I visited Prague’s National Technical Museum for the first time in 2023, even though I have been living in Prague for more than 25 years. I am not a big technology fan and didn’t think I would be very interested in the exhibits.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. The museum includes sections on astronomy; chemistry; sugar and chocolate; transportation; printing; household items; photography; the measurement of time; architecture, civil engineering and design; metallurgy and mining, for instance. A TV studio used by Czech television from 1997 to 2011 allows visitors to sit behind a news desk and see how the TV technology works. A mock mine from the 1950s makes up another exposition. In this post I will concentrate on my two favorite parts – transportation and architecture, civil engineering and design.
Television studio in National Technical Museum
The history of the museum itself is intriguing. Vojtěch Náprstek, a Czech patriot and world-traveler, established the Czech Industrial Museum in 1862. While many exhibits from this museum are now in the Náprstek Museum, some pieces in the collection found their way to the National Technical Museum, which was founded in 1908. Two years later, the museum opened in Prague’s Schwarzenberg Palace near the Castle. After Czechoslovakia was founded in 1918, it moved to the Letná district of Prague, where it is situated today. Construction took place from 1938 to 1941, but, during the Nazi Occupation, the building was used as the ministry of the postal service. After World War II, the museum was located on Letná again, though it was not allocated the entire building. In 1951, new expositions were created, such as transportation, mining, astronomy and photography.
Wicker seat for passengers from Czechoslovak Aria BH-25 airliner, 1920
After the Velvet Revolution that had brought democracy to Czechoslovakia, the museum was able to utilize the entire building. However, there were difficult times ahead. During the 2002 floods, the museum’s depository in the Karlín district was heavily damaged, and some of the artifacts were ruined. Reconstruction started in 2003. In 2011, five expositions were opened. Still, construction wasn’t totally finished until 2013.
Masaryk’s presidential car
Zigmund and Hazelka’s car in which they traveled throughout Africa and South America
The main hall housing the transportation section is vast and overwhelming. Automobiles, a train dining car, planes, a boat, motorcycles and bicycles all make up the breathtaking exhibition. I liked the Tatra 80 car from 1935, the automobile of the first president of democratic Czechoslovakia, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, because I was interested in the First Republic era from 1918 to 1938. I also was excited to see the Tatra 87 car of world travelers Jiří Hanzelka and Miroslav Zigmund. They traveled around Africa and South America in that car from 1947 to 1950 and did more than 700 reports for radio broadcasts about their trips. The two had been the dynamic duo of travel: They visited more than 100 countries. They also made films, mostly documentaries, and wrote books together.
The dining car of Habsburg Emperor Franz Joseph I and later of President Masaryk
I was enamored by the dining car of Habsburg Emperor Franz Joseph I, which in 1923 became part of Masaryk’s presidential train. When President Edvard Beneš returned to his homeland from exile after the war in 1945, this dining car was part of his train. The dining car was put out of commission in 1959.
A sailing boat called Nike was on display, too. Czech Richard Kankolski had sailed around the world in it during 1972, and, at that time, it earned the distinction of being the second smallest boat to sail around the world.
Three planes that saw action in World War I also are displayed, including an American one. Dating from 1911, the plane manned by the first Czech pilot Jan Kašpar is part of the exhibition. I was drawn to the British Spitfire that members of a Czechoslovak squadron of the RAF had flown during World War II.
Germans drove this kind of motorcycle when they occupied Czechoslovakia in 1939.
I was very interested in the various bicycles and motorcycles, too, even though I vow never to ride either of them. A bamboo-made Slavia bike hails from 1905. The BMW R11 from 1932 caught my undivided attention because the Germans had driven these motorcycles when they occupied Czechoslovakia on March 15, 1939. I tried to imagine seeing so many of these motorcycles at Prague Castle with the flag of the Third Reich fluttering from the flagpole. The very thought was chilling.
Milan Špinka’s bike
The first series-manufactured motorcycle in the world
I also saw the Jawa 500 – 891 from 1973. While the Soviet Union had excelled on ice speedway competitions, this is the motorcycle on which Czech Milan Špinka defeated the USSR in the world championships of 1974. Another motorcycle that interested me was the Hildebrand & Wolfmuller from 1894. It was the first series-manufactured motorcycle in the world. The one on display is the first motorcycle manufactured for the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Indian brand, 1915, manufactured in America
Czechoslovak observation balloon, 1934
The architectural part of the museum covers the developments in the Czech lands from the second half of the 19th century to the present. Styles of historicism, secession, cubism, constructivism, functionalism and socialist realism as well as modern works are all represented. I loved the architectural models, especially those of villas in Prague, the Czech Pavilion at Expo 58 in Brussels and the Czechoslovak exhibition pavilion at the World Arts and Technology Exhibition in Paris during 1936. I loved to take walks through the villa-dotted sections of Prague’s Baba, Ořechovka and Hanspaulka quarters. In this museum, I saw models of famous villas in the Hodkovičky, Podolí and Troja districts of Prague, for instance.
Czechoslovak World Arts and Technology pavilion, Paris, 1936
Director Martin Frič’s villa in Hodkovičky, 1934-35
Top: Stýblo’s villa in Podolí quarter of Prague, 1935-36, Bottom: Villa of film director Věra Chytilová in Troja quarter of Prague, 1970-75
I liked the model of the column with lantern in front of Our Lady of the Snows Church in Prague because it was unique, Cubist in style. I also took notice of the Cubist Petrof BB upright piano. The model of the television transmitter and hotel on Ještěd Hill in Liberec brought back memories of the magnificent views from the observation point at the restaurant and hotel. Some models showed off designs by masterful Czech architect Jan Kotěra, including the East Bohemia Museum in Hradec Králové, which had extremely impressed me about a month previously, and the reconstruction of Saint George’s Church in Doubravka near Pilsen in west Bohemia. The museum in Hradec Králové was constructed from 1906 to 1913 while the church hails from 1899. Architectural plans and photography rounded out the exposition.
Ještěd Hill Hotel and Restaurant
Cubist column in front of church – top photo, Cubist piano – bottom photo
I was glad I had finally visited this museum that offers valuable insights into the technical world. The main hall with various exhibits of transportation was amazing, and my interest in architecture compelled me to take a close look at the exhibits in that section. Overall, it was a day well spent.
Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.
This permanent exhibition at the Gallery of Modern Art in Hradec Králové showcases the works of some of the most influential Czech artists of the 20th century. I liked the fact that the works were organized by person with commentary about the artists’ backgrounds and styles. I will highlight the creations that most influenced me, although all the painters and sculptors are important.
First, about the building housing the Gallery of Modern Art: Like many edifices in Hradec Králové, the museum is an architectural gem. Facing the town’s main square, the building that was completed in 1912 by Osvald Polívka is impressive with two statues flanking the façade. These sculptures were made by Ladislav Šaloun in 1908 and show allegories of commerce and the harvest. Reliefs of atlases with dogs at their feet also make up the external ornamentation. Polívka’s Art Nouveau designs can be found in Prague’s Municipal House, which he decorated from 1905 to 1912. I tell everyone coming to Prague to tour the Art Nouveau Municipal House, as it is certain to be a highlight of any visit. Šaloun created the statue of Jan Hus that dominates Prague’s Old Town Square.
Several banks were housed in this building before and during the First Republic. For many years under Communism, the Cotton Industry Association and an agricultural company called the place home. Renovations took place in the late 1960s. In 1987, the totalitarian regime transformed the building into the Museum of Revolutionary Traditions. This totalitarian exhibition was closed after the 1989 Velvet Revolution that freed Czechoslovakia from Communist control.
In 1990, the Gallery of Modern Art took up residence there. From 2014 to 2016, both the interior and exterior underwent a vast renovation. A walkway was formed around the central atrium, for example. The interior boasts geometric shapes, floral designs and Art Nouveau-styled adornment of garlands and cherubs. I especially liked the stained glass window decoration.
Here are some of my favorite artists represented in this exhibition:
Fate of the Artist, 1909
The expressive sculpture of Quido Kocián was influenced by symbolism and Art Nouveau. I love how he was able to express basic emotions like love and suffering. I went to a superb exhibition of his work about 15 years ago on Husova Street in Prague. In some statues I could see the turmoil and anguish of the persons depicted. Other sculptures triggered feelings of happiness and fulfillment. Kocián had a knack for depicting various psychological states and the depths of the human soul. He studied under legendary artist Josef Václav Myslbek but wound up rebelling against Myslbek’s traditional style, opting for expressiveness instead. Kocián’s works were not fully appreciated in the Czech art history sphere for a long time.
A member of the artist Group 42, Zívr focused on everyday life, a feature that is dear to me in all art forms. Inspired by Cubism and the creations of Otto Gutfreund, he made sculptures that have machine-like qualities as well as human traits. He had a penchant for surrealism. After the world wars, Zívr was influenced by nature, and his works portrayed strong symbolism. I liked the way he was able to express a person’s soul through primitive forms.
