Friday, May 1, 1992

American Express Guide: Prague (Art History, Personalities)

Prag rehberim, çok güzel bir dizi olan American Express Pocket Guides dizisinde 1992'de çıkmış, basında epey övgü almıştı. 1993'te dizi Rand McNally'ye satılınca mundar oldu. "Kültür ve Tarih" bölümünden iki seçme.

Few European cities can match Prague in the scope and quality of their artistic baggage. In architecture, the city is a virtual museum of every major European style from the Middle Ages to the early 20thC. The result is often eclectic (a single house can bring together architectural details from each century between the 13th and 20th), but always full of beauty, charm, humor and technical virtuosity. In painting and sculpture Prague produced some outstanding work in the Gothic, late-Renaissance and early modern eras, although it preserves only a modest fragment of the famous Rudolphine collections which once made it one of Europe’s artistic capitals.
Romanesque (before 13thC)
Stone and mortar came to the woods of Bohemia in the 10thC, and by the time Ibrahim ibn Jacob wrote his travelogue in 965, Prague had its fair share of solid architecture. Some were solid indeed: the Czech word for church, kostel, goes back to a time when places of worship had to be strong enough to withstand a tribal raid. Three small fortress-churches of the 11thC survive in Prague in the rotundas of St. Martin (Vyšehrad), St. Longinus (Štěpánská ul.) and Holy Cross (Konviktská ul.).
Buildings of a more civilized sort emerged toward the middle of the next century (Soběslav’s palace c1140, St. George’s Basilica 1142, Strahov abbey church 1148, private houses in the Old Town), though many of these have now disappeared from view, having been buried under ten feet of earth when the burghers of Prague decided to raise the level of the city sometime around 1230. Over 100 Romanesque buildings continue to slumber under the surface of the Old Town, serving on as tourist attractions (eg. the palace of the Lords of Kunštát and Poděbrady on Řetězova ul.) or restaurants and wine cellars (U zlaté konvice on Melantrichova ul.). One is put to use as a discotheque (U bileho konička, off Old Town Square).
Gothic (13th-16thC)
The secret of using ribbed vaults to support roofs of previously unimaginable height was discovered in France around 1150. It made a tentative entry into Prague during the building boom of the 1230s (St. Gallus 1232, St. James 1232, the convents of St. Agnes 1234, houses in central Old Town), sputtered on for a hundred years (Old New Synagogue c1270, Stone Bell House c1330), then returned with a vengeance under Charles IV to carry Bohemia into the artistic forefront of late-gothic Europe. The inspiration came mostly from France, although the outstanding name of the period was a German architect from Swabia, Peter Parler (1330-99). His buildings in Prague include some of the greatest landmarks of the city: the cathedral of St. Vitus, the Týn Church, the Charles Bridge and right-bank tower, the All-Saints Chapel in the Castle. The Caroline era was equally rich in the other arts: Parler himself broke new path in medieval sculpture with the realism of his portraits in the cathedral. Master Theodoric produced an outstanding series of saints’ portraits for Charles’s castle at Karlštejn.
The boom continued under Wenceslas IV, though a more frivolous spirit is noticeable in the age of this playboy-king (eg. sculptures of the Charles Bridge right-bank tower, oriel bays of the Carolinum and Old Town Hall, the church of St. Barbara in Kutná Hora). It then collapsed in the fire and brimstone of the Hussite revolution: painting was declared idolatry, churches were confiscated and looted, and great projects – eg. the cathedral and Týn church – remained incomplete.
When peace returned a half-century later under Vladislav II, it was a time of nostalgia for temps perdu: medieval fashions came back into vogue, and gothic acquired a new lease on life in Bohemia just as the rest of Europe was setting sail for new horizons. In the rebuilt royal palace, Benedict Ried (1454-1534) created a swansong of gothic wizardry. The Charles Bridge left-bank tower (1464) and the Powder Tower (1475) imitated Parler’s style of the previous century. The turrets of the Old Town Hall and the completed Týn church gave the city a deliberate tone of story-book unreality.
