East Side Gallery Photo Diary

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I first visited this permanent exhibition of politically motivated murals on the longest stretch of the Berlin Wall, reaching 1.3 kilometers or just under a mile, back in 1991, when there were six more murals. The East Side Gallery was created in 1990, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989. Artists from more than 20 countries took part.

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I was fascinated by the bold, brightly colored visual statements displayed in the open-air gallery back then, although I had not truly understood them before my second visit in 2019. Having lived in the Czech Republic and Czechoslovakia for more than 20 years, I have heard from friends what it was like to live under a totalitarian regime. I have friends who greatly suffered under the Communist regime. The messages of newly found freedom and the zest with which the fall of the Berlin Wall was depicted in those more than 100 murals took on another dimension for me in 2019. I could better appreciate the sheer euphoria and utter joy triggered by that historic event in 1989.

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When the wall was renovated in 2009, six artists refused to recreate their work, so I was able to see more in 1991. Also, the East Side Gallery had been longer back then. In 2006 45 meters of the wall was destroyed for commercial purposes. Then, in 2013, six more meters were taken down.

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Many of the murals made a great impression on me. Of course, the mural of Soviet and GDR leaders Leonid Brezhnev and Erich Honecker kissing was poignantly repulsive. For me, it certainly epitomized the political climate under Communism.

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The Trabant (a GDR-made car that came to symbolize the Communist country) almost leaping through the wall had an amazing three-dimensional quality. The mural challenged me to appreciate better the euphoria of the East Germans as the Wall came down and their thirst for freedom. I noticed that the license plate of the car was the date that the Berlin Wall fell – November 9, 1989.

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I also enjoyed studying the faces in the crowd trying to scramble through the hole in the Wall on November 9, 1989. Not all expressions emitted joy. In those faces I read apprehension and fear as well. A new world had suddenly opened up, and there would be challenges to form a stable democracy, to make the country blossom economically and culturally. The transformation would not happen overnight. There would be trials and tribulations before the change was complete.

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One mural that stood out for me was dominated by the word Berlin in white letters on black. In the left-hand corner were some tall buildings with the words New York. Balloons hovered above the name of the German city. For me this painting celebrated Berlin’s identity. It showed pride in the city of Berlin and the sense of hope that immersed the city after the unification. As one city, without the East and West divisions, Berlin would flourish, it seemed to say. (I am sorry I do not have a picture of this mural.)

Another that caught my attention read Curriculum Vitae at the top and listed many years from 1961 to 1989. Below the numbers I saw the words, “Gratitude to the killed and surviving refugees.”  It made me think of the people that had escaped to West Berlin and then had helped others escape, risking their lives so that others could enjoy the freedom they had found.

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Other murals included joyful people dismantling a wall. White doves fluttered on a blue background in one visual statement celebrating peace. Another mural showed a hand making the peace sign through bars and chained to a white dove, the sun behind the bird that symbolized peace. Some consisted of grotesque or cartoon-like figures. Cartoonish gas masks, all connected to each other, dominated one picture. A few of the paintings seemed set in a sci-fi world. In one mural an American flag and red star appear in the foreground while the Brandenburg Gate is pictured in the background.

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I felt exposed at the gallery because I sensed that I was in the middle of nowhere, though I was near a train and subway station as well as a modern arena, a hotel and high-rise housing. I felt as though I was in the East Berlin I had visited in 1990 – a desolate, dreary place as opposed to what had been the lively western part. After seeing the murals, I fled back to Charlottenburg, a quarter in which I felt very comfortable because it was inhabited mostly by locals, there was an absence of tourist shops, and the streets were tranquil. At the East Side Gallery, I did not feel comfortable. Frazzled, I was even relieved when I had finished touring the sight.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

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On the other side of the Wall, there was some interesting graffiti and more murals.

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The other side of the Wall with the graffiti

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Prague’s Baba Colony Diary

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View from Baba with St. Vitus’ Cathedral in the background

I like to take walks through the functionalist Baba colony in Prague’s sixth district, an area made up of 33 individual family homes constructed during the early 1930s in what was then the democratic First Republic. Pavel Janák, who worked for many years as the main architect of Prague Castle, was in charge of creating the housing development, and he had help from several other notable personalities in his field. The houses, whose designs were influenced by the Bauhaus style, were built for historians, writers, translators, publishers, sociologists, university professors, doctors and public officials who worked in ministries, to name a few.

