A History of Prague, Part 8, The Capital of an Independent State

The end of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th century were a time of great growth and prosperity for Prague.

Belle Epoque Buildings in Prague
Belle Epoque Buildings in Prague

As part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the city was transforming into a large modern European metropolis. The peaceful co-existence of Jews, Germans and Czechs contributed to an environment where both industry and culture flourished. Businesses and factories sprang up, along with grand streets, beautiful shops and elegant hotels. The suburbs burgeoned.

The Fine Arts blossomed and artists like pre-Raphaelite painter Mucha, became leaders in a world-wide movement. While many of the new buildings followed the Art Nouveau style of the Parisian Belle Epoque which was colonising European cities, an original Czech Cubist architecture was emerging too.

It was an age of visionary rule too. Francis Ferdinand d’Este who was a descendent of the Jagellon, Luxembourg and Premyslovic Dynasties, had succeeded the Emperor Francis Josef. He was married to Czech aristocrat Sophie Von Chotek and the couple lived at Konopiste Castle near Prague. Francis Ferdinand was a proponent of the expansion of the Dual Monarchy into an Austrian-Hungarian-Czech triple Monarchy. However his plans were cut short when he and Queen Sophie were assassinated by Hungarian student, Gabriel Princeps in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. This incident was the catalyst for the commencement of World War I.

At the end of the War the Austro-Hungarian Empire was dissolved and Czechoslovakia was created with Prague as its capital. Prague Castle became the seat of the first president, Thomas Garrigue Masaryk.

The transformation into a big, modern, industrial city continued. In 1920 the Law of Greater Prague of 1920 expanded the city and in 1922 it incorporated several neighbouring towns and citizens. By 1930, the population had reached 850,000.

Prague’s prosperity endured, even through the Great Depression of the 1930s. The development of Czech Cubist Architecture, interrupted by the War, resumed and soon the cityscape featured the unique and impressive Functionalist buildings which were to distinguish it. Prague’s architecture had earned its place among the European greats and the city itself was one of the most beautiful and prosperous in Europe.

A History of Prague, Part 7, The Nineteenth Century

The19th century brought sweeping changes to Bohemia. In 1806 Napoleon dissolved the Holy Roman Empire and the Emperor Francis II abdicated his title, becoming Francis I Emperor of Austria.

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The Industrial Revolution began. Its effect on Prague was enormous. Profiting from the proximity to coal mines and ironworks, factories proliferated outside the fortified city. People flooded in from the countryside and suburbs mushroomed on the city’s outskirts. By 1837, the population had reached 100,000. In 1845 the first railway connection between Vienna and Prague was established, opening the floodgates for products and people. In 1850, the Jewish town of Joseph was finally added to Prague’s historical centre.  The fortifications between the Old and New Towns were demolished, the fortress moat was filled and a new promenade road snaked around the city. An embankment with Neo-Renaissance style public buildings was established alongside the Vltava River. In 1874 most of the Baroque fortifications and their bastions were dismantled.

The National Revival continued. Czech institutions were established to celebrate the Czech history and culture: the National Theatre opened in 1868 and the National Museum in 1890.In the following years the Czech Nationalist movement began to rise until it gained the majority in the town council in 1861.

In 1867 the Emperor Francis Josef I established the Austro Hungarian Dual Monarchy of the Austrian Empire and the Kingdom of Hungary. Once again Bohemia was part of a larger, stronger entity. Despite this, Czech Nationalism was strong. It continued to grow and to ready itself for its time.

A History of Prague, Part 6, The Eighteenth Century

The aftermath of the Thirty years war was a troubled time for Prague. Although the Peace of Westphalia had officially ended the Thirty Years War, the Holy Roman Empire was weakened and the power of the Habsburghs diminished. Foreign interference dogged Bohemia until the end of the 17th century and well into the 18th. In 1689, a fire, said to have been started by French agents, raged through Prague and destroyed much of it.