Nor was this the end of Prague’s fascination with the gothic. Until the close of the 16thC, the exuberant imagination of the Middle Ages held its ground in Bohemia against the purer disciplines of the Renaissance. Ferdinand I’s architect Bonifaz Wohlmut, a man firmly schooled in the Italian style, reverted to Gothic forms to build the added chambers of the royal palace (c1560) and the spectacular vaulting of the Charles Court (1575). The chapel of St. Roch in the Strahov Abbey (1599) carried gothic design into late-Renaissance architecture. A slew of minor gothic delights that contribute to the “medieval” charm of Prague today (eg, the roofs of U malířů and U svatého Tomáše) were also products of this period.

Wood-carved sculpture, an art rooted in the Bohemian tradition, reached its pinnacle in the late-15th to mid-16thC with masterpieces like the anonymous Žebrák Lamentation, now in St. George’s Abbey, and the works of the 16thC master who signed his name I. P. (in St. George’s Abbey and Týn Church). 
Renaissance (16thC)
Echoes of Italy’s infatuation with Antiquity reached Prague in Vladislav II’s reign (windows of the Vladislav Hall, c1500), and yielded some impressive fruit under Ferdinand I, a lover of all things Italian (Belvedere 1538-63, Star Castle 1555, Ballhouse of the Royal Garden 1567). A fire which gutted the left bank in 1541 gave occasion for the wholesale rebuilding of aristocratic estates in the modern style (Schwarzenberg Palace 1543, Martinic Palace 1570, many houses in the Lesser Side). But the pull of the gothic on the one hand, and the puritanical streak of the Protestant reformation on the other, meant that Bohemia was never really at home with the mainstream of European Renaissance.
One happy legacy of the Italian masters who came to Prague in droves under Ferdinand was the durable fashion for sgraffito, the art of decorating house exteriors with pictures made by chipping out colored layers of plaster. A majority of houses in the city were once covered with sgraffiti, a fact still visible under peeling layers of later (mostly baroque) facing.
Rudolphine Mannerism (late 16thC/early 17thC)
Having spent the 16thC on the margins of Europe, Prague returned to the limelight at the tail-end of the Renaissance, in the restless parenthesis between the revival of Catholicism and the onset of the Thirty Years’ War, when all Europe seemed obsessed with the obscurer truths of mind and matter. The eccentric court of Rudolf II (1576-1611) set the trend. Rudolf purchased art on monumental scale (his Tintorettos, Dürers, Cranachs, Brueghels and El Grecos fill the world’s great museums today), and employed a stable of his own artists who deserve to be better known than they are. Among them was Giuseppe Arcimboldo, a painter of psychedelic fantasies: his portrait of the emperor shows Rudolf made of fruits and cereals. The work of Hans von Aachen, Aegidius Saddeler, Roelandt Savery, Bartholomaeus Spranger and Adriaen de Vries was characterized by a fascination with the bizarre and unnatural, a brooding and violent eroticism, arcane symbols, and the distortion of natural forms.
In architecture, it was a barren time. The Jesuit church of St. Salvator (1578) was more a cross between Renaissance and baroque than a work of distinctive style. So too the Wallenstein Palace (1623), built a decade after Rudolf’s fall, for the imperial warlord who inherited many of his artists and his obsessions. Its architecture is eclectic; its garden, with sculptures by de Vries and a magnificent painted terrace, is a nec plus ultra of mannerist art.
Baroque (17thC-18thC)
Baroque, the artistic language of the counterreformation, came to Prague in the wake of the Catholic victory at the White Mountain (1620) and kept the city spellbound over the next 120 years. Its exuberance was a challenge to Slavic gloom. Its churches offered charm, pomp and illusion against the dour god of the Reformation: they seduced where He used to moralize. Its saints appealed to the eros as well as the most astonishing recesses of the psyche. Nearly all churches in Prague were either remodeled or rebuilt from scratch to cover the traces of their two centuries of errancy. A new nobility with vast reserves of booty from the Thirty Years’ and Turkish wars vied to build monuments of its own triumph, often by pasting a curlicued face on the sober and solid houses of the old middle class. The trend ran amok in the decade of 1715-25, when the whole city must have looked like a vast construction site. It faded toward 1740, as the Habsburg treasury began to crumble under the weight of the binge.
