In terms of its size, Hradčany is one of the smallest historical quarters of Prague, though the least troubled by the city traffic, and certainly the most sought out by tourists. The time-honoured seat of the heads of the Czech nation, Prague Castle, perched high above Prague, is the architectural dominant of the city, turning Hradčany into Prague’s most important and distinctive quarter.
Hradčany sits on an elongated plateau, once with a rocky top on the site of the granite monolith in the 3rd Castle courtyard. It was in this place (apparently used in pagan days as a place of sacrifice and as a crematory burial place) that, in the opinion of some historians, the ducal throne stood. It was also the place of the ducal investitures and an assembly place for the tribe of Czechs or the Prague people (which was not necessarily the same thing in the 9th century). The term Fraganeo (the Prague area) documented at the beginning of the 9th century originally meant probably only the area around today’s Malostranské Square which was already prior to the year 700 at the crossroads of long-distance, as well as local routes, and which served as a marketplace and an important stop for merchants’ caravans. It was only later that the term Fraganeo began to be applied to the settlement above the marketplace, and eventually to the whole town.
In the oldest historical period the Slavonic settlement in the Prague basin concentrated on the left side of the Vltava River (the territory of the present day Lesser Town and Hradčany) which had a more advantageous location. The terrain was sufficiently above the river level, and it was, from times immemorial, on the path of highly frequented trade routes. The first pre-Romanesque Church of the Virgin Mary, already built of stone some time after 845 near the present Hradčanské Square (then probably a marketplace, and on one of the trade routes), is a proof of the incipient ascendancy of Christianity in Bohemia.
The first fortified settlement in the territory of present-day Hradčany was founded by one of the first dukes, probably from the Přemyslid dynasty of the tribe of Czechs, approximately around the year 885. Although it looked rather like an enclosed village, it had in its central part the ducal throne. Even more importantly, the fortified settlement provided (or more probably forced) its military protection on the Lesser Town and Hradčany marketplace (and probably on their wider environment), it began to control them, and obviously to share their profits. The other stone church in the settlement, dedicated to st George, was founded around 920 by Duke Vratislav I. His son, Duke Václav (later declared saint)ordered in 925 the building of the Rotunda of St Vitus in the centre of the settlement. This structure later became the inspiration for the construction of further Romanesque rotundas in Bohemia. The importance of the Prague settlement grew continually and was further emphasized by the establishment of Prague Bishopric in around 973. The construction of the settlement fortification from clay slate ashlars was initiated by Duke Břetislav I in the middle of the 11th century. The bishop’s house was also built of stone. The years 1061-1096, under the rule of Duke Vratislav II (later the first Czech king), saw the construction on the site of Václav’s Rotunda of the three-nave Romanesque Basilica of St Vitus. Great changes occurred in the second third of the 12th century when the old fortification was replaced by stone ramparts with three gates. The years 1135-1182 also saw the building of a new ducal palace of stone, with the southern side of the palace directly built into the ramparts. Under the rule of Vladislav II (later the second Czech king), in 1140, a Premonstratensian Monastery was founded in Strahov periphery of Hradčany.
The place name Hradčany cropped up in 1321 when the supreme burgrave of Prague Castle, Berka of Dubé, founded a town of that name in order to increase his income. The core of the new enclave was Hradčany marketplace around which new houses were built. The territory in which later the Nový svět, Pohořelec and Úvoz Streets and Loretánské Square originated, was outside the newly built ramparts. As Hradčany was a tributary town, all power was vested in the hands of the supreme burgrave. He collected taxes from Hradčany inhabitants and they carried out certain jobs for him (such as guarding imprisoned criminals in the Daliborka Tower, or harvesting hay in the royal enclosures). The architectural development of Hradčany was significantly influenced by emperor Charles IV (1316- 1378) who attempted to convert the Castle and the whole city into a representative seat of the Luxemburg dynasty. It is thanks to Charles IV and his architect Matthew of Arras that Prague became acquainted with a developed Gothic style. Charles IV initiated the establishment of Prague Archbishopric in 1344, and it was likewise on his initiative that the construction of the Gothic St Vitus Cathedral was begun. Prior to the outbreak of the Hussite wars only a part of it was completed: the presbytery with its wreath of chapels and a part of the southern tower. This Gothic torso, to whose interior and exterior ever new stylistic elements were added in the course of time, has dominated the image of Prague for more than half a millennium. The seemingly never-ceasing extension of the cathedral ceased at the end of the 19th century when two new Gothic towers of questionable value were added to the western side, near the present-day main entrance. However, the developments in Hradčany during the rule of Charles IV were not only limited to the Cathedral. The Emperor also initiated the extension and reconstruction of the old Romanesque Royal Palace, the construction of a new fortification, the strengthening of the main gate and of the western area outside the castle, as well as the building of the southern moat wall.
The construction of new ramparts on the left bank of the Vltava River in 1360, which surrounded the Lesser Town and Hradčany in a broader span, created many empty potential building sites which in turn led to the expansion of Hradčany towards the ramparts, i.e. basically to the present-day town limits of the Castle Quarter. A part of the original population was forced to move from the area around the marketplace to side streets in order to make the abandoned sites available for the future construction of new palaces for the nobility and the clergy. Under the rule of Wenceslas IV development of Hradčany continued despite the fact that in 1383 the king moved to the Royal Court in the Old Town. Apart from many relatively small houses for the courtiers, Hradčany also saw the erection of a number of palaces for the nobility. The Hussite (Czech Protestant) Revolution (1419-1434) completely paralysed any development in Hradčany. During the siege of the Castle in 1420 the Hussites burned down Strahov Monastery, the whole of Pohořelec, as well as a number of buildings in the Castle itself, including St Vitus Church and the Royal Palace. Only the rule of Vladislav II Jagiello launched a relatively long era of Hradčany prosperity. The years 1490-1510 saw here the activities of the important architect Benedikt Rejt. He reconstructed and rebuilt the Royal Palace, completed the construction of Vladislav Hall with its unique vault, built a new Castle fortification in the north, as well as the so-called Ludvík Wing of the Royal Palace, already with Renaissance elements.