The gates of Prague Castle
The gates of Prague Castle

Still, in time, Bohemia began to recover. In Prague, rebuilding and restoration, in the Baroque style, commenced. By the 18th century, merchants and businessmen, attracted by a promising economic climate, flooded into the city..

But still the shadow of war lingered. European Powers vied to gain a foothold in this strategically important territory. From 1741 to 1757 Prague was torn variously  between the French, the Prussians and the Habsburghs. A climate of distrust infected its citizens. The Jewish community was accused of collaboration with the Prussians and 1745 the Empress Maria Theresa banished them from the city.

By 1770 the Habsbughs had triumphed and peace had finally returned to Bohemia. New Baroque gates were installed at Prague Castle. Depicting the battle of the Titans from classical mythology, they symbolised the triumph of the Habsburghs over their enemies.

Despite a century of upheaval, the country prospered and the steady stream of immigrants continued apace. By 1771, the population numbered 80, 000. It included a wealthy business and merchant class, as well as aristocrats, who enriched the city with palaces, churches and gardens in the new style and Prague’s unique Baroque architecture became known throughout the world.

In 1781, the new Emperor, Joseph II, issued the Edict of Tolerance, granting political and religious rights to minorities. The population rose again as many of the descendants of those who had fled or been banished, during the past stormy century, returned. In 1784 Joseph II united the four independent urban areas of Old Town, Malá Strana, Hradčany and New Town into the great city of Prague.

Most importantly, in the same year, the National revival (národní obrození) a Czech Nationalist Movement began. After centuries in the shadow, Czech language, culture and national identity were revived and Czech literature blossomed.

Explore Baroque Prague at the castle, around the old and new towns and in the Jewish Quarter.

A History of Prague Part 5, The Habsburgh Dynasty

After Vladislav Jagellan’s death, the seat of power passed into the hands of the great Habsburgh Dynasty which was to see Prague through the most celebrated era of its history.

Ferdinand Habsburgh

When Ferdinand Habsburgh, the brother-in-law of Vladislav Jagellon, took the Bohemian throne, he moved the seat of power to Austria, where he reigned as Emperor. Prague, once the leading light of the Holy Roman Empire, became a mere outpost.

The Garden at Prague Castle
The Garden at Prague Castle

Still, Ferdinand spent considerable time in Prague and invested a great deal in the city. He brought the Renaissance way of life to the court and made important additions to the Castle grounds. In 1534 he converted the vineyards which covered the surrounding hillsides into a beautiful Italianate garden. Designed by Giovanni Spatia, it was filled with Mediterranean plants and trees such as oranges, lemons and the figs which still grow there today. Europe’s first tulips, brought from Turkey in 1554, were grown in the Royal Palace Garden. In 1563, Ferdinand completed the Royal Summer Residence for his wife Ann Jagellon. The unique Renaissance building, with its Gothic roof, was designed by Paolo della Stella and Boniface Wohlmut. The spectacular Singing Fountain in front of the residence was built in 1568. Ferdinand also established the Lion Court, to house his collection of exotic animals.

Maximillian

Ferdinand’s successor, his son Maximillian, also ruled Prague from Vienna. However, he continued Ferdinand’s work at Prague Palace. In 1569 the Royal Ball Game Hall, designed by Bonifac Wohlmart as a venue for Royal games and competitions was completed. Maxmillian also added plants to the Royal Garden, like the narcissi and bluebells which still grow there today.

Rudolph II

In 1575, Rudolph II, son of Maximillian, was crowned Emperor. Rudolph was well-connected. Not only was he related to the Jagellon Dynasty, the Luxembourg Dynasty and the Premyslid Dynasty but also, through his great grandmother, “Mad Joan”, to the Spanish throne. In 1583 Rudolph moved the seat of the Empire back to Prague. He took up residence in Prague Castle which he reconstructed in the Renaissance style. The Imperial Court pionneered European Mannerism and the city became a centre of Renaissance culture, Politics, Science and Alchemy (earning it the name “magic Prague”). Once again Prague had become the centre of the Holy Roman Empire. Furthermore it had entered another Golden Age.

