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Prague

When Doctor Hartmann Schedel of Nuremberg had his experiment in writing a world history printed under the title of Liber Chronicarum, the year was 1493. Among the two thousand woodcuts in Schedel's remarkable folio, made in the workshop of Durer's teacher Michael Wolgemut, there is to be found the first known panorama of Prague. In comparison with other pictures in Schedel's book it makes a schematic and uncomely impression, as if the engraver had vainly struggled to give to a realistic depiction of Prague the typical features of Renaissance landscape painting and had stopped half way. In one respect, however, the stylized depiction from Wolgemut's workshop remained remarkably truthful: In the great importance it attached to Prague Castle, to the river with the bridge, the dense settlement in the hollow below the Castle, and the predominance of church towers this very first view of Prague already stressed the dominating features towards which engravers, painters and photographers have turned in all subsequent attempts at depicting the town, right down to our own days, even though modern development has enlarged the town far out of sight, and the density of housing construction has outbalanced the supremacy of towers even in the historic centre. In the not quite five centuries that have passed since Wolgemut illustrated Schedel's World Chronicle Prague has undergone many changes, but, from an artistic point of view, its dominating features have remained almost unchanged, and their lasting value recalls more than anything else the close links between the town and its one thousand year old past; the town, which never waived its claim to the proud title of caput regni, first pronounced by the self-confident burghers of Prague in the post-Hussite period, and proudly upheld to this day.

