I had wanted to visit the Baroque chateau Manětín, about 45 minutes from Plzeň by car in Western Bohemia, for many years, but for some reason I had been under the impression that it was closed to the public. Only while I was at Chyše Chateau did I find out that Manětín had been open to the public since 1997. Today I would finally see it with my own eyes. I was very excited about the trip. I had to go by car as there was no public transportation that went to Manětín. We drove through the bewitching countryside and passed many haystack-dotted fields.
When I arrived at Manětín, I was bewitched by the Baroque statues and a sculptural grouping of the Holy Trinity in front of the main square. A road led down to the Baroque chateau itself, situated behind the statues. At the small white church next to the chateau a group of six or seven musicians were playing funereal music on trumpets. People dressed in black walked solemnly into the church.
It was almost 10 am, and my tour began at the top of the hour. I had a few minutes to pop into the park. The Baroque and English park looked elegant and well-kept, very different than it must have looked between 1945 and the 1990s, when it was in a decrepit state. It had been restored in the 1990s to appear like it had during 1790.
Then it was time for the tour. The knowledgeable young man acquainted me with the history of the chateau that had been first mentioned in 1169. The chateau that had begun as a medieval fortress had been transformed into Renaissance style before 1600. After a devastating fire in 1712, it was reconstructed with a Baroque appearance thanks to the then owner, Marie Gabriela Lažanská.
The chateau had been confiscated several times. Volf Krajíř z Krajku owned the place from 1544 to 1547, when it was confiscated because he had rebelled against Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I. Following The Battle of White Mountain in 1620, which pitted the Protestant nobles against the Emperor and Catholic Habsburgs, the defeated nobles lost their property. The chateau was confiscated for the second time in 1622.
That was when Ester Mitrovská from Nemyšle, born Lažanská from Bukova, bought the chateau. When she died, the chateau came into the hands of her brother, Ferdinand Rudolf Lažanský. The Lažanský family would keep the chateau for more than 300 years. Times of cultural prosperity followed, especially when Václav Josef Lažanský and Marie Gabriela Lažanská manned the chateau.
After World War II, though, the chateau was confiscated for the third time, becoming the property of the state because two Lažanská women in charge of the chateau had married two Austrian brothers. Thus, the chateau had been in part the property of the Austrian family. Due to the Beneš decrees that took away property from Germans and even expelled them from the country, Terezie Lažanská, one of the women who had married an Austrian, was deported to Austria. Some rooms were open to the public as early as 1959, and the chateau became a national monument in 2002.
Upon entering the hallway, I was enthralled by the sculptures dotting the staircase as well as the ceiling fresco. The four statues with putti on the staircase represented the four elements. One cherub was holding a fish, representing water. Another was depicted with a cannonball and decked in an old-fashioned fireman’s helmet that looked more like military headgear. This was Fire. Earth was portrayed by a cherub with a melon and snake, and Air was depicted by a putti flying on a bird. I could almost imagine the cherub whizzing through the cold, damp chateau air on the big bird.
A portrayal of what the chateau was supposed to look like in the 18th century took centerstage in the ceiling fresco. Allegories of architecture and painting also adorned the fresco as did the coat-of-arms of Marie Gabriela Lažanská, perhaps the most influential of the Lažanský owners. (The guide mentioned that Marie Gabriela had been addicted to card playing. In fact, more than once she had put the chateau at stake when she had made her bet.)
In the Reception Room there were four paintings depicting soldiers during the Thirty Years’ War, which lasted from 1618 to 1648 and started due to religious disputes. One held a spear, another a sword. The oldest piece of furniture in the chateau stood in this room as well; it was a 1640 bureau, dating from the Thirty Years’ War as well. I paid particular attention to the elegant, brown fireplace and gold with black clock and vases, all in lavish Rococo style. I liked the gold with black décor.
The portrait of the young woman depicted in black was Terezie, who was killed in a hunting accident when she was 21 years old. (Note that this is a different Terezie than the one who was deported to Austria.) But perhaps it hadn’t been an accident at all, the guide conceded. Some say she was killed on purpose so she could not get married. Supposedly, her lover hated the man to whom she was engaged.
In a corner of the next room, a window was painted onto the wall. The guide explained that there had been originally a window there, but it had been filled when new rooms had been added in the 19th century. An 18th century chaise lounge, a Venetian mirror made in Morano and a group of white, Viennese porcelain also adorned the room. On the ceiling there was a small fresco of part of a boat, dating from the first part of the 18th century; most of the fresco had been destroyed, though. I tried to imagine what it would have looked like if the entire fresco had been visible. A port with boats and nobility strolling along an embankment on a crisp afternoon? I wondered.
I loved the way the porcelain cups were displayed on small black shelves set at different levels on the wall. In a round portrait Marie Gabriela, clad in a silver dress, appeared strong-willed and somber with a no-nonsense expression. A light wood, Baroque desk hailed from the 18th century while the tapestry covering one wall showed a scene from the Old Testament with Moses. The two dressers, both green with floral patterns, were intriguing, for their irregular, curving shapes and color. A view of Venice was painted on each one. I recognized the Doges Palace on one and thought back to the thrilling time I toured the palace during my first day in that magical city.
The next hallway was decorated with green pictures of castles, chateaus and various places – the pictures had been cut out of magazines. I recognized the chateau of Blatná, as two people rowed a small boat around it. Another scene showed woods in Karlovy Vary. Still others showed the castles Orlík, Točník and Žebrák. Then we came to a room with a hunting theme. Nineteenth century guns, petrified hawks and a woodpecker made up the décor. The Baroque desk, closet and dresser looked out of place.