The first two generations of baroque architects were almost all Italian expatriates who introduced the Roman models of Bernini and Guarini to Prague (Silvestre Carlone, Casa Santa in Loreto 1626; Carlo Lurago, St. Ignatius 1665; Domenico Orsi de Orsini, the Strahov Abbey Theological Library 1671; Domenico Canevale, the church of St. Francis Seraphicus 1679; Giovanni Alliprandi, the Sternberg Palace in Hradčany 1698, Hrzán Palace 1702, Lobkovic Palace 1703). Germans, less imperious and more gemütlich, took over at the turn of the century. The Viennese Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach (1656-1723) gave Prague a number of monuments (Clam-Gallas Palace 1707, designs for the mausolea of St. John Nepomuk and Count Mitrovic) and many pupils. Baroque Prague came of age with the Dienzenhofers, the Bavarian Christoph (1655-1722) and his native-born son Kilian Ignaz (1689-1751). Their joint work combined the elegant, more conventional design of père with the soaring imagination of fils to produce such masterpieces as the Břevnov Abbey (1708-40), the Nativity church of Loreto (1717-34), St. Thomas (1723-31), St-John-Nepomuk-on-the-Rock (1730-39), St. Nicholas in the Old Town (1732-37), and above all, St. Nicholas in the Lesser Quarter (1704-53), their crowning achievement.
In sculpture, baroque Prague reached a level of prolixity (and excellence) scarcely matched by any other city in Europe. An army of limestone saints, angels, gods and heraldic beasts invaded every church and palace, niche and pediment, courtyard and garden in town within the first four decades of the 18thC. The epitome was the Charles Bridge, which was furnished with a monumental row of gesticulating saints between 1683 and 1714. The best of them came from the hands of Ferdinand Maximilian Brokoff (1688-1731), a master of eloquent composition, or his rival Matthias Bernhard Braun (1684-1738), the less formal and more sensuous. In the following generation, Ignaz Platzer (1717-87) stood out as the sculptor of frightfully muscular giants.
Baroque painting made an autonomous start with the Italian-educated Karel Škréta (1610-74; St. Charles Borromaeus in the National Gallery, altarpieces in Týn Church, Maltese Church and St. Stephen). As the period wore on, however, painting became almost wholly subordinated to architecture. The best artists found their outlet in the acres of fresco that turned baroque churches and palaces into theaters of illusion (Wenzel Lorenz Reiner, 1689-1743, ceilings of St. Thomas and St. Aegidius; Cosmas Damian Asam, 1686-1739, Břevnov Abbey prelates’ hall). It is difficult to tell where painting starts or architecture ends in Abraham Godyn’s trompe-l’oeuil ceiling for the great hall of Troy Castle (1691), the most astonishing two-dimensional art work of the era.
Rococo and Josephine classicism (late 18thC)
The magnificent posturing of the high baroque gave way after 1740 to the coyer manner of Maria Theresa’s court. Financial austerity put a lid on 20’s-style extravagance; Enlightenment gnawed at its ideological roots. A new generation of “rococo” architects (Anselmo Lurago: Silva-Tarouca Palace 1747, Kinsky Palace 1755; Nicolaus Pacassi: new wing of the Castle 1756-74) kept up baroque appearances without the underlying spiritual intensity, stressing surface at the expense of volume, ornament at the expense of movement. Under Joseph II (1780-90), appearances too were discarded in favor of the cool rationalism of the Enlightenment (Ignác Palliardi: Strahov Library 1782, the Kolovrat, Ledebur and Liechtenstein Palaces). The church no longer provided a credible model, so artists turned to Graeco-Roman antiquity for inspiration. At their best, the Estates Theater (1781) of Prague combined classical simplicity of form with an inventive brilliance of detail. The star performer of its early years was, aptly, none other than Mozart.
In rococo painting, Watteau and Tiepolo found their Austrian counterpart in Franz Anton Maulpertsch (1724-96), a virtuoso colorist who worked mainly in Vienna. The ceiling fresco of Prague’s Strahov philosophical library (1795), his last work, forms a perfect resumé of the ideological obsessions of the Josephine era.
19th century
The Habsburg imperial spirit went down with the French Revolution and the Napoleonic upheavals; baroque was its moment of glory, and the Enlightenment proved a chimaera. In Bohemia, except for some rather quaint early efforts at a Czech national style, the first half of the 19thC was artistically dead. In the first few rooms of the convent of St. Agnes, which holds the National Gallery’s chronologically arranged collection of modern Czech art, one looks in vain for evidence of a country with a glorious artistic tradition of six centuries behind it.