At the beginning of the town there was the Castle, the Hrad. It was built by the Pfemyslids some time after the middle of the ninth century and assumed a key position in their endeavour to unify the Czech state; nor did they abandon it later when they had reached this aim, because it lay in the very heart of Bohemia, in the middle of a densely populated countryside and at the crossroad of important routes. With the growing importance of the Castle the number of inhabitants in the settlement below the Castle increased, and when this settlement reached a certain size the Castle - the Hrad - gave its name to the whole district which became known as Hradcany. This occurred around the middle of the 12th century, by which time Prague Castle had become one of the most important places in the Pfe-myslid and Bohemian tradition of state. In the subsequent decades the settlement below the Castle began to turn into a town. Nothing could stop the development of town life, neither the menace of the river that would unrelentingly flood roads and human dwellings nor the threat of wars which the princely seat of the Pfemyslids seemed to attract. After the year 1230 the settlement on the right bank was walled in and granted a royal charter; it became a true medieval town; at a slightly later date settlers called by King Pfemysl II founded the Lesser Town of Prague on the left bank. The previous chaotic development of the settlement became subjected to the rules of town life; building activity followed certain stricter regulations. The inhabitants took advantage of the security of the town for all economic undertakings, but Prague never turned its back to the Castle and its life-giving stimulus. Since the Pfemyslids had made Prague Castle their residence, the town derived benefit from all phenomena concomitant upon the development of Bohemia in the thirteenth century: the last Pfemyslids' lust for power, the renowned chivalry of their court, the arrival of new settlers and Czech silver. This wealth soon became visible in the external appearance of the town, which adopted the last phases of the Romanesque and the beginning of the Gothic style for its new buildings. Most monuments from this first great period in the history of the town were buried under later buildings, but the groundplans of the oldest parts of the Old Town and of the core of the Little Quarter have to this day remained a heritage of the Romanesque and Early Gothic changes the town underwent. While in the Little Quarter and the Havel Quarter it was the new settlers who determined the layout of streets and the size of building lots, in the older parts of the Old Town the inhabitants fought for every foot of land against the menacing river which during floods would interfere with the layout of the irregular and crowded streets and open spaces. On account of the river the whole terrain had to be raised, an undertaking which left the luxurious groundfloor halls of the Romanesque palaces and farmsteads sunk deep below street level. The threat of floods was not entirely overcome by this, but the settlers ceased to live in eternal fear of the River Vltava and gradually began to gain control over the river waters. The growth of the town did not stop during the early fourteenth century when with the extinction of the Pfemyslid dynasty (1306) the Czech state found itself in a profound political crisis. It continued growing under the Luxemburgs and reached its culmination under the second king of that dynasty Charles IV (1346-1378), who came to sit on the throne of the Holy Roman Empire. The key role of the Castle remained unchanged, and the wave of prosperity and the general intense building activity which this Emperor stimulated was directly connected with the importance of the royal residence. Prague became a European city, the seat of an archbishop and a university, where several dozen craftsmen's guilds were active; it had hundreds of little shops and workshops, imposing buildings and brimmed over with stimulating intellectual life. The imperial court attracted a great number of foreigners to the city on a temporary or permanent basis and imprinted Prague upon the consciousness of European scholars as an important cultural centre. With the foundation of the New Town and the extension of the Little Quarter walls Prague greatly gained in scope, and the gigantic project of the New Town unit was admired both for its grandeur of size and for its modern conception. The layout of the streets has, in fact, remained unchanged to this day, and from the fourteenth century on it gave the New Town a character different from that of all the other "towns" of Prague. For the first time town planning principles were applied in its history which were far advanced of the theory of location held by the 13th century settlers. The building of the New Town, which proceeded at an incredibly fast rate, was not, however, the only building enterprise. New buildings in High Gothic style were erected in the Old Town, in the Little Quarter and in the Hradcany district. The simple and small Romanesque churches were replaced by mighty church edifices, many of which could not be completed on the planned scale; town houses began to grow up on suitable building lots, a new stone bridge spanned the River Vltava. The crown of all this work was the Castle where the first stage of the cathedral was under construction as well as a new palace and strengthened fortifications. A silhouette began to take shape which in conformity with the grandiose scope of building construction in Prague conveyed an imposing impression of the might of the Luxemburg dynasty and added splendour to the royal crown of Bohemia. Numerous buildings were not finished during the lifetime of Emperor Charles IV, but the picture of the Gothic reconstruction of the town was complete and determined the further development for centuries to come. The size of Prague had adverse aspects, the darker and more dangerous the greater the intensity of life in the metropolis. The aspirations of the town, be they dictated by the Emperor's will or the ambitions of the burghers, greatly exceeded its strength and gave a false illusion of an eternal boom. The fall from glory inevitably was almost as fast as its rise on the Emperor's credit. In the town's external appearance the drop in prosperity was foretold by the torsos of unfinished churches, and in its internal life there was an increase in social tension. As Prague's retreat from glory continued in proportion to the decline of King Wenceslas IV's authority, it turned into a town that represented a danger to feudal society as a whole. The learned reform movement for the revival of the Church began to spread quickly from the intellectual spheres of university disputations to church sermons and helped lay the theoretical basis for the first widespread anti-feudal movement in Europe. After the death of John Hus at the stake in Constance the social tension gave way to a number of encounters which reached their climax in the defenestration of the Councillors in the New Town of Prague in the year 1419. In this way Prague became the cradle of the Hussite Revolution, and although the people of Prague soon abandoned the basic revolutionary ideals, they maintained the initiative in the development of revolutionary struggles until their end in the year 1434. The Hussite Revolution raised Prague almost to the head of the kingdom. It gave the people of Prague exceptional political power, gave them authority among the other towns in the kingdom and offered them perspectives of a further political rise. For a long time the town ceased to depend on the Castle in a good and a bad sense. The town was no longer afraid of the harsh hand of the ruler but had to accept the decline in the boom encouraged by the royal residence. The Castle did not cease to be the dominant feature in the panorama of the town, although witness to the decline of its significance were certain unfinished and neglected buildings of the pre-Hussite period that formed a sharp contrast to the great care the burghers lavished upon their own houses and upon the town halls. Even in their most passionate exasperation at all opponents of the revolution the people of Prague did not dare consider the destruction of the Castle, as they did in the case of Vysehrad - another castle on the right bank of the river high above the town - because in general consciousness Prague Castle was not even then a mere fortification but remained a link between the town and the ruler and a guarantee of the town's own greatness. At the time when Hartmann Schedel issued his Chronicle of the World with the view of Prague seen from the ruins of Vysehrad Castle, Prague Castle itself rang with new building activity, even though King Vladislav had moved his residence to Buda in the year 1490. And while the castle at Budapest had been adapted in Renaissance style under King Matthias Corvin, this style left only isolated marks on Prague Castle where Late Gothic reached some of its culminating forms. Even in the town of Prague the encounter of Late Gothic and the Early Renaissance marked the decline of the self-confident and conservative world of its burghers.