I had been to a large exhibition of Kolář’s works in Prague’s Kinský Palace some years ago and was very familiar with his collages that included cut out images and words from publications. (See my article about the exhibition in a much earlier post called Jiří Kolář Exhibition Diary) He was a poet and prose writer as well as a fierce critic of Communism. Kolář emigrated to Paris in 1979. He often used phrases from books or created his own poems in his collages. His works lingered on the border of the dream realm and reality, a trait I found very intriguing. A staunch supporter of democracy, Kolář was also one of the first Czechs to sign Charter 77, a document written by dissidents to promote human rights in the normalization era of Communist Czechoslovakia. He played a major role in publishing literature banned by the regime. Kolář was also one of the founders of the influential Group 42.
Scene by the Fire, 1984
I know Róna’s sculptures well, but I was not familiar with his paintings. Róna designed the abstract Franz Kafka Monument in Prague’s Jewish Quarter, an important sculpture to see in the Jewish Town. He is, indeed, a man of many talents: He has also worked as a painter, illustrator, screenwriter, author of books, actor, singer and educator. His works have a certain dynamic energy. He has been inspired by the Expressionism style of Edvard Munch, Oskar Kokoschka, Max Beckmann, Egon Schiele and Pablo Picasso. A supporter of democracy, he drew brochures for the Velvet Revolution during 1989. Rona is also an avid traveler. His sculptures can be found at Prague Castle as well as on the island of Crete and in many other places.
I liked the mystical quality in Váchal’s works. He was a graphic designer, wood engraver, bookmaker, writer and painter who excelled in all those genres. Váchal was inspired by expressionism. His works featured symbolism, naturalism and Art Nouveau tendencies. A soldier during World War I, he fought in 12 battles. The Communist coup brought hard times for Váchal, who remained isolated after 1948. People did not show much interest in his work then. In the 1960s, he received some acclaim. Much later people recognized that Váchal had created some of the most significant works of Czech graphic design in the 20th century.
Four Seasons, 1914
Because Nekolová was female, she had limited educational opportunities during the 19th and early 20th century. She did, however, study unofficially under the prominent Czech artist, Jan Preisler. Nekolová worked as a painter, illustrator and graphic artist. She steered away from representations of modern life in her works. She was known for her landscapes and for her emphasis on motherhood. Nekolová strove to promote the national identity of the Slav nation. She developed a strong interest in folk culture. At the end of World War I, Nekolová was hospitalized. She died in 1919 at the age of 29.
In the Kitchen, 1908
A prominent avant-garde artist, Kubišta helped found the Expressionist group the Osma (The Eight). He was a painter, graphic designer and theoretician and is considered to be the founder of Czech modern painting. His works dealt with existential issues. Kubišta’s expressionism was inspired by Munch. He was also influenced by Braque and Picasso’s Cubism. Kubišta analyzed the works of Eugene Delacroix and Vincent Van Gogh. His works also contain elements of Futurism and Fauvism. Kubišta often explored themes dealing with modern technology and nature. While serving in the Austrian army during World War I, he won the distinguished Leopold Order. He died of the Spanish flu at the age of 34 in 1918.
Dance of Salome, 1911
Hej hore háj, Folk Song, 1948
Along with Kubišta, Filla established the Osma group. He also was known for his writings about art theory. During his early artistic endeavors, he drew inspiration from Edvard Munch’s Expressionism. Later he took up Cubism, influenced by Picasso and Braque. He also was captivated by Baroque still lifes by Dutch painters. El Greco and his symbolism fascinated Filla. In the 1930s, he became enthralled with surrealism. His landscapes demonstrate his knowledge of Chinese calligraphy. My favorite trait in his paintings involves his use of a harmony of colors.
Repression (Anxiety) by Josef Wagner – temporary exhibition
I especially liked the exhibition’s pieces of art influenced by Expressionism and Cubism. The colors and shapes in Kubišta’s and Filla’s works caught my undivided attention. I was introduced to Nekolová’s art and intriguing background at this exhibition. I was fascinated how Quido Kocián captured the emotions of the human soul in his sculptures while Zívr concentrated on simple forms to create profound meaning. Kolář’s collages were a sort of visual poetry. Váchal and Róna’s creations displayed impressive energy.
Moscow Diary, 1989 by Anna Daučíková
It was my first visit to Hradec Králové, except for brief stops at the train station and bus station. The Gallery of Modern Art with its poignant exterior and interior decoration and use of space was one of the most impressive buildings I saw.
Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.
Landscape, 1962 by Vladimír Boudník
Apollo and Dionysus, 2013 by Anna Hulačová
The gallery also has an impressive collection of contemporary art.
Beach in Crimea (In A Small Bay), 1936 by Věra Jičínská, temporary exhibition
See my post Věra Jičínská Exhibition Diary for more information on this temporary show.
This museum of Renaissance and neo-Renaissance decorated apartments in a palace is one of my favorite sights in Milan. It is big enough to include many treasures but yet small enough to have an intimate feel. Because the exhibition focuses on the Renaissance and neo-Renaissance, I didn’t feel overwhelmed as I often do when displays include many styles from numerous eras.
The history of the museum is enthralling. In the second half of the 19th century, Fausto and Giuseppe Bagatti Valsecchi furnished their palace located from via Gesu to via Santo Spirito in Milan with works of Renaissance and Neo-Renaissance art – tapestries, paintings, sculpture and weapons, for example. The furniture hails from Italy, Britain, Japan, France, Germany and Spain. Even though the apartments were transformed into a museum during 1974, the public wasn’t able to view them until 1994.
Giuseppe lived in his apartment with his wife. His five children lived on another floor with their nanny. Fausto had his own apartment on the same floor as Giuseppe. While they managed various charities and traveled, they also had some intriguing hobbies. Fausto enjoyed riding in hot-air balloons and Giuseppe was one of the first to ride a velocipede. They used their Renaissance-furnished apartments for daily activities rather than treating the spaces as a museum. Even though it was decorated to look like the Renaissance, the brothers had installed modern amenities, including hot and cold water and electricity. In fact, this palace made a name for itself as one of the first private homes in the world to install electricity.
I especially liked the coffered ceilings and Latin inscriptions throughout the flats. Throughout the palace I saw the distinguished family crests of lily and eagle. The Neo-Renaissance frames used to display Renaissance art were appealing, fusing the old with the new or newer.
Many spaces captured my attention, including the Fresco Room, where15th century frescoes make a fascinating appearance. The Bevilacqua Room showed off the Madonna and Child by the artist after which the space is named. I took a good look at this innovative work from the 15th century. It was made of glass stones, silver thread, velvet and gold. A coffered ceiling and gold-and-red silk wall coverings added to the elegance of the space.
I have always loved libraries, and this library was no exception. On the 16th century terrestrial globe in the library, North America is labeled as “Unknown Territory.”
The largest room was the Grand Salon with a coffered ceiling adorned with pine cone images. Family crests made an appearance as did Latin inscriptions. The frieze featured a theme from Greek mythology and included 16th century frescoes. The red-and-gold décor gave the room a special sense of grandeur. The six stained glass windows were exquisite.
The living room of Giuseppe and Carolina included 16th century decorated paneling, red furniture with velvet upholstery and a piano. The Red Room, which served as the couple’s bedroom, showed off a coffered ceiling and 15th and 16th century paintings as well as a canopied bed with red covering. A door in this room leads to the children’s floor, so the children never had to walk through the Renaissance-decorated apartments.
The Dining Room was elegant, too. The wall coverings showed the story of Persian king Cyrus. The majolica plates showed scenes from Alexander the Great’s life.
The bed in Fausto’s Bedroom was adorned with head and foot boards sporting 16th century reliefs. The decorated Neo-Renaissance coffered ceiling was another highlight. A 15th century altarpiece also enthralled. I noticed a clock and a lamp shaped like skulls, too.
I noticed the 16th century ceiling decorated with the two family crests and a Latin inscription in Giuseppe’s Bedroom, called “the Green Room.” The headboard showed off a Pieta scene.
The armory was a long and narrow room with helmets, armor, swords and shields. While I am not especially interested in weaponry, it was impressive.
I liked the Bagatti Valsecchi Room where visitors can open drawers and see photos of the two brothers and some of their personal belongings. One photo that captivated me showed the palace after a section was bombed during the second world war. On another photograph, I saw Giuseppe on a velocipede.
After my visit, I decide that this was my favorite museum in Milan because there was so much to appreciate and yet the flats had an intimacy that larger museums lack. The apartments brought the Renaissance to life with its artifacts. The photos of the two brothers made the apartments feel even more intimate. I was given the chance of having a glimpse of their lives, of getting to know them. That the flat was used for daily life and hadn’t been a museum when the brothers were alive made it all the more appealing. The painted coffered ceilings, the elegant beds with canopies and the 15th and 16th century paintings and frescoes throughout made great impressions on me.
I finally left, knowing someday I would be back because this was a museum I could go back to again and again, greatly enriching my life with each visit.
Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.
After visiting the Brera Art Gallery in Milan, I walked to the nearby Museo del Risorgimento, which featured 14 rooms of paintings, prints, sculptures and artifacts depicting Italian historical events from 1796 to 1870 as well as arms. It traces the periods from the call for Italian independence to Italian unification. I learned about Napoleon’s reign in Italy as well as the Austrian monarchy’s control. I noticed how prominent Milan’s role had been during the Five Days of Milan, the nickname of the 1848 uprising against the Austrians.