Things got better in the second half of the century. A booming growth in industrial wealth brought with it correspondingly self-confident expressions of national identity. Neo-gothic was the idiom of political conservatism. Its heyday was the 1850s (new statues on Charles Bridge 1854-59), though it came into fashion again at the end of the century (extension of St. Vitus from 1872, redecoration of the Powder Tower 1875, the pseudo-cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul in Vyšehrad 1885-1902). Nationalists preferred neo-Renaissance pomposity (National Theater 1868-81, Rudolfinum 1876, National Museum 1885) to express the rebirth of the Czech nation. The middle class happily settled for an eclectic mishmash of styles with a good dose of neo-baroque pageantry. Good examples of historicist civil architecture abound in Prague’s New Town (Na příkopě, Wenceslas Square), but its most extraordinary product is no doubt the fin-de-siécle resort towns of Karlsbad (Karlovy Vary) and Marienbad (Marianské Lázně) in western Bohemia.
Josef Mánes (1820-71) counted as the founding father of the new Czech painting, perhaps more for his role in the patriotic rising of 1848 than his actual art. The better efforts of the next generation were still marred by an excess of national self-absorption. The painter Mikuláš Aleš (1852-1913) and sculptor Josef Myslbek (1848-1922) were the most popular of those so affected, and their work greets the visitor on every other street corner and public hall in Prague.
Art nouveau
The sassy, elegant, anti-historicist trend variously known as art nouveau, Jugendstil, Secession or Liberty style took Europe by storm in the mid-1890s; by 1910 it had exhausted its spark. Prague imported its particular version from Vienna, producing some fabulously playful architecture (Pařížská ul. has possibly Europe’s most brilliant collection of Jugendstil apartment houses), an extraordinary outpouring of funereal elegance (the Vyšehrad national cemetery) and a successful popularizer in the person of the graphicist Alfons Mucha (1860-1939). Mucha was born in Prague, made his fame in Paris as a poster designer for (and maybe lover of) Sarah Bernhardt, then returned to his native soil to sink gradually into the populistic kitsch of the 30s (eg, stained glass window in the new wing of St. Vitus). Ladislav Šaloun (1870-1946) applied art nouveau forms to sculpture (the Jan Hus Monument in Old Town Square, 1915), while František Bílek (1872-1941) took them as a starting point to develop his highly idiosyncratic, religiously inspired art.
20th century
Prague enjoyed a special place in Europe’s artistic-intellectual vanguard from the eve of World War I through the early decades of the republic. Cubism made an almost simultaneous appearance in the Czech capital with Paris, producing world-class painters in Antonín Procházka (1882-1945) and Josef Čapek (1897-1945) and a brilliant sculptor in Otto Gutfreund (1889-1927). There were even architects (Pavel Janák, 1882-1956, and Josef Gočár, 1880-1945) who tried to apply cubist ideas to architecture. The unclassifiable František Kupka (1871-1957) claimed the distinction of painting the first non-figurative work of modern art a year ahead of Kandinsky. Devětsil, a group of surrealist-influenced young artists led by Karel Teige (1900-51), dominated the interwar years. Its members included illustrious figures like the poet and Nobel laureate Jaroslav Seifert (1901-86), the linguist Roman Jakobson (1896-1982) and the painter Josef Šíma (1891-1971).
Munich smothered Czechoslovak culture; the postwar years were no kinder to the Czechs. The Nazis had little time to build or create, but managed to send into exile, jail or gas chamber many of those who could. The communists set them to socially useful work as taxi-drivers and toilet-wipers. In 1969, Luis Aragon would call Czechoslovakia a “Biafra of the spirit.”
The Stalin-Gottwald era could still aspire at greatness: witness the palatial International Hotel in Dejvice. The post-Stalin age only produced mediocrities, culminating with the Palace of Culture (1981) in Pankrác. Mercifully, the damage in Prague’s historic center was minimal, and the city was spared the worst excesses of our century.
A baker’s dozen of the men and women who helped make Prague what it is. Look elsewhere in the book for other colorful personalities St. Wilgefortis the Bearded, St. John of Nepomuk, Master Hanuš, Dr Jessenius, Mydlář the Executioner and Jan Palach, to name a few.
Libuše (9thC?)
