and a small central tower, was built in the 1730s. It was dedicated to St. Charles Borromeo and served as the church of a community of retired priests, but both were closed in 1783. In the 1930s the church was restored and given to the Czechoslovak Orthodox Church, and rededicated to St. Cyril and St. Methodius. In May 1942 parachutists who had assassinated Reinhard Heydrich, hid in the crypt along with members of the Czech resistance. Surrounded by German troops, they took their own lives rather than surrender. Bullet holes made by the German machine guns during the siege can still be seen below the memorial plaque on the outer wall of the crypt, which now houses a museum of these times.
The north-east corner of the Charles Square is adorned with the gild and flamboyant stucco of the Baroque St. Ignatius’ Church (Kosetel Sv Ignace). It was built by the Jesuits to impress people with the power and glamour of their faith. The architects were the same two men responsible for the adjoining Jesuit College, Carlo Lurago, who started work on the church in 1665 and Paul Ignaz Bayer, who added the tower in 1687.
Innocently looking pastel-pink Faust House (Faustum Dum) frames the southern part of the Square. Prague thrives on legends of alchemy and pacts with the devil, and this Baroque mansion has attracted many. There has been a house here since the 14th century when it belonged to Prince Vaclav of Opava, an alchemist and natural historian. In the 16th century it was owned by the alchemist Edward Kelley. The chemical experiments of Count Ferdinand Mladota of Solopysky, who owned the house in the mid-18th century gave rise to its association with the legend of Faust. Luckily, it is closed to the public.
Accompanied by the full moon, I safely made it back to my hotel.
February 23, 2016.
It was gray and rainy again, so I chose to spend my last day in Prague by visiting the galleries and museums in Hradcany. Before coming to Prague, friends, who have stayed in the city before, recommended to skip the indoor “stuff” and enjoy the bounty of outdoor sights. However, by now I have crossed out most of the places and frankly, I was tired of being cold and wet. Nevertheless, I decided to stroll through the Little Quarter on my way to the Castle area. A beautiful Narodni street (which together with Na Prikope was used as a moat and was perimetered by fortification wall) took me to another bridge, Legii – place, where the gold crested National Theater (Narodni Divaldo) adorns the eastern bank of Vltava river. This place has always been an important symbol of the Czech cultural revival. The idea for a Czech national theater began during the revolutionary decade of the 1840s. In a telling display of national pride, donations to fund the plan poured in from all over the country, from people of every socioeconomic stratum. Work started in 1868 with the original Neo-Renaissance style designed by the Czech architect Josef Zitek. However, on August 12, 1881, days before the official opening, the National Theater was completed gutted by fire. It was thought to have been started by metalworkers on the roof. Just 6 weeks later, enough money had been collected to rebuilt the theater and Josef Schultz was chosen as its new architect. He attracted all the best Czech artists of the period to contribute towards the theater’s lavish and spectacular decoration. It was finally opened two years later in 1881 with a performance of Czech composer Bedrich Smetana’s opera “Libuse”. I couldn’t get in, but I enjoyed the statues representing Drama and Opera, which rise above the riverfront side entrances, and two gigantic chariots flanked figures of Apollo and the nine Muses above the main facade.
Once in Little Quarter, I chose to avoid large streets, and instead enjoy the architecture and ambience of the neighborhood’s 700 year old history. Just like most parts of old Prague, its houses were charming, lanes were tranquil and palaces were abundant. I passed by the Michna Palace (Michnuv Palace or Tyrsuv dum). In about 1580 Ottavio Aostalli built a summer palace here for the Kinsky family on the site of an old Dominican convent. In 1623 the building was bought by Pavel Michna of Vacinoc, a supply officer in the Imperial Army, who had grown rich after the Battle of White Mountain. He commissioned a new Baroque building that he hoped would rival the palace of his late commander, Wallenstein. In 1767 the Michna Palace was sold to the army and over the years it became a crumbling ruin. After 1918 it was bought by Sokol (a sport organization) and converted into a gym and sports center with a training ground in the old palace garden. The restored palace was renamed Tyrs House in honor of Sokol’s founder.
I continued via Karmelitsa Street and just ahead I noticed large music notebooks exhibited in the windows, it was the Museum of Music (Ceske Muzeum Hudby). House in the former 17th century Baroque Church of St. Magdalene, the Museum of Music seeks to present musical instruments not only as fine specimens of craftsmanship and artistry but also as mediators between man and music. The museum is run by the National Museum and boasts a magnificent atrium. Exhibits include a look at the diversity of popular 20th century music as preserved in film, television, photographs and sound recordings. Also examined is the production of handcrafted instruments, the history of musical notation and the social occasions linked to certain instruments. Earphones offer high-quality sound reproduction of original recordings made on the instruments displayed. The museum’s collection can be accessed via the study room and there is a listening studio for the library of recordings.
I turned right onto Harantova Street and then left into the Maltese Square (Maltezske Namesti), since I got married in Malta, I couldn’t not visit this place. It is easy to get lost in the numerous large and small squares of Prague, but you can’t miss this one, as the “stamp” of Maltese cross brands every building of the square. The place takes its name from the Priory of the Knights of Malta, which used to occupy this part of the Little Quarter. At the northern end stands a group of sculptures featuring St. John the Baptist by Ferdinand Brokoff – part of a fountain erected in 1715 to mark the end of a plague epidemic. Most of the buildings were originally Renaissance houses belonging to prosperous townspeople, but in the 17th and 18th centuries the Little Quarter was taken over by the Catholic nobility and many buildings were converted to flamboyant Baroque palaces. The largest, Nostitz Palace, stands on the south side. It was built in the mid-17th century, then in about 1720 a balustrade was added with Classical vases and statues of emperors. The palace now houses the Ministry of Culture. The Japanese embassy is housed in the Turba Palace (1767), an attractive pink Rococo building designed by Joseph Jager.
A street to the east goes straight to the buttressed Church of Our Lady beneath the Chain (Kostel Panny Marie Pod Retezem). This church, the oldest in the Little Quarter, was founded in the 12th century. King Vladislav II presented it to the Knights of St. John, the order which later became known as the Knights of Malta. It stood in the center of the Knights’ heavily fortified monastery that guarded the approach to the old Judith Bridge. The church’s name refers to the chain used in the Middle Ages to close the monastery gatehouse. A Gothic presbytery was added in the 13th century, but in the following century the original Romanesque church was demolished. A new portico was built with a pair of massive square towers, but work was then abandoned and the new nave became a courtyard between the towers and the church. This was given a Baroque facelift in 1640 by Carlo Lurago. The painting by Karel Skreta on the high altar shows the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist coming to the aid of the Knights of Malta in the famous naval victory over the Turk at Lepanto in 1571.
I took a narrow lane on the right of the church to get to the Grand Priory Square (Velkoprevorske Namesti). On the northern side of this small leafy square stands the former seat of the Grand Prior of the Knights of Malta. In its present form the palace dates from the 1720s. The doorways, windows and decorative vases were made at the workshop of Matthias Braun. On the opposite side of the square is the Buqouy palace, now the French Embassy, a delightful Baroque building roughly contemporary with the Grand Prior’s Palace. The only incongruous features are a painting of John Lennon and graffiti exhorting the world to “give peace a chance”. These have decorated the wall of the Grand Prior’s garden since Lennon’s death in 1980.
I tracked back to the entrance of the church and noticed a stunning coral-colored building, The House at the Golden Unicorn, which had a plaque commemorating the fact that Beethoven stayed there in 1796.
I turned around the house and after reaching the Bridge Street, turned left to the Little Quarter Square. Two days prior, I briefly slip through the area but now I came back to visit the Church of St. Nicholas (Chram Sv. Mikulase)(70 Kc – $3, pictures allowed, 30-40 mins). When the Jesuits came to Prague, they found the perfect piece of real estate for their church and its associated school – the Church divides and dominates the two sections of the Little Quarter square. Building began in 1703, and the last touches were put to the glorious frescoed nave in 1761. With dynamic curves, this church is one of the purest and most ambitious examples of High Baroque. It is an acknowledged masterpiece of father-and-son architects Christoph and Kilian Ignaz Dientzenhofer, although they never lived to see the completion of the church. Work on the building was completed in 1755 by Anselmo Lurago, who also added the bell tower. The juxtaposition of the broad, full-bodied dome with the slender bell tower is one of the many striking architectural contrasts that mark the Prague’s skyline. The statues, frescoes and paintings inside the church, by leading artists of the day, are impossible to take in with a single glance. Every corner bristles with life, guiding the eye first to the dramatic statues, then to the hectic frescoes, and on the shining faux-marble pillars. The ceiling fresco “Apotheosis of St. Nicholas” (1770) by Johann Kracker, is the largest in Europe. Clever trompe l’oeil technique makes the painting merge almost seamlessly with the architecture. However the most valuable monuments of art preserved in the Church are a set of paintings, created by Karel Skreta, exhibited in the gallery. The paintings represent the so-called “Passion cycle”, created during 1673-1674. Notice that at first glance the canvas are utterly dark, but as sun beams shine through the window, various parts of the painting brighten up. This painting technique represents a central Baroque belief: the world is full of darkness, and the only hope that makes it come alive emanates from God. Extensive renovation in the 1950s reversed the damage caused by 200 years of leaky cladding and condensation.
