Prague



The Age of Rudolf II

After the Habsburg ruler Rudolf II (1552-1612, reigned 1576-1611) moved his capital to Prague in 1583, the city became an important center of scientific discovery and Renaissance culture. He supposedly housed alchemists in the small houses on Golden Lane in the Hrad, and the famous English alchemists Edward Kelley (1555-1597) and John Dee (1526-1608) were part of his court. Kelly’s residence in the Lesser Side, with its wooden spiral staircase, now is the site of the Museum of Alchemy. Rudolf II enticed the Danish astronomer, Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), to come to Prague. The silver prosthetic nose Brahe wore because of a childhood accident was legendary, but far more important was the data he had collected about the movement of the planets that enabled Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), also in Prague at the time, to prove the heliocentric theory of the Polish scientist Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543).



Rudolf II collected and commissioned works of art.  Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527-1593) painted a portrait of Rudolf as a collage of flours, fruits, and vegetables.  Rudolf brought Italian architects to Prague, such as Giovanni Maria Filippi (after 1560-after 1616), who used the Baroque style to design the Mathias Gate between the First and Second Courtyards at the Hrad and the Church of the Virgin Mary Victorious (Kostel Panny Marie Vítězná) in Prague’s Lesser Town.  At Rudolf’s court was the Czech noble Petr Vok (1539-1611), the last of the heir of the Rožemberk family, who had a library of 11,000 volumes (the Swedes took the books to form the basis of Sweden’s famous National Library).  It was supposedly at Vok’s dinner party that Brahe’s bladder burst after he refused to excuse himself, but scientists discount this as the cause of Brahe’s death.

Scenes from Prague's Old Town Square.  Above: The astronomical clock (Orloj) of the Old Town Hall.
Below: Týn Church, the final resting place of Tycho Brahe.

Jews prospered in Prague under Rudolf II, whose financiers included Mordekhai Maisel (1528-1601) and Jacob Bassevi (1580-1634), the first Jewish noble.  Rabbi Löw (1520-1609), famous the chief rabbi in Prague at the time of Rudolf, encouraged Jews to preserve their culture as they waited for the Messiah.  According to legend, which formed the basis of The Golem by Gustav Meyrink (1868-1932), the clay monster Golem protected Löw and other Jews against persecution.  Rumor has it that thousands of clones of the monster are in Prague and are spreading throughout the world by hiding in the luggage of tourists.

Rudolf II is also important in the religious and political history of Bohemia because he signed the Letter of Majesty in 1609 that guaranteed the freedom of religion for Protestants and Catholics in Bohemia.  Violations of this promise of the crown led to the Defenestration of 1618 in Prague, the Thirty Years’ War, and the loss of Bohemian independence.

Prague's Rich Architectural History

One will not find the most famous work of Czech architecture in the Czech Republic or anywhere in Central Europe.  Despite its fame, it stands in ruins.  Furthermore, its creator, Jan Letzel (1880-1925) is not well known, even in his native country.  The structure in question is the Hiroshima Peace Memorial or the Atomic Bomb Dome, completed in 1925 and destroyed on 6 August 1945, and once was known as the Hiroshima Prefect Industrial Promotion Hall.  The major accomplishment of Letzel is the interior and exterior metal work of the Grand Hotel Evropa, which is in the Secession style, on Václavské náměstí (Wenceslas Square) in Prague.  Otherwise, he completed approximately 40 buildings in Japan, many of which the famous 1923 earthquake destroyed. (The Imperial Hotel that the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) constructed in Tokyo between 1915 and 1923 survived the quake with some damage, but in 1968 it sadly faced the wrecking ball to make way for the construction of a bigger hotel).

The center of Prague never was destroyed during a siege nor did it suffer bombing raids during the Second World War, aside from the few stray bombs dropped on 14 July 1945 that were intended for Dresden.  As a result, Prague has an architectural heritage that dates from before the Middle Ages.  The city has three Romanesque rotundas (the closest to the center are on Karoliny světlé near where it intersects Národní třida and on Štěpánská ul., while the third is in Vyšehrad) as well as St. George Basilica (with a Baroque front and a small Gothic addition in the rear) in the Hrad (Castle).