The tribe of Czech lived in peace and harmony under the daughters of Krok Kázi, who was a medicinewoman, Teta, a priestess, and Libuše, who was the youngest of the three but took first rank because of her soothsaying and political skills. One day there was a dispute (some think it was over the birth of private property in a society that until then held land in common), and the men of the tribe asked Libuše to take up a husband to rule them. She sent out her horse on the search; it came back with a sturdy peasant by the name of Přemysl, and so started a dynasty that would rule Bohemia for 500 years.
Next, as she stood on the rock of {Vyšehrad}, she had a vision of a great and famous city growing in the hills beyond the Vltava. A voice told her that the first stone should be laid on the spot where a man was building the threshold (práh in Czech) of his house. The man was duly found on the hill of Hradčany, and the {Castle} of Prague was established there at the dawn of Bohemia’s history.
Her story bewitched the romantics of 19thC, German as well as Czech. Mendelssohn composed Libussa’s Vision; Grillparzer wrote a drama on the same subject. Bedřich Smetana (1824-84) made her the heroine of an opera that counts as the pinnacle of Czech patriotic music.
St. Wenceslas (Václav, Wenzel) [c903-935]
Good “King” Wenceslas of Christmas carol was in fact a mere prince, ie. tribal chief, who made it to sainthood by being a Christian when the rest of his people preferred to go on worshipping ancestral gods and forest spirits. In practical terms this meant taking a German line in politics. The German king reciprocated by sending priests, monks, missionaries, church constructors and the supreme gift of all the pickled right arm of an obscure Roman saint called Vitus who hereby became the patron and protector of the Czechs.
Half of his family opposed Wenceslas. His mother Drahomíra championed the anti-Christian cause and lobbied openly for her other son, Boleslav “the Cruel”. Grandmother Ludmila had been Wenceslas’s mentor since childhood; she was strangled on her daughter-in-law’s orders. Wenceslas himself got murdered a few years later by his brother. But the old gods were by then beyond repair: Boleslav turned pro-Christian under German pressure, Drahomíra was swallowed up by Hell, and within a few years the body of the Good Prince came to rest in the shrine of St. Vitus, securing a place for posterity as the national martyr and saint of Bohemia.
His legend was worked up into a national cult by Charles IV 400 years later. It spread to Britain when Charles’s daughter Anne married Richard II of England. It worked its way into Christmas folklore about that time.
St. Agnes (Anežka) [1205-1282]
Agnes’s father, Ottokar I of Bohemia, betrothed her first to a son of Germany’s Frederick II, then to the king of England, and lastly to Frederick himself. She was not impressed, and set her sights on the King of Heaven instead. It was reported that she wore a hair shirt under her jeweled robes and a girdle studded with iron nails, and that she walked barefoot at dawn to share in the miseries of the poor people of Prague. Monastery was the logical and obvious step in an age that had seen no less than Hedwig of Silesia, Elisabeth of Hungary, Yolanda the daughter of Béla IV and Isabella the sister of France’s Louis IX all relatives of Agnes by blood or bethrotal take up the nun’s habit. Not content with one, Agnes asked dad to set up two monasteries for her, became abbess at the age of 28, and spent the rest of her life in exemplary saintliness.
In 1990, Pope John Paul II declared her a saint on the occasion of his first visit to post-communist Prague. In the national rejoicing that ensued, many people missed the papal point: that Agnes was honored because she chose a life of spiritual values over a politically and financially advantageous alliance with Germany.
Charles (Karel, Karl) IV [1316-1378]
Bohemia had been a German vassal since at least the 11thC and a very powerful one since the 13th. With Charles it captured the German crown, and Prague was made the capital of Germany.
Times were ripe for such cross-national enterprise. Charles’s grandfather had started out as duke of Luxemburg and ended as Holy Roman (ie, German) emperor. His father John the Adventurer lost the Empire but picked up Bohemia, fought hard to have the Italian crown as well, won Lithuania, and was killed fighting in French ranks against the Black Prince’s English army at Crécy. Charles himself grew up in the court of Paris. All his life, he would look back for his cultural model to the city of the Sorbonne and the Notre Dame.
Elected Holy Roman emperor, Charles raised the Empire to the fullest extent of its medieval power, regaining control over Italy and persuading the pope to return to Rome from his “exile” in Avignon. At home, he tried to build Bohemia into what he hoped would be a position of permanent dominance in the Empire. His mother was a Přemyslid, which allowed him to wrap himself in Bohemian national legend. He spoke Czech and promoted the vernacular culture. He gave Prague its cathedral, its university the first in central Europe and a New Town as big and rich as the Old. His name is perpetuated in the town by a bridge (Karlův), a square (Karlovo), a street (Karlova) and a castle (Karlštejn).