I saw paintings depicting Italian King Victor Emmanuel II, who took the throne in 1861 and reigned until his death in 1878. Two of the paintings were created by Gerolamo Induno. Nicknamed the Father of the Fatherland, Victor Emmanuel II had the distinction of being the first king of a unified Italy since the sixth century. He was born the eldest son of Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa of Austria and made a name for himself in the First Italian War of Independence during 1848-49 before being crowned king.
I spent a lot of time staring at the photos of soldiers in the Album of the Thousands, the volunteers in the Expedition of the Thousand, a campaign that took place in 1860. The group of volunteers armed only with out-of-date muskets defeated the more powerful navy of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Portraits of the 1,089 soldiers in business card format made up this album. I saw the volunteers as individuals rather than as a group of soldiers who conquered Bourbon rule in south Italy. Looking at their portraits, I felt as if I could see the personalities of the men.
Giuseppe Garibaldi, one of the most prominent generals in modern history, guided the volunteers in the Expedition of the Thousand. Their uniforms were made up of red shirts and grey pants. In the exposition I saw the actual poncho and red shirt donned by Garibaldi, who also had military successes in South Africa and elsewhere in Europe.
I loved the paintings and sculptures most of all. These collections were especially noteworthy. The collection of paintings depicting the Imperial period from 1804 to 1814 was perhaps the most poignant of all eras represented by this genre. Francesco Hayez, whose works I had seen in the Brera, had depicted Emperor Ferdinand I of Austria in a moving portrait. Also, powerful canvases of the Five Days of Milan had been rendered by Carlo Canelli, Carlo Bossoli and Pietro Bouvier, for example. Gerolamo Induno and Domenico Induno contributed to the paintings depicting the Second War of Independence. The original Italian flag that flew over the Duomo in Milan on March 20, 1848 was another highlight. The cloak and regal insignia from Napoleon’s coronation as King of Italy were also enthralling.
The 18th century Palazzo Moriggio that houses the museum had an intriguing history as well. The museum had been situated there since 1951. Under Napoleon’s reign the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and then the Ministry of Defense had been located in the palace.
This museum really opened my eyes to many events in Italian history. I had known only very basic information about this museum before my visit. It wasn’t on my list of most important places to see. I learned so much about the time periods in which the Risorgimento took place. I had never been a big fan of battle scenes, but I was struck by the details and by the historical significance of these paintings. While the museum is relatively small, it allows visitors to develop much knowledge about poignant eras in Italian history. In this museum I could actually feel the history come to life. Each artifact tells a story.
Tracy Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.
First, I perused the exterior of the Duomo and walked on the sloping terraces of the roof. Then it was time to see the interior. It certainly did not disappoint. I was aware that the Duomo was the second largest cathedral in Europe and that its size ranked third in the world. To say that construction took a long time was an understatement. Work on the cathedral began in 1386 with the demolition of three buildings and did not finish until 1965.
I noticed that the Duomo featured a Latin cross plan. I knew that the nave was twice as wide as the two side aisles, measuring 45 meters in height. Forty pillars divided five naves. I saw stunning capitals on many pillars. Stunning altars and impressive sarcophagi punctuated the building.
While numerous statues of saints and martyrs dotted the cathedral, the statue which influenced me the most was the one of the flayed Saint Bartholomew, who was depicted holding his skin as a cloak. His ribs and chest, not to mention his whole body, were so anatomically well-defined. The masterful skill of rendering anatomy brought to mind the works of Leonardo da Vinci. I gazed, almost in a trace, at the 1562-made statue by Marco d’Agrate, that which showed unspeakable suffering and yet a sense of perseverance as well. I thought about those suffering horribly, such as the Ukrainians fighting a war or the mothers and children who have fled to the Czech Republic. I was thankful I did not have to suffer as those people did.
What impressed me just as much as the statue of Saint Bartholomew were the mesmerizing stained-glass windows. All the large windows featured stained glass and served as pictorial narrations of scenes from the Old and New Testaments, the life of Virgin Mary and the lives of various saints. The oldest window dated from the 15th century and was in Renaissance style. In the three walls of the apse, the windows were much younger, hailing from the 19th century while there were even more created in the 20th century. Some windows hailing from the 15th century showed scenes about Saint John Damascene and Saint John the Evangelist.
More about the interior: The legendary artist Bramante designed the cupola, which is supported by four pilasters. The baptistery is a 16th century marvel, dominated by an exquisite baptismal font made of porphyry. I also noticed the 18th century sundial. The sun shines on the brass strip exactly at noon. It also displayed the exact time and month.
Several of the sarcophagi were extremely notable. One harkening back to the 15th century and decorated with impressive statues, held the body of Corelli, a merchant who was a patron of the building. In fact, the first spire built in the 18th century was named after him, too.
The transept included three aisles and chapels with splendid altars and artistic creations. The 12th century bronze Trivulzio Candelabrum in Gothic style can be seen here. Its ornamentation was outstanding. The seven-branched Trivulzio Candelabrum was adorned with precious stones. Its height reached five meters. Biblical scenes, allegorical representations of vices and virtues and fantasy-like animals were all represented. One of the Allegory of the Vices appeared as a drunk man.
Gian Giacomo Medici di Marignano, nicknamed the Medeghino, was able to be buried in this cathedral because he had family connections. Appearing pensive and distinguished in his Renaissance likeness, the Medeghino was the brother of Pope Pius IV. His stunning tomb hailed from the 16th century and showed off Roman Renaissance style. Superb allegories of war and peace adorned his tomb.
The presbytery harkened back to the 16th century and included a wooden choir, high altar, two pulpits and two large organs, one of which is the largest in Italy. This organ boasted of five manuals and 225 pedals. Silver statues representing saints and a tabernacle made up the ciborium. Above the choir was a large wooden Crucifix with a shrine containing the Holy Nail, supposedly taken from the Cross of the Crucifixion. I mused how intriguing it must be to witness the annual Rite of the Nivola. That’s when the archbishop takes the Holy Nail out of shrine and places it near the main altar. People can pay their respects to it for the following three days.
I made sure I looked down as well. The Candoglia marble floors ranged in age from the 16th to the 20th century. The pink-and-white slabs along with the black-and-red pieces were so beautiful and precious. I stared at the stunning Gothic portals from the 14th century in the sacristies and thought of the many Gothic churches, modest in comparison, that I had visited. The crypt was closed, but I knew that it contained an altar with relics of saints and martyrs.
It took me several hours to familiarize myself with both the exterior and interior of the Duomo. It was an experience that I would never forget. All those centuries of history fused together to make such a grand work of architecture containing so many artistic creations. I was overwhelmed and needed time to process everything that I had seen. I decided to go to lunch over which I could ponder the symbol of the city. Then I would go to a large bookstore, one of my favorite pastimes, and then proceed to the Museum of the Duomo and the Titian exhibition.
Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.
When I arrived at the Duomo in Milan with my camera, it was about six am. I hadn’t been able to sleep because I was so anxious about my exciting itinerary for my first full day in the city. The large square was almost empty, though an occasional jogger passed through. I spent at least an hour walking around the cathedral, gazing at the exterior decoration – the spires, the large windows, the flying buttresses, the rich sculptural adornment, the gargoyles and more.
The Duomo is an architectural gem with a dominating Gothic exterior. It is the symbol of the city I would grow quickly to love. The Milan Cathedral ranks as the largest church in the country, though St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican is bigger. The cathedral is one of the largest in the world. Construction started in 1386 and didn’t end until 1965, spanning six centuries. It has 135 spires, the first finished in 1404. Some of its150 gargoyles harken back to the 14th century.
While the style of the cathedral does not correspond to only one type, many features are in French Gothic style, such as the flying buttresses and rib vault. The statuary on the exterior stems from various eras. Some statues were created from 1418 to the middle of the 16th century, placed in niches of capitals of pillars. Many more were created in the 18th century in Late Baroque style. External statuary of the prophets and apostles are in Neo-Classical style. New stained-glass windows were installed in 1470. The construction of the façade started in 1590 in late Mannerist style and was finished in Neo-Gothic style under the guidance of Napoleon Bonaparte’s reign in the 1800s. Using the art of painting on glass, new stained-glass windows were made from 1829 to 1858. During the 19th century more spires were constructed, and the roof terraces were finished. Flying buttresses also appeared as did more statues.
Bombing during August of 1943 damaged the structure, but it was reconstructed. The wooden doors were replaced with bronze ones. The main façade was renovated from 2003 to 2009 in Candoglia marble.
Because the cathedral was not yet open, I was able to study its closed bronze doors. One showed the history of life of Mary with floral reliefs. Another depicted the history of Milan and yet another the history of the cathedral itself. The reliefs on the doors were incredible. I saw the Assumption, the Sacrifice of Cain, David with the Head of Goliath, the Tower of Babel and other biblical pictorial renditions. The floral and animal decoration on the central door was outstanding, too. The tympanium was worth noting, too. The one in the central portal showed off the Creation of Eve.
