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Old postcards of Prague   Na Františku Quarter

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Na Františku is the time-honoured name of the northernmost section of the Old Town around the Convent of St Agnes of Bohemia. The borders of Na Františku were in the west with the Jewish ghetto (Sanytrova Street and Janské Square), in the south with Bílkova, Kozí, Kozí plácek and Haštalská Streets, and with Eliščina in the east. The Vltava River was the natural boundary of this quarter in the north. This territory, advantageously located along the ancient road connecting the watering place near the Štvanice Island with the watering places in the Lesser Town (Malá Strana) and further with Prague Castle, was, until the end of the 12th century, sparsely populated. The documents from this period cite the settlement or village of Újezd in a place where, in 1190, the Church of St Castulus (Haštal), one of the oldest churches in Prague, was founded. In 1233 King Wenceslas I founded here the Convent of the Clare nuns with the Church of St Francis and a little later next to the Church, the Minorite Monastery. Another important ecclesiastical building in this area was the Cyriac Monastery, founded in 1256, which had a church added to it in the 1270s. A century later a small Church of St Simon and Jude was built at the hospital owned by the Prague citizen Bohuslav. The importance of this small church increased only after its extension and Baroque reconstruction which connected it with the neighbouring Monastery of the Brethren of Mercy and their hospital.

St Agnes Convent was dominant among these ecclesiastical enclaves. Apart from the buildings of convents, monasteries and churches, this part of the Old Town contained a number of associated farms, services, workshops and the houses of farmhands and artisans. St Agnes Convent, surrounded by a solid protective wall, had the character of a mediaeval fortress which in times of danger could offer asylum to people living in its vicinity. The Hussite riots did not spare this part of Prague. The monks and nuns fled and the looted churches and monasteries were converted into powder magazines, arsenals and dwellings of the poor. This was the beginning of the gradual and long-lasting decay of the buildings of St Agnes Convent, with only occasional spells of minor building activity which never matched the size and the quality of the early Gothic construction.

In 1556 the devastated premises of St Agnes Convent were taken over by the Dominican Order. Aiming to gain the necessary means for essential repairs, the Dominicans undertook one of the most important city planning acts of the Renaissance period in the Old Town (D. Líbal, J. Muk): they parcelled out and subsequently sold the plots surrounding the Convent, thus giving rise to approximately 50 buildings which created the basis of the future street network. In contrast to similar activities e.g. in the Lesser Town, with its extensive construction of ornate palaces built for the nobility, the buildings in the neighbourhood of the Convent were of little architectural value and were inhabited by craftsmen. This gave rise to a small quarter inhabited from the very start by prevalently poor inhabitants who made their living from the nearby river. The Convent, from 1626 used again by the Clare nuns, and the surrounding buildings, were at the end of the 17th century devastated by a great fire. In the course of the reconstruction many of the buildings were raised by one more storey and furnished with new, Baroque facades. The Convent, too, recovered from the fire, however, its closure in 1783 by emperor Josef II marked the beginning of an unfortunate development. The Convent was converted into a prison, later into stables and a storage house and, finally, the complex was let out to craftsmen and used as a dwelling place of the city poor.

In the 1890s the Quarter Na Františku represented a colourful conglomerate which became a home to all occupations connected with the river, and also to all human types from the periphery of society. These included raftsmen, sandmen, timbermen and sawmill workers, watchmen from the weirs, fishermen, craftsmen, coalmen, day labourers, but also thieves, gamblers, layabouts, beggars, drunkards and the permanently unemployed, prostitutes, hags yelling from the porches of the houses built along the water front and around St Agnes Convent. The houses were low, dark, narrow and unhealthy, without sun, without water, and without sewerage, hence full of insects and mice, with the permanent smell of burned fat and sauerkraut mixed with the smells of the gutter (L. K. Žižka). Not surprisingly, the Quarter was also full of the permanent squalling of packs of neglected, often rickety children. The buildings were mostly built in narrow lanes, of which every other was a haven of prostitution. Nor was there any dearth of filthy pubs, jiggeries and distilleries. It was a quarter within a quarter, different from the rest of Prague not only in its character and orientation, but also in its speech. It was an area using an original dialect characterized by sharp sibilants, drawn-out vowels and little regard for grammar (L. K. Žižka) where a law-abiding citizen, especially after dusk, was well advised not to venture. Strangely enough, all this existed only a few dozens of metres away from the growing modern Mikulášská Street, and not quite a kilometre away from the city boulevards of Na Příkopě Street and Wenceslas Square.

It was no surprise when the Clearance law of 1893 sentenced this quarter to extinction, just as it did, for the same reasons, the Quarter of Josefov. The bigger part of Na Františku was demolished in the period 1896-1976. The newly created vacant lots along the adapted and elevated water front were used for the gradual construction of residential and administrative buildings, as well as hotels. The former Monastery of the Brethren of Mercy is still in need of restoration, while St Agnes Convent has already been perfectly restored. The remaining few original lanes of the old quarter have been gradually restored and continue to charm their visitors with their unique and mystery-imbued atmosphere.

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