The western half of the square is dominated by the Plaque Column of the Holy Trinity (Morovy sloup Nejsvetejsi Trojice) designed by Giovanni Batista Alliprandi. It was erected in 1713 as a symbol of gratitude for the end of the Black Plague, but it also became a memorial dedicated to those who died in the famine of 1722. What I found unusual about this column was the The Eye of Providence (or the all-seeing eye of God) at its top. I could bet Freemasons had something to do with it.
This time around, I had plenty of time to browse around Nerudova Street galleries and shops. Check out Designum Gallery, definitely a place to find something authentic and uniquely Czech. I purchased Jiri Pelcl‘s Matreshka-shaped oil and vinegar jar. Another thing that no travel guide talks about – the one-of-a-kind paved roads of Prague. Each street is framed not only with marvelous palaces and houses, but also with the remarkable mosaic work on the ground. Judge for yourself!
15 minutes uphill walk took me to the Strahov Monastery (Strahovsky Klaster). When it was founded in 1140 by an austere religious order, the Premonstratensians, Strahov rivaled the seat of Czech sovereign in size. Destroyed by fire in 1258 it was rebuilt in Gothic style, with later Baroque additions. Important to remember that medieval monasteries were a mix of industry, agriculture and education, as well as worship and theology. In its heyday, the monastery had a booming economy of its own, with vineyards, a brewery, and a sizable beer hall. Its main church, dedicated to the Assumption of St. Mary, is an originally Romanesque structure decorated by the monks in textbook Baroque. Its famous library, in the theological and philosophical halls, is over 800 years old and despite being ransacked by many invading armies, is one of the finest in Bohemia. Both rooms are filled with 10th to 17th century books, shelved under elaborately painted ceilings. The theme of the first and bigger hall is philosophy, with the history of man’s pursuit of knowledge painted on the ceiling. The other hall focuses on theology. As the Age of Enlightenment began to take hold in Europe at the end of the 18th century, monasteries still controlled the books. Notice the gilded, locked case containing the libri prohibiti at the end of the room. Only the abbot had the key, and you had to have his blessing to read these books – by writers such as Nicolas Copernicus and Jan Hus, and even the French encyclopedia. The lobby outside the hall contains an 18th century Cabinet of Curiosities, displaying the grotesquely shriveled remains of sharks, skates, turtles and an elephant trunk. Strahov also escaped Joseph II’s 1783 dissolution of the monasteries by changing its library into a research institute. If the weather is nice, check out the monastery garden, that is among the finest in Prague.
From the monastery, I took Loretanska street to The Loreto (Loreta) (entry + photo permit 250 Kc – $11, allow an hour). Ever since its construction in 1626, the Loreto has been an important place of pilgrimage. It was commissioned by Katerina of Lobkowicz, a Czech aristocrat who was very keen to promote the legend of Santa Casa of Loreto. The legend said that the original house, where Archangel Gabriel told Mary about the future birth of Jesus, was in the small Italian town of Loreto. It was believed that angels transported the house from Nazareth to Loreto in 1278 following threats by infidels. After the Protestants’ defeat in 1620, Catholics promoted the legend, and 50 replicas of the Loreto were built in Bohemia and Moravia. The Santa Casa of Loreto was the grandest of them all. It was enclosed by cloisters in 1661 and 60 years later by the Baroque facade (designed and executed by Shristoph and Kilian Ignaz Dientzenhofer). And if standing on the Loreto Square and facing the complex you think that you came to see that building, you are wrong – you came to see a building within a building.
The balustrade above the Loreto’s front entrance is decorated with statues of St. Joseph and St. John the Baptist by Ondrej Quitainer. Loreta church has been a hit with pilgrims for centuries, thanks to its dazzling bell tower (a set of 30 bells cast in 1691-1694 in Amsterdam by Claudy Fremy), peaceful plush 17th century cloister, sparkling treasury and much-venerated Holy House. Once inside, I followed the one-way clockwise route around the cloisters (built originally as a shelter for the many pilgrims who visited the shrine), noticing that the ceiling was painted with the many places Mary has miraculously appeared to the faithful in Europe.
In the garden-like center of the cloister stands the ornate Santa Croce (Holy House), the “little Bethlehem” of Prague. It is the traditional departure point of Czech pilgrims setting out on the long, arduous journey to Europe’s most important pilgrimage site, Santiago de Compostela, in northwest Spain. Inside, on the left wall, hangs what some consider to be an original beam from the house of Mary. It’s overseen by a much-venerated statue of the Black Virgin. Stucco figures of many of the Old Testament prophets and reliefs from the life of the Virgin Mary by Italian artists decorate the chapel.
The small Baroque Church Of the Nativity behind the Santa Casa is one of the most beautiful in Prague. The decor looks rich – but the marble and gold are all fake. From the window in the back, you can see a stucco relief on the Santa Casa that shows angels rescuing the house from a pagan attack in Nazareth and making a special delivery to Loreto.
Recently, the church became a place of a fascinating discovery – the crypt revealed in 2011 unique Baroque mural paintings depicting motifs of Death and Resurrection – allegories of Time, symbols of fragility and transience of human existence. These frescoes of exceptional quality were created in 1664 and were commissioned by the then patroness of Loreto, Countess Elisabeth Apollonia of Kolowrat. The main scene depicting the Raising of Lazarus was based on the famous etching by Rembrandt, which later inspired numerous artists across the centuries, including Van Gogh – the Loreto fresco is remarkable because it is a very early reaction to Rembrandt’s work created while he was still alive. The crypt was closed but the 3D model of the crypt is located on the second floor of Loreto arcades.
I continued around the cloister. In the last corner is “St. Bearded Woman” (Svata Starosta). This patron saint of unhappy marriages is a woman whose family arranged for her to marry a pagan man. She prayed for an escape, sprouted a beard … and the guy said “No way!” While she managed to avoid marriage, it angered her father, who crucified her. The many candles here are from people suffering through unhappy marriages.
Fountain sculpture in the center of the courtyard is the copy of “The Ascension of the Virgin Mary” taken from Jan Bruderle’s 1739 sandstone statue, now in the Lapidarium.
Just before the exit, I took a left and headed upstairs, following sings to the treasury – a room full of jeweled worship aids (with great English descriptions). The highlight here is the monstrance (Communion wafer holder) from 1699, with 6,222 diamonds.
And of course, my favorite room was the promised 3D model of the crypt.
After leaving the Loreto, I proceeded towards the Hradcany Square, as three of Prague’s largest galleries are located there. First, I decided to visit Schwarzenberg Palace (Schwarzenbersky Palac) (combined entry ticket is 300 Ks – $14, valid for 3 months and allows entry to all 6 National Galleries throughout town, please allow 1,5-2 hours). From a distance, the facade of this grand Renaissance palace appears to be clad in projecting pyramid-shaped stonework. On closer inspection, this turns out to be an illusion created by sgraffito patterns incised on a flat wall. Built originally for the Lobkowitz family by the Italian architect Agostino Galli in 1545-1576, the gabled palace is Florentine rather than Bohemian in style. It was at that palace in 1601 the astronomer Tycho Brahe died of uremia during a banquet because he thought that going to the restroom before the host was bad form. The palace passed through several hands before the Schwarzenbergs, the leading family in the Hubsburg Empire, bought it in 1719. Much of the interior decoration has survived, including 4 painted ceilings on the second floor dating from 1580. The palace once housed the Museum of Military History, but now hosts “Baroque in Bohemia” collection.
Oddly enough, the numeration of the rooms starts on the upper floor, but driven by my habits, I went from the ground floor up, studying a very informative plaques along the way.