Later that morning, I walked on the sloping terraces of the roof with its pinnacles and spires on flying buttresses. Gazing at the sheer beauty of the cathedral’s exterior from high up was astounding. I spotted the octagonal lantern from the 15th century with its Madonnina statue from 1769. The Madonnina reaches more than four meters high. The total height of the cathedral is 108.5 meters. The view of the city and spires was phenomenal. It was calming and soothing seeing all the people so far below. Up there I didn’t have a reason to rush or worry. It made me think of how we have to open ourselves to new perspectives when traveling. This applies in daily life as well. Whenever I had a pessimistic attitude, I had to try to see the problem from a fresh perspective that would give me a more positive outlook.
After my visit to the roof terraces, it was time to take a look inside the cathedral. I had expected the cathedral to impress me, even to overwhelm me with its beauty, and it had done just that. I made my way down the narrow spiral staircase to the ground floor, certain I would continue to be amazed at the beauty of such an architectural gem.
Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.
The permanent collection of the Prague Castle Picture Gallery has been closed since 2019 due to an air-conditioning defect and a lack of financial means for repairs. A special exhibition of about half of the collection’s works opened at the Castle’s Imperial Stables during July of 2022 and will last for three months.
The Picture Gallery originated during the reign of Emperor Rudolf II, at the end of the 16th century. Rudolf II chose Prague as his residence when he was Holy Roman Emperor. The ruler was passionate about collecting works of art – paintings, curiosities, statues and more. For almost 30 years, Rudolf II amassed artifacts, and inherited other pieces. He exhibited his vast art collection in the then newly constructed north wing of the Castle, the part of the complex where he built the Spanish Hall. The majority of his painting collection was Italian in origin.
Stellar artists worked as court painters in Prague: Hans von Aachen, Bartholomeus Spranger, Pieter Stevens and many others. First, allow me to mention Giuseppe Arcimboldo, a portrait painter serving Emperor Maximilian II and Emperor Ferdinand I. Arcimboldo began serving the emperor in 1562. Rudolf, the son of the emperor, was very taken with his work. He composed still lifes for Rudolf, and, after Arcimboldo returned to Milan in 1587 due to illness, he had a now famous portrait of Rudolf, called Vertumnus, sent to Prague. Arcimboldo’s portraits were allegorical, often composed of various objects that would make up the person’s head, for instance.
Hans von Aachen was Rudolf II’s favorite when he was emperor. He began painting for Rudolf II in 1592 and wound up making Prague his home, where he created his best portraits. The painter became good friends with Rudolf II, too. The picture gallery still has von Aachen’s portrait of his daughter Maria Maxmiliana. His style was a precursor to the Baroque features that would later dominate Czech art.
Spranger’s tenure in Prague lasted from 1580 to 1590. His often complicated and ornate works displayed Mannerist features. Spranger created numerous paintings for the Rudolfine collection. In 1607, Spranger created Allegory on the Triumph of Fidelity over Destiny – Allegory on the Fate of Hans Mont, referring to the sculpture to worked for Rudolf II until an eye injury prevented him from doing so. Mont’s whereabouts were unknown. This is one of Spranger’s paintings that has remained at the Castle throughout the centuries. He also created a masterful portrait of Jacob König, a German goldsmith who was selling antiques in Italy.
Pieter Stevens was another masterful court painter. He resided in Bohemia with his family and excelled at landscapes, influenced by Paul Brill and Hans Bol. He often portrayed village scenes or rendered forests and mountains in his unique way.
In 1585, Rudolf II’s collection was comprised of 3,000 paintings, including many Italian, Dutch, Flemish and German works, not to mention the numerous curiosities and statues.
After Rudolf II died in 1612, his successor Emperor Matthias had many of Rudolf’s paintings taken to Vienna, where he had his imperial residence. The Bohemian Estates sold some of Rudolf’s works so they had enough money to pay their soldiers. After the Catholics defeated the Protestant nobles in the Battle of White Mountain during 1620, Archduke Maximilian of Bavaria confiscated many of the works. Others were destroyed. During 1630, while the Thirty Years’ War was raging, Saxon soldiers took over Prague Castle and stole much of the artwork.
When the Swedes occupied Prague Castle in 1648, they took some of Rudolf’s collection to Queen Christina in Stockholm, but the most significant works had already been sent to Vienna. The queen sold some of the artwork and gave away others. She also took her favorites to her residence in Italy. Part of the collection was destroyed in a fire at the Royal Palace of Stockholm. Some works stayed in Prague when the Swedes took control because they were hidden.
A few paintings made their way to England, becoming part of Lord Buckingham’s collection. Several were returned to Prague from Vienna. Other paintings were sold in Europe. Empress Maria Theresa had the picture gallery at the Castle shut down. In 1782 many of the Rudolfine artworks were sold at auction.
Some paintings have perhaps miraculously remained at Prague Castle throughout the trials and tribulations of history. Paolo Veronese’s Portrait of Jakob König and Christ Washing the Feet of his Disciples as well as The Adoration of the Shepherds became property of the gallery in the middle of the 17th century and never left. Titian’s Young Woman at Her Toilet has called Prague Castle home since the 18th century. Several of the paintings by the Bassano brothers have remained in Prague, though many were transported to Vienna.
In 1796, Czech aristocrats and burghers organized the Picture Gallery of Patriotic Friends of the Arts in Prague, which would later become the National Gallery. Some paintings were not sent to Vienna because they were on loan at the time to this Prague society. The year after its creation, the group was able to get 67 of Rudolf’s paintings back from Vienna. Gradually, they obtained more and more paintings from Vienna.
In 1918 Czechoslovakia was formed, and Prague Castle became the office of the president. In 1930 the Masaryk Fund began to purchase paintings for Prague Castle. During the Nazi Occupation some of the paintings hung at the president’s summer residence of Lány and others stayed at Prague Castle.
Much reconstruction took place at Prague Castle from 1960 to 1961. The National Gallery Commission brought many paintings to the National Gallery and the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague. Many paintings were stored in a depository at Opočno Chateau during 1961. After the reconstruction, the Prague Castle Painting Gallery was established, taking up six rooms and including works of Titian, Rubens, Veronese and Tintoretto. German masters and Baroque artists from the Czech lands and the Netherlands also made up the collection.
The Velvet Revolution of November of 1989 triggered the downfall of Communism. A few years later, in 1993, the Prague Castle Administration was set up. One of its purposes was to organize new exhibitions at the painting gallery. From 1995 to 1998, much reconstruction took place at the Castle, and the Prague Castle Administration bought more paintings from Rudolf’s collection.
There has not been such a vast collection at Prague Castle since Rudolf’s death. It is impossible to faithfully recreate the Rudolfine collection because there are not enough inventories. Many of the paintings taken during the Thirty Years’ War have disappeared. Still, the Prague Castle Picture Gallery houses 120 outstanding works, including ones from the original collection.
Tracy A. Burns is a writer, editor and proofreader in Prague.
This past year my travel was once again marred by the dangers of the pandemic, and I didn’t want to take any unnecessary risks. I took day trips in the Czech Republic during the summer months, when the chateaus and castles were open. While I did not wander far from Prague, these trips did provide me with a fresh perspective of the world around me and of my own life. I tended to spend most of my time at home as a sort of recluse, and these trips offered me a chance to appreciate the world around me. Fears of getting coronavirus despite being vaccinated prevented me from gathering with friends in cafes. When I went on these trips, I traveled with a good friend, and that also helped keep me sane. We always went by car, which was much easier and much more comfortable than going by public transportation.
Our first trip in late May was to Lány, where the presidential summer residence was located along with its stunning park. I also visited an intriguing museum dedicated to the founder of Czechoslovakia and its first president, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk. I had named my cat Šarlota after the first First Lady of Czechoslovakia, American Charlotte Garrigue Masaryk. (Šarlota is Charlotte in Czech.) I also paid my respects to the Masaryk family at the cemetery nearby.
The museum highlights, for example, Masaryk’s time as head of the government-in-exile in London and his trip to the USA to convince US President Woodrow Wilson to support Czechoslovakia becoming a country of its own. Masaryk abdicated due to poor health after 17 years in office. His many accomplishments and problems during his tenure are well-explained in these exhibits. One section shows off the role of the Czechoslovak legions fighting in Russia as part of the French army during World War I. Intriguing information about society and sport during the First Republic are on display, too.
Then we went to the cemetery, where simple slabs mark the graves of Tomáš, his wife Charlotte (who died in 1923), son Jan and daughter Alice. I admired the modest yet eloquent gravestones in a quiet part of this cemetery. I recalled watching a film about Tomáš’ son Jan, a prominent politician whom the Communists pushed out a bathroom window to his death. I had visited the scene of the crime in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs palace some years ago, when an employee showed me around. I recalled that Tomáš, the first president of Czechoslovakia, had died at Lány chateau, where we were headed next.