The most famous architects in Prague during the Gothic Era were Matthias of Arras (c. 1290-1352) and Peter Parler (c. 1330-1399), who built St. Václav (St. Wenceslas) Cathedral in the Hrad (the western portion to the left of the Golden Gate is a Neo-Gothic structure from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries).  Also crucial are Charles Bridge (Karlův most, also the work of Parler), Church of Mother of God before Týn (Kostel Matky Boží před Týnem or Týnský chrám, that is, Týn Church), the Old Town Hall (Staroměstská radnice), with its astronomical clock, the Orloj, and the Old New Synagogue (Staronová synagoga) in the Jewish Quarter.

The Renaissance structures in Prague are the Schwarzenberg Palace (Schwarzenberský palác), just outside the Hrad, and the Summer Palace, in the Hrad complex.  The Renaissance had a brief existence in Prague because of the Thirty Years' War and the Counter-Reformation, which championed the Baroque.  The father-and-son duo of  Kryštof Dientzenhofer (1655-1722) and Kilián Ignác Dientzenhofer (1689-1751) were responsible for much of the construction during the height of the Baroque in Prague.  KryštofDientzenhofer built the Loreto Convent near the Hrad, both he and his son worked on St. Nicholas (Kostel svatého Mikuláše) on the Lesser Side (beneath the Hrad), and Ignác Dientzenhofer constructed St. Nicholas (Kostel svatého Mikuláše) on the Old Town Square, and Sts. Cyril and Methodius Cathedral (Chrám svatých Cyrila a Metoděje), an Orthodox church, in the New Town, the location of the last stand of those who assassinated Reinhard Heydrich (1904-1942) during the Second World War.  Other crucial Baroque structures are the Strahov Monastery (Strahovský klášter) that overlooks the city (the church originally was Gothic and received a Baroque facelift), Czernin Palace (Černínský palác), near the Hrad, the Church of Our Lady of Victory  (Kostel Panny Marie Vítězné) on the Lesser Side (the location of the Little Infant Jesus of Prague), the Wallenstein Palace (Valdštejnský palác, built by the famous general of the Thirty Years’ War and now the Czech Senate), and the Thunovský Palace (Thunovský palác) in the Lesser Side (the location of the Chamber of Deputies).  Many of the Renaissance and Baroque structures benefited from the skills of Italian masons and architects who added not only to the architectural but also to the ethnic richness of the city.

The late eighteenth and nineteenth century brought a return to an interest in the architecture of Greece and Rome as well as some eclectic styles.  The Neo-Classical Style is present in the Estates’ Theater (Stavovské divadlo), on Ovocní trh, and the Hybernia House (Dům u Hybernů), originally a Gothic then a Baroque structure on the corner of  Hybernská a Na Příkopě, is in the Empire Style.  The Spanish Synagogue (Španělská synagoga) and the Jubilee Synagogue  (Jeruzalémská synagoga or Jubilejní synagoga) are both in the Moorish Style.  In the second half of the nineteenth century, architects continued to take their influence from historical structures, and the “neo-“ styles, continued.  The National Museum (Národní muzeum), at the head of Václavské náměstí, and the National Theater (Národní divadlo) on Národní třída are in the Neo-Classical Style, while the Rudolfinum, the home of the Czech Philharmonic near the Mánes Bridge on the Old Town side of the Vltava River.  The completed part of St. Václav Cathedral in the Hrad is Neo-Gothic.

The Secession, a totally new style, even though it had Byzantine and Egyptian influences, came near the turn of the century.  Known in Germany as Jugendstil and in France and America as Art Nouveau, it frequently boasts floral and vine decorations.  The style originated with a Czech artist working in Paris, Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939).  The Topič House (Topičův dům) on Národní třída, the Municipal House (Obecní dům) on Na Příkopě (opposite the Hybernia House), Wilson Train Station, and Grand Hotel Evropa on Václavské náměstí are famous examples of the Secession in Prague.  The First World War brought an end to the Secession in Central Europe, and a new art form, Cubism, influenced architects.  The most important Cubist building in Prague is the House of the Black Madonna (U Černé Matky Boží) on Celetná ul. and Ovocný trh in the Old Town.  There even is a unique Cubist lamppost on Jungmannovo náměstí (see the photograph on the left).  Czech architects then experimented with rounding the square to create a new national style for the new Czechoslovak Republic that came into existence after the First World War.  That was the origin of Rondo-Cubism, which is the style of the Bank of the Czechoslovak Legionnaires or Legiobanka, on Na poříčí, and the Adria Palace (Palác Adria), on Národní třída.  The period between the two world wars also saw the birth of Functionalist architecture in the Czech Republic, like the Merkur Palace (Palác Merkur), on Revoluční třída, and the Mánes building, on the bank of the Vltava not far from the National Theater.  Also crucial to shaping the architectural heritage of interwar Prague was the Slovene architect Josip Plečnik (1872-1957), whose unique style, born of the Secession, won him the commission to make alterations for the Hrad, after it became the seat of the new republic’s president, and the Church of the Sacred Heart of Jesus (Kostel Nejsvětějšího srdce Páne), which is in Vinohrady at the Jiřího z Poděbrad metro stop.

The communist years from 1948 to 1989 brought the influence of Soviet architecture to Prague, a sort of modernism that celebrated glass and steel but shunned the starkness of the all-glass International Style that was prevalent in the West.  The largest Socialist Realist structure in Prague is the former Federal Assembly (Federální shromáždění), which is located next to the National Museum and is now part of the museum.  Also part of this style are the various concrete panel apartment complexes (paneláky), on the edges of the central part of Prague, and the obtrusive radio tower that was completed shortly after the 1989 fall of communism.  Since 1989, Czech architects have experimented with the latest styles popular throughout the world.  Not long after the revolution, Ladislav Vrbata (born 1958) and  Petr Drexler (born 1957) built a Post-Modern structure (the building has large triangles and circles on the facade) on Václavské náměstí not far from the National Museum.  A few years later, on the other end of Václavské náměstí,  Richard Doležal (born 1953) and Petr Malinský (born 1961) designed the Euro Palace (Palác Euro).  Foreign architects also worked in Prague, the most famous being the Canadian-American Frank Gehry (born 1929), who with the Croatian-Czech architect Vlado Milunić (born 1941) designed the Dancing House (Tančící dům) on the right bank of the Vltava that represents Fred Ataire (1899-1987) and Ginger Rogers (1911-1995).

Prague’s long history and its ability to stage off the destructiveness of war gives professional and amateur architectural historians a compact laboratory to study nearly every style that emerged in Europe.  For those whose interests lie elsewhere, the narrow streets of Prague and the buildings that line them create a fairy-tale atmosphere that no other city in Central Europe can rival.

Prague’s Museums

Although the museums in Prague are not as famous as those in Berlin and Vienna, there are several that tourists should consider visiting.

Gallery of the Capital City of Prague (Galerie hlavního města Prahy) -- http://www.ghmp.cz/cs/ and in English at http://www.praha.eu/jnp/en/entertainment/city_gallery_prague/index.html
The Prague City Gallery has ten locations, and the three most significant are:

Bílek Villa (Bílkova vila) -- The artist and sculptor František Bílek (1872-1941) designed this home and studio, which now is open to the public. On display are examples of Bílek’s work.

Home of František Bílek in Chýnov (Dům Františka Bílka v Chýnove) --
In his home town of Chýnov, in Southern Bohemia, Bílek designed and built another home and studio that he used toward the end of his life and that is now a museum.

Palace Troja (Zámek Troja) -- This Baroque palace now is the home of temporary exhibitions, but it also has three permanent collections: Czech sculpture from the Secession, the architecture and decorations of Palace Troja, and three rooms decorated with Chinese motifs from the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century.  Palace Troja is located next to the Prague Zoo.

Jewish Museum in Prague (Židovské muzeum v Praze) -- http://www.jewishmuseum.cz/aindex.php
With buildings and sites located in the Jewish Quarter and elsewhere, the Jewish Museum is one of the most important centers of Jewish culture in Europe. The museum includes the Maisel Synagogue, Pinkas Synagogue, Old Jewish Cemetery, Klausen Synagogue, Ceremonial Hall (Prague Burial Society Building), Spanish Synagogue, Robert Guttmann Gallery, and the Education and Culture Center.  The early Gothic Old New Synagogue (Staronová synagoga) is a functioning synagogue and is not part of the Jewish Museum, but visitors may purchase tickets at one time for the Old New Synagogue and the Jewish Synagogue.  The Jerusalem Synagogue or Jubilee Synagogue (Jeruzalémská synagoga or Jubilejní synagoga), not far form the Wilson Train Station, also is a functioning synagogue with a separate entrance fee.  Tourists interested in Jewish culture also may visit New Jewish Cemetery (Nový židovský hřbitov) in Prague (Metro A, Želivského station), where Franz Kafka (1883-1924) is buried.  Note that on Saturdays and Jewish holidays, these sites are closed.

Mucha Museum (Muchovo muzeum) -- http://www.mucha.cz/
The museum exhibits the works of the Secession artist Alfons Mucha (1860-1939), who lived for some time in Paris.

National Gallery (Národní galerie) --
http://www.ngprague.cz/en/1069/0/0/sekce/homepage/
The National Gallery has a number of buildings scattered throughout the city:

Convent of St. Agnes of Bohemia (Klášter sv. Anežky České) -- This venue displays Medieval and early Renaissance art in a Romanesque setting.

Kinský Palace (Palác Kinských) --
The Kinský Palace has a permanent collection of Asian art and objects from the ancient Mediterranean.

Schwarzenberg Palace (Schwarzenberský palác) --
The Schwarzenberg Palace houses Baroque art in Bohemia.

Slam Palace (Salmovský palác) --
This former palace will house an exhibition of Medieval art. It currently houses temporary exhibitions.

Sternberg Palace (Šternberský palác) --
The Sternberg Palace has European art to the eighteenth century.

Trade Fair Palace (Veletržní palác) --
This space houses the Slav Epic by Alfons Mucha (1860-1939) as well as temporary exhibitions of twentieth- and twenty-first-century art.

Waldstein Riding School (Valdštejnská jízdárna) --
This Baroque palace recently reopened after extensive renovations.

National Agricultural Museum (Národní zemědělské muzeum) -- http://www.nzm.cz/en/prague/
The National Agricultural Museum along with its neighbor, the National Technical Museum, are not far from the location where, between 1955 and 1962, the gigantic monument to Joseph Stalin (1879-1953) stood overlooking the Old Town.  In place of Stalin is a metronome, the work of the Czech artist Vratislav Karel Novák (1942-2014).  The swing of the metronome reminds viewers of the changes that time brings.  National Agricultural Museum occasionally has exhibits that may interest even those who have little interest in agriculture and the countryside.

National Museum (Národní muzeum) --
http://www.nm.cz/?xSET=lang&xLANG=2
While the permanent collection of the National Museum is natural history, it also has other permanent and temporary exhibitions. In additional to its main building, it has the former Czechoslovak Federal Assembly across the street that is a Socialist Realist structure covering the old Prague Stock Exchange. The museum has several satellites (see the full list at http://www.nm.cz/Visit-Us/):

Czech Museum of Music (České muzeum hudby) -- http://www.nm.cz/Czech-Museum-of-Music/
The Museum of Music, located on the Lesser Side, has a marvelous collection of antique musical instruments.

Museum of Antonín Dvořák (Muzeum Antonína Dvořáka) --
http://www.nm.cz/Hlavni-strana/Navstivte-nas/Muzeum-Antonina-Dvoraka.html

Museum of Bedřich Smetana (Muzeum Bedřicha Smetany) --
http://www.nm.cz/Hlavni-strana/Visit-Us/Bedrich-Smetana-Museum.html

Náprstek Museum (Náprstkovo muzeum) -- http://www.nm.cz/Naprstek-Museum/
This museum specializes in African, American, and Asian cultures. The basis for this museum is the collection of the Czech journalist and politician Vojtěch Náprstek (1826-1894), who lived in the United States for some time.

National Technical Museum (Národní technické muzeum) -- http://www.ntm.cz/


There are many options for exploring Prague, and there are a multitude of guides that offer suggestions for the traveler.  Occasional articles in magazines and newspapers also provide some ideas.  The most recent contribution to this literature is an article in the New York Times dated 16 November 2012 by Evan Rail titled "My Hidden Prague" that is available at http://travel.nytimes.com/2012/11/18/travel/my-hidden-prague.html?_r=0.