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Many of the homes have been built into steep, sloping terrain on what was once farmland. It never ceases to fascinate me how the functionalist designs can complement the natural setting, using the location as a lively architectural element. The architects worked with the natural elements rather than against them. I also noted that there was a clear division between house and garden. In fact, in many cases, the gardens are not directly accessible from the buildings. I would have loved to have stood on some of those terraces and balconies; I am sure they offer stunning views, but I could only see the houses from street level.

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Typical for functionalism, the exteriors boasted no frills, and no experimental materials were used. Most houses were constructed of concrete and/or iron, for instance. The flooring often consisted of xylolite or linoleum. Many of the houses had central heating. While I could not go inside as they are all privately owned, I read that the interior walls in many of these abodes were white. Still, many of the interiors boasted unique features.

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Sputnik playground equipment, once in Stromovka Park

The Home of the Palička family is notable for the placement of its terrace on the ground floor instead of on the roof. In the garden of this house, there is a unique piece of equipment from a playground, a colorfully dotted, plastic contraption called Sputnik. It used to be in Stromovka Park during the 1960s. When the equipment was deemed unsafe for children, it was removed from the park. Now it serves as a relic of times past, displayed prominently in the tranquil garden.

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Cyril Bouda from Artmuseum.cz

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Illustration by Cyril Bouda for a children’s book

Installed in the House of Cyril Bouda, a prominent illustrator, painter and professor, was a studio with unique features. The living room was connected with the studio by a sliding wall. From the two-floor studio, there was an exterior staircase leading to the garden. Janák designed the House of Karel Dovolil, which features a steel staircase connecting the garden to the terrace. Janák’s creation for Václav Linda and Pavla Lindová featured a stepped terrace above the garage. The House of Jan Bělehrádek and Marie Bělehrádková boasts four sections on four levels. The entrance is underground, on the second level. Looking at the façade, it is evident that the architect used the terrain as a contrasting element. The walls of the house are smooth, in stark contrast to the rather rough, sloping ground.

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Josef Gočár from Brněnský architektonický manuál

Josef Gočár, who was responsible for four houses, designed the House of Julius Glucklich, which boasted an intriguing interior that looked like one continuous space. The hall and dining room were only separated by a sliding wall, a characteristic I also mentioned in another example. The House of Marie Mojžíšová and Stanislav Mojžíš, designed by Gočár, featured a Raumplan design, a design created by famous Czech-Austrian architect Adolf Loos. The Raumplan structure meant that each room was on a different level. The House of Václav Maule and Jarmila Mauleová, another masterfully built edifice by Gočár, features bedrooms situated on a raised ground floor while the living room is located on a higher level, perched on corbels. I would love to see the splendid views from that living room!

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Pavel Janák from Brněnský architektonický manuál

What to me is even more interesting than the architecture of the homes are the stories of the lives of their occupants. Admittedly, I am not the biggest fan of functionalist architecture, but I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall in some of these houses.

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The Munch couple had a house with both an exterior and interior staircase. Náďa Munková had served as personal secretary to Alice Masaryková, a daughter of the first Czechoslovak president, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk. I wonder what it was like to work with Alice and how often she saw or spoke with Alice’s father, one of the heroes of the Czech nation. I often wonder what it would be like to live during Czechoslovakia’s First Republic, which was short-lived, only lasting from 1918 to 1938. I would have loved to have met both Alice Masaryková and President Masaryk. Náďa and her husband František emigrated to the USA in 1939, the year the Nazis took over Bohemia and Moravia. František studied and worked at Harvard and Columbia for a time.

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Václav Řezáč

Vaclav Řezáč, whose house was built by František Kerhart during 1932 and 1933, made a name for himself as a writer who became successful in the 1930s by penning books for children. His best work, The Almanach of the Czech Book, was published during World War II, when the Nazis had control. He also began writing psychological novels during that era and received many accolades. His novel Black Light also became a film in which legendary Czech actor Josef Abrham played the lead role. I most admired Abrham for his role as the pickpocket pretending to work as a waiter in Run Waiter, Run!, the first screenplay that Zdeněk Svěrák wrote. Řezáč worked as an editor for the daily Lidové noviny from 1940 to 1945 and then took up screenwriting. A lot of his screenplays were made into films, some even under the Nazi Protectorate. For many years, he was the director of the state publishing house, Československý spisovatel.