Wenceslas IV failed to live up to his father’s ambitions; Sigismund, the younger and better son of Charles, took the Hungarian crown, and fought in vain for 60 years to gain his father’s Bohemian inheritance. Meanwhile, Bohemia self-destructed in a fit of ideological madness.
Jan Hus [1369-1415]
A century before the Protestant reformation, Hus preached against papal authority, church possessions, sinning priests and the Latin bible. Intellectuals loved him, and made him rector of the university. The Pope invited him to explain his views at the Council of Constance, then had him promptly caught and roasted on the stake. His followers retaliated by invading the town hall of the New Town and dumping out of the window, or defenestrating, anyone rash enough to oppose. Their demands were fourfold: abolish church property, allow free preaching of the gospel, suppress sin, and above all, administer the sacrament in Both Kinds ie, wine and bread to laymen as well as priests. A ragtag army took to the countryside under the one-eyed giant Jan Žižka, and started massacring Catholics, Sinners, Priests, One-kinders, and especially Germans. Soon all Europe was up in arms against the Czechs: the Pope issued an anathema, setting up a prize for anyone who killed a Czech and sending to Hell those who traded with or married one; Sigismund chipped in with hopes of capturing his father’s crown; the Habsburg saw his chance to eliminate the house of Luxemburg once and for all from the running for the Empire.
In a few years the rebels were split into at least three factions, which set upon each other with the predatory zeal of all moral purifiers. Taborites, the purest bunch, lost out in 1434. The Bohemian and Moravian Brethren withdrew to the sidelines, to evolve in time into a Lutheran sect. The Prague-based Utraquists (Latin for “Both Kinds”) made their peace with Sigismund, and remained the dominant sect of Bohemia until the ‘70s of the 16thC. The country itself never quite recovered from its holocaust.
Hus was a black name during the centuries of Austrian supremacy. The 19thC nationalists rediscovered in him a precursor of Czech patriotism and an embodiment of all the highest ideals of humanism, morality and righteousness that they expected a reborn Czechstan to represent. Masaryk’s Czechoslovakia tried to model itself on a “Hussite” ideology; the Hussite church was revived after 300 years in abeyance and found some support among the patriotic elite. The communists, too, reserved a good seat for Hus in the national pantheon, partly because his populism and anti-clericalism appealed to their bolshie instincts, more because they found in him a useful hero of anti-Germanism. Other counsels have begun to prevail since 1989.
Rudolf II (1552-1611]
Rudolf withdrew from the bitter world of religious wars to the seclusion of Prague’s castle, gathering around him the greatest geniuses and cranks of Europe to brood with them over the arcane sciences of astronomy and alchemy. He was an obsessive collector of the rare, the curious and the extraordinary; his interests ranged from Dürers to unicorn’s horns and from Hebrew manuscripts to dodo birds. His men sought the elixir of life and the philosopher’s stone, attempted to resurrect mummies and to produce human beings in the laboratory. Their presence meant a cultural revival for the city, which returned to the European center-stage after an absence of 200 years. The emperor himself sank slowly from benign melancholia into serious madness. Childhood in the Most Catholic court of Spain had left its scars; the prophecy of his court astronomer that a mad monk would murder him threw him overboard. Obsessed with women (he spawned a menage of bastards), he would shrink with horror whenever the question of marriage came up. The issue of succession proved his undoing; quarreling with the Lobkovices and Rožmberks, the most powerful families of the realm, supplied the cause. His brother showed up at the gates of Prague with an army, Rudolf abdicated, and the Thirty Years’ War began to loom.
Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) and Johannes Kepler (1571-1630)
The star-gazer that forecast the mad monk was Tycho Brahe, a Danish astronomer who is credited with the most complete observation of the planets before the coming of the telescope. His hatred of monks was said to derive from a feud with the occupants of the Capuchin monastery neighboring his house in Hradčany. Another quarrel left him without a nose for most of his life, so he carried various prostheses including one made of gold that he only wore on Sundays and gala occasions; his tombstone in the Týn Church shows him with the artificial organ. The manner of his death was equally  unusual: his bladder exploded at a feast where too much beer was consumed. The highest mountain on the moon carries his name.