The ground floor contains rooms XV-XX. Room XV. Sculptor’s workshop in the Baroque Period. The Baroque sculptor’s workshop was probably the most numerous working group within the period art practice. It was headed by the master, who was an entrepreneur in the first place – he employed journeymen, and other assistants and apprentices to work on specific assignments. The commissions were executed in collaboration of the whole studio, with the use of new materials and a developing new method of collective work. Its basic principle was altering the discovered formulae of motion and expression (transformation). Sculptors of the 17th-18th centuries drew sketches and sculpted plastic studies of varied materials and in various stages of completion. The manner of work was not based on their own innovation only – a number of contracts explain the obviously common practice in the production of monumental sculptural works: the artist created the final work from an existing modello, whose creator was another artist, most frequently a painted or an architect, the author of the building’s design. Sculptors, in turn, supplied models for goldsmiths and bell-makers. The main support for their work was provided by a workshop’s collection of models, which contained model engravings, original drawings from travels, both ancient and modern-time casts, but particularly a set of small model sculptures, called bozzetti.
Room XVI “Painted Sketches”. In sketches – studies painted in oil – it is possible to see the background of a painter’s creative work and his initial ideas of the appearance of the planned work. Painted spontaneously in relaxed brushwork, these compositions reveal the personality of the artist much more intimately, for the painter’s approach is freer that at work on the final painting, in which he is often constricted by the taste and requirements of the patron. The sketch worked in several ways: it served the painter to record the initial intention, defining the composition and color scheme of the future work; it was a working basis for his assistants, who transformed it on a larger scale into the executed piece. It also played an important part in gaining the commission – the patron often demanded a drawn or painted design, on whose basis he could choose a suitable maker to meet his requirements. A great majority of the exhibits here represent designs for monumental altar-pieces. Reiner’s sketches were precursors for fresco painting in churches and monasteries in Prague. Painted in the grisaille technique, the sketch by Johann Georg Heinsch is a singular example of a study that was used as a model for a print with the university thesis.
Room XVII. Early Baroque Sculpture. The Baroque style stimulated Bohemia, like all Europe in fact, to an exceptional development of sculpture. Unlike in the preceding stage of northern Renaissance, sculpture achieved a position equal with that of painting on new assignments followed, both on a small and monumental scales. It was only the Baroque that brought with it the liveliness and richness of plastic forms, which swept the palatial fronts from the portal to the attic, enlivened the garden terraces and particularly, filled the interiors of the new churches of Counter-Reformist Catholicism. At first, the new style did not appear in Bohemia in its mature shape usual in the south of Europe, but in simple forms, which opened up various possibilities. Likewise, it arrived in the Czech lands with considerable delay. The most distinct protagonist of the early stage of the style were Ernst Johann Heidelberger and Johann Georg Bendl. From the mid-1680s, awareness improved locally of the dynamic illusive Baroque of Gianlorenzo Bernini in Rome, which was reflected in Prague in personally shaded versions of Jeremias and Konrad Max Sussners, Johann Georg and Paul Heermanns, and others.
Room XVIII. Sculpture of the High Baroque period. Baroque sculpture in Bohemia culminated before 1710, when the process of assimilation of the initially foreign style was completed. The most daring performances of local artists were reflected in the sculptural decoration of Charles Bride, which was provided with 24 new groups and thus became a rather prestigious venture. The position of Prague as a metropolis of art had been strengthened, and alongside Munich, Wurzburd, Salzburg and Vienna, the city became one of the creative centers of Central European Baroque. Well-staffed workshops – the tax-collection office list dating from 1725-1726 recorded 24 of them – managed to meet the increasing demands of the time. However, only two of the studios surpassed average standards, elevating sculptural production to a high level. The two were headed by figures of very different orientation and expression, whose production went in parallel for 20 years: Ferdinand Brokoff and Matthias Braun. Whereas the former was trained in the Prague studio of his father Johann, the latter left his native Tirol to finish his training in Italy. Their sculptural styles actually showed quite opposite efforts, and yet each in his own way, they formed the profile of Baroque sculpture in Bohemia. As opposed to Brokoff’s monumental weight, authentic plasticity and emphasis on the volume, Braun brought the excited dynamism of Italy, an expressive hyperbole and open pictorial modeling.
Room XIX. Sculpture of the Late Baroque. After the death of Matthias Braun in 1738, the running of the studio was taken over by his talented nephew Anton, whole most of the other assistants spread their master’s impressive style in the provinces, mostly in eastern Bohemia. This was also the area of activity of Braun’s most capable followers, such as Georg Pacak, Gregor Theny, Severin Tischler and Ignaz Rohrbach. In the 1730s, inspirational stimuli kept coming from abroad, as well, being absorbed by the youngest generation that had already grown on local art ground. These sculptors combined the new stylistic formulae with the illusive tradition of the High Baroque: sculpture went through a powerful wave of Rococo sentimental grace, accompanied by a distinct turn to interior carving. The best works of this wave, produced by the Prague workshops of Franz Ignaz Weiss, Karl Hiernle and Johan Anton Quitainer, showed the delicate refinement on a small scale. From the mid-18th century, Classicism began arriving in the form derived from the works of G.R. Donner in Vienna and taught at the Academy there. The sculpture grew in scale again, moving from the interiors to the facades and castle parks again. The Baroque pictorial modeling was replaced by smoothly shaped forms and according to the new canon, bodily proportions became elongated. For the last time, Prague became a center of new sculptural production with Ignaz Franz Platzer, who studied at the Academy in Vienna and was the last great figure of Baroque sculpture in this country.
Room XX. Monumental Sculpture: Matthias Braun and Ferdinand Maximilion Brokoff.
First floor contains the rooms VII-XIV. Room VII. Monumental paintings of the 17th and 18th centuries.
Room VIII. Petr Brandl and his predecessors. Brandl is one of the most distinct figures of Baroque art in Bohemia. He probably inherited some artistic inclinations from his uncle who was the court goldsmith. After 6 years spent at a Jesuit grammar school, he was apprenticed to the court painter Christian Schroder. The latter was a rather mediocre artist, but was also employed as a curator of the imperial picture gallery at the Prague Castle and could thus enable his pupil to explore Italian and Netherlandish masters. Brandl never studied abroad and rather than the influence of his teacher, he found inspiration in the works of his older colleague, the painter Michael Wenzel Halbax. In this artist he encountered mediated knowledge of Italian painting, for Halbax had been trained in the renowned Venetian workshop of Carl Loth. Brandl soon arrived at an individual painting expression characterized by dramatic contrasts of light and shadow, and paint applied in thick layers. Even as a young painter he had aristocratic clientele – in 1697 he became the court artist of Count Wenzel Adalbert of Sternberg. For a short time he was exempt from his duties to the guild, whose member he was, but he violated the guild’s statues and refused or forgot to pay his early contribution. His peculiar and Bohemian nature often caused trouble not only between him and his wife, but it also annoyed his patrons, who often had to be very patient as the artist rarely met the agreed deadlines.
Room IX. Masters of Portraiture: Johann Kupecky and Petr Brandl. Kupecky is one of the eminent representatives of Central European portrait painting. His family was of the Czech Brethern confession and because of their creed, they left Bohemia for Slovakia. Kupecky then stayed in Vienna, from where he left for Italy to spend 3 years there, earning his living mostly by copying portraits. In 1707 he accepted an invitation by Count Liechtenstein to come to Vienna and there he built up a broad clientele, like he did during his intermittent sojourns in Germany and Bohemia. His various prestigious commissions made him travel all the time – he portrayed Peter the Great, tsar of Russia, in Carlsbad and the Elector Augustus of Saxony in Dresden. At the end of his life he settled in Nuremberg, where he shared his commissions with a number of collaborators. In some cases it is thus difficult to correctly attribute the paintings. Kupecky’s works were largely copied even in his lifetime, some of the copiers making use of the printed albums with reproductions of his paintings. Kupecky maintained friendly relations with Brandl, which is also proved by their join work in Room VII. As a portraitist Brandl expressed himself in two rather different ways. Some of the portrayals are conceived with informal moderation, without any attributes of pomp and artificial arrangement. Others clearly reveal his knowledge of the type of French prestigious painting. Brandl’s brushwork was more spontaneous and relaxed than Kupecky’s, but despite that it doesn’t lack elegance and charm.
