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Old postcards of Prague   the Old Town

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Prague’s Old Town was, in the course of the 550 years of its independent existence, the largest and most important town in the Czech state. In that historical period when the name Praha, i.e. Prague, referred exclusively to the seat of the Přemyslid dynasty of Czech rulers, the Castle, the Old Town was known as the City of Prague (Civitas Pragensis). Following the rise of further Prague towns or quarters in the 13th and 14th centuries, the need for distinguishing names for the individual quarters arose. And so, after first being called the Bigger Town, the oldest Prague quarter eventually received its present name.

The beginnings of the settlement of the Old Town area go further back in history than the founding of the Old Town itself. However, the most distant history is still veiled in mystery, as the current density of buildings makes it impossible to carry out any consistent archeological research, while written documents from this earliest period are very scarce and incidental. The favourite conditions for the development of a commercial site on the right side of the Vltava River, near to the important Klárov ford and to the wooden bridge across the Vltava, apparently led to the founding of the second Přemys lid fortress, Vyšehrad, in the 10th century. The chronicler Cosmas expressly cites the existence of a commercial settlement between the two castles on the right bank of the Vltava as of the year 1105. This is the first citation of the big commercial place on what is apparently the site of the present-day Staroměstské Square. However, the rise of a compact settlement in the area of the Old Town can unequivocally be proved only for the second half of the 12th century. At that time the original wooden bridge was replaced by the St Judith stone bridge, and in the area to the east of this big commercial place arose the fortified princely homestead Týn-Ungelt whose objective was to protect foreign merchants and to collect custom-duty (ungelt). The marketplace from (and to) which ran many roads, and which was at first surrounded by settlements of German, Mediterranean and Jewish merchants, documented as early as 1091, was the centre around which developed the construction of Romanesque stone buildings, the homesteads of princes’ courtiers, churches and monasteries. However, at the turn of the 12th and 13th centuries, the settlement on the right bank of the Vltava was not yet concentrated into the form of streets, nor did it represent any legal unit.

The main impetus towards the urbanization of the area emanated from the settlements of foreign merchants, which were the first to win the ruler’s privileges. It was in the course of the first third of the 13th century that the inhabitants of these settlements succeeded in creating their small townships and in acquiring the appropriate privileges, including the privilege to create self-ruling municipal administrations. The most visible demonstration of the urbanizing trend was the erection of ramparts with 13 tower-like gates. These were, after 1230, zoned off by King Wenceslas I from the remaining varied buildings on the right bank of the Vltava, and became the official border of the fortified City of Prague, covering an area of 140 hectares. This City included, apart from older settlements, the more recent Havelské Město (St Gall Town) which arose between 1235-1253 around the marketplace at the St Gall Church.

The construction carried out within the Old Town ramparts followed the fashionable contemporary style of the Gothic. The tone was set by the monasteries of various orders of knights and begging orders, such as the Templars, Dominicans, German Knights, or Knights of the Cross with the Red Star. Of special trend-setting importance was the Clare nuns’ Convent of St Agnes, founded in 1233. The construction development of the Old Town continued unabated through the second half of the 13th century and the first half of the 14th century, political instability not withstanding. This resulted in an overall Gothic remodelling of the right bank agglomeration on a new level of the terrain, which had by this time been elevated by 2-4 metres, thanks to the piling up of rubbish, but also thanks to planned dumps created for flood protection. As a result the original ground floors of the Romanesque structures appeared in the basements of the new Gothic buildings where they remain preserved until today. The dominant Gothic structures of the City of Prague were, apart from the churches of the orders , the capitular Church of St Giles, and the tower-like burgher houses. Two of them are still extant, if slightly changed, in Rytířská and in Havelské Town.

Going hand in hand with the construction of the fortified Gothic conurbation was the legal emancipation and increasing self-rule of the Prague town-ships. The year 1287 saw the unification of Havelské Town with the Old Town, and the newly created unit used in its legal affairs the Nuremberg legal code, known in Bohemia as the Old Town law. From 1287 the city was ruled by a burgomaster and 12 aldermen, the city also had its own court, and the highest organ of self-rule, consisting of all burghers, was the great polity. In 1299 the City of Prague received the approval of King Wenceslas II to buy the Kubka House in the marketplace as the venue for the meetings of the Town Council and as the seat of the municipal scribe. Eventually, some time in the second half of the 14th century, the Kubka house, along with the adjacent house owned by Volflin of Kámen and acquired by the city in 1338, were rebuilt into a lofty Old Town hall with a tower, bay and astronomical clock.