Only the park was open to the public. I had fallen in love with this park during my first visit back in the summer of 1991, less than two years after the Velvet Revolution had toppled Communism in Czechoslovakia. Lány Chateau has served as the summer residence of Czechoslovak and Czech presidents since the state purchased it in 1921. From the late 17th century until 1921 it was the property of the Furstenberg family. In earlier days it had even been owned by Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II. Masterful Slovenian architect Josip Plečník had decorated the park during Masaryk’s tenure. A symbolic, spectacular fountain, two ponds, three small bridges, a cottage with fairy-tale decoration, beehives and Neo-Gothic Riding Stables all mesmerized me along with a greenhouse. Walking down the main chestnut-lined path, I saw better the beauty of the world around me as well as the beauty inside me. I tried to imagine Masaryk riding one of his beloved horses in the park or seated on a bench talking with prominent Czech writer Karel Čapek, one of my favorite authors.
We made the trip to the fairy-tale bright red chateau Červená Lhota, which used to be surrounded by water. Alas, there is no water around it now. I recalled my first visit, when I was entranced by the reflection of the cheerful-looking structure in the pond. I also recalled my first attempted trip to the chateau, more than 15 years earlier, when I mistakenly traveled to another village with the same name in an entirely different part of the country. I also recalled the four friends I had made the first time I was successful at traveling to the chateau, walking the 10 kilometers from the train station while talking about life with my friendly companions.
The chateau got the name Červená Lhota – červená means red in Czech – during 1597, when it was painted that color. Legend claims that the devil had kidnapped a lady at the chateau, and she had died. After her murder, a spot of blood could be seen under a window of the then white façade. Another legend says that her blood had covered the chateau exterior, and the red color was permanent. Perhaps the family best associated with the chateau is the Schonburg-Hartenstein clan, who owned it from 1835 for 110 years. Indeed, the interior took its appearance from the start of the 20th century, when this family was in residence. We saw mostly authentic furnishings, which is always a treat. The painted ceilings, superb artwork, elaborate clocks, beautiful tiled stoves, intarsia-decorated furniture and graphics collection all held my undivided attention.
Another week we traveled about an hour from Prague to Jemniště Chateau, a Baroque gem completed about 1725, though most of it burned down in 1754 and had to be rebuilt. Leading Czech Baroque painter Václav Vavřinec Reiner and legendary Baroque sculptor Matyáš Bernard Braun did some of the reconstruction. The Sternberg family took possession of the chateau in 1898, but it was confiscated by the Nazis in 1943 and then nationalized by the Communists in 1951. After the Velvet Revolution, the Sternbergs did get the chateau back, and some members of the family live there today.
The Main Hall was astounding with four portraits of Habsburg rulers on the walls, ceiling frescoes with mythological themes and a superb rendition of three allegories of the four seasons. In other spaces, I loved the Dutch Baroque furniture with colored woods. Saint Joseph’s Chapel featured remarkable frescoes.
Another trip took us to Český Sternberk Castle, which is, in my opinion, the most impressive of the three medieval castles in Central Bohemia, outdoing Karlštejn and Křivoklát. The exterior is imposing Gothic with a steep climb to the entrance gate. The interior spaces are decorated in various historical styles from Renaissance to Rococo. The castle dates back to the mid-thirteenth century, when Zdeslav of Divišov changed his name to Sternberg, the family that owns the castle today. When the Communists took the castle away from then owner Jiří Sternberg in 1949, he and his family still resided there, allowed to use only two small rooms. Jiří even gave tours of the castle. At long last, in 1992, the current owner got the property back.
The Knights’ Hall dated from around 1500 and features ornate 17th century stucco adornment. Life-size portraits on the walls showed generals from the Thirty Years’ War and King George of Poděbrady. Two 250-kilogram Czech crystal chandeliers amaze. This was the first but certainly not the last room where the eight-pointed Sternberg star had a prominent presence. The Yellow Salon featured its Empire wall painting of idyllic country scenes. The Dining Room showed off marvelous paintings. Dutch Baroque furniture with a floral motif graced another room. On the tour, we saw many renditions of battles – Sternberg owns 545 paintings of the battles during the Thirty Years’ War. Paintings by Filip Sternberg also are on display.
It was stupid of me to book a tour of Karlštejn Castle for a Friday afternoon. Traffic was hell, but there was nowhere to turn back. It was scorching hot. We walked up the steep road to the castle, gasping for air and needing a few short water breaks. Astounding Gothic Karlštejn Castle loomed above us. Its history was legendary. The castle was constructed for Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV in 1348, and the crown jewels of the Holy Roman Empire had been stored there until 1420. Throughout the centuries, the castle would never be totally conquered. Even a seven-month siege by the Hussites in the 15th century was successfully warded off. I had been to Karlštejn many times but not for some years. The Church of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary showed off beautiful 14th century frescoes. The walls of the small Chapel of Saint Catherine were decorated with exquisite frescoes and semi-precious stones.
Gothic frescoes are by no means in short supply on the tour that included the chapel. On one ceiling about 40 angels played various medieval instruments. The Chapel of the Holy Cross, the highlight of the tour, dazzled with its ornate decoration. Designed by Charles IV, the space featured semi-precious stones and 129 paintings of saints, popes, knights, emperors, martyrs, kings plus the Apostles and others. The legendary Master Theodoric, Charles IV’s court painter, created the impressive works. The gold ceiling was adorned with thousands of stars made from Venetian glass.
Unlike Červená Lhota, Blatná in south Bohemia was surrounded by water, adding a romantic flair to the already impressive structure. It was first mentioned in writing during the 13th century. Renovation during the 15th century was carried out in part by famous architect Benedikt Ried, who was responsible for designing part of Prague Castle. The highlight for me was the Green Chamber with its exquisite Renaissance art. The Sternbergs feature in the story of this chateau as well. They took control of the structure in 1541 and added a Renaissance palace. During 1798 Baron Karel Hildprandt bought it and held onto it until the chateau was nationalized in 1948. The family was able to live there, albeit in two small rooms, despite the takeover. In 1952 they were forced out, though. When the Emperor of Ethiopia paid a visit to Czechoslovakia in 1959, he asked that the Hildprandt family be allowed to emigrate to his country. They got permission and resided in Ethiopia until the Soviet coup in the 1970s. During 1992, the family returned to the chateau and made their home at Blatná.
The chapel includes Gothic vaulting and thin, high Gothic windows. The cheerful yellow color of the Baroque Salon reminded me of the yellow kitchen in my parents’ home – a kitchen I would never see again. I loved the intarsia furniture in this space. An English clock’s decoration showed the four seasons. I also was captivated by an Oriental jewel chest with hidden drawers. I recalled my visit to the extensive ruins of Rabí Castle when I saw that structure rendered in an impressive artwork. The Painting Gallery featured a rendition of a vast landscape on a wall and a superb chandelier made of Czech glass. A map in a hallway amazed. It hailed from the 17th century and was one of only two copies in existence. I saw Prague’s Charles Bridge before the statues had been built on it.
In the Hunting Salon some furniture was made from deer antlers. Archduke Franz Ferdinand d’Este visited occasionally to go on hunting trips with the Hildprandt owner. In the Dining Room, I was drawn to the red-and-black chairs and the daiquiri green tiled stove. The 19th century Neo-Gothic furniture was impressive. Japanese plates decorate a wall of another space with a Neo-Renaissance tiled stove and chandelier in Empire style. I noticed some Egyptian features of the Empire furniture. In other spaces an exotic landscape graced a tapestry and four paintings of Italian towns decorated a wall. A huge black Empire style tiled stove stood out in one space. In the Study of Jaroslav Rožmítl, I saw paintings of Adam and Eve plus renditions of saints George, Wenceslas and Catherine. There was an intriguing room with artifacts from Ethiopia that I had seen on previous tours, but for some reason, we did not visit that space this time. My friend and I were disappointed.
We also went north to Baroque – Classicist Děčín Chateau, which had served as barracks for the Austro-Hungarian army, the Germans and the Soviets for many decades. The last Soviet soldier had departed in 1991. Its history dates back to the end of the 10th century. Děčín became a castle in the second half of the 13th century, though later it was burned down. In the 16th century the Knights from Bunau transformed it into a Renaissance chateau. The historical landmark gets its current appearance from the Thun-Hohenstein period. That family owned it from 1628 to 1932 and had nurtured a friendship with Franz Ferdinand d’Este. In fact, after Ferdinand d’Este and his wife Sophia were assassinated in Sarajevo during 1914, his children spent time at Děčín. Emperor Franz Joseph and his wife Sissy also stayed at the chateau three weeks after their wedding during the 19th century. A 270-meter steep street gave access to the chateau. Blind arcades adorned seven-meter high walls flanking the street. There was an exquisite Rose Garden, too. A gloriette and statues of mythological gods added to the splendor of this section as did a sala terrena.
The interior was vast and impressive. The library, which at one time was situated in the biggest hall, had held 90,000 books, but due to financial problems, the Thuns had to sell them. Since no one wanted to buy the entire collection, the Thun clan sold the books by the pound. Only 4,500 volumes of the previous collection have been returned. This huge space currently looked like a ballroom with splendid crystal chandeliers.
The exquisite Blue Room included two blue-painted walls with rich decoration, only uncovered during a 2001 restoration. A classical landscape showed people, boats, trees and temples. A large painting of the Thun family tree weighed 150 kilograms. Another room was decorated with floral motifs on blue walls. A wooden bed was made for women who slept half-seated as to not upset their elaborate hair styles. Also, people slept half-seated because they were worried they would die if they lay down on beds. A room showed off the paintings of Děčín by Karl Graff. The Chapel of Saint George was very impressive, too.
In September, my last trip of the year, I spent two weeks in Virginia visiting my parents and four friends. I was constantly worried I would get covid as cases were on the rise. I tended to spend most of the time in my parents’ apartment for this reason. I wanted to go into DC to museums, but I chose to take precautions against covid and stay with my parents. It was the first time I had seen them in two years. That May they had moved from the townhouse where I had lived since the age of three. I missed the red, white and blue rug in my old room, the mahogany piano in the living room and most of all the sunny yellow kitchen where I had talked through so many problems over tea and muffins or scones. I felt as if I had not had the chance to say goodbye to the previous abode, and that rankled me. The thought of a stranger using my childhood home upset me. I liked the apartment, but my heart was back in the townhouse. Still, nothing could compare to the moment I stepped out of the taxi and saw my mother with her hands out, ready for a hug, for the first time in two years. That was one of the best moments of my life.
Yet, during that summer I had experienced one of the worst moments of my life, too. My 11-year-old black cat Šarlota suddenly lost the use of her back legs and had to be rushed to the emergency vet. She had heart problems and stayed overnight in the hospital. The next morning, I was on the balcony, trying to read but unable to concentrate, when the vet called. He said there was no hope. She had to be put to sleep. I was at the vets in an hour or less and spent about 20 minutes talking to Šarlota and petting her, explaining that she was going to meet Bohumil soon in Heaven.
I was crushed. After four horrible years, Šarlota had found me, and she had been so happy living by my side. She had been such a good cat, always thankful and appreciative of her rosy life. It was cruel for her to die after only six years with me, I thought. I spoke to her calmly and thanked her profusely for being my best friend. I will always treasure those 20 minutes. Her death was so sudden that her death still greatly pains me. Every day I almost burst into tears because she is not here.
Four days after she died, I adopted a four-year old black cat I named Olinka Havlová Burnsová after Václav Havel’s wife, the first First Lady of the Czech Republic. Olinka’s history was tinged with sadness as well. About two weeks before I got her from a cat shelter, Olinka’s human, with whom she had a wonderful life, had been murdered at her home by a drug addict. For several days Olinka and her brothers and sisters had been alone in the house with the corpse. When the police came, they all ran away. Olinka was the first to come back to her previous territory, returning the next evening. The cat shelter where I knew the owner had caught her, and she had spent a few weeks there.
The moment I saw a photo of her on the cat shelter’s Facebook page, I wanted to adopt her. When I got her, she was dealing with the death of her first mother, and I was dealing with the death of Šarlota. Now she is happy again, loves playing with all her toys, eating soft food and napping in one of her many beds. She also loves knocking everything off tables, so I have to be careful. Pens, notes and cases for glasses are sprinkled on the carpets of my flat. So far she has destroyed one alarm clock and one lampshade. She was just playing.
I wanted Christmas to be special for Olinka so I filled two stockings with toys. She was very happy during her first Christmas without her first mother, brothers and sisters. I am always astounded at how friendly she is. If a stranger comes in, she will go to him or her and demand petting. The only person she is not sure about is the cleaning lady who moves her toys in order to vacuum.
I so badly want to go back to Italy next year, to travel a little outside the Czech Republic, to wander through museums I have never visited before, to contemplate life in cathedrals, gaze up at the dome and be overcome with awe. I want to walk down picturesque streets for the first time, discovering something new at each corner. I plan on visiting my parents again, too. I hope the situation will be better in the USA whenever I do fly there again.
Tracy A. Burns is a writer and proofreader in Prague.
This was my third or fourth trip to Lány, a town about 35 kilometers west of Prague near the Křivoklat forest. I loved going to Lány to pay tribute to the first Czechoslovak president, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk and his family. I came by car this time, accompanied by a friend. First, I went to the TGM Museum, which told the story of Masaryk’s life and career. Then we went to the cemetery where Tomáš Masaryk and three members of his family are buried. After that, we strolled through one of my favorite chateau parks, part of the president’s summer residence. Masaryk had spent a lot of time in that majestic park and had died in the chateau.
First, the museum: I had been there once before and loved refamiliarizing myself with the history of the First Republic. If I could go back to any time in the past, I would travel to 1920s Czechoslovakia. The country was new, off to a fresh start as a democracy.
Besides exhibits relating specifically to Masaryk, the museum is home to period furnishings and paintings of his family members. There is a section devoted to the first World War, when he set up legions fighting in Russia as part of the French army, doing battle against the Habsburgs. First, we saw photos of Masaryk in a special exhibition. Then we went into the main part of the museum.
A philosopher, scholar and politician, Masaryk founded Czechoslovak democracy. He believed that small nations played a significant role in Europe and in the world. He also touted individual responsibility and religion as a source of morality. Masaryk came from humble beginnings. His father had been a Slovak carter, later a steward, while his German-Moravian mother had worked as a cook. At a German high school in Brno, Masaryk saw for himself the fraught tension between high-class Germans and oppressed, lower-class Czechs. He later concentrated on philosophy at the University of Vienna. While he was studying in a year-long program in Leipzig – a city I had loved visiting several years ago -, he met an American from Brooklyn, Charlotte Garrigue, and they were married in the USA during 1878. (I named my late cat the Czech version of Charlotte, Šarlota, after the first First Lady of Czechoslovakia. My cat died suddenly in July of 2021 at the age of 11.) Tomáš took his wife’s last name as his middle name. They had five children, and their son Jan later became a prominent politician whom Communists pushed out a bathroom window, killing him.
Tomáš Masaryk was a university professor and a writer. He penned books about the deplorable conditions in Russia after visiting that country and in another grappled with the causes of suicide. His writings centered on politics as well.
A wall of the museum took up the theme of the scandals that had scarred the public opinion of Masaryk. He proved that epic poems, which supposedly dated from the Middle Ages and appealed to Czech nationalists, were forgeries. These nationalists branded Masaryk a traitor. Then, a Jewish man named Leopold Hilsner was sentenced to death for ritual murder. Masaryk insisted that the trial had been anti-Semitic. Hilsner was given life imprisonment instead of the death penalty. Not all Czechs approved of Masaryk’s participation in this case, and the Masaryk family experienced anti-Semitic attacks.
A section of the museum described Masaryk’s role during World War I. While Masaryk had fought for reforms with Austro-Hungary before the war, during World War I he became convinced that Czechs and Slovaks needed independence rather than autonomy. Masaryk was head of the government-in-exile in London. During a trip to the USA, he convinced President Woodrow Wilson that Czechoslovak independence was vital. Czechoslovakia was created October 28, 1918.
Then there were the many exhibits about his presidency. Masaryk abdicated during his fourth term in office due to health reasons, after 17 years as head of state. During his presidency, the country was a democracy with all citizens equal, and minorities had rights to maintain their national identities. Freedom of the press and universal suffrage were other features. However, the country was not without its problems. German-Czech tensions and Slovak calls for separatism were two of the issues that caused him great concern.
After his reelection in 1920, the country flourished, especially economically. However, personal tragedy hit the Masaryk family. His wife died in 1923. Three years into his third term, in 1930, he turned 80, and ideologies of Communism, Fascism and Nazism had infiltrated the democratic country. During 1934, he was elected for a fourth term, yet his time in office was riddled with health problems. He resigned in 1935 and died at Lány on September 14 that year.
After admiring a statue of Masaryk outside the museum, we went to the cemetery, where simple slabs marked the graves of Masaryk and his wife Charlotte, son Jan and daughter Alice. The small grassy area was roped off. It was a modest yet eloquent commemoration to lives that had upheld democratic values even during troubled times.
I reflected on Masaryk lying in state at Lány. About 60,000 citizens came to pay their respects. When his wife died in 1923, thousands of Czechs paid homage to her by going to Lány chateau as well.
I thought about Tomáš Masaryk’s funeral in Prague. Black flags had fluttered from downtown buildings. Busts and pictures of Masaryk had dotted the town and covered the front pages of numerous newspapers. Black banners reading “TGM” had adorned Saint Vitus Cathedral and buildings on Wenceslas Square. Thousands of soldiers and legionnaires had marched in his funeral procession September 21 as 146 military standards appeared. Draped with the Czechoslovak flag, his coffin was carried on a gun carriage through the city. On its last leg to Lány, the coffin had traveled by train, placed in a car covered in wreaths and flowers.
I remembered seeing that gun carriage at a temporary exhibition in a Prague gallery a few years earlier. I recalled watching Václav Havel’s coffin travel by me while I waited on an Old Town Street in December of 2011. I was huddled in my LL Bean winter coat on that dark, dismal morning as the coffin made its way toward Prague Castle. My hero was dead; my heart broken; my mood solemn. I thought that it was the same way I would have felt if I had seen Masaryk’s funeral procession.
From the cemetery we made our way to a restaurant on a square, where I ate fried chicken steak and ice cream on that sunny May afternoon of 2021. We ate outside to be safer from coronavirus infection.