Room X. Wenzel Lorenz Reiner, Anton Kern, Johann Molitor, Franz Palko, Ignaz Raab. This room represents the final stage of the High Baroque, with some paintings that are already Rococo in style. Wenzel Lorenz Reiner specialized particularly in wall painting, but he was also interested in making easel paintings with religious subjects, portraits and landscapes. He came from an artistic family – his grandfather was an architect, while his father dedicated himself to sculpture and his uncle traded in art. He maintained friendly relations with Michael Wenzel Halbax and Petr Brandl, who influenced his work more than his formal teacher, A.F. Schweiger. In his heroically conceived landscapes, Reiner mostly followed the works of Italian painters (S. Rosa and S. Ricci). Roughly from the 1730s the situation in art changed. Artists rather inclined to Vienna, where many of them studied at the Academy of Fine Arts. More lively contacts were made with Bavaria and Saxony: Anton Kern and Franz Karl Palko worked at the court in Dresden. A native of Decin, Kern was trained in the workshop of the renowned Venetian painter Giovanni Battista Pittoni, whose light color scheme he emulated. In his lyrical concept an non-dramatic rendition, he was a forerunner of the Rococo.
Room XI. The Hartmann landscape painters. The Hartmanns were among the first who specialized in landscape painting in 18th century Bohemia. Their work was based on a family workshop where the father, Jan Jakub, trained his sons Frantisek Antonin and Vaclav Jan in the art of painting according to his own style. This is also the reason why the brushwork of the painters is almost identical and hard to differentiate. Attributing the work to the correct Hartmann is even more difficult due to the fact that the painters neither dated nor signed their works. They built up their landscapes on the principle of three planes differing in color – the foreground was brown, with a green middle plane and blue background, which was the customary practice of landscape painters as early as the 16th century. They constantly repeated 3 basic types of composition: trees on the side and the prospect situated in the center; or a coulisse on one side (on the left or right) and vista on the other. The third type consists of 3 sets of coulisse revealing two vistas. The aim was to evoke in the viewer the feeling of looking into the distance, which was also supported by the elevated horizon and widened panorama. The Hartmann studio produced a large number of works to be able to meet the demand of its clients, recruited from wealthier aristocracy, the Church, and also foreign buyers. In their time, there was not much competition in this field, and they could satisfy numerous commissions asking for the earlier, Mannerist landscape concept.
Room XII. Picture cabinet. The room is supposed at least partially to evoke the picture galleries of the late 17th century, when the popularity of the so-called compagnons – pendant paintings was on the rise. As to their ideas and composition, these pendants form a whole. In picture cabinets, they were either hung side by side, or with an interval of several other paintings. The key role in the development of cabinet painting in Bohemia was played by Johann Rudolf Bys, who also worked in Prague as the curator of the picture gallery of Counts Czernin from 1689. In his own works, he not only followed the contemporary Netherlandish painting, but also did he draw on an earlier tradition of the turn of the 16th century. After a long pause, he re-introduced genres that had not been developed extensively in the country: landscape painting, still life and animal painting.
Room XIII. Still-life painting. Despite the fact that in academic rating still-life painting came actually last, it achieved great popularity with collectors. It was particularly the technique that was appreciated: the depicted objects were to resemble the reality as much as possible and the spectator was to perceive them as real. At the same time, still-life provided what was then called “intellectual exercise”. The various motifs represented specific symbols and the viewer was to decipher them and thus sharpen his mind. Most frequently, still lifes carried concealed messages of decay and ephemerality of all the living things, for example expressed by flowers, whose beauty and smell are only temporal. 18th century still-life painting in Bohemia represented in this room was based on the works of Roelant Savery, who had worked at the court of Emperor Rudolf II. At the end of the 17th century, still-life painting was distinctly promoted by Johann Rudolf Bys, who in turn was followed by Johann Adalbert Angermmeyer. His painstakingly executed minute painting found inspiration in the “Leiden fijnschilders” (Leiden fine painters), for whom the perfect execution of the painting was of paramount importance. One of Angermmeyer’s pupils was Caspar Johann Hirschely, who mostly achieved fame by his still lives with flowers – those of his late creative stage already reveal the Rococo aesthetics. Johann Seitz, who was trained as a goldsmith and was a self-taught painter, prolonged the tradition of the Baroque still life into the early 19th century.
Room XIV. Norbert Grund and the Painting of Architecture. Grund was a painter of a wide scope of genres, from mythological and religious scenes to scenes from everyday life, landscapes and seasides. He was first taught by his father, who was a painter in the service of Count Norbert Vinzenz Kolowrat. In his minute painting he responded to a number of stimuli from Italian works (Guardi, Tiepolo and others), and in the initial stage of his career he followed the style of the Viennese miniaturists, particularly Franz Paul de Ferg. As one of a few Bohemian artists, he represented the so-called “fete galantes” – outdoor entertainment, following the model popular with the French Rococo painters. The room also presents painters who were interested in painting architecture, which was one of the specialties of Joseph Platzer, who was famous as a stage designer in the Viennese theaters, where he went to study at the Academy. Later on, he was invited back to Prague to paint the sets for the newly-built Estates Theater.
The second floor consists of rooms I-VI. Room I. Artists at the Court of Emperor Rudolf II. In the early 1580s Emperor Rudolf II made Prague a foremost European center of culture. He was a generous patron and supporter of the activities of fine artists, but also natural historians, musicians, writers and practitioners of the occult. A rich international composition of his court was one of the important factors in the forming of a specific version of Prague Mannerism. Despite their different countries of origin, the artists were mostly trained in Italy, where they stayed in important art centers, such as Rome, Florence and Venice. The first of Rudolf’s court painters was Giuseppe Arcimboldo, who not only worked for the emperor as an original portraitist, but also designed costumes and concepts of magnificent festivals. During the Thirty Years War, his works were taken away from Prague to Sweden, and some of them are held in Vienna. Bartholomaeus Spranger began his work in Prague, painting erotically tinted mythological and allegorical scenes. His work immensely influenced the forming of the Mannerist style in the Netherlands and in Germanic lands, where they spread thanks to prints. Hans von Aachen came to Prague as an already renowned portraitist in the early 1590s. During his foreign trips as an unofficial diplomat, he acquired pieces for the famous collections of Rudolf II at Prague Castle. The emperor demonstrated his preference of painting as opposed to other art disciplines by issuing a privilege in 1595, in which he “elevated” the status of painting from a craft to an art.
Room II. Cabinet of Arts and Curiosities. From the 16th century, cabinets of arts and curiosities, the so-called Kunst-kammers appeared in the residences of magnates and houses of rich burghers. Besides paintings, sculptures, excavated ancient pieces and samples of crafts (artificalia), these collections regularly featured remarkable minerals, shells and various natural curiosities (naturalia). Characteristic of the late Renaissance cabinets were luxury products made of natural materials, such as vessels of horn, mosaics of colorful semiprecious stones (pietre dure), or carvings and engravings in ivory. Globes, astronomical apparatus and clocks were also obligatory. The collections primarily represented the social status of their owners, their wealth, views and taste. On the philosophical level, they symbolized the unity in diversity, an ideal model of the rationally arranged world, a microcosm ruled by peace and harmony. The most important collectors in Europe of the early modern age included the members of the Habsburg dynasty. In its time, the renowned Kunstkammar of Emperor Rudolf II at Prague Castle was highly appreciated both for its material value, and the aspect of exemplary representation of all conceivable creations of man and nature.
Room III. Cabinet of Graphic art.
Room IV. Karel Skreta. Skreta come from a Prague family of the Czech Brethern afflicted with the religious situation that resulted after the Battle of White Mountain. The family decided to leave the country and the first stop abroad was Germany, where in Stuttgart Skreta apparently met the important engraver Wenceslas Hollar. Subsequently, he traveled to Italy to study the works of the great Renaissance masters, but he also followed the contemporary development in the arts. Close friendship with some of the Italian painters can be conjectured from his portrait executed by the Venetian Tiberio Tinelli. In Rome, Skreta became a member of an anti-academic society of mostly Netherlandish artists, notorious for their boisterous and wild amusements, among other things. This is where he gained his nickname “slak-sweert” – loosely translated “one who draws his weapon fast”, which suggested his temperamental nature. In the late 1630s he decided to return home and converted to Catholicism for this purpose. In Bohemia he regained the confiscated property and began a career of one of the most sought-after painters with a clientele recruited from high aristocracy, rich burghers and the Church. The surviving inventory of Skreta’s estate attests to broad cultural views and good education – he owned a large number of books, musical instruments and a collection of artworks. His son Karel was trained as a painter in his studio and he also studied law at Prague University.
