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Old postcards of Prague   the Lesser Town

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Archeological excavations prove that the territory of the Lesser Town was settled long before the period from which we have written references. It used to be a crossing of old and important merchant routes linked to two Vltava fords which used to stand on the sites of current bridges - Mánes and Charles Bridges (before the construction of weirs the river level was much lower).

The marketplace was founded at the crossing of merchant routes long ago and it was located approximately in the upper part of Malostranské Square or Sněmovní Street. This locality lies on an uphill terrace consisting of earth and detritus and, thanks to that, it was protected from even the greatest floods. The Slavs who started to settle the Prague basin in the 5th century used to call this terrace prag - prah (threshold). However this is not the only interpretation of the origin of the city name but only one of the newer ones. The latest one comes from findings of iron slag slag and fire-burnt shallow hollows near Malostranské Square. Iron ore had been burnt there before it was melted in order to eliminate waste rock. In the Czech name for this burning process (pražení) we may find the origin of the word Prague (Praha).

The importance of the international marketplace near the river, which had to have its agricultural and craft background, gradually increased. The marketplace, with its commercial and crafts centre, started to expand and, probably in the 9th century, it took up a part of Malostranské Square. It was surrounded by a solid rampart made of a wooden construction filled with earth. There was a wide ditch in front of the rampart.

In the 9th century the majority of Slavonic tribes in the territory of Bohemia reunited and gradually adopted Christianity. These changes resulted in the founding of a church and subsequently also a fort with the seat of the tribal prince who ruled over the marketplace and other scattered villages - the space around the marketplace became a settlement around the Castle. In fact the city of Prague and therefore also the Lesser Town was not founded but it was created gradually as life went through this territory. Original buildings in the oldest settlements and villages were made of wood. As late as at the establishment of Christianity, which means about the beginning of the 10th century, the first ecclesiastical buildings of stone, such as churches and later monasteries, but also noble courts and burghers’ houses of local profiteers started to appear in the marketplace and around it in rambling settlements with their own jurisdiction.

There was a wooden pathway along the river in the 10th century. It was 80 cm thick, solidly constructed by a carpenter. This unique pathway probably reinforced a terrain often flooded by the river, and we assume that it connected the above mentioned fords. We cannot exclude that a wooden bridge stood on the site of today’s Mánes Bridge. There are no doubts that it existed in the 12th century because we know that it was destroyed by floods in 1157 and 1159. And between 1165-1172 it was replaced by a stone bridge, the oldest in Bohemia, named after Queen Judith. It was located several metres north of today’s Charles Bridge. The Judith Bridge was a little lower, and on the Lesser Town bank it ended at the same place as the Charles Bridge. The smaller Judith Tower at the end of the Charles Bridge was originally a part of the older bridge.

Since the second half of the 12th century there were two fortified clerical seats established near the bridge - the Commendam of Knights of St John (1169) and the Episcopal Court (1185). In the 1250s King Přemysl Otakar II started to fortify the area around the old market settlement between the Roman walls of Prague Castle and locations near the Bridge. At that time the main marketplace was expanded to approximately the current size of Malostranské Square. The new parochial Church of St Nicholas was founded in its centre, and it also served as a place of assembly because a town hall had not been built yet. After 1285 the Church of St Thomas was under construction and it was completed as late as 1379. It is likely that the construction of streets in the New Town, running to all sides, was also planned. The King expelled local inhabitants from the area around the Castle and invited new settlers, mainly Germans. In 1257 he officially declared the foundation of the new municipal fort as the New Town under the Castle, later called the Lesser Town and finallyMalá Strana, literally little side. However, the new burghers had considerably limited powers that were restricted by a number of additional rights or jurisdictions granted by the King, especially to neighbouring monasteries which owned large land lots and houses in the Lesser Town under the Castle. These enclaves had their own reeves and priors who also managed the independent construction. The portreeve and the city administration could not intervene in these rights.

In February 1342 the Judith Bridge was demolished by floods, which also destroyed all dams and mills. Many people died and the loss of the kingdom’s crown, i.e. the "Prague stone bridge" was considered to be a disaster. As late as in 1357 Charles IV started to build a new, much better bridge that still survives - Charles Bridge, completed about 1400.

Emperor Charles IV provided for more intensive urban development of the Lesser Town by the expansion of its territory southward. Between 1360 and 1362 the whole territory was surrounded by the hunger wall. A major part of this wall has survived until today. Under Charles IV and Wenceslas IV a number of churches, monasteries, palaces and houses were built and numerous urban renewals were carried out.

The construction of the Lesser Town in the middle ages was interrupted in 1419 by Hussite revolution. After the Hussites’ attack against the Castle, organised from the Charles Bridge, the Lesser Town was burnt down, completely devastated and abandoned. The Old Town took over the bridge, municipal gates and a large amount of territory. All that stayed in its jurisdiction for a long time. Only after five years did the Lesser Town start to rise from the dust and ashes. At the end of the rule of King Jiří of Poděbrady the majority of houses at the marketplace, in today’s Mostecká, Sněmovní and Nerudova Streets, were renewed. The Municipality built a New Town Hall on the east side of the marketplace in 1478. At that time smaller and less expensive houses were constructed. More important and splendid houses were built under Vladislav II Jagiello. Plundered churches and monasteries underwent reconstruction.

