old Prague postcards

Old postcards of Prague   the New Town

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At the beginning of his reign, Charles Iv (1316-1378) elected the city of Prague as the capital of the Czech State and the Holy Roman Empire. At the same time, he decided to give the city all the important institutions of the time. He dreamed of building a new metropolis, a new centre of Christian Europe, equal in importance to Rome, Constantinople and the papal Avignon. He thus made significant changes in the architecture of Prague, the most important being the founding of the New Town, through which he doubled the residential area of the city.

Charles IV announced his intention to found the New Town on April 1, 1347, i.e. seven months after he succeeded to the throne. He issued the foundation charter on March 8, 1348 and on March 26, in the presence of distinguished guests, he ceremonially laid the first foundation stone. By that time, the overall design of the New Town had been worked out - it was planned as a residential area whose complexity and facilities would be unrivalled elsewhere in Europe. The works began soon after that and the streets and squares were demarcated. The Emperor, who had previously bought up all the land, assigned the construction lots to various builders. The works generally progressed at a very high speed, as the builders were legally bound to begin work within a month of receiving building permission. All buildings had to be fit to live in within eighteen months.

The New Town was not built on virgin territory, it was built around older settlements. There was the rafting and woodcutters’ community of Podskalí in the south. To the north, on an elevated spot, there was the settlement of Zderaz, neighbouring a farmstead which later became the hospital U sv. Lazara. To the west, there was the settlement of Opatovice, and further to the north there was the so-called Jewish Garden, in actual fact the oldest Jewish cemetery in Prague, which belonged to a community living close to V Jámě or Na Louži. To the south-east, there lay the settlement of Rybníček. On an elevated spot, to the east and next to the Church of St John in Bojiště, there was property belonging to the order of Maltese Knights. Between the suburb of Zderaz and the walls of the Old Town there was part of a settlement called Újezd of St Martin, which was not joined with the Old Town in 1230 (the year of foundation). To the east of this community, in the direction of the Jewish Garden, was the settlement of Charváty, and to the north of the upper part of today’s Václavské Square there lay the settlement of Chudobice, important already at that time. The most important settlement in the area of the future New Town was Na poříčí (Poříč) which covered the area from the Old Town Gate, the farmstead and the hospital of st Benedict, to the so-called Špitálský or Biskupský dvůr, also known as Hradiště. The communities living around the Church of St Clement and the Church of St Peter were also part of the settlement of Na poříčí.

When Charles IV founded the New Town, he respected the original settlements and did not carry out any demolition works - the new main streets of the New Town were linked to the older roads leading from the gates of the Old Town. Nevertheless, the New Town formed a unified architectural and functional whole. This was due especially to careful planning - the most important buildings and the open spaces were well located with a sense of the symbolic significance and gradation of the architectural dominants. The New Town was divided into four districts - there was the extensive southern part, called the Upper New Town, built around the Cattle Market (Karlovo Square). In the north-west of the southern part of the New Town there was a district neighbouring the Old Town, the Convent of St Catherine and the Na Slovanech Monastery. The south-eastern district was built on the hills and valleys next to Větrov and Na Slupi (the two areas were only sparsely populated, most of the land was used for vineyards and orchards). The third district was built around the Horse Market (Václavské Square). It included the area around Příkopy, Můstek and the Monastery of Our Lady of the Snows. The Monastery was a dividing point between the upper New Town and the lower New Town. The fourth district, the lower New Town, was located north of the Horse Market. The central market place was the Hay Market (Senovážné Square), but Horská (Hybernská) Street and later Na příkopě Street were more important commercial centres.

Both the upper New Town and the lower New Town had new parish churches - the Church of St Henry and Kunhuta and the Church of St Stephen the Greater. The construction of both buildings started in 1351. The older settlements, however, still belonged to their original parishes (St Clement, St Adalbert the Greater, St Wenceslas, St Anthony /the Trinity/, St John, St Nicholas /Cosmo and Damian/, St Adalbert the Smaller and the Old Town parishes of St Martin and St Gall).

The New Town saw the construction of some particularly imposing buildings including various churches, monasteries and convents (the Carmelite Monastery of Our Lady of the Snows, the Benedictine Slavonic Monastery also called V Emauzích, the Augustine Monastery of St Charles the Great in Karlov, the Augustine Convent of St Catherine, the Benedictine-Ambrosian monastery (later called U Hybernů), and the Convent of Our Lady on the Green). Charles IV also moved the old chapter from Sadská Road to the new Church of St Apollinaris in Větrov. The last important ecclesiastical building in the New Town in the pre-Hussite era was the Chapel of the Body of Christ in the middle of the Horse Market, which served as a repository for the annual exposition of the imperial jewels and relics. The building of the chapel, as well as the buildings of the two most important secular institutions in the New Town - the Royal Castle in Zderaz and the New Town Hall - were finished as late as during the reign of Wenceslas IV (1378-1419).

During the first stage of the works (1348-1353), about 650 houses were built in the area between the Churches of St Henry and St Catherine. The peripheral parts of the New Town, in the area around Poříč and Slupy were built later. The speed of the construction works started to diminish at the end of the 14th century, and so the original plan to build a densely populated town was not fully carried out. At the end of the 19th century, there were still many open spaces and gardens in this part of the city. The wall protecting the New Town was 10 metres high and 3.5 kilometres long. It had 4 gates and 21 towers. The wall was erected in the record time of two years. It demarcated an area of 2.4 square kilometres, which was more than could be built up during the era of Charles IV or even during the following five hundred years. The wall and the Baroque fortification, built during the Thirty Years’ War, was demolished in the last quarter of the 19th century.