Room V. Michael Leopold Willmann and Johann Christoph Liska. Willmann’s painting expression was rather different from the usual production in Bohemia of that time, which can partly be explained by his training in the Netherlands and Flanders. In Amsterdam he learnt from the works of Rembrandt and he also met his pupils. In Antwerp, he got acquainted with the paintings of Rubens and van Dyke, the great masters of the Flemish Baroque. Willmann’s highly expressive style earned him interest from monastic orders – most of his commissions came from the Cistercians, the Benedictines and the Knight of the Cross. In Silesia, where he worked for most of his lifetime, he was supported by the Nostitz family. His stepson and pupil, Johann Christoph Liska undertook a study trip to Italy and when he returned, he shared in the commissions with his stepfather. Until 1692 he was recorded in the painters’ guild in the Little Quarter of Prague, with which he had some legal disputes. However, the title of “the painter of the Archbishop of Prague” protected him. Liska went in for painting altarpieces, portraits, murals, and he also distinctly influenced the development of the sketch. His impact was great not only in the case of the painters of the High Baroque – Petr Brandl and Wenzel Reiner, but he also influenced younger artists, his nephew Georg Wilhelm Neunhertz among them (who trained with Liska).
Room VI. Johann Georg Heinsch. He was the artist of many altarpieces, portraits, designs for illustrations and university theses. His ability to structure the narrative clearly and didactically, along with his sober and down-to-earth brushwork was in full accordance with the ideas of the Jesuits, who frequently commissioned from him. Heinsch met with important Jesuits, such as the writer and historian Bohuslav Balbin and Matej Tanner, who wrote treatises on the Jesuit order. Heinsch also collaborated with the sculptor Ferdinand Brokoff on the preparation of the designs for the Jesuit sculptural groups on Charles Bridge. He was exceptionally prolific, but his works sometimes fluctuated in quality, which is particularly noticeable in his multi-figural compositions.
The unique Baroque truss of the Schwarzenberg Palace contains the exposition of invaluable historic weapons from the Military History Institute collection – The Imperial Armory. It presents over 550 items from the period between 15th and mid-19th centuries.
The Schwarzenberg Palace’s lobby is attached to a beautiful Neo-Classical building of Salm palace (Salmovsky Palac), which after an extensive renovation, reopened as an exhibition space of the 19th century art from Neo-Classicism to Romanticism. The three-winged building was designed by Frantisek Pavicek and erected on top of an older, largely Renaissance development in 1800-1811. The building was commissioned by Prince Wilhelm Florentin Salm-Salm who gave the place its current name. Some sources call it the small Schwarzenberg Palace because in 1811 the palace became property of the Schwarzenberg family who connected it with their neighboring residence. Traces of the earliest dwellings on this site date back to the 9th or the 10th centuries. In the Middle Ages there were 3 buildings owned by different families who built various passageways and partitions between the buildings. In 1549 they were destroyed during the fire in Hradcany and the Little Quarter, but then they were gradually restored and renovated by a number of different owners, largely lower aristocrats. In the second half of the 17th century, they became property of Sternberg family who intended to connect them and convert them into one palace. In 1796, Prince Salm-Salm purchased the buildings and launched the construction of today’s neoclassical palace. Several parts of the building still testify to the Renaissance development of the site, such as parts of the Eastern and Western wings and the cellars. The western building adjacent to Schwarzenberg Palace remained fully preserved, including the disposition of the main floor.
The palace served as a part of the Schwarzenberg residence until 1945 when it was nationalized and used as an apartment building and a center for foreign services. Towards the end of the 20th century, the palace was abandoned till 2004, when it became a property of the National Gallery of Prague and underwent an extensive renovation. The restoration of the original wallpaper in one of the rooms in the main wing and tile stoves is pretty remarkable.
Since I had a combined ticket, I went straight in (please allow 1.5-2 hours). First, I went to the basement which hosts a small exhibition, dedicated to the recent archeological excavations in and around the Salm palace and the Castle area. It covers the time of the first permanent settlement in the 9th century until the recent past. Due to the vastness of the examined area of Salm Palace site, archeologists were able to excavate the largest existing set of early medieval features in Hradcany in the 9th-11th centuries. These excavations resemble those in the previously excavated parts of Prague Castle or Little Quarter, where archeologists found fortifications of wood and clay, wooden residential buildings, stone churches and timbered roads. Traces of the earliest settlement were preserved in the form of scattered strata and foundations of variously-sized buildings or their parts disrupted by building activity in subsequent centuries. The excavations revealed rectangular parts of large pits, perhaps remains of former residential buildings; burnt wooden constructions of beams that were placed under ground; small ovens or fireplaces; small pits left by poles or posts; or pits that were filled with rubble after they had ceased serving their original function. Archeologists date these finds by using artifacts, in this case pottery, found on the site. A unique fragment of a pointed moat was revealed leading in a north-south direction, in superposition with the wall of a Romanesque building. Judging by other archeological findings, the moat disappeared over the course of the 9th-10th centuries, the period in which the walls of Prague Castle were built.
In the period between mid-12th and mid-13th centuries, the existing houses of wood and clay gradually gave way to stone buildings and the center of the growing city moved from Little Quarter to today’s Old Town. Prague Castle was also rebuilt in stone. In the 12th century, Duke Sobeslav I built the Romanesque fortification wall, later followed by the Romanesque palace, the reconstruction of the Basilica and St. George Convent, also in the Romanesque Style. Non-ecclesiastic Romanesque stone buildings are rare in the area of Prague Castle and Little Quarter. Until the discovery beneath today’s sidewalk in front of Salm Palace, the Hradcany area was thought to contain only one Romanesque building, namely the remnant revealed in 1944 during excavation of the cistern in the middle of Hradcanske Square.
When dehumidifying the foundations of Salm palace, the workers discovered the remains of a corner of the second Romanesque stone building, at 1.3 m below street level. One side of the wall faced the soil of the trench, while the other probably in the building’s interior, featured fair-faced masonry. Six rows of ashlars have been preserved from the original wall. In light of the current knowledge, archeologists have connected the destruction of the building with urban development in mid-14th century. During the reign of Charles IV, the Hradcany area was transformed into a high-medieval city and the Romanesque building would have been in the middle of its town square. However, there is another possible cause of the building’s destruction – one of the walls (that ran in the north-south direction) was built above the deepest part of a moat which had been filled with rubble and soft soil in the 9th-10th centuries. At some point, the foundations of the building probably began to sink into the ground.
This time, my gallery tour I started from the second floor, and visited rooms according to their number, and thematic progression.
Room 1. Art of the Neoclassical Period. The turn of the 19th century was a period of great political turmoil but also one of important social, economic and cultural reforms. The European art scene was dominated by neoclassicism, which took on different forms depending on the milieu and traditions of individual countries. Based on Enlightenment philosophy, it drew inspiration from the art and culture of classical antiquity, and later also responded to the growing influence of romanticism. Neoclassicism came to Bohemia through Vienna, an artistic center abounding in wealthy patrons and home to an important Academy. The Czech milieu, influenced by its strong Baroque tradition, developed a unique reaction to the new artistic influences. In Prague, neoclassicism established itself at the newly-founded Academy of Drawing, which developed neoclassical principles, employing themes ranging from classical mythology to patriotic-religious scenes. The situation was more complicated in sculpture. Sculptors found work mostly in the field of funeral art, and their livelihood was usually tied to family-run workshops. Sculpture closely followed classical examples, emphasizing reserved elegance and the stylized harmony of the classical canon. The influence from international sculpture, represented by the neoclassical works of Antonio Canova and further developed by Bertel Thorvaldsen, soon spread throughout Europe.
Room 2. Lubdik Kohl (1746-1821). Ludvik Khol was born into a family of Prague sculptors and graduated from the Piarist lyceum led by Gelasius Dobner and later from Josef Schmatzer’s copper engraver’s class at the Viennese Academy. He was a life-long pedagogue. In 1775-1821 he worked as a professor of drawing at the Normal School, where he set up free evening classes for drawing from a model and Sunday courses for craftsmen. After the painters’ guild was abolished in 1782, Kohl’s classes became a substitute for the non-existent artistic education in Prague. Aside from altar paintings, portraits and historical themes, which he for the most part depicted in his print cycles, Kohl also devoted himself to painting popular historical architecture, both real and imagined. After 1800, he began capturing the interiors and exteriors of imaginary Egyptian, ancient Greek and Roman, and Gothic building, and created the designs for their reconstruction.