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After the Communists took control in 1948, Řezáč took a strong social realist stance in his writings, promoting totalitarian ideology. I wondered if he had believed in Communism or had been pressured into becoming a mouthpiece for the regime. Maybe both? Every day I was grateful that I had not had to endure living under Communism. I had heard enough stories from my friends who grew up during totality. Hearing those tales, I felt as if Communism was something that was almost tangible, while growing up during the Cold War in the USA I had considered it to be something gray and murky, something that existed far away, in a place I would never go.

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Cyril Bouda, who had lived in the area, was such a significant artist in the Czech lands during the First Republic that he nabbed many awards. From 1946 to 1972, he was a professor at Charles University. One of his students was Jaroslav Weigel, who I have seen act many times on the stage of the Žižkov Jára Cimrman Theatre, one of  my favorite places in the world. Weigel also worked as a painter, graphic artist and screenwriter. I had always thought of him as an actor before reading about his life. I hadn’t realized he was a man of so many talents.

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Miloň Čepelka as Mrs. Žilová and Jaroslav Weigel as Mr. Žila in the Jára Cimrman Theatre’s first play, Akt

Bouda was known mostly for his graphic art and illustrations in books. He often illustrated fairy tales and legends as well as humorous and historical books. Bouda also designed some Czechoslovak stamps and a stained glass window in Saint Vitus’ Cathedral. He created a tapestry of the capital city for the Hotel Intercontinental in 1958. He was dubbed a National Artist in 1976, when the rigid normalization era of Communism was in full play. A year later, he signed the anti-Charter that opposed Charter 77, a document calling for human rights. I wondered if he had been pressured to sign the anti-Charter or if he really was against Charter 77, which was created by dissidents, including Václav Havel. I know many artists signed the anti-Charter under pressure from the regime. They must feel very guilty now for having signed it back then. I imagine it is a part of their past of which they are ashamed. But, during Communist times, things were not always black-and-white. Then again, life is full of grey areas, no matter what era you live in.

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Antonie Suková and Václav Suk had a house in Baba, too, designed by Hana Kučerová – Záveská, whose architectural signature appears on two homes. It stood out as the largest house in the area, and the design had been in part influenced by Corbusier. Suk was arrested by the Communists at the end of the 1950s, an especially dark decade for Czechoslovakia. He passed away while behind bars. Unfortunately, his story is not unique.

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The amazing athlete Jan Zadák had a house with folding wooden blinds, which were characteristic for functionalist creations in the early-to-mid 1930s. He competed in nine sports, but for fun played another 21 as well. I would love to have his stamina and to have been that fit. As a child, I had played baseball with boys and ice hockey with boys and girls. Some of my favorite afternoons involved taking part in a hockey practice followed by a baseball practice, being able to participate in two sports during one day. Zadák was especially known as a soccer goalie who became a referee when he retired. He played for Kolín and then for Sparta Praha, a famous team in the Czech lands. Even though he was so fit, he died at the early age of 66 in 1954.

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The occupants of the house with the stepped terrace garden, Václav Linda and Pavla Lindová, did not have easy lives, even though their home was architecturally impressive. Still, luck had been on their side in the end. Pavla was Jewish but was not ushered away to a concentration camp because her husband was not Jewish. The couple’s son, however, had to toil in a work camp during the Second World War. In 1968, during a more liberal time of Communism, the family emigrated to the United States.

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Stanislav Mojžíš served as director of the National Theatre when his house was built by Gočár during 1935 and 1936. The living room was very lavish with its fireplace and three big windows. He worked as director from 1932 to 1939, the year the Nazis marched into Prague. He also penned poems, historical plays, feuilletons and essays. He often used the name Stanislav Lom instead of his birth surname.