In the room where the nobility had gathered, the paintings on the wall showed boats at sea and hailed from 18th century Holland. A black Baroque table and bureau from the same era also adorned the room. The glass chandelier caught my attention. It was exquisite. Made in Venice’s Morano, the chandelier was decorated with glass flower buds that looked almost as if they were icicles taking on decorative shapes. There was also an Italian mirror with a simple, gold frame.
Decorating another hallway were more green pictures of castles, chateaus and places. I saw Plzeň, a major city now, as a 19th century village and Roundice nad Labem before its chateau had become dilapidated. A room with a horses’ theme was decked with small paintings of horses, a clock with four, white columns, a desk with cards and a German newspaper dated 1859.
Then we came to a room with unique paintings on the walls. They did not depict the nobility, but instead the servants and clerks who had worked at the chateau. A rarity in chateaus, this collection included 13 portraits from 1716 to 1717 hanging in several rooms and in a hallway. They were painted by Václav Dvořák, whose life remains mostly a mystery. All the people portrayed in this room were dressed in black. Two carriage drivers next to a carriage wore tall, fluffy hats with big feathers. In one portrait a solemn-looking priest stared back at me. He had written a chronicle of Manětín in three languages, the guide said.
Objects in the next room proved to be rarities as well. The space boasted a complete collection of porcelain, plates with tea and coffee service sporting white with brown decoration. It was not often that a chateau had a complete collection; usually there were only pieces of a collection featured. In the former Billiards’ Room, there was no table, but there were more paintings of servants and clerks. Three men donning large, white wigs gazed at me. There were also portraits of a doctor, the chateau’s caretaker and the priest who was also a historian. An elderly woman held keys in one hand; she was responsible for the keys to the chateau and to the food storage rooms. The yellow tile stove with squiggly brown vertical lines appealed to me. A small device that functioned as a bell was there, too.
The biggest room was now used for weddings and concerts. The 1730 ceiling fresco boasted its original, vibrant colors and portrayed three figures showing God’s qualities in the center. I spotted the one in red with the heart as Love. The female clad in blue represented Strength. The third portrayed a girl pouring water from a jug onto a coat-of-arms. This was symbolic of Luck or Fortune. In the corners of the ceiling, the painted figures represented the four seasons. Fall showed a naked girl with grapes and Bacchus, the god of wine. Summer was represented by a girl donning a big, straw hat and weilding a sickle as well as a woman holding a parasol. Spring: One girl was pouring water while another was holding a parrot.
Winter had two symbols. One was Death as an angel, but there was also a woman in a black mask to depict winter as a time of social gatherings and parties. When I went back to the chateau in 2020, the black mask triggered thoughts of the coronavirus pandemic as cases were increasing in the Czech Republic. In America, where my octogenarian parents lived, the situation was horrendous with over 1,000 dying every day. In the Czech Republic we didn’t have to wear masks anymore, though I still did because I wanted to be as careful as possible. I had spent the first three weeks of lockdown in my apartment, afraid to go out, before I started taking walks and calming down. Thoughts of the coronavirus and my parents’ and friends’ health often kept me up at night.
Mythological events were also portrayed on the ceiling. I spotted Poseidon and a falling Icarus. There were two portraits of the Lažanský family in this room as well. One showed Marie Gabriela and her daughter along with a black servant. In the portrait of her husband with their sons, the painter put himself in the work, holding a palette and brushes.
Painted Baroque statues flanked the doorway that led to the magnificent library, which held 5,000 books, many with golden spines. Most were in German and dealt with economy, but books by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller also graced the shelves. There were also books in English, Italian and French, for example. Only two books in Czech were in the collection, and both described how to make beer. Topics of other books included fishing, fruit growing, history and theatre. There was even a Turkish textbook. Above me was a fresco of Zeus and his daughter Pallas Athena, the goddess of war. The ceiling had been reconstructed in the 20th century due to a fire that had erupted because a tile stove had not been closed properly.
I found the remaining two portraits of servants in the hallway. One showed a cook and woman washing dishes in the chateau kitchen. Another showed a woman pouring water into a basin. Since there was no hot or cold water back then, the water had to be boiled in the kitchen, the guide explained. The woman pouring the water was decked in a traditional folk costume.
We saw the chapel from the oratory behind glass. The main altar painting was by Baroque master Petr Brandl, my favorite Baroque artist. He also created two paintings on side altars. Brandl actually came to the chateau to paint the works during 1716.
After the intriguing tour I went outside to take photos of some of the 30 Baroque statues that sprinkled the town and hailed from 1680 to 1780. I still could not enter the Baroque church next door. A simple, wooden coffin was placed in a black van, followed by a procession of people dressed in black, along with two decked in purple and white robes. I did not see the Church of Saint Barbara, either, though I later read it was Baroque in style and featured eight wooden statues of saints.
The St. John the Baptist statue, now situated at a church, had suffered much turmoil. It originally stood in front of an administrative building. Then it was placed on a small bridge. In 1944 it was severely damaged by the Nazis. Then children did more damage to the statue. After the Russians came in 1945, it was tied to a telephone pole. In 1954 it was moved to its current location.
I went to the chateau restaurant and had my favorite excursion lunch of chicken with peaches and Cola light. Then I got back in the taxi and headed for the smallest town in Europe called Rabštejn nad Střelou, situated only nine kilometers away.
Tracy A. Burns is a writer, editor and proofreader in Prague.