The political power of Prague came to an end through its significant participation in the unsuccessful uprising of the Estates against King Ferdinand in the year 1547. The people of Prague surrendered the betrayed noblemen at the King's discretion. The punishment he imposed sealed the signs of decline which had appeared in Prague some decades before and prepared the ground for the social and cultural disintegration of the town. After the middle of the 16th century the Renaissance style appeared much more frequently in the town architecture, largely due to the nobility erecting town palaces and mansions, while the wealthy burgess adopt -ed the new style rather hesitatingly and with a considerable delay. Even without being a royal residence Prague became again a centre of political and social life, and when, in the year 1583, King Rudolph II transferred his residence back to Prague, the town enjoyed a new boom thanks to having a major royal residence in its midst. The Rudolphinian period earned Prague widespread fame, but neither the high level of intellectual and artistic endeavours at the Court nor the economic growth and active social life could exonerate the burghers from the marks of depression that showed themselves even in building development. Palaces with arcaded courtyards appeared in the town, adorned with attic gables and choice interior furnishings, but it was the aristocracy that remained the most important builders until the end of the period; as a consequence the new style left its mark primarily on the Little Quarter and on Hradcany while in the Old and the New Town the Renaissance waged a ceaseless battle against older traditions.

The end of the Renaissance coincided almost exactly with the end of the Rudolphinian boom. And to crown all evil, Prague became the centre of the critical conflict between the Hapsburg rulers and the Czech Estates. In the year 1611 there was fighting in the town; in 1618 the defenestration of the Imperial Governors began the uprising of the Czech Estates, which, in the year 1620. was defeated in a battle outside the city walls. The events that followed formed a chain of catastrophes. The plundering of the town after the Battle of the White Mountain, the persecution of the participants of the uprising and later of all non-catholics, the confiscation of property, emigration and the hardships of war lasted a full thirty years and brought the town to the brink of ruin. When it began to rouse itself to a new life, barely a shadow was left of its former glory as a residential town, and it had to resign itself to the fate of a provincial centre. And while Prague had to cope with the general economic decline, the Baroque style penetrated into the town. Its dramatic entry took place thanks to the Emperor, the Church and the nobility to the silent surprise of the burghers who, in the first few decades after the war, could but look on and watch alien forces ruthlessly penetrating into their town and calling the tune of its life. The Court in Vienna saw to it that Prague was given completely new Baroque walls which would protect it from the enemies of the monarchy, longing as they were for the Crown of Bohemia. The Church stimulated the grandiose construction of churches and monasteries; the nobility outrivalled one another in building town mansions, although they had greater faith in the future of Vienna than Prague. Since the time of Charles IV no building enterprise had changed the towns of Prague so profoundly as at this period, marked by the complete impotence of the burghers against the feudal intruders. The churches, monasteries and palaces of the aristocracy swallowed up dozens of Gothic building lots, interfered in the original layout of the town and with their individual monumentality outdid the one-time modesty and restraint of the town buildings. The Baroque style admittedly gave the town outstanding architecture bearing the signature of leading artists and architects, with an entirely novel regard for the artistic proportions of the buildings, but the town had to redeem these gifts against its own will by the loss of its medieval character. This, in the first place, affected the Little Quarter and the Hradcany district where the aristocracy and the Church left the most striking marks. The attack on traditions did not manage to break down the awareness of Prague's key position in the kingdom nor did it in any bad way affect its dominant features expressing the symbiosis of Castle and Town. On the contrary: the background of Baroque buildings raised the artistic effect of the Castle and underlined its relationship to the town.