The next and last stop was much more upbeat – Lány Chateau, the summer residence of Czechoslovak and Czech presidents since 1921. While the residence was not open to the public (with several exceptions), the beautiful park was. I first set foot in this park during the summer of 1991, when I was a tourist seeing Prague and its environs for the first time.
That trip during the summer of 1991 was magical – walking through the Old Jewish Cemetery, gawking at Old Town Square with its superb architecture, making my way to Prague Castle via the Charles Bridge, where Russian soldiers sold their uniforms and fur hats. On the way, I walked up Nerudova Street, where, in a photography store, I found some prints of President George H.W. Bush with Václav Havel during that historic visit in 1990. There were also discounted posters of Gorbachev, but I wasn’t interested in buying one. Saint Vitus Cathedral had amazed me. On Golden Lane, a place in legends dating back to Rudolf II’s era, I got my picture taken with a man I had met on the train from Berlin to Prague. We were smitten with each other. Yet, we would part our separate ways a few days later, never contacting each other again. Life somehow had gotten in the way. I visited Karlštejn Castle, Konopiště Chateau, Hluboká Chateau, Kutná Hora and so many other places during that trip. Prague had felt like my true home, and the park in Lány was so special in my heart.
By this time, I knew the history of the chateau well. There was a structure here before 1392, when it was first mentioned in writing. Late in the 16th century, that edifice became a Renaissance keep. Rudolf II acquired the property in 1589 and did much hunting on the grounds at the game reserve. During the Thirty Years’ War, Swedish troops had occupied the residence. After Rudolf II acquired it, the residence was state-owned for 100 years. In 1685 Arnošt Josef Wallensteain bought it. When his daughter got married, the chateau and surrounding land became the property of the Furstenberg family and stayed in their possession until the state bought it in 1921. Then the chateau was modernized. Masaryk had the balcony built. During Ludvík Svoboda’s presidential term, the game reserve had been open to Western tourists, but later it was closed off again. Many other renovations had taken place throughout the decades. The chateau had been in poor condition after Gustav Husák’s tenure, when the Communist regime was toppled in 1989. Under Václav Havel and Olga Havlová – after whom I had named one of my cats – the chateau had been totally reconstructed into a beautiful work of art and architecture.
Near the park we perused the obelisk that Slovenian architect Josip Plečník had erected during Masaryk’s era to commemorate fallen soldiers during World War I. In the park I felt at home, so comfortable as if I was meant to be there, basking in the sun near the greenhouse or taking in the many landmarks. This was one of the few chateau parks that made me see not only the beauty around me but also the beauty inside me. The other park that gave me this feeling was at the chateau in Opočno in north Bohemia.
I loved the two ponds. One landmark that impressed me was a lion-headed fountain made by Plečník, who had superbly decorated parts of Prague Castle, too. With five Dorian colums and five lions’ heads, the fountain symbolizes the five lands of Czechoslovakia. Water from the five heads flows into a sixth head that spouts the water into the pond, symbolizing the unity of newly-formed Czechoslovakia.
Across the Masaryk stream I saw three bridges constructed in a simple design by Plečník. I remember visiting Plečník’s studio when I was in Ljubljana. Communist president Klement Gottwald had contributed to the park as well. He had a small cottage with fairy-tale elements built for his grandson. There were also beehives from Masaryk’s era, again designed by Plečník. The Furstenbergs, who had owned the land with chateau for several centuries, were responsible for setting up the greenhouse. Three benches celebrated more recent events. One commemorated the Višegrad Four conference hosted in Lány in 2006, when Václav Klaus was the Czech president. Another was donated by Livia Klausová, a former First Lady, in 2012. The third was donated by current President Miloš Zeman. The Riding Stables were built in Neo-Gothic style during 1861.
We walked along the main chestnut-lined path and took in the various perspectives of the yellow, Baroque chateau. I knew something about the interior, even though it was not possible to go inside. The Blue Dining Room was decorated in Third Rococo from the beginning of the 20th century. The bright yellow wallpaper in the Yellow Salon harkened back to Husák’s era. After the Velvet Revolution, five Renaissance painting of Habsburg archdukes as children had been installed. There was a beautiful marble fireplace surrounded by superb woodcarving in the library. Masaryk’s Salon includes, thanks to the Furstenbergs, furniture made from black pearwood.
During Masaryk’s tenure, there was a movie theatre at the chateau where locals could watch the latest talkies. The films of Vlasta Burian, a comic actor whose work I knew well, often were projected there. This was where the Lány Agreement promoting cooperation between Austria and Czechoslovakia had been signed in December of 1921. So many presidents and dignitaries had graced the halls of that chateau.
I tried to imagine Masaryk riding his horses through the park. At Lány Masaryk had written many of his books and had met with legendary Czech author Karel Čapek to put together the nonfiction work Conversations with TGM. During the Nazi Protectorate, Emil Hácha had called the chateau home. I tried to imagine the Protectorate flag fluttering from the tower during the second World War. I recalled that Gottwald had tried to do away with all the monuments at Lány that were associated with Masaryk. There had been an assassination attempt on President Antonín Zápotecky in 1953, as a bomb went off under his car. One of the town’s inhabitants was killed in the blast. During Havel’s presidency, I used to love to listen to his Conversations from Lány radio broadcast.
The chateau and park made me think about Masaryk’s era and Havel’s 13 years as president of Czechoslovakia and of the Czech Republic. After spending some time enjoying the sights in the park, it was time to go back to Prague. It was our first trip of the 2021 chateau and castle season, and it would always be one of the best ever.
Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.
From the moment I saw a picture of Neo-Renaissance Červená Lhota Chateau, I yearned to see it with my own eyes. Its cheerful red appearance cast a spell on me. Comprised of two stories, the pictured chateau dominated a rocky island surrounded by a pond. Červená Lhota looked as if it had jumped out of a fairy tale. How beautiful and romantic the reflection of the four-winged structure looked in the water! I read that a forest was situated nearby as was as a park with the Renaissance Chapel of the Holy Trinity.
There was only one problem: I had heard that the chateau was a 10-kilometer walk from the nearest public transportation, a train station. I was afraid I would get lost as I didn’t have a great sense of direction. I had no one to go with me and didn’t have access to a car. I wondered if I even could walk 10 kilometers. I loved playing sports, but 10 kilometers – was that even possible?
One afternoon I found myself at Prague’s main bus station, arriving home from a day trip. I decided to ask at a window if it was possible to travel to Červená Lhota by bus. I was in luck! It was! I got my bus ticket for the following Saturday. I would have to change buses at Jihlava, in Moravia. I hadn’t realized that the chateau was in Moravia, but I didn’t think any more about it.
I set off for Červená Lhota on a scorching summer day, enthusiastic, elated even, as I listened to the melodic singing of Slovak soft rock star Pavol Habera on my Walkman. I was sure nothing could destroy my ecstatic mood.
Two and a half hours later, I got off the bus at Jihlava and waited for another bus to take me – finally! – to Červená Lhota. Soon I would see that cheerful red façade that featured prominently on the craggy rocks! I would gaze at the sublime reflection of the chateau in the pond! It would be bliss! Before long, I walked to platform number 10, thinking that I could not have hoped for better weather and that nothing surely could go wrong.
Finally, the bus came, and on a sign behind the windshield I saw the words Červená Lhota. I was so close to my destination. It would not be long now.
The bus driver announced “Červená Lhota” when we came to a village. As I exited, I asked the driver, “How do I get to the chateau?”
The driver looked at me as if I was crazy.
“The chateau is near Jindřichův Hradec, in south Bohemia. This is another Červená Lhota.”
My face fell with disappointment.
The driver continued, “I’ll be stopping here again in an hour. Wait, and then you can go back with me to Jihlava.”
I thanked him, tempted to burst into tears. I sat on the bench at the bus stop, my mind reeling. How could I be so stupid? Hadn’t I read that the chateau was in south Bohemia? When I got my bus ticket, I had been so happy, so full of hope. Now I didn’t even know exactly where I was. Somewhere not too far from Jihlava in Moravia. I felt lost – in more ways than one. I didn’t like teaching with the agency full-time. I didn’t want to get up at five every morning and finish work at seven or nine at night. I wanted to do other things, to be able to sleep until seven am, at least several days a week. I didn’t like my housing situation. I felt like my life was just one disappointment after another, as if it was full of days spent in the wrong places. Is this all there was? Was this the only life I could live? I was in my early thirties. I wanted to make a change, but what? And how? I knew I didn’t want to move out of Prague. I felt that I was stuck at a crossroads.
No one else came to the bus stop during that hour. I was alone. It was quiet. I got myself together mentally, many thoughts going through my head. I had to persevere; I knew that. I had to move onward one small step at a time. During those 60 minutes of solitude, I decided that I wouldn’t let life get me down. The following Saturday I would take the train to Kardašovy Řečice, which was 10 kilometers from the right Červená Lhota. I was determined to see the chateau. I would walk the 10 kilometers alone. I could do it, I kept telling myself. When I saw the bus approaching, I breathed a sigh of relief.
From Jihlava I easily found a bus to Prague. When I got off in the capital city, I did not feel lost anymore. Instead, I was filled with purpose and determination.