The dominant stratum of the Old Town society were the burghers. The burghers enjoyed many privileges in exchange for their financial and military support of the Přemyslid and Luxemburg rulers. The privileges included e.g. the transfer of money accrued through the royal ungelt (custom-duties) and tolls to the city in order to finance the construction of the fortification and the paving of streets (1328-1331). Further, the city had the privilege to run its business on the basis of the Nuremberg Code (1341). However, the most valuable privilege was granted by Emperor Louis IV in June 1330 which absolved the Prague merchants from paying any custom-duties in the entire territory of the Roman Empire.

From the 14th century the wealthiest burghers began to receive yet another privilege, namely to acquire land in the country, to use coats-of-arms and even the right to become members of the nobility. It was, however, at this point in time that a new stratum of the middle class, namely craftsmen, began to play a significant role. 1318 saw the approval by the Old Town Council of the statutes of the Tailors’ Guild, and soon followed the rise of the guilds of goldsmiths, weavers, drapers, butchers and others. The wealthy burghers and the new guilds soon developed a rivalry which grew continually until it reached its peak in the Hussite Revolution. A part of this rivalry was reflected in the attempt to gain access to and ultimately control of the Town Council. Supported by Charles IV, the craftsmen entered the Old Town Council in the period 1350-1352.

The period of the rule of emperor and King Charles IV was characterized by a purposeful reconstruction of Prague into a burgeoning metropolis of the mediaeval Roman Empire. Not only the ruler’s court, but now even the Old Town saw the peak of Gothic architecture as represented by Parler’s work, followed by the belle époque of the reign of Wenceslas IV. Charles IV upgraded the Old Town by founding here the first university in Europe to the north of the Alps (1348). At the same time, Charles was the generous founder of Prague’s New Town (1348) which soon was not only a partner, but even a rival to the Old Town.

However, the prosperity of Prague’s towns in the period of Charles’ rule was not free of latent social tension. Its growing intensity and seriousness led, at the end of the 14th century, to the outbreak of a social crisis and the rise of a reform movement epitomized by Jan Hus, a teacher at Charles University and preacher at the Bethlehem Chapel in the Old Town. The sharpening of the crisis after Hus´ death, and the activities of his followers resulted in a revolution. Hussite Prague removed from power of the German burghers and the opulent church, in 1419 confiscated their property, and in 1420 succeeded in defending its hold on power through the military defeat of the anti-Hussite crusade led by King Sigismund (in the battles of Vítkova Mountain and under Vyšehrad). After uniting Prague into one municipality (in 1421), the Hussite-controlled metropolis became the undisputed power centre of the country. However, the defeat of its military leader Jan Žižka in the Battle of Malešov (1424), caused a split in the unity of Prague towns: while the Old Town joined the more moderate Utraquists, the New Town allied itself with the more radical forces whose power prevailed in the country. Eventually, the army of the conservative Old Town in an alliance with the nobility conquered the New Town on May 6, 1434, only a few days before the final defeat of the Hussite Army in the Battle of Lipany.

The Old Town retained its economic and political predominance as the centre of burgher power even in the post-Hussite era. The Old Town Hall, pompously decorated in a late Gothic style, was the venue of the sessions of diets, as well as of the election of the (moderate) Hussite King Jiří of Poděbrady (on March 2, 1458). Prague was at the same time able to fend off all attempts to restore Roman Catholicism as the country’s religion, and it had the diplomatic and military clout to defeat the attempts of the nobility to reduce the privileges of the burghers. Facing the danger of an offensive by the nobility, the rival old and new towns joined in 1518 in an alliance which united them for a decade in one city. However, this alliance was disrupted on the initiative of Ferdinand I Habsburg who ascended to the Bohemian throne in 1528. Following the failed anti-Habsburg resistance in 1547, Ferdinand I curtailed substantially the privileges of all royal towns, punished the burghers’ leaders, and eventually confiscated most of the Old Town’s property and weaponry, leaving the Prague burghers politically powerless, with little say even in the affairs of the town.

The latter part of the 16th century nevertheless saw a recovery of much of Prague’s prestige and economic and commercial power, in connection with the decision of the art-loving emperor Rudolf II to make Prague Castle his home. In the years of his reign (1583-1612) Prague underwent an extensive Renaissance reconstruction, and the image of the Old Town was embellished by the construction of the Renaissance palaces of nobles and wealthy merchants (the Teufl Palace, the Nerhof Palace, the Hebenstreit Palace, and many others). However, soon after Rudolf’s death, the wheel of fate once again turned against Prague. Following the defeat of the second rising of the estates against the Habsburg rule (1618-1620) in the Battle of Bílá hora (White Mountain) - on November 8, 1620 - the Habsburgs took the most drastic measures not only against those who actively fought them, but also against the towns of Prague which remained aloof from the conflict. This sealed the social and political downfall of the Old Town burghers for a long time.