Room 3. Discovering the Middle Ages. The first impetus for the revival of Gothic style was a renewed interest in medieval architecture, which had been perceived as barbaric since the Enlightenment. Throughout the 19th century, Gothic monuments were gradually rehabilitated, interpreted and eventually conserved or reconstructed. At first, Gothic morphology was used in romantic park architecture and, from the end of the 1830s, in Neo-Gothic buildings. Painting reflected the new view of the middle ages in different ways: popular architectural paintings depicted fictitious and also real medieval buildings; history painting introduced new iconographic themes into emotionally-tinged religiously-patriotic works and the period of Charles IV became the exemplary epoch of the nation’s past and an inspiration to the patriotic movement. The stories of Czech history were at first depicted in print albums (Kohl, Machek) and later also in painting (Josef Bergler, Frantisek Tkadlik). It was only at the end of the 1820s that the Prague Academy started using Gothic morphology in model drawings from Gothic sculptures.
Room 4. Karel Postl (1767-1819) and the Late Neoclassical Landscape. During his studies at the Viennese Academy, Postl mastered the basic of the neoclassical landscape and the rapidly developing art of veduta, which he subsequently worked on throughout his life. In 1806, he came to Prague to apply for a teaching position at the Prague Academy’s school of landscape drawing, newly opened due to an increased demand for this type of paintings. He was accepted, and over the course of his 13 years with the school he trained a number of landscape painters, of which Antonin Manes was the most talented. Postl’s work, influenced by 17th century Dutch landscape painting and the Italian heroic landscape, oscillated between late neoclassicism and early romanticism. His cycle “Four Times of Day” (1810) depicts changes in the Vergilian landscape, and follows from the neoclassical tradition of the “Italian” type, which was popular in Central Europe up until the 1820s. This type is also well represented in the oeuvre of Ludwig Richter, the excellent Dresden artist, whose sojourn in Italy between 1823 and 1826 inspired a number of his late-neoclassical paintings, which Richter created after he returned home.
Room 5. Josef Bergler (1753-1829). Josef Bergler, a versatile artist, studied at the Milan Academy under Martin Knoller and in Rome under Anton Maron between 1776 and 1786. After his return to Passau where his father was employed as a court sculptor, Bergler worked for the Passau bishop. In 1800, he was offered a director’s position at the newly established Drawing Academy in Prague. The Society of the Patriotic Friends of Arts, a private organization founded by patriotic Czech aristocrats in 1796, established the Academy together with the Picture Gallery (consisting of artworks borrowed from aristocratic collections) in order to improve the artistic life of what was at the time a rather provincial Prague. Bergler accepter the offer and stayed in Prague until his death. He built an art school which, in many ways, was similar to the Academies in Vienna and Dresden. The training concentrated on a higher level of drawing; after the students mastered drawing from models and plaster casts, they proceeded to copying and paraphrasing historical compositions. Bergler became a distinctive figure on the Prague cultural scene and an important exponent of the neoclassical academic painting of the first third of the 19th century. In addition to his works with historical, religious and mythological themes, he painted portraits, made prints and designed memorials and fountains.
Room 6. Frantisek Tkadlik (1786-1840). Frantisek Tkadlik was the leading figure of the first generation of Bergler’s students and an artist of universal talent. Between 1803 and 1816, he studied at the Prague Academy and also attended lectures by Bernard Bolzano at the faculty of philosophy. He continued his studies at the Viennese Academy, where he would copy works of the old masters in galleries. He soon became the court painter to Count Jan Rudolf Cernin. In 1825-1832, Tkadlik received a scholarship to stay in Rome and in 1836 he was summoned back to Prague to become the Academy’s director. Aside from painting the occasional mythological scene, he specialized in historical themes and in the newly-formed religious-patriotic art. Tkadlik’s neoclassical art combined masterful linear-plastic painting and a distinct palette with a graceful, soft form. These characteristic features of what was later considered the “national style” became an inspiration for his students, especially the talented Josef Manes.
Room 7. Religious and Historical Painting, Sculpture. The gradual liberalization and emancipation of Czech society created a demand for a Czech “national style”. Art historians point to the oeuvre of Frantisek Tkadlik as foundational in this respect. His patriotic-religious paintings drew upon the classical harmony and the Nazarene tradition. His style influenced the early works of Josef Manes, Josef Hellich, and many others. Historical genres with a religious undertone dealt with themes from older Czech or European history. Stories from the life of famous artists were also popular. Religious painting, which was one of the most prestigious fields, didn’t just depict well-known biblical themes, but also patriotic stories of Czech saints, whose life and martyrdom were perceived as a symbol of love for the homeland. Tkadlik’s followers gradually abandoned their neoclassicist sources and turned towards romantic historicism.
Room 8. Portrait and Still Life in the Biedermeier Period. The Biedermeier style had far-reaching artistic and intellectual influence in the life and culture of Central Europe during the period from the Napoleonic wars until the revolutions of 1848. It formed a part of the last phase of neoclassicism, but its sentimentality and admiration for nature brought it closer to romanticism, without, however, the latter’s passion and exaltation. Biedermeier turned to everyday family life, entertainment and nature, and its down-to-earth character formed a counterpart to academic, high art. It especially influenced the applied arts and interior design, while in visual arts it focused on portrait, genre painting, still life and landscape. Portrait painting was a highly prestigious artistic field, which sought to accurately represent the social standing of the person depicted. It oscillated between capturing individual features and representing the social status, wealth and successes of the subject through rich clothing, jewelry and various attributes of the subject’s occupation. They depicted both local and exotic flowers and fruit in different arrangements, often bordering or trompe l’oeil painting.
Room 9. Antonin Machek (1775-1844). Portrait art in Bohemia followed the style of the late-Baroque aristocratic portrait, which was typically complemented with attributes of pedigree and power. This portrait type gradually turned into the most informal portrait of aristocrats and intellectuals or in the pragmatic and sober middle-class portrait, which used various attributes to call attention to the subject’s profession. Despite some typification in how qualities such as determination, vigor or self-confidence were expressed, the high-quality works involved a large degree of individual characterizations. Frantisek Horcicka and Antonin Machek rank among the best portraitists in Prague, even though each of them worked for a different clientele and each had a different manner of artistic expression. Horcicka was appreciated in Prague intellectual circles and his portraits show that he had a close relationship with his models and thoroughly studied their characters and physiognomies. Machek was a brilliant portraitist of middle class businessman, intellectuals and artists and was able to meet his patrons’ most difficult demands. His works are among the best portraits of Biedermeier. Aside from portraits, Machek’s artistic interests also included themes from Czech history, which he treated in both oil and print.
Room 10. Josef Navratil (1798-1865). Josef Navratil was a versatile painter with a strong sense of color, who worked outside the official artistic scene. He was trained as a house painter and decorator in his father’s workshop, and for 4 years he studied with Josef Bergler at the Prague Academy. In 1843 and later in the 1850s, he traveled to the Alps. His successful workshop decorated the rooms of chateaux and middle-class houses with landscape scenes and themes from history. He also created works independently of his commissions. Navratil painted romantic landscapes with Alpine scenes as well as intimate landscape. He became famous for his small-format richly colored gouache landscapes. He created realistic still-lifes of various kinds of fruit for the Prague Botanic Society and made shop signs for his friend and wine seller, Jan Chlumecky, as well as still-lifes of exotic delicacies. Navratil was a great figure painter and liked creating small genre works in which he commented on the everyday life of Prague streets, marketplaces, parks and wine bars. He was fascinated with the theater, and especially its artificially-lit atmosphere and the grand gestures of the actors on stage, which he would depict in small gouaches and oil studies. In the spirit of the second Rococo, he painted brilliantly colorful gallant scenes from aristocratic interiors.