Kepler, his successor at the court of Rudolf, has a more orthodox reputation as one of the founders of modern science. His work on celestial motion was first to describe the orbits of planets as elliptical rather than circular, and formed the immediate basis of Newton’s laws. But he was no less prone to the occult side of the stars than any of his contemporaries. His duties as court astronomer included drawing up a horoscope for the emperor (and later, for Wallenstein); his book on the planets featured a treatise on the music of celestial spheres and a section on the spiritual powers of the stars. Worse: his mother was a witch.
A modern statue of the two astronomers stands at the intersection of Pohořelec and Keplerova, in Hradčany.
Rabbi Loew (1512-1609) and Josef Golem
Rabbi Loew ben Bezalel was a fitting Chief Rabbi for the Prague of Rudolf II: his tales have become Yiddish folk classics. In one famous episode, the clever rabbi builds a magic device – a laterna magica – to bring back the biblical patriarchs for the emperor’s benefit: Rudolf breaks up into hysterical laughter, almost bringing down the universe on his head. In another, Rabbi Loew sets to work with his son-in-law Yitzak and an apprentice to create a man of clay – a golem – from the mud of the Vltava. The creature comes to life when a slip carrying the unutterable name of God – a shem – is inserted under his tongue. He is introduced to the world as Josef Golem, rabbi’s helper, and performs many good deeds helping maidens and saving the ghetto from the evil machinations of Brother Thaddaeus, so long as his master remembers to unplug the shem before each Sabbath. But once he forgets, and the creature runs amok – as man-made monsters invariably do. Loew is called to undo his work, manages to pull out the shem, and Golem is laid to rest with a big funeral on the roof of Prague’s Old New Synagogue. The rabbi’s own tomb in the Old Jewish Cemetery is a major tourist attraction.
Frankenstein is the parallel that comes to mind, but the more direct descendant of Golem was the Robot, which first appeared in a play by the Czech writer Karel Čapek (1890-1938) and became one of the few words of Czech to join the international vocabulary. Golem also inspired a novel by Gustav Meyrink (1888-1932) and a silent movie classic by Paul Wegener.
Albrecht von Wallenstein (Waldstein, Valdštejn) [1583-1634]
The Thirty Years’ War made Wallenstein into one of the most formidable warlords of European history. He led the imperial army to victory with ruthless cynicism, with no belief in their cause and no other goal than his own self-aggrandizement. At his peak, he was more powerful than anyone in the empire and wealthier than the emperor he served. Yet he was suspected of dealing with the enemy, and in the end did so to escape those who suspected him of double-dealing.
Albrecht Eusebius Wenzel von Waldstein (better known in English as Wallenstein) came from a family of the minor Bohemian nobility. He was an Utraquist until a timely conversion to Catholicism landed him on the winning side in 1620. Contracted as a mercenary commander by Ferdinand II, he conquered almost all of Germany for the emperor, coming within a trifle of stamping out Protestantism in the continent. In 1630 he was dismissed on suspicion of disloyalty; next year the Saxons sacked Prague and he had to be recalled with greater powers and higher titles than before. In 1632 he defeated the Swedish king Gustavus Adolphus at Lützen; two years later he turned against his employer in collusion with the Swedes. His supporters wanted to make him king of Bohemia, but before he could act, the emperor’s agents assassinated Wallenstein in the town of Cheb (Eger).
His moral ambiguity fascinated dramatists: Schiller, in his Wallenstein, made him the hero of one of the greatest works of German theater; Sartre used him as the subject of his existentialist play Les mains sales. His palace and garden remain one of the most impressive monuments of aristocratic vainglory in Prague.