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Jan Bělehrádek’s work centered on medicine and biology. While living in Prague, he taught at Charles University. During the 1930s, as a resident of Baba, he aided anti-Fascist endeavors and even chaired the underground Czech organization, We Remain Loyal. I wondered if he had been paranoid every day that the Nazis would come to his door and take him away forever. When it seemed that the Nazis would harm his family, he scarpered off to a sanatorium on the pretense of having tuberculosis, though his illness was purely fabricated. His ruse was not successful in the end, though. In 1945, the Nazis deported him to the Czech work camp Terezín. He was lucky. He came back alive. During the Second democratic Republic of Czechoslovakia, he served as rector of Charles University. Bělehradek fled to Paris after the Communists took control in the late forties. However, his family was not able to escape with him. Finally, in 1951, he was reunited with his family abroad. He wound up working for UNESCO and settling in London.

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Karel Kytlica, the occupant of a house accented by terraces and a garden with a pergola, was a hero to many during World War II. Employed by the Ministry of Education and fluent in German, Karel was able to keep many of his employees safe and out of work camps. Karel was no fan of Communism, either. He refused to join the Party in 1948. He wound up training dogs after retiring as an invalid.

Václav Maule played significant roles as a translator, writer and publisher during the First Republic. He was incarcerated in Terezín but escaped at the end of the war. His freedom was short-lived, however. Three weeks later, he died of typhus.

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Janák had built a house for himself in Baba, too. I sometimes visited Janák’s grave in the cemetery of the Church of St. Matthew in Hanspaulka, a part of Prague’s sixth district next to Baba This prominent architect of Czech modernism style had put his John Hancock on the city of Prague. In the capital city, he not only reconstructed buildings at Prague Castle but also designed two bridges, villas in the Střešovice district, a Cubist kiosk in a park, the Adria Palace, the Škoda Palace and the Juliš Hotel. He carried out reconstruction on Černín Palace, the home of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Old Town Hall. He was also interested in art and founded the Artěl movement of handicrafts. He designed many objects and much furniture in this style. It was after 1925 that he changed from a decorative style and took up functionalism and urbanism. He also designed pavilions at the Jubilee Exhibition of 1908 and the pavilion for Czechoslovakia at an exhibition in Rio de Janeiro during 1922.

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View from Baba

While Janák’s works dotted Prague, Gočár made a name for himself in Hradec Králové and Pardubice. He was known for his creations in Cubist style before taking up functionalism and urbanism. He studied under the tutelage of well-known Czech architect Jan Kotěra. Gočár served as a professor of the Academy of Decorative Arts in Prague until 1939 and for a time also was the school’s rector. In Prague he is best known for designing the Rondocubist Legio Bank and the Cubist House of the Black Madonna, which had housed a museum of Cubism for many years. The café there was Cubist, too, a real architectural gem. Gočár also designed gravestones.

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View from Baba

Baba is not only architecture; it is people, the people who spent their everyday lives in the functionalist development, those who had experienced joy and hardship. I loved the stories those houses could tell. It was as if I could almost hear them whispering to me as I perused the exteriors. Walking through Baba is one of my favorite activities on a pleasant day. Now maybe you can understand why.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

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St. Vitus’ Cathedral as seen from Baba

City Museum of Prague Diary

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I had wanted to visit the City Museum of Prague again for some time, but I had just not gotten around to it. I remembered how the intriguing museum took visitors through the joys and disappointments of Czech history. This time, I went to see a temporary exhibition about Prague during the 20-year existence of the democratic First Republic, but, of course, I explored the entire museum as well.

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It was even more impressive than I had remembered. In the main hallway, I saw the calendar dial for Old Town’s Astronomical Clock, painted in 1865 by well-acclaimed Czech artist Josef Mánes. The dial was divided into circular rings. I took notice of the medieval syllable calendar. The folk costume-clad figures represented the 12 months, celebrating Slavic identity. I recognized Troský Castle in the background for September, and I knew that December symbolized the tradition of Czech pig-slaughtering, a custom the European Union did not approve of. A castle addict, I was excited to see Bezděz Castle in the background of the portrayal of March as a young farmer did his ploughing duties in the foreground. I remembered walking 4 kilometers from the train station to the ruins of Bezděz. It had entailed two kilometers of a steep, rocky incline that led to the remnants of what must have been at one time an impressive castle. I liked walking around the ruins, several pages that described each part in my hand, trying to imagine what it had looked like in its heyday. I wasn’t a big fan of ruins, but this one had charmed me.