Room 11. Landscape Painting and The Piepenhagen Family. From the 1820s on, the popularity of landscape painting increased and in subsequent decades it became one of the most sought-after fields in art. It was well represented at the Prague annual exhibitions where Czech artists exhibited next to outstanding landscape painters from Germany and Austria. Unlike other areas of painting, the landscape was open to artists outside the official circles and the Academy. August B. Piepenhagen was one of those artists who often combined art with craft. He became esteemed artist not only in Bohemia but also in Austria; his small, intimate romantic landscapes portrayed the moods of the largely mountainous and forest scenery at different times of the day and in different seasons. His two daughters were also successful painters: Charlotta specialized in landscape painting, of which she gave private lessons, and Louisa painted studies of nature as well as views of aristocratic interiors. Piepenhagen admired works by Munich painter Carl Spitzweg whose landscapes with minor figures were very popular in Prague. He was also friends with prominent writers and self-taught landscape painter Adalbert Stifter, master of small intimate landscapes.
First floor contains rooms 12 to 22.
12. Antonin Manes (1784-1843). The Manes family was an artistic phenomenon in the 19th century Czech painting. It yielded five distinct personalities in two generations. Antonin began the family tradition and was one of the prominent exponents of Czech landscape painting in the first half of the 19th century and a professor at the Prague Academy from 1836-1843. His brother Vaclav was a portraitist and painter of religious and historical themes. Antonin’s children, Josef, Quido and Amalie painted figural works and landscapes. Antonin studied with Karel Postl, and his early works draw on neoclassical sources. In the late 1820s, his pastoral idylls set in Arcadian landscapes or his landscape vedute gave way to romantic themes of wanderers and landscapes with castle and ruins. Antonin’s later works aimed increasingly at depicting the actual appearance of the landscape. He created studies en plein air during painting trips around Bohemia with his children, and in these works he was able to evocatively express the mood and the natural light of the landscape.
Room 13. C.D. Friedrich and his Influence in Bohemia. In 1824, the organizers of the annual exhibition in the Clementinum in Prague included artworks of Caspar David Friedrich and Johan Christian Dahl, professors at the Dresden Academy. The exhibition caused a polemic between artists and critics in both Prague and Viennese magazines. The philosophically demanding works of Friedrich represented the progressive stream, the reception of which continued in Bohemia well into the next two decades. His symbolically-rendered romantic works were closely connected with Christian philosophy. They evoked a new relationship of human beings to the world and to nature, contemplating the eternal cycle of life and the place of the artist in society. Friedrich’s work strongly resonated with the Manes family. The thoughtful nature of Antonin and his son, Josef, led them to ask similar questions; their respective works reflected on the human condition. The relationship of Josef Manes for Friedrich is also evident from his trip to Dresden in 1842. Manes expressed his admiration for the Saxonian master in a small drawing which depicts the family in discussion in front of Friedrich’s Decin Altarpiece and a year later in a painting called “The Gravedigger”.
Room 14. German Romantic Landscape Painting. Due to the favorable political and historical conditions following the Napoleonic wars, Munich and Dusseldorf became European cultural centers. Their academies set artistic trends and were popular among young artists. From the 1830s on, many Prague Academy students headed abroad to study landscape painting, and they enrolled at the German academies. Landscape painting flourished as apolitical and widely popular genre. In most of its features it was romanticist, but its forms of expression went through a complex and multi-layered development from pre-romantic forms that still contained neoclassical residues to intensely emotional, dramatic and symbolical forms, that would later develop into the realistic depiction of an actual part of the landscape. In this room, there are selected works by distinctive figures of German landscape painting, as well as a monumental sculpture by Ludwig Schwanthaler who was commissioned to create a lot of sculptures for the Czech artistic milieu.
Room 15. Haushofer’s Landscape-Painting School. Maxmilian Haushofer, a landscape painter from Munich, led the Prague Academy between 1845 and 1866 and trained scores of students. Because of the artistic success of professor Haushofer’s students, landscape painting became one of the most prestigious and sought-after artistic genres in the mid-19th century. “Haushofer’s landscape-painting school” has become an art-historical term. Some of the students stayed on at the school for over ten years, whole others left after a few years for Munich or Dusseldorf. At first, Haushofer’s students imitated the works of their teacher, who introduced the Prague art world to the principle of Munich landscape painting. The students emulated his compositions, palette, his attention to detail, and his depictions of the natural atmosphere. The most talented of them transformed Haushofer’s ideas into their own style, creating landscapes with a realist feel or intimate idyllic scenes, sometimes influenced by patriotic-historical ideas. The themes range from Alpine or lake landscapes and picturesque rock formations to the melancholic and intimate depiction of Czech landscape.
Room 16. Landscape Painting and the Manes Family. In 1836, Antonin Manes became a professor at the Prague Academy. He was the founding figure of the school of Czech painting. His work progressed from the noble neoclassical landscape through romantic canvases towards the realistic plein air studies of the early 1840s, which influenced the work of his children. Josef Manes painted landscapes throughout his life, in addition to his figural works. In the 1840s, Josef created a number of plein air studies, concentrating on problems of light and color, atmospheric conditions and the moods in nature. These timeless works anticipated future development, and are foundational in Czech modern art. Josef’s late synthetic works bordered on a particular form of realism. His sister Amalie was a talented painter endowed with a great innate empathy for the perceived landscape. As a woman, she was not allowed to study at the Academy, yet she became an esteemed artist and, in 1853, she founded a private school of painting for aristocratic and middle-class women in Spalena Street in Prague.
Room 17. Josef Manes (1820-1871). Josef Manes was one of the greatest figures of Czech 19th century painting, an artist of great talent and versatility, a skillful draughtsman and colorist. He painted historical scenes, genre paintings, portraits and landscapes. Manes received his first artistic training from his father, Antonin, and at the age of 15 he enrolled at the Prague Academy, in Frantisek Tkadlik’s studio of historical painting. He studied under Christian Ruben for two years and between 1844-1846, he lived in Munich. He made a number of painting trips around Bohemia, and visited Dresden and Leipzig; at the end of his life, Manes traveled to Russia and also made a long-desired trip to Rome. His works from the 1850s and the beginning of the 1860s represent the apex of his oeuvre. Genre paintings in the style of the so-called second Rococo originated during his long-term sojourns at the Sylva-Taroucca chateau in Cechy pod Kosirem. They capture the idyllic life of the aristocratic residences. In his portraits, Manes depicted his friends or important figures of Prague cultural and social life. They show great psychological depth, emotion and a sophisticated palette. The painter’s personal involvement with some of the models of his female portraits went beyond the call of a standard social commission.
Room 18. Manes’ Minor Works. Various minor works formed a part of Manes’s artistic activity in the 1860s. Even though the members of the Manes family drew a strict line between “true” high art and minor works (low art), practical reasons forced them to deal with the latter as much as with the former. The extent of minor works within Manes’s oeuvre is disputable – they comprised of ornamental designs, festive letter-heads, letter papers, fans, diplomas, flags, prints, book illustrations, decorations for anniversary celebrations of important people, architectural adornments including the calendar panels for the Prague astronomical clock, designs for small applied-arts objects, etc. The patrons came from across the social strata, from the various clubs, corporations and institutions that fervently developed after the fall of Bach’s absolutism in 1860s. Manes received commissions through his social contacts among the art-loving public and through collectors, who admired his sensitive and thoughtful artistic work.
Room 19. Genre Painting in Bohemia. Genre painting began developing in Bohemia in the 1830s, reaching its apex around mid-19th century. In the 1940s, Josef Navratil painted many spontaneous studies of street and family life. However, genre painting aimed towards more careful arranged and detailed scenes, often with devotional or moral undertones. The paintings’ urban or rural settings did not involved dramatic situations, but rather minor incidents, which were seen through an idyllic lens, overlooking the reality of life. Popular themes emphasized the poetic and lacked a deeper meaning. Antonin Dvorak and Antonin Gareis Jr. were ones of the exponents of genre painting and later, Quido Manes would become its most important painter. Manes was an excellent figure painter who captured the events of everyday life with sensitivity, kind-heartedness and humor, inspired by Carl Spitzweg. Idyllic genre painting lingered in Bohemia until the end of the 1870s, when it became a subject of critique in art journals and magazines.
Room 20. Genre Painting in Vienna. Genre painting in imperial Vienna drew on an older tradition and develop different themes that in the works which would later appear in Bohemia. In the 1820s-1830s, works by Peter Fendi, Friedrich Gauermann, Joseph Danhauser, and others depicted stories from everyday life in cities and villages. They were often depicted with exaggeration and great sentiment, befitting the atmosphere of the Biedermeier period. Scenes from the life of young girls and families were especially popular. They showed everyday activities but also little incidents, and often with a moral message. Works by Ferdinand Georg Waldmuller, the most important exponent of Austrian genre painting, represent scenes from village life with an idyllic, moral or devotional tinge. His particular kind of realistic rendition brought about a new artistic perception of light and color.