The full ascendancy of the Renaissance coincides with the coming of Ferdinand I Habsburg to the Czech throne (1526). As the king promised the Czech estates he would have his permanent seat in Prague, and as Prague Castle was no longer quite up to date, Ferdinand started his rule with its reconstruction and extension to the north. He also initiated the construction of the Renaissance Summer House of Queen Anne (built between 1537 and 1563) on the eastern side of the Royal Garden. The reconstruction and the creation of a large garden complex were interrupted by the large fire of 1541 which started in the Lesser Town and which spread up to Hradčany. It destroyed or damaged most structures in the town and in the Castle, including the Cathedral. Instead of continuing the reconstructions, it was now often necessary to start from scratch. On the sites of burntout buildings arose large palaces, such as the Schwarzenberg and the Archbishop’s Palaces in Hradčanské Square. The rule of Maximilian II saw the completion and decoration of such buildings as the small and the big real tennis courts (1568), the restoration of the old Royal Palace with its Assembly Hall, the repair of St Vitus Cathedral, the construction of a wing connecting the present-day 2nd and 3rd courtyards, as well as many other development efforts.
The Renaissance era of Prague Castle reached its climax under the rule of Rudolf II (1576-1611): the Castle extended in the western direction, and the new long palace in the southern wing was inhabited by the emperor himself. Rudolf’s court was one of the focuses of late Renaissance culture. Apart from domestic artists, the court employed a number of Italian, German, Dutch and other foreign painters, sculptors, engravers, architects and jewellers. The Castle also played host to leading scientists, as well as pseudoscientists and outright impostors such as astrologers and alchemists. Rudolf’s palace filled up with select works of art purchased by his many agents all over Europe. In 1598 Rudolf II promoted Hradčany to the status of a royal city. Following the example of the nobility, the Roman Catholic Church also began to concentrate its institutions in the area of the Castle. In 1602 a Capuchin Monastery was built in Loretánské Square, and in Strahov periphery of Hradčany an abbey and a two-towered church. In other respects, under Rudolf II Hradčany turned into a prevalently German-speaking location as German was spoken by most of the high nobility and clergy. The Czech population, especially craftsmen, continued to prevail in two backward peripheral districts of Hradčany, in Pohořelec and Nový Svět. The low-rise houses in this area were inhabited not only by honest citizens, but were often also centres of Hradčany prostitution business.
The Thirty Years’ War brought destruction to Prague Castle in the form of two occupations, first the Saxon (1631), and then the Swedish (1648). The Swedes’ bad reputation was mainly connected with their plunder of a significant part of Rudolf’s collections and other valuable Castle artefacts. Following the end of the war, the town limits of Hradčany were further extended by the construction of new Baroque ramparts with bastions on the left bank of the Vltava which protected both Hradčany and the Lesser Town, and inside of which fell the area north of Hradčany as well as the Royal Gardens. The Baroque style, which at the beginning of the 17th century began to prevail in Prague proper, still failed to make any important impact in the Castle. The new construction activities were mostly initiated by the church which devoted itself mainly to several reconstructions and to adaptations of the interiors of churches. The only substantial development of the court was the construction of the riding school behind the Deer Moat (1694-1698) on the site of a smaller riding school of 1572.
The Baroque made a more visible imprint outside the Castle, in the town of Hradčany. A good example of this style is the monumental Černín Palace in Loretánské Square built for Humprecht Jan Černín. Opposite to it, on sites abandoned by the Protestant emigrés who left the country after the disastrous battle of the White Mountain (1620), the famous Prague loreto was constructed (the building took several decades). Another ecclesiastical building of the Baroque period in Hradčany is the Church of St John Nepomuk, the first church built by K. I. Dientzenhofer.
The Castle underwent a significant change under empress Maria Theresa: in the period 1753-1774 the Castle was reconstructed into what is basically its present-day appearance. The buildings to the left of the Royal Palace were connected into a monolithic Neo-Classical wing with the Court of Honour (the present-day 1st courtyard) on the site of the filled-in western moat. The original mediaeval image of the Castle remained basically preserved on the northern side. In contrast to the exterior, the interiors were richly decorated in Rococo style. Maria Theresa’s architectural and urban reshaping of the historical dominant of Prague made it more monumental, and anticipated the general development of the whole city in the not so distant future.
Paradoxically, in the immediate time horizon, the state reforms undertaken under Maria Theresa’s son Josef II helped to diminish the importance of Prague Castle. The Summer House of Queen Anne, the Big Real Tennis Court, and the Monastery of St George were taken over by the military. The Habsburg court visited the Castle only on rare occasions, and the orphaned castle began to decay. Life in the Castle town also seems to have stopped. The Černín Palace was converted into artillery barracks (1851), other barracks were established in Pohořelec (1895), and next to the loreto was erected a somewhat ungainly military court and prison. The last large-scale construction development in Hradčany was the protracted (1863-1933) completion of the Cathedral of St Vitus in the style of pure Neo-Gothic.
The 28th of October, 1918, was the last day of the Habsburg-Lotharingian rule in Bohemia and (somewhat later) in Slovakia. The declaration of the founding of the independent Czecho-Slovak Republic also meant the end of the Czech Kingdom, in the previous three centuries a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In accord with time-honoured tradition the Castle became the seat of the head of the state, the President, and it still remained the seat of the President of the newly formed Czech Republic (on January 1, 1993) following the Secession of Slovakia.
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