The following Saturday I made it to Kardašovy Řečice in the morning. The weather was beautiful though very hot. I was so kanxious. What if I got lost in the middle of nowhere? Casting these thoughts aside, I started walking. Soon I came upon four adults in their twenties, two women and two men who had exited the same train.
“Is this the way to Červená Lhota?” I asked.
“Yeah. We’re going there, too. Come with us!”
We walked to Červená Lhota together, talking about their vacation in south Bohemia and their home in north Bohemia as well about Czech culture and literature. They recommended Zákupy Chateau near their hometown and Děčín Chateau, where I had been when it was still closed to the public in 1991. We talked about our respective travels, too. Our conversations were very pleasant, and I was glad to have met them. I had made four new friends.
I was tired when we arrived at the chateau. However, I totally forgot about my fatigue when I gazed upon that cheerful red façade and its reflection in the calm waters. The chateau was everything I imagined it to be. I almost pinched myself, not believing that the enchanting structure in front of me was real. I took photos on my disposable Kodak camera – I was saving to buy a digital one – while we waited for the tour. I also had a bite to eat in the chateau restaurant, sitting outside with a spectacular view of the red beauty.
The chateau rooms were small but intimate. However, the tour was crowded. Sometimes I had to almost push my way to the front of the large group so I could see because I was short. Still, I didn’t mind. I had reached my goal and met some nice people on the way. The furnishings and decorations were superb, in styles from Renaissance to Beidermeier. Each room had its own charm. I loved the intimate feel of the chateau. It really felt as if a family could live there rather than as a cold representative space.
We all left the chateau feeling elated and set off for the 10-kilometer walk to the train station. Could I trek another 10 kilometers? I needn’t have worried. A bus came and took us to the train station in a five-minute journey. As I stepped off this bus, I felt so different from the moment I had exited the bus in the village of Červená Lhota the previous weekend. This time I felt triumphant, victorious, full of energy despite my weary legs.
My four friends were catching a later train, so we parted at the station, promising to keep in touch. We said our goodbyes, and I started my journey back to Prague. I knew I had to come back here one day.
And, 18 years later, I would.
My second trip to the right Červená Lhota took place during August of 2021, when the situation with covid cases was not too horrible. A friend drove me there. I often visited castles and chateaus with her. She had visited the chateau decades ago but had never seen it surrounded by water. It was much easier than walking 10 kilometers, that was for sure, though I knew I could use the exercise. During the pandemic I had become lax about fitness.
The moment I saw the chateau I was flabbergasted because the pond had disappeared. My friend was so disappointed. The chateau still had me in a trance with its bewitching exterior, but the lack of water made it seem more steeped in reality than in a fairy-tale. Later, we would find out that the chateau would not have water around it for at least two more years. It was simply too expensive to maintain. A garden area was set up on one part of the dry land below the rocky terrain, but it still didn’t make up for the appearance of yesteryear.
It had been a long 18 years. I had stopped teaching full-time about 11 years ago, and I had moved twice. Now I was happy with my work as I was doing more writing and content with my accommodation. I was excited to be back. I hadn’t realized how much I had missed this chateau until I set my eyes on it again. It was scorching hot just like the first time I had visited. The guide told us that we had to wear masks. I was glad because when I was at Jemniště Chateau that rule had not been enforced. I was also pleased that only 20 people were allowed on the tour due to health concerns. I wouldn’t have to deal with a crowd like I had at Jemniště or Děčín chateaus, and there was less of a chance of catching covid during this visit.
I had refamiliarized myself with the chateau’s history before making the trip. The structure was first mentioned in writing during 1465 when it had been a Gothic fortress under the control of the sons of Ctibor of Zásmuk. During 1530 the knighted family of Káb from Rybňany became the owners. Jan Káb’s tombstone would be placed in the nearby chapel. Jan Káb’s two children had succumbed to the plague, so, after his death, his brothers took over. Then called Nová Lhota, the structure was transformed into Renaissance style from 1542 to 1555. A private chapel, now the Church of the Trinity, was built near the chateau in the 1550s. It would become known for its illusive fresco decoration that originated in the second half of the 16th century.
It got the name Červená Lhota (červená means red in Czech) during 1597, when it was painted the same color it is today. The chateau had changed owners again. Vilém Rút of Dírná had chosen this bright color for his residence. A legend claims that the devil had kidnapped a lady at the chateau, and she had been killed. After her murder, a spot of blood could be seen under a window of the then white façade. Another legend claimed that her blood had gushed over the chateau exterior, making it red, and the color could not be changed.
When the Catholics defeated the Protestants at White Mountain in November of 1620, the chateau was confiscated from the Rút family because they were Utraquists. It didn’t make a difference that they had not fought in the battle that would start the Thirty Years’ War.
During 1621 an Italian aristocrat named Antonio Bruccio took charge of Červená Lhota when the imperial army occupied it. After the war he made sure the chateau was not looted. The chapel was plundered, though, and Bruccio reconstructed it, so that the holy space could be reconsecrated in 1635. He founded a spa nearby, and it earned as much praise as the one in Karlovy Vary (Carlsbad), which has for centuries grabbed world-wide attention. Bruccio’s spa, alas, is no more. The stone bridge was built during his era, in 1622. He died in 1639, childless.
Vilém Slavata from Chlum and Košumberk purchased it after Bruccio passed, but he wouldn’t use the chateau as his main residence. I recalled that during the Third Defenestration of Prague, in 1618, he had been thrown out the window of the Castle. He didn’t die because he fell on a heap of dung. While looking after the chateau, he had some reconstruction completed. In 1641 the tower with distinguished portal was built. By 1678 the chateau sported a Baroque appearance. To this day the tower’s portal is decorated in Baroque style. Stuccowork seen in the chateau hails from this era.
When the Slavata dynasty died out, the niece of the last of the Slavata clan was given possession of the chateau. Marie Theresa married into the Windischgratz family. Two owners in this clan accumulated a great debt due to their bad handling of finances. They wound up selling the chateau to barons, who started having construction work done. A fire damaged the chateau.
Two years after the fire, in 1776, Baron Ignác Stillfried bought the place. Karl Ditters von Dittersdorf, a composer and co-founder of the German opera, lived at the chateau from 1796 to 1799, when he died. Then the dukes of Schonburg-Hartenstein took control in 1835. They would own Červená Lhota for 110 years. During the second half of the 19th century, the chateau was given pseudo-Gothic features, inspired by Hluboká Chateau, one of my all-time favorites. From 1903 to 1913, the chateau got a Neo-Renaissance makeover, giving Červená Lhota the appearance it has today. The chapel was renovated at the beginning of the 20th century, too. In 1907 mass began to be held here again. (Services had been halted during the early 19th century.) After World War I, Johann, the then current owner who had been awarded Golden Fleece and Maltese Cross medals, lived there and added to the chateau’s splendor. When Johann died in 1937, he was buried in the chapel nearby.
Because the family was German, the chateau was handed over to the Czechoslovak state after the war. A children’s sanatorium was set up there in 1946, but its existence was short-lived. During 1949, Červená Lhota was open to the public. Some services, such as weddings, still take place in the former private chapel.
Soon it was time to tour the 16 rooms. So glad that we were in a small group, I was enamored of the interior, which once again felt like a home instead of mere representative spaces. The first floor showed off the life of the Schonburg-Hartenstein clan at the start of the 20th century. It was thrilling to see mostly original furnishings of various styles. Not many chateaus showed off authentic furnishings. At the beginning of our tour, we watched a flutist and pianist in period dress superbly play Renaissance music. The painted ceilings, elaborate clocks and stunning chandeliers all caught my undivided attention. Exquisite religious paintings and portraits, beautiful tiled stoves, furniture with intarsia, black-and-white graphics of various animals and fine porcelain also complemented the spaces. The intricate gilded headboard of a bed sported a hovering putti.
While we perused each room protected by our FFP2 masks, I recalled that Jan Káb’s two children had died of the plague, and I realized that, as the current coronavirus pandemic continued, I had learned how to live all over again. I had spent the first three weeks of the pandemic hiding in my apartment, tuned all day and night to CNN, only leaving to take out the trash. I had been that scared of catching the virus. I had kept my windows closed; my life closed off. Now I was doing things the best I could, being as cautious as I could, but still living rather than merely existing.
I thought back to those 60 minutes spent on that bench at the bus stop in another Červená Lhota, where I had mustered up the courage to face challenges and disappointments head-on, where I had become determined to make changes in my life, even if the changes meant sometimes taking small steps at a time. The tranquility of the hour that seemed to last for such a long time allowed me to get to grips with my present and helped guide me into the future.
Perhaps finding the village of Červená Lhota in Moravia had not been a mistake, but rather it had marked the beginning of a journey that had taken me here, for the second time, to this neo-Renaissance architectural wonder, visited during a pandemic that I had weathered the best I could, making changes along the way, directing my life story one day at a time as I came to new revelations about my journey and my destination. Perhaps it was only fitting that Červená Lhota would be the last chateau I would visit during the summer of 2021. After the tour, my friend and I promised to come back when the pond was restored. So, until then, I said my goodbyes to the place that has been close to my heart for several decades.
Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.