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Mánes had also painted figures as zodiac signs. I saw dolphins with a plump cherub for Pisces. Sagittarius featured an Old Bohemian warrior while the depiction of Capricorn did not include any human figures but rather a cherub guiding a goat.

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I also noticed that Romanesque elements had greatly influenced the adornment on the dial. I recalled the Romanesque church in Regensburg, Germany, the façade an architectural delight. I had also seen many churches with Romanesque features in Czech villages. At the ruins of Vyšehrad Castle in Prague, St. Martin’s rotunda fit the Romanesque style.

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I walked into the prehistory section, not knowing if I would find it interesting as prehistory was not my cup of tea. I discovered that the first archeological find in Prague was unearthed near St. Matthew’s Church in Prague’s sixth district, a nice walk from where I had lived for many years. The small church had an intimate flair, and if I had been religious, I would have gone there for services. I would also like to be buried there. It is a relatively small and beautiful cemetery in my favorite section of Prague, but I do not think that would be possible. The cemetery is home to some famous Czech artists – architect Pavel Janák and actor Jiří Kemr.

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I also learned that the first farmers in Central Bohemia came in 6 BC. Another interesting fact was that the Celts, in the second half of 1 BC, were the first people to wear trousers in Central Europe.

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The medieval displays were eye-catching. Frescoes and wall paintings from Prague houses were highlighted. I read that Prague’s boroughs were created in the 13th and 14th centuries when a medieval fortress had been built. I already knew the Old Town was founded by King Wenceslas I during the 1230s. I read about the origins of the various districts of Prague. A statue that got my attention showed Christ in agony, hailing from 1413 and made of linden wood. Ceramic stove tiles showed pictures of Hussite soldiers from the 15th century, when the Hussite wars ravaged the Czech lands.

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Rudolf II’s Prague was also featured in the museum section that documented Prague from 1434 to 1620. Artists had flocked to Prague, which had made a name for itself as a center of European Mannerism. Rudolf II’s collection of art and curiosities was certainly impressive. An art gallery at Prague Castle displayed much art that had been attained during his reign. I had also seen many of Rudolf II’s curiosities in the Kunsthammer in Vienna.

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Of course, the Thirty Years’ War was given much attention, as the Catholic victory over the Protestants would greatly influence Prague and Czech history for hundreds of years. Before the war, there were many Ultraquists in Prague society. The defining battle for the Czech lands was at White Mountain in Prague during 1620. The townspeople of Prague were not happy with the then current legal, economic and political roles of towns and took part in this battle. During the war, the Saxons occupied Prague, and the Swedes pillaged and bombed the New Town in Prague.

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I remembered living near the Vltava embankment in the pleasant New Town. I tried to imagine the damage and destruction that those bombs had brought to the quarter. It must have been a devastating sight. Prague became part of a province after the war, and Baroque art and architecture became the fashion. In 1624 Catholicism became the only religion allowed in the Czech lands. During the Baroque period, Czech artists including the Dientzenhofer family of architects, sculptor Matthias Bernard Braun as well as painters Karel Škréta, Petr Brandl and Norbert Grund made their way to Prague in 1710 and had a great influence on the art in the city.

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The reign of the Habsburgs brought with it a long period of Germanization and a centralized monarchy that dominated the 18th century. Some of the exhibits on display from this century were intriguing, to say the least. A table clock took on a macabre character, featuring a skeleton wielding a scythe. There was also a wooden throne from St. Vitus Cathedral, made in the second half of the 17th century. A glass garden with musicians and nobles was another impressive creation.

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Then Prague experienced peace for 100 years. The exhibition ended with the Baroque section, but there was more to the museum, specifically Antonín Langweil’s model of Prague, constructed from 1826 to 1837. He had worked in the University Library at the Clementinum when he was not creating this amazing three-dimensional model of the city. The precision and detail left me in awe. He did not finish the project, but what he did create is astoundingly beautiful and innovative. I saw many sights I had first become acquainted with when I was a tourist in the city during the summer of 1991 – Prague Castle, the Charles Bridge and the Lesser Quarter’s main square as well as the Old Town, St. Vitus Cathedral and the Old Jewish Cemetery.