Joseph II (ruled 1780-1790)
The most radical reformer to ascend a European throne in modern times, Joseph tried to accomplish by imperial fiat what the French Revolution would tackle by blood and fire. Already as co-regent in 1776 he had helped kick out the Jesuits from the empire whose cornerstone they had been for two centuries; as Enlightened despot, he banned most religious orders and shut up some 700 monasteries whose inmates could not prove to be engaged in “productive” work. His Patent of Tolerance gave civil rights to Protestants and Jews, dissolving the ghetto and permitting the return of Lutheran exiles to Bohemia. To break the power of the nobility, he abolished serfdom; to quash the privileges of burghers, he reorganized ancient townships into uniformly administered cities. To promote Enlightenment – and incidentally, to make life easier for a centralized bureaucracy – German was made the official language of the empire to the exclusion of both Latin and the rustic dialects of the provinces. Even the dead were not immune to reform: an ordinance in 1784 banned them from churchyards and crypts to modern cemeteries set outside town limits, set standards for coffins and tombstones, recommended reusable coffins, and prohibited all “excessive” forms of funeral rite. An ultimate memorial of Josephinism can be seen in Theresienstadt/Terezín, a model town built on Joseph’s orders in northern Bohemia. The Nazis used it as a concentration camp.
Without a base of support, Joseph’s reforms crashed. His language policy proved his undoing in Bohemia – and Hungary. Czech was a dying language when Joseph came to power; within a generation, it would be the banner of a reborn and rebellious nation.
(“In Bohemia the imperial nobility, which had been imported by the Habsburgs, cloaked their hostility to social reform in a display of Bohemian patriotism, and in the ante-rooms of [the Viennese palace] the descendants of German, Scottish, or Spanish adventurers ostentatiously exchanged a few words of Czech which they had laboriously learnt from their stable-boys” – A. J. P. Taylor, The Habsburg Monarchy)
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart [1756-1791]
Mozart hated his native Salzburg, was often snubbed in his adopted Vienna, but adored (“My Praguers understand me”) Prague, and that has allowed the Czech capital to claim its fair share of the bicentenary hullaballoo. The composer first came to Prague in January 1787 to conduct The Marriage of Figaro, whose performance at the {Estates Theater} was a runaway success – possibly because the rebel traditions of the Bohemian capital were more receptive to the subversive message of the opera than unctuous Vienna. He had a blast of a time, made good friends and composed a new symphony (“the Prague”, K 504) while in town. He returned in August that year for a three-month stay that saw the world premiere of Don Giovanni. He came again twice in 1789, and returned three months before his death to conduct the first performance of La Clemenza di Tito  as part of the coronation rites of Leopold II as king of Bohemia.
The most famous memorial of his visits is the {Bertramka}, the country house of his friends the Duscheks and the setting for a couple of the best-selling myths about his life. The Mozart Tavern on Templová, however, no longer carries the inscription, “Here Mozart ate, drank and composed, respectively, schnitzels, wine and Don Juan.”
Franz Kafka [1883-1924]
Kafka died a respected name in the Czechoslovak insurance world, but few could guess at the time that modern literature had lost one of its pathbreakers, and not even they could dream of his future metamorphosis into a tourist trap for his native Prague. The author of The Castle, The Trial and The Metamorphosis was born into a modest Jewish family which was, like most Prague-Jewish households of the time, bilingual in Czech and German. He spent all but his last two years in the city, nearly all of it in the shadow of the fantastic spires of the Týn Church. His deep sense of insecurity contrasts with the rich and confident age he was born into, and his bleak vision of society sits awkwardly with the backdrop of warm and quaint humor which Prague supplies.
His very un-proletarian pessimism put him in the communists’ bad books. That he wrote, un-patriotically, in German, only made matters worse, and Kafka was a nonentity in his native land for some sixty years after his death. The winds have turned since 1989: his name now feeds an entire industry of souvenir books, T-shirts, tours, plays, “Kafka pissed here” shops and much fashionable angst.
Václav Havel [1936- ]
It was perhaps natural that a playwright should be the leader of a nation whose protector, St. Vitus, is the patron saint of actors and dancers. At a time when Czechoslovakia was called “Biafra of the spirit,” Havel insisted on the moral responsibility of a writer to “live in truth” and to rise above the sordid reality of a police state. While his colleague Milan Kundera (Unbearable Lightness of Being) emigrated to the West, he chose to stay behind to fight, with the quiet stoicism of a sage rather than the bitterness of a militant. Charter 77, the human rights organization he founded, was a ray of hope in the suffocating atmosphere of Husak’s regime. It led to his first arrest in 1977, which was followed by a 4 1/2 year prison term in 1979 for supporting the Committee for the Unjustly Prosecuted, and four months’ imprisonment in 1989 for taking part in a demonstration in memory of Jan Palach, a student who burned himself alive in protest after the 1968 invasion. In October that year, he was detained again on the eve of anticipated protests; two months later he was president of the republic.