Charles IV wanted the New Town to join the Old Town and to be administered by the same city laws. However, he always insisted on the supreme political importance of the Old Town, and it was only the Old Town that was considered the capital of the kingdom. The New Town actually suffered from this partnership, since many noisy and malodorous trades were moved there from the Old Town. In December 1367, Charles IV ordered both towns to be united and the walls, towers and gates between them to be torn down. However, during the following ten years, the relationship between the two towns became so tense and strained that the emperor himself cancelled the union in March 1377. Between 1377 and 1413, the inhabitants of the New Town built their own town hall in the Cattle Market. The Town Hall later became the scene of important historic events, such as the first Prague defenestration of the town councillors on July 30, 1419, which marked the beginning of the Hussite Revolution.

The Hussite radicals, based in the New Town and led by the monk Jan Želivský, carried out a second unification of the two towns, which lasted from 1421 to 1424. New disputes soon arose, however, concerning the property confiscated from the enemies of the movement. This led to the break-up of the union between the Prague towns and the New Town joined the radical Taborites. The conflict ended on May 6, 1434, when the armies of the Old Town and the Noblemen’s Union defeated the New Town. The inhabitants of the Old Town took possession of all documents guaranteeing the New Town special privileges, and the New Town fell temporarily under the control of the Old Town.

Soon afterwards the New Town regained its independence, but it had lost all its aspirations to become the most important town in the city of Prague. Nevertheless, King Vladislav II (1471-1516) upgraded the New Town emblem and authorised an annual fair on St Bartholomew’s Day. In 1478 he gave the New Towners permission to build on the ruins of the Jewish Garden. This is where Vladislavova and Palackého Streets were built.

From the first part of the 16th century the New Town guilds fought against the reunification of the towns of Prague. Therefore, in 1528 King Ferdinand I Habsburg, who had felt threatened by the existence of a strong city, could re-establish an independent town council in the New Town and thus cancel the 1518 unification of the Prague towns. The New Town’s self-centredness proved fatal after the failure of the first anti-Habsburg uprising in 1547 when most public property and arms were confiscated and the New Town lost many privileges. The most painful blow was the loss of its political independence - the Habsburgs appointed royal administrators and magistrates to control the town. Nevertheless, the period from the first anti-Habsburg uprising to the Battle of the White Mountain was economically prosperous for the New Town. It also saw the rise of many valuable Renaissance buildings, especially during the rule of Emperor Rudolf II.

During the second uprising in 1619, the New Town temporarily freed itself from royal control but in the following year the insurgents were defeated and the New Town lost yet more privileges. Properties were confiscated, people were forced to reconvert to Catholicism, many had to flee abroad, and some were hanged. In June 1621, five leading citizens of the New Town were executed in front of the Old Town Hall.

The New Town was partly rehabilitated at the end of the Thirty Years’ War when the Habsburgs compensated the inhabitants for their courage against the Swedes by giving them back some of the lost privileges (1648). The New Towners had been able to protect the Gothic wall against a strong army. The wall was, nevertheless, badly damaged and so after the signing of the Westphalian Peace, a Baroque fortification was built around it (1654-1721).

Other important buildings were raised in the New Town during the Baroque era, including the Capuchin Monastery, the Ursuline Convent, the Monastery of the Order of the Trinity, and the Church of the Holy Trinity in Spálená Street, the Augustine Prelacy in Karlov, the Fransiscan Convent in Slupy, the Church of St John in Skalka, etc. The most extensive construction works were the building of the Jesuit College and the Church of St Ignatius in Karlovo Square. The secular buildings raised in this period were less impressive. These included Baroque houses belonging to the nobility and townspeople (the Faust House /Mladota Palace/, Kounický Palace, Kaňka House, Michna Summer House - Amerika, etc.).

On February 12, 1784, Emperor Josef II issued a court decree stipulating that the New Town should be joined with three other Prague towns, thus creating the royal capital of Prague. The Town Hall of the New Town came into the possession of the state administration and became the seat of the provincial criminal court. The sentenced criminals were then sent to the nearby jail of St Wenceslas. The beautiful Chapel of the Body of Christ on the Cattle Market was demolished in 1791.

The Czech inhabitants of the New Town became particularly active in the Czech Revivalist movement. It was on the lower part of the Horse Rarket (Václavské Square) that the first Czech patriotic theatre, Bouda, was opened in July 1786. During the 19th century, the residential streets Žitná, Palackého, Jungmannova, Spálená and Národní became the centre of the public life of Czech patriots. New buildings were raised in the New Town that represented the Revivalist movement. These included the National Theatre, the Provisional Theatre, the National Museum, the City Museum and the Czech Technical University. Most of the mediaeval buildings in the New Town were either demolished during extensive clearance works or reconstructed. Some historical, mostly ecclesiastical, buildings were preserved, but the architectural character of the New Town changed: the squares were redesigned, new parks, boulevards and embankments were built and a public transport system was organised (first horse-drawn, later electric trams). In addition, three important Prague train stations and, in the middle of the 20th century, the main bus station were built in the New Town. The empty spaces in the New Town were finally built up at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. University institutes of the natural sciences and hospitals were built in the area of Albertov and Na Slupi.

There was no more space for any extensive construction works in the 20th century. The only 20th century additions to the New Town are buildings that were erected on the ruins of older structures, pulled down either intentionally or destroyed because of natural disasters or, in 1945, in the Second World War. The new buildings include Lucerna, Koruna, Adria, Živnobanka, Legiobanka, the Škoda automobile plant, and department stores such as Bílá labuť, Dům módy, Mánes Building and the Dancing House. The New Town was the scene of many important events in the 20th century, but the intention of this volume is to present old postcards and to report older historical events, and so the modern history of the New Town is not included.

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