However, the prospering town was hit by fire in 1503 which destroyed many of the recently built houses. In 1541 another fire broke out and it was much worse and even more destructive. Two thirds of the Lesser Town were razed to the ground which meant the extinction of its Gothic buildings with their narrow fronts and small backyards.

In 1530 Italian architects came to Prague. They brought a new style which was adapted to local traditions, and they became founders of the Czech renaissance. This style predominated in Prague architecture until the Battle of the White Mountain in 1620. The Czech renaissance decorated the Lesser Town with shields, spires, dormer windows, sgraffiti facades, etc. It also focused on gardens and therefore Czech renaissance artisans were hired by Czech noblemen who settled below the Castle.

When Rudolf II selected Prague to be his permanent seat, it resulted in the influx of inhabitants into the Lesser Town. This situation forced the town hall to strive for the expansion of the city beyond the borders of Přemyslid walls and for an increase in the number of residential houses in the downtown city. The municipality acquired a building permit even in Kampa Island where, until 1495, there was a solitary house called Sovovský mlýn (Sova’s Mill), and after the fire in 1541 fire debris was transferred to this Island. One narrow Vltava armlet and a small pool were filled with debris at that time.

During the allotment boom the Lesser Town jurisdictions did not lag behind. Prague municipality tried to get rid of them or at least to limit their powers but, despite all disputes and sometimes mortal battles it did not manage to do that fully until 1784. In spite of different urban plans the renaissance period ended with the completely built-up territory of the Lesser Town (with the exception of Petřín Hill). New construction activities also respected new traffic, and houses often faced main streets. Imposing palatial houses and churches were often built on the site of small houses.

Another turn in the architectural development was the destructive invasion of the German marauders from Passau in 1611 who completely plundered the town. However, much more serious consequences for the town resulted from the defence of the Czech estates in the Battle of the White Mountain in 1620. It was followed by religious and national persecutions and economic decline. On the other hand it stimulated new building activities in the Baroque style. The new nobility and church played a dominant role in the construction activities because they had an opportunity to purchase cheap confiscated houses and land lots. In the 17th and 18th centuries splendid palaces of noblemen replaced small burgher houses and sometimes whole streets, and the Lesser Town became an aristocratic city quarter. Besides the nobility, the Lesser Town was also settled by religious orders, one of which, the Jesuits, were very active in the area of construction. Between 1625 and 1680 they pulled down everything which stood in the centre of Malostranské Square. In the vacant area they built a guildhall (after 1691) and later the new St Nicholas Church (construction began in 1703). Its dome and bell tower are essential and impressive elements of the Hradčany panorama.

Another war intermezzo was the seizure of the Lesser Town and Hradčany by the Swedes at the end of the Thirty Years’ War (1648). Again the Lesser Town was devastated, as so many times before, and the Swedes also tried to conquer the Old Town from the Charles Bridge, but they failed.

The construction of the new Prague Baroque fortification in front of the old Gothic ramparts was closely linked to the urban development of the Lesser Town. A unique gallery under the sun - an exhibition of statutes and sculptures on the Charles Bridge, was created during the high Baroque. In this period the construction of the Lesser Town culminated and the then unimpressive town below the Castle became the most beautiful, picturesque and splendid part of Prague. The Baroque rebuilt and completed the Lesser Town into the shape which has survived till today. The core of the town did not consist of individual houses but of certain architectural and unified complexes. At the end of the Baroque period in 1784 the Prague Town Council was established to serve all Prague towns. Simultaneously all additional rights were cancelled as well as the independence of the Lesser Town.

Big changes were made by Emperor Josef II who dissolved a number of churches and monasteries between 1782 and 1784. Some buildings were changed into private houses and workshops, other were torn down. Stagnation in construction continued with few exceptions during the whole period of Neo-Classicism and the Empire period. The nobility stayed more often at the court in Vienna and their lesser town palaces grew quieter. Many things changed with the dissolution of monasteries. Lesser Town inhabitants were very dependent on rich society because it provided them with job opportunities. The 1840s, characterised by dramatic industrial development, did not bring a major change - there were not appropriate conditions for that. The 1890s became a sad period because buildings of high architectural value started to be destroyed and replaced freely and easily under the veil of modernisation. Fortunately this process was discontinued and despite all the unregulated actions the majority of monuments of high historical value and importance has survived.

The declaration of independence of the Republic of Czechoslovakia in 1918 startled the Lesser Town out of its long sleep. It became the seat of the Parliament, ministries, public authorities and embassies of different countries, and its streets and squares started to live a new busy life. In 1950 the Lesser Town was declared a historic district.

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