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I recalled walking to Prague Castle across the Charles Bridge early each morning when I first moved to Prague and lived in the Old Town. I would never forget standing below the balcony of Prague Castle on a frigid February evening in 1994 while Václav Havel gave a speech as the first President of the newly created Czech Republic, his wife Olga by his side. I recalled the moment I had set my eyes on Old Town Square for the first time, back in 1991, feeling at once that I had found my true home.

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What I found just as impressive as the exhibits were the richly adorned coffered ceilings in the museum. The painting is incredible. One used to be in a house in Prague and hails from the 17th century. On walls of the upper floor is a magnificent painting of the city.

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While I already had a solid foundation in Czech and Prague history before this visit, I realized how important this museum would be as a learning experience for tourists who really wanted to become acquainted with the historical events that had shaped the city’s identity through the Baroque era.

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It was such a shame that the displays ended with the Baroque era, but there was no more space in the museum. I thought that a museum of more recent history should be created with a special room celebrating Václav Havel as a dissident, playwright and president of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic.

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Walking through this museum, I was moved by the lands’ often tumultuous history and reminded how the history of the city seeps into my soul every day, no matter where I am. Just looking around me, I feel the history, which is one of the traits I like most about Prague. It is one reason I feel at home here and don’t want to leave.

Tracy Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

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2018 Travel Diary

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A building in Rovereto, one of my favorite places I discovered this past year

For me 2018 will always be associated with Palladian villas and the Veneto region of Italy, the excitement of Berlin and remarkable Czech sights. I also visited some unforgettable art exhibitions in Prague and elsewhere in Europe.

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Basilicata Palladiana, Vicenza

During March I traveled with a friend via the arsviva agency to the Veneto to see Palladian sights and other architectural gems in Vicenza, Padua and Rovereto. The three cities were fascinating, each with its own unique character. I was especially drawn to Vicenza for the Teatro Olimpico, Palazzo Leoni Montanari and Palazzo Chiericati. Of course, I admired the elegant arches and arcades of the Basilicata Palladiana.

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The highlight of my tour of Palladian architecture was the Teatro Olimpico, one of only three Renaissance theatres in existence. Palladio’s plan was based on classical architecture. I most admired the illusive architecture in the set for Oedipus Rex, the oldest existing theatre scenery, which featured painting with a false perspective. It looked as if the seven roads of Thebes led from the stage into the horizon. Also, it was difficult to fathom that the clear sky was really painted. The illusion seemed so real.

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A Russian icon in the Gallerie d’Italia

I cherished my time in the galleries of Vicenza. The Gallerie d’Italia was decorated with rich statuary, stucco ornamentation and frescoes. It houses 18th century Venetian painting, a unique 17th century sculpture made of Carrara marble and vases from Attica and Magna Graecia. However, the highlight of the gallery for me was its superb collection of Russian icons. I had only seen more intriguing collections in St. Petersburg.

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The interior of the Civic Museum

The Civic Museum in the Chiericati Palace also caught my undivided attention. The palace itself was a work of art, designed by Palladio in 1550 with frescoes and stucco adornment decorating the interior. The art spanning from the 1200s to the 20th century was incredible.

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Villa Rotunda – no pictures allowed inside

I also saw some Palladian villas, including La Rotunda, which inspired Thomas Jefferson in his design of his home at Monticello. The exterior’s appearance is that of an antique villa. The geometric design connects the sloping portico roofs with the ribs of the dome. The geometric interior was planned for comfort and beautiful views. The rooms are organized around a central hall with a dome. The villa has three floors and a mezzanine.

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Basilica of San Antonio or Basilica del Santo – no photos allowed inside

In Padua I gazed in wonder at the Basilica of Saint Antonio, which is huge with eight cupolas. The interior has a Latin cross pattern with three naves separated by pilasters. The various chapels were outstanding. The Chapel of Saint Giacomo, hails from the 14th century with six columns of red marble included in the décor. The work, “The Crucifixion” is divided into three parts on the walls. Pictures on lunettes narrate the life of Saint Giacomo the Great.