Room 21. Sculpture and Historical Romanticism. Historical themes begin to appear in Czech sculpture at the end of the 1830s. They were drawn from French and German historical sculpture, which could be seen at the exhibitions of the Krasoumna jednota (Association of Fine Arts). Czech historical romanticism manifested itself most significantly in Baron Antonin Veith’s plans for a memorial to the Czech nation near Libechov. It was to be composed of the “Klacelka Cave” (1845-1848) and the “Czech Pantheon” (1845-1848), designed to present the most important figures in Czech history. The latter project remained incomplete, as only 8 of the larger than life-size figures were made (by Ludwig Schwanthaler). The other sculptures of both real and mythical figures included the “Series of Twelve Czech Rulers” by Josef Max, sculptures “Vlasta” and “St. Ludmila” by Emanuel Max and Levy’s sculpture of “Lumir”, the mythical bard. The boom in the production of public memorials to historical figures brought a number of remarkable works, such as “Radecky’s Memorial” by the Max brothers, or “The Memorial of St. Constantine and Methodius” by Emanuel Max. Tomas Seidan and Ludvik Simek, students of the Max brothers’ sculptural workshop, created the first memorials to the pedagogue J.A. Komensky and to the philologist Josef Jungmann.
Room 22. Ruben’s School of Historical Painting. The spread and popularization of historical painting in Bohemia in mid-19th century was connected with both the process of national identity formation and the pan-European popularity of the genre, which was considered to be the most prestigious area of painting. Czech artists treated themes from the beginnings of Christianity, the Premyslid and Luxemburg period, and later also from the Hussite period and the time after the Battle of White Mountain. They glorified important individual and state-forming ideas, celebrated military campaigns of kings, their political accomplishments as well as their marriages. The political and ideological meaning of the largely monumental paintings became increasingly prominent. The figural studio of the Prague Academy was the center for Czech historical romanticism. In 1841, Christian Ruben, a painter from Munich, was invited to become the school’s director and to implement extensive reforms. Ruben added new classes, such as anatomy, architecture and art history, and he employed new professors. He led the studio of historical painting throughout his ten years with the school and trained many painters. His pedagogical activity climaxed in the collective work on the cycle of murals in Queen Anne’s Belvedere at the Prague Castle, and in the illustrations for the publication of the “Manuscripts”.
My last Gallery for the day was the Sternberg Palace (Sternbersky Palac), which houses European art from Antiquity to Baroque. Franz Josef Sternberg founded the Society of Patriotic Friends of the Arts in Bohemia in 1796. Fellow noblemen would lend their finest pictures and sculpture to the society which had its headquarters in the early 18th century Sternberg Palace. Since 1949, the fine Baroque building has been used to house the National Gallery’s collection with its superb range of Old Masters. It is considered to be among the country’s best collections, with especially strong representation from Italian medieval art, Neapolitan artists of the 17th and 18th centuries, Dutch and Flemish works, and German art of the 15th to 17th centuries. There is also a fine collection of Renaissance bronzes and a unique Chinese cabinet. Of all visited galleries, Sternberg palace was my favorite (and it was the busiest of them all).
The gallery is arranged on 3 floors around the central courtyard of the palace. The ground floor could be reached from the courtyard (combined ticket, allow 2 hours).
Icons, Classical and Ancient Art. One small room in the gallery is occupied by an odd assortment of paintings that do not quite fit in the rest of the collection. These include a “Portrait of a Young Woman” dating from the 2nd century, discovered during excavations at Fayoum in Egypt in the 19th century. The majority of the exhibits, however, are icons of the Orthodox church – some are Byzantine, some Italo-Greek and some Russian. The finest examples on show here are two of the later 16th century works, “The Lamentation of Christ” from Crete and “Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem” from Russia. The icons on display offer examples from a variety of the most important Mediterranean and Eastern European centers.
German and Austrian Art (1400-1800). One of the most celebrated paintings in the Sternberg’s collection is Albercht Durer’s “The Feast of the Rosary”, painted during the artist’s stay in Venice in 1506. The work had particular significance for Prague since it was bought by Emperor Rudolph II. The two figures seen in front of the Virgin and Child are Maximilian I (Rudolph’s great-great-grandfather) and Pope Julius II. The collection also includes works by several other important German painters of the Renaissance, including Hans Holbein the Elder and the Younger and Lucas Cranach the Elder. Cranach is represented by works including a striking “Adam and Eve” whose nudes show the spirit of the Renaissance, tempered by Lutheran reform.
Italian Art (1300-1800). When you enter the Italian galleries, you are greeted by a splendid array of early diptychs, triptychs and other richly gilded panel paintings from the churches of Tuscany and northern Italy. Most came originally from the d’Este collection at Konopiste Castle. Of particularly high quality are the two triangular panels of saints by the 14th century Sienese painter Pietro Lorenzerri and a moving “Lamentation of Christ” by Lorenzo Monaco. A fascinating element of the collection is the display of Renaissance bronze statuettes. Fashionable amongst Italian nobility in the 15th century, these little bronzes were at first cast from famous or newly-discovered works of antiquity. Later, sculptors began to use the medium more freely – Padua, for example, specialized in the depiction of small animals – and producers also adapted items for use as decorative household goods such as oil lamps, ink pots and door knockers. This small collection has representative works from all the major Italian producers except Mantua and, while many variations can be found in other museums throughout the world, there are some pieces here that are both unique and outstanding examples of the craft. Among the 16th century Italian work on display, there are some delightful surprises. These include “St. Jerome” by the Venetian painter Tintoretto, and “The Flagellation of Christ” and “Portrait of an Elderly Man” by another Venetian, Jacopo Bassano. There is also an expressive portrait by the Florentine mannerist Bronzino, of “Eleanor of Toledo”, the wife of Cosimo de Medici.
Flemish and Dutch art (1400-1800). The collection of Flemish and Dutch art is rich and varied, ranging from rural scenes by Pieter Brueghel the Elder to portraits by Rubens and Rembrandt. Highlights of the former include an altarpiece showing the “Adoration of the Magi” by Geertgen tot Sint Jans. Other early works of great interest include “St. Luck Drawing the Virgin” by Jan Gossaert (c. 1515), one of the first works of art from the Netherlands to show the clear influence of the Italian Renaissance. The collection from the 17th century includes several major works, notably by Peter Paul Rubens who, in 1639, sent two paintings to the Augustinians of the Church of St. Thomas in the Little Quarter. The originals were lent to the gallery in 1896 and replaced by copies. The violence and drama of “The Martyrdom of St. Thomas” is in complete contrast to the spiritual calm of “St. Augustine”. Two other fine portraits are those of Rembrandt’s “Scholar in His Study” and Frans Hals’ “Portrait of Jasper Schade”. Also on display is a wide assortment of paintings by other, less-prominent, artists who nonetheless represent the enormous range and quality of this period.
Spanish, French and English Art (1400-1800). French art is represented chiefly by the 17th-century painters Simon Vouet (“The Suicide of Lucretia”), Sebastien Bourdon and Charles Le Brun. Spanish painting is even less well represented, but two of the collection’s finest works are a haunting “Head of Christ” by El Greco – the only work by the artist on display in the Czech Republic – and a noble half-length portrait of the politician “Don Miguel de Lardizabal” by Goya.
The Chinese Cabinet. After several years of difficult restoration work, this curiosity is once again open to the public. The richly-decorated little chamber was part of the original furnishings of the Sternberg Palace, and was designed as an intimate withdrawing room away from the bustle of the grand state rooms. In its plethora of decorative styles, Baroque mingles with Far Eastern motifs and techniques, which were fashionable at the turn of the 18th century. The vaulted ceiling features the Star of the Sternbergs among its geometric decorations. Black lacquered walls are embellished with cobalt blue and white medallions in golden frames, while gilded shelves once held rare Oriental porcelain.
After almost 5 hours of art-browsing, I was ready to call it a day. I slowly walked the Royal Route but only backwards – from the Castle area to the Old Town via Lesser Quarter and Charles Bridge – enjoying this wonderful city. You can’t visit Paris and don’t go to Louvre, you can’t admire Rome without stopping by Vatican city, but you can surely walk around Prague, without setting a foot inside and rightfully claim that you’ve seen it all. In rain and cold, covered in fog and overcrowded with drunk tourist, Prague is still a stunning place to see.