The supremacy of Baroque and subsequent Rococo lasted almost until the end of the 18th century when the town began to rouse itself from its medieval lethargy. Inside the Old and the New Town numerous busy manufactures were established, the walls from the period of Charles IV became to tight for town life, the silence of the aristocratic palaces and the dissolved monasteries sharply contrasted with the tension to which the town became exposed with the onset of capitalism and the spread of the movement for national independence. Capitalist production began to make inexorable and unheard-of demands. It needed, first of all, new space for its factories and as residential quarters and a revolutionary improvement of the network of communications both in the town itself and leading to it. New suburbs began to spread outside the city walls where so far vineyards and gardens had flourished; the first enlightened projects made an impact upon the town centre, forerunners of the modernization of the town. The perspectives of this new development of Prague were inseparably linked with the intense movement for national revival.

The wave of bourgeois revolutions which swept Europe in the year 1848 also involved the Czech Lands and opened the door wide to capitalist development. In the half century that preceded the First World War Prague acquired whole new quarters, its population trebled, the number of factories grew so much that it became one of the most highly industrialized towns in the monarchy, but the dynamic growth and its accompanying factors in all spheres of life also involved more questionable aspects. In the chase after profit there was no place for advanced town planning projects, aesthetic or historical regards, and the bourgeoisie's excessive longing to strengthen its own prestige often turned against undeniable cultural values. Part of the historic town centre disappeared in slum clearance operations without it being possible to find a more generous solution to the problems of growth of a big city. Prague paid for a number of monumental buildings that represented the nation as a whole by acquiring a mass of unattractive tenement houses. Compared with other European capitals Prague grew into a big city at a comparatively late date, and the struggle of contradictory interests marked the whole of this period until the end of the World War I. In the year 1918 Prague became the capital of Czechoslovakia. It was the biggest and the most highly industrialized town of the new state facing bold expectations and, at the same time, bearing upon it the burden of the heritage of the rapid growth at the end of the 19th century. In its further development lack of plan now gave way to purposeful endeavours on the part of the local authorities which had to take into account the variety of the new city unit, Greater Prague, and its representative function, but proved unable to prevent a further intensification of the contrasts in the town's external appearance. On the eve of the Second World War Prague came within reach of having one million inhabitants. It could pride itself on certain splendid buildings of contemporary architecture, the first modern town planning experiments and the care paid to its ancient monuments, but the final step towards a big modern city had not yet been taken. The May Uprising in the year 1945 opened a new, immensely dramatic chapter in the history of the town. Some years were needed before Prague made up for the worst consequences of the war, more years were required before the process of socialization was complete and town life adapted itself to the new social and political conditions. The path towards attaining the conception of a socialist city, which Prague set out along with final validity in the year 1948, was indelibly marked by the struggle to overcome the many difficulties that, at first sight, seemed almost incapable of solution. The burden of the ancient and more recent past bound the hands of the town planners, while technical progress increasingly required radical inroads into the organism of the town.

The city needed more space for its inhabitants, for business and industrial premises and acquired these along the outskirts. Conditions of existence turned upon communications needed for modern means of transport, and these gradually penetrated through housing developments along the edge of the historical centre. The town found itself forced to spend Vast sums on the care of the long neglected historical building and monuments, and this was done to the last coin. Thirty years after the liberation Prague can pride itself upon an underground, the bold construction of the Klement Gottwald bridge, new main roads, a motorway under construction, new housing developments, on which the whole impact of housing construction has been placed, exemplary restoration of its historical buildings and its new public edifices that stress the significance of the capital city of the Republic. The celebration of the thirtieth anniversary of the liberation was an occasion to balance up the success attained, but in no case did it represent the final accounting in the gigantic struggle to reconstruct the entire city.

The dominant points which the veduta from the year 1493 stressed have not vanished from the face of Prague, and the oldest part of the town, now in the care of the State Board for the Care of Ancient Monuments, has adapted itself to the requirements of modern life without losing its authenticity. New dominant features have and will continue to appear, harmoniously blending with the spreading area of the capital and with the artistic value of new housing development. For without such features the testimony to the greatness, the glory and the beauty of the city of Prague would remain incomplete.

JOSEF JANACEK





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