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Basilica of San Antonio, Padua

The main altar of the basilica was created by Donatello. The pictorial narration of the altar includes four miracles of Saint Antonio, sculpture of the Crucifixion, Madonna with Child and the figure of Saint Antonio, for example. The Chapel of the Saint includes the tomb of Saint Antonio. On the walls are nine reliefs of marble figures recalling miracles performed by Saint Antonio. There was so much to see, a person would need a few days to do this place of worship justice.

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Scrovegni Chapel, Padua

I also was enthralled with the Scrovegni Chapel, which featured amazing 14th century frescoes by Giotto di Bondone. Thirty-eight panels of frescoes cover three walls on three levels. I was flabbergasted, staring at each fresco in a trance.

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From the Depero Futurist House of Art, by Fortunato Depero

I was very impressed with Rovereto, a picturesque town below the Dolomites. Its charming, narrow streets and squares cast a magic spell on me. I visited the Depero Futurist House of Art, the only Futurist museum in Italy, featuring the works of Fortunato Depero, a painter, sculptor, writer and graphic designer. I learned that Futurism rejected the past and celebrated modernity as well as technological advances. The museum included furniture, painting, tapestries, cloth material, drawings, collages, posters, toys and a film. I loved the vibrant colors of many of the works.

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Nowadays school children hang out or wait for tours at the Berlin Wall remnants

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Glazed dome of Reichstag

In May I spent five days in Berlin, a city I had not visited since 1991 except for a one-day visit to the Gemaldegalerie several years earlier. The East had undergone radical changes since then, to say the least. Most of the Wall is gone. The former Communist section of the city is lively with bars and restaurants and includes most of the main sights. Now a Dunkin Donuts and Starbucks greet visitors past the Brandenberg Gate. Back in 1991, the difference between East and West Berlin was almost tangible, the East being gray, depressing and drab.

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The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

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Pieter Bruegel the Elder in the Gemaldegalerie

Once again I inspected the art ranging from medieval days to Neoclassicism in the Gemaldegalerie. I was very moved by the 220 meters of original Berlin Wall at the memorial on Bernauer Strasse. Berlin’s Cathedral impressed me a great deal with the eight mosaics decorating its dome. I had a tour of the Reichstag’s glazed dome, a superb structure of modern architecture soaring 47 meters. The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe greatly moved me with its 2,711 concrete blocks of equal size but different heights. The DDR Museum with its multimedia exhibits gave me an idea of what life was like for East Germans under Communism. The Old National Gallery bewitched me with its 19th century art collection, and the temporary exhibition Wanderlust featured 19th century landscapes with travelers on foot. I particularly liked the pictorial renditions of Naples and places in Sicily. I saw the Ishtar Gate and a building from Aleppo in the Pergamon Museum, for instance. The Museum of Decorative Arts was a treasure, too, with amazing exhibits in fashion, design and object art from the Middle Ages through Art Deco.

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Plague mask worn by doctors in the German Historical Museum

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Pictures of concentration camp prisoners

What impressed me the most was the German Historical Museum, where I spent a good part of two days. Encompassing 2,000 years of German history, the museum takes the visitor from the reign of Charlemagne to the departure of the Allies in 1994 by presenting historical facts, personalities and events and by portraying everyday life in the various eras. I especially liked the plague mask worn by doctors treating patients with this disease. Made of leather, it had a long beak and looked as if it belonged in a commedia dell’arte play. The section about World War II was especially gripping. The Germans were certainly facing that horrific part of their past head-on in this museum.

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Troja Chateau from Prague’s Botanical Gardens

When my parents visited, we toured the dazzling Rudolfinum with its beautiful Dvořák concert hall. President Tomáš G. Masaryk was elected in that building on three occasions, when Parliament had met there during the First Republic. I visited the lovely and vast Botanical Gardens in Troja, examining the southern part and the greenhouse. The views of Troja Chateau from the gardens were unbeatable.