The executions on Malostranské Square (June 21, 1621), persecutions, force demigration of non-Catholics, looting and epidemics during the Thirty Years’ War reduced the population of the once blooming town by half. The move of the emperor and his court to Vienna downgraded Prague to a provincial town. Nevertheless, in a by-product of the forcible re-Catholicisation, large-scale remodelling of Prague’s architecture in Baroque style took place, with many new Baroque churches and monasteries added to the older architectural jewels. Recovering from the horrors of the war and the consequences of a large fire of 1689 which devastated much of the Old Town, the burghers strained themselves to carry out a monumental building effort which lent this part of Prague the stylistically unified look of the Prague Baroque. This effort was crowned by such buildings of the Jesuit and other Catholic orders as the Klementinum, and the churches of St Nicholas, St Francis and St James. While both Old and New Towns successfully defended themselves against the attempts of the Swedish army to conquer them towards the close of the Thirty Years’ War (1648), they failed to prevent the occupation of Prague by the combined French and Bavarian army in 1741, and by the Prussians in the war for the Austrian heritage in 1744.

The patent of February 12, 1784 of the reform emperor Josef II was an historical watershed in the uneventful provincial life of Baroque Prague. The patent ordered the unification of the so far four independent Prague towns, the Old Town, the New Town, the Lesser Town, and Hradčany (the Castle Quarter) into the Bohemian capital Prague. while the Old Town lost its independence and the status of a provincial metropolis, it became the core of the new city organism. Until its partial destruction in 1945, the Old Town hall remained the seat of the Prague City Council and of other administrative organs of a united Prague.

Towards the end of the 18th century the Old Town also became the focus of a movement which became known as the Czech National Revival. The uprising of radical democrats and the fighting at the barricades which the city saw in 1848 ranks it among the revolutionary capitals of that year. The decade of tough authoritarian rule which followed the defeat of the revolution, and the encirclement of the relatively small Old Town by the growing construction development around it, prevented this oldest historical quarter from evolving into a modern metropolis. While the dynamism of the development of Prague as a whole kept increasing from the mid-19th century, the Old Town seemed to be gradually changing into an open-air museum. Nevertheless, the communal elections of 1861 which brought the patriotic Czech middle class into control of the municipal administration (until then controlled by the pro-Austrian, German-speaking minority), made a new development of the Old Town possible again. The new fathers of the city adorned the streets of the Old Town with such new architectural jewels as the Rudolfinum Palace, the Municipal House, the New Town Hall, and many others.

The negative side of this economic, political and population boom in Prague, and of the modernisation activities of the town hall, was the insensitive clearance of the inner city after 1893 which led to the disappearance of a great part of the Old Town, and of almost the entire Jewish town. In spite of the resistance of many cultural personalities and organizations, the mediaeval buildings had to give way to modern development. Fortunately it was in most cases of a high architectural value and, due to its application of Neo-Renaissance, Neo-Gothic and Neo-Baroque styles, it did not destroy the overall historical image of the town.

While Greater Prague, established on January 1, 1922 as the capital of the newly founded Czechoslovak Republic, underwent a period of dynamic development (1922-1938) stopped only by the Second World War, the Old Town began to decline in population. Its number dropped as a result of the clearance programmes and other social factors between 1900 and 1950 to a mere 30 000 inhabitants, i.e. a mere third of the initial number at the beginning of the century. In spite of that even this period saw a rise of new architectural and other cultural values inspired by the modern avantgarde movements of the 20th century (the Law Faculty, the Municipal library and others). Still, the last days of the Second World War caused some damage to the Old Town. while trying to defeat the Czech anti-Nazi uprising, the German SS-troops destroyed the eastern wing of the Old Town Hall(on May 8, 1945).

The five post-war decades were a period of suppression of the vital functions of the Old Town and of long-lasting decay. In spite of a few restoration campaigns (the St Agnes Convent, the house at the Stone Bell (U kamenného zvonu), the facades along the Royal Route), the general state of the Prague historical Conservation Area, officially established in 1971, was very poor. It was only after the 1989 revolution that the historical buildings of the Old Town began to be adequately restored, modernised and returned to full life.

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