Rudolph was an intellectual and a lover of the arts. He established workshops, studios and an observatory and invited artists and scientists from all over the world to work in them. Scholars, like the Jehuda Low ben Bezale, came to teach and research in Prague. Along with the learned came a strange collection of magicians and other bizarre figures, like the spiritualist Edward Kelley.

In1604 Rudolph founded a pheasantry in the Royal Garden. In Ferdinand II’s Lion Court he kept his beloved lion Mohamed, a gift from the Sultan of Turkey. The Emperor and the King of the Beasts had a close, almost human or perhaps even spiritual, rapport. Rudolph immortalised Mohamed in the many lion sculptures around the city of Prague, the most famous of which stands outside the Rudolfinum concert hall.

Although a devout Catholic, Rudolph was a liberal and fair-minded man. In 1609 his “Imperial Charter of the Emperor” legalised religious freedoms hitherto unheard of in Europe. This brought an influx German Lutherans and Calvinists as well as Jews, seeking refuge from religious intolerance elsewhere.

Rudolph II died in 1612, in the Royal Garden Observatory, within days of his beloved Mohammed. The death of Rudolph II marked the end of the most celebrated period in Prague’s history.

The Thirty Years War

After Rudoph’s death, his successor, his brother Matthias, moved the Habsburgh seat back to Vienna. Another stormy period  followed.

When the Bohemian Diet nominated Ferdinand of Styria as successor to Matthias, tension arose between the Bohemian Protestants and the Catholic Habsburgs.

On May 23, 1618, in the incident now known as the “Third Defenestration of Prague” Catholic Governors were thrown from the windows of Prague Castle. They were replaced by Protestants and the Calvinist Frederick V of Platz took the throne. This precipitated the Thirty Years War between Catholics and Protestants which swept across Europe. At the Battle of White Hill (Bila Hora) in 1620 Catholic Spain, Poland and Bavaria along with Lutheran Saxony (which opposed the Calvinists) fought on Ferdinand’s side. The Protestant Army, led by J.M.Thurn was backed by Moravia, Lusatia and Silesia.

The Catholics won, the Emperor Ferdinand II became King of Bohemia and the Czech lands became Catholic again. Protestant citizens were ordered to convert or emigrate. Thousands chose the latter option.

When, in 1648, the Peace of Westphalia finally ended the Thirty Years war, Ferdinand moved the Royal Seat back to Vienna and Prague became a provincial town.  The economy collapsed, people left and the population dropped from 60,000 to 20,000. The future of the golden city seemed bleak.

Explore Habsburgh Prague in the Palace Gardens and at Prague Palace. Spot Rudolph’s lions around the city and at the Rudolfinium

A History of Prague, Part 4, The Hussite Wars

With the death of Charles IV in 1378 and the accession of his son Wenceslas IV, Prague’s golden age ended. Years of religious dissent, civil war and unstable sovereignty followed, where the great and glorious city of Prague foundered.

At the gates of Prague Castle
At the gates of Prague Castle

Religious dissent, between the Catholic establishment and the followers of the protestant reformer Jan Hus, escalated until, in 1419, the Hussites threw the City Councillors from a window in Prague Castle. Sixteen days later, Wenceslas IV died. The establishment’s outrage at the “Defenestration”, (as the practice of throwing unpopular leaders out of windows became rather pompously known) along with the Hussites refusal to accept Wenceslas’ half-brother Sigismund as King, resulted in war. In 1420 Sigismund’s army was defeated at the Battle of Vitkov Mountain.

Still the war raged on. Bohemia was torn apart, both literally and metaphorically. Buildings and national treasures were destroyed and Prague Castle fell into disrepair. Finally, in1434, the Hussites were defeated at the battle of Lipany and Sigismund became King.

Sigismund’s reign was short lived. He died in 1437, the last male of the Luxembourg Dynasty. There followed several more brief reigns. Sigismund’s son-in-law, Albert II of Austria ruled for two years. Sigismund’s grandson, Ladislaw Posthumous (so named because he was born after his father’s death) was next to the throne. When he died, aged 17, his advisor George of Podebrady was unanimously chosen as King by the Hussites and the Catholics. However, this displeased the Pope who mounted a Crusade, led by Matthius Corvinus of Hungary. After the Crusade, Bohemia became a Dual Monarchy, with Matthius of Hungary as Emperor and George of Podebrady as King of Bohemia.

Vladislav Jagellon succeeded George of Prodebody. Son of the Polish King Casimir IV and the sister of Lasilaw Posthumous, he was descended from both the Luxembourg and the Premyslid Dynasties. When he died in 1526, so did the Jagellon line and this sorry era came to a close.

Take a stroll around Prague Castle and look down at the River Vlata. Imagine the City Councillors’ last minutes!

A History Of Prague, Part 3, King Charles

By the beginning of the 14th century Prague was already a hub of European commerce, a centre of rich and diverse cultures and Bohemia was the most powerful state in the Holy Roman Empire. With the renaissance sweeping through Europe and an enlightened and visionary king in the making, Prague was poised for its first “Golden Age”.

The Charles Bridge, Prague
The Charles Bridge, Prague

The last male in the Premyslid line died in 1306, bringing and end to the rule of Bohemia’s founding dynasty. A new era began and a new dynasty was founded when Eliska Premyslova, sister of the last Premyslid, ruler married John of Luxembourg. King John was a modest and humble man, a quiet achiever who, during his brief and unspectacular reign, continued the work of the Premyslids. The legal status of the towns of Mala Strana and Stare Mesto were strengthened and in 1320 a new town, Hradcany, was created from the settlement around Prague Castle Square. The cornerstone of Prague’s cathedral was laid and in 1344 Pope Clement VI promoted Prague’s bishopric to an archbishopric. However, John of Luxembourg’s greatest work and the one into which he poured the most vision and wisdom, was the education and the preparation of his eldest son, Charles, for his role as sovereign.

Charles acceded to the throne on the death of his father in 1346. He was thirty years old, and set for a spectacular reign in a rich and powerful kingdom. He wasted no time.

It had been John of Luxembourg’s ambition to transform Prague into a second Rome and Charles dutifully carried out his father’s programme. On April 7, 1348, he established the region’s first university. Known today as the Charles University, it is the oldest in the Czech Republic. In the same year he founded Nove Mesto, the New Town, a modern town of over 360 hectares, surrounding the Old Town. He rebuilt Prague Castle and Vysehrad and erected the beautiful Charles Bridge, today almost an emblem of the city of Prague, to replace the old Judith Bridge. Construction was begun on St Vitus Cathedral and many new churches were completed.

In 1355 Charles was crowned Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire in Rome and Prague became  its capital. By now Charles had his own ambitions for the city. He wanted it to be the most beautiful in the world, with Prague Castle as its centrepiece and St Vitus Cathedral dominating the skyline. Construction boomed. Grand, elaborate Gothic architecture replaced the relatively simple Romanesque style and a unique, new Bohemian kind of decoration evolved. Art, culture and commerce flourished. These were golden days for Prague and the Czech lands were among the most powerful in Europe.

Even today, there is little of the city which does not bear King Charles’  stamp. Explore the masterpieces of the era with a walk across the Charles Bridge, around Prague Castle and through the New Town.

A History of Prague, Part 2, The Premyslid Dynasty

Sometime in the 7th century a Princess named Libuse married a humble ploughman named Premysil. Together they founded the great Premyslid dynasty which was to build the city of Prague and reign over Bohemia for almost six centuries.

At Prague Castle
At Prague Castle

Libuse’s royal seat was in central Bohemia and from there the princess, who was famed for her visions, foretold the glorious future city of Prague

“I see a vast city, whose glory will touch the stars! I see a place in the middle of a forest where a steep cliff arises above the Vltava River. There is a man who is chiselling the threshold (prah) for a house. A castle named Prague (prah) will be built there. Just as the princes and the dukes stoop in front of a threshold, they will bow to the castle and to the city around it. It will be favoured, with great repute and praise will be bestowed upon it by the whole world”

In 880, Prince Borivoj Premislovec laid the foundations for the city of Libuse’s vision when he built Prague Castle, on a hill on the left bank of the Vltava. A new town was established below the castle, at the shallow crossing points over the Vltava River, where long trade routes converged. By the early 10th century it had developed into an important multi-cultural trading centre, where merchants from all over Europe gathered. In 863, the evangelists Cyril and Methodius, (aka, the apostles of the Slavs) baptised Borivoj and his wife Ludmila and Bohemia became a Christian country. Filled with religious zeal, Borivoj began a programme of building, beginning with the Church of our Lady and following with the Basilica of St George.

The next great Premyslid ruler was Borivij’s grandson, Wenceslas. In his reign more churches were built, including St Vitus Rotunda, on the site where St Vitus Cathedral now stands. Under Wenceslas Prague began to emerge as the centre of Bohemia. Meanwhile, an alliance with the neighbouring German Saxon dynasty strengthened Bohemia’s position in the region. On September 28, 929, Wenceslas was assassinated by his brother Boreslav, who opposed the German Alliance. Wenceslas was buried in St Vitus Rotunda. He was later canonised and became Bohemia’s most famous and beloved patron Saint.

In 950, after many years of warfare, Otto I of the Saxon Dynasty defeated Boreslav and Bohemia came under the sway of the Holy Roman Empire.

In 1085 King Vratislav I was crowned as the first Czech King. Despite his regal status, he remained subordinate to the Holy Roman Empire and the German king. Vratisalav set up a second principality at Vysehrad across the river and built a road to connect it to an old Romanesque fort further along the right bank. During the 11th century, this old fort, today’s Stare Mesto, or old town, began to expand back from the riverbank and to centre around the large marketplace now known as Staromestske Namesti or the Old Town Square. When Jewish merchants began to set up businesses, Prague’s Jewish quarter was established. The Old New Syngogue was built and the first souls were laid to rest in the Jewish Cemetery.

In 1158, Prince Vladislav II became King of Bohemia. Under his reign, churches and monasteries proliferated. Then, in 1172, the Judith Bridge, the first stone bridge over the Vltava, was built

In 1212 a Papal Bull (the Golden Bull of Sicily) decreed Bohemia a Hereditary Kingdom with Prince Premysil Otakar I as Regent. Under his rule a programme of peaceful colonisation began and the Germans, who were to live harmoniously among the Czechs for over 200 years, arrived. The small settlements which comprised Prague grew apace and, in 1230, Stare Mesto gained the status of a town.

In 1257, Premysl Otakar II took the throne. He founded Prague’s Mala Strana or Lesser Town, on the left bank of the Vltava and invited colonists from Northern Germany to settle there. By the end of the 13th century, he was the most powerful King in the Holy Roman Empire. Known as the Iron and Golden King he ruled in seven other countries and his reign extended form Silesia to the Adriatic coast.

By 1303, the male line of the Premysild rulers had died out but Prague was already a great and beautiful city of majestic castles, grand buildings and magnificent churches. Its settlements had grown into prosperous towns. Merchants and traders came from all over the world to do business here. It was well on the way to becoming the vast, glorious city of Princess Libuse’s vision.

While much of Mediaeval Prague has been demolished or disappeared under subsequent layers of bricks and mortar, much of it still remains. Uncover the Prague of the Premyslid Dynasty with a walk through Stare Mesto, the Jewish Quarter, around the area where the Charles Bridge meets the right bank of the Vltava, through Mala Strana and around Prague Castle.

 

A History of Prague, Part 1, Ancient times

With its spectacular architecture, fascinating cultural heritage and vibrant nightlife, Prague is one of the most visited cities in Europe. It is often hailed as the mother of all cities.

Prague, a view across the river
Prague, a view across the river

So, who created this beautiful city? What forces shaped this rich culture? How has it survived for over 1100 years? How has it emerged as one the most exhilarating party places on the planet? The answers lie in its history.

The first known inhabitants of this highly advantageous riverbank site at the heart of Europe were the Celtic Boii, who arrived in around 500 BC. They named the area Bohemia and the river Vltava. Trade routes were established, following the course of the river through the region to connect northern and southern Europe. These opened Bohemia to other influences and, more importantly, to the successive waves of migration which began in the 2nd century AD and continued until the 10th. The first arrivals were the Germanic Marcomanni with their King, Maroboduus. Next came the Lombards. Many of these first settlers assimilated with the Celts and remained here. In the 6th century, the West Slavs invaded. Then, finally, in the 7th century, the Czech Slavs settled in Bohemia and the Czech nation was founded.

Prehistoric and very early Prague can be explored in the National Museum at the top end of Wenceslas Square. There is a wonderful collection of artefacts, including tools, weapons, pots, jewellery and even bones, along with re-constructions of early tribal life.

The museum also houses the nation’s natural history collection with vast rooms full of crystals, fossils, shells, skeletons and stuffed animals.

The building is a grand, neo-classical wonder with gleaming marble halls, majestic pillars and sweeping staircases. It is a dark, heavy, echoing, awe-inspiring place which is worth visiting just for its architecture and its ambience.

Music and Dance at the Duna Palota

Budapest is more than the beautiful blue Danube with its romantic garden island and its spectacular bridges. It is more than its grand castles, fine buildings, impressive monuments and luxurious spas. It is also the epicentre of that rich and diverse Hungarian cultural heritage which draws on everything from Gypsy violins, accordions and folk dance to the sophisticated orchestras and waltzes of the Hapsburg court. No visit to Budapest is complete without experiencing something of that culture.

A Budapest Musician
A Budapest Musician

Had I not stumbled upon a sandwich board and a couple of persuasive young promoters one afternoon outside St Stephen’s Basilica, I might well have missed the brilliant concert featuring the Hungarian Folk Ensemble, the Danube Folk Ensemble and the Rajko Folk Ensemble at Duna Palota. I would definitely have been the poorer.

Formed in the 1950s and each consisting of thirty artists, the three groups are Hungary’s biggest, oldest and best. The performances of the Hungarian Folk Ensemble and the Danube Folk Ensemble consisted of authentic folk dances, many of which come from  remote country villages and date back hundreds of years. Their costumes are a showcase of the Hungarians’ traditional taste for colour as well their craftsmanship with elaborate lace and embroidery.

The Rajko Folk Ensemble’s sensational string orchestra was truly magical, with eloquent violins speaking of the Magyars, the Mongols, the Turks, gypsy campfires and wild Hungarian horsemen on remote plains.

To see the performance at the stunning Duna Palota, or Danube Palace was an added bonus. The magnificent neo-baroque palace was built in 1883 and reflects the opulence, extravagance and desire to impress of the Dual Monarchy era. Its murals, completed in 1895 by Lajos Mark, are stunning and it is worth visiting Duna Palota for these alone. In its former life, the palace was the famous Casino of Lipotvaros.

It was a spectacular concert in every sense – brilliant colour, spectacular movement and amazing sound in a simply beautiful setting. It was a wonderful insight into the music dance and costume heritage of Hungary. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world!

The concert at the Duna Palota formed the finale of my visit to Budapest. It was a fabulous and fitting end to an unforgettable holiday.