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Prague’s National Museum restored

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Painting of Karlštejn Castle in National Museum

Shortly after it reopened after a seven-year renovation, I spent time in the National Museum of Prague. The exhibition about Czech and Slovak relations during the past 100 years and life under Communism was outstanding. The permanent display also was captivating, but the place was so crowded. A Neo-Renaissance gem, the National Museum features amazing sculpture, painting and architectural elements. I especially liked the pantheon, where paintings, statues and busts celebrate Czech culture and history. The four paintings of castles in Bohemia impressed this avid castlegoer. I also explored the Hanspaulka, Ořechovka and Baba sections of Prague with their distinctive villas.

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Gothic archway in Horšovský Týn Castle

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From Horšovský Týn Chateau

Out of Prague I made my way back to Osek Monastery below the Krušné Mountains, established in the 13th century. The Chapter Hall was one of the first Gothic buildings erected in the Czech lands while the interior of the church takes on a Baroque appearance. Hořovice Chateau is much younger, hailing from the late 17th century. The Late Baroque décor includes a fantastic ceiling fresco in the hall of the main staircase. The Large Dining Hall amazes with Second Rococo adornment. Horšovský Týn Castle and Chateau offers six tours; we had time for two. Established in the 13th century, it includes an 18th century pool table with its sides decorated in tortoiseshell and intarsia. A Rococo jewel case and Holland Rococo display case caught my attention, too. The Italian vedutas of Venice made me long for that Italian city. The 18th century Dancing Hall features four big wall mirrors and a 28-branch chandelier made of Czech glass. Ceiling frescoes also captured my interest. However, the original Gothic portal at the entrance to the chapel was the most outstanding architectural feature. The chapel was magical, too. Velké Březno, one of the youngest and smallest chateaus in the Czech lands, also amazed.

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Ceiling fresco at Hořovice Chateau

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Velké Březno Chateau interior

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Velké Březno Chateau exterior

I also spent time in museums this past year. In Vienna I saw the excellent Monet exhibition as well as the Pieter Bruegel the Elder exhibition. Both captivated me. In Prague the exhibition showcasing the various collages of Jiří Kolář was an art highlight. The exhibition about Czech and Czechoslovak history in the Riding School of Prague Castle was unforgettable. There were many more art-related highlights, but I do not have time to mention them all.

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Collage by Jiří Kolář

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Prague Castle Riding School exhibition

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From Czechoslovak Exhibition at National Museum, cash register from beginning of 20th century

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

 

 

 

National Museum Diary

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I was introduced to Prague’s National Museum during July of 1991, when, for the first time, I saw objects and attire from World War II on exhibit there. I couldn’t believe that I was actually looking at real Nazi uniforms and authentic items from the horrific era of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, a period I had only read about in books while growing up in the USA. The exhibition made me even more aware of what a nightmarish time of oppression and terror it had been. I had never felt so close to history before that trip to Prague. It was an unforgettable experience for me, as were many moments during that first foray to one of the lands of my ancestors. By the time I moved to Prague in September of that year, the exhibition was gone. I occasionally visited the museum after that, but nothing there would influence me that strongly.

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Fast forward to late October of 2018, when the National Museum reopened after seven years of reconstruction. The once grimy façade of the Neo-Renaissance gem now looked squeaky clean. Inside the most significant scientific and cultural institution in Bohemia was an exhibition about Czechs and Slovaks during the 100 years of existence since Czechoslovakia was formed in 1918. Right now, though, I am going to write about what I saw in the building itself as I savored the beauty of the sculpture, painting and architecture of the interior.

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First, it is necessary to have some background about the museum in order to appreciate it fully. The year 2018 marks the 200th anniversary of its founding, as Kašpar Maria Šternberg and other prominent Czechs established the institution in 1818. During the 19th century, the museum became a symbol for Czech nationalism. At the time, Czechs were experiencing an era of Germanization with the Habsburg rulers at the helm. The Journal of the Bohemian Museum published there in Czech had a profound influence on Czech literature.

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The current building was erected from 1885 to 1891 thanks to architect Josef Schulz. The edifice survived World War II but not without damage. The items normally housed in the museum had been transferred to another location, fortunately. Still, that wouldn’t be the last time the National Museum became a victim of historical events. When the Warsaw Pact armies invaded Prague in August of 1968, the Soviets shot at the museum, riddling it with bullet holes. The Russians also destroyed some sculptures, for instance. During 1969, university student Jan Palach set fire to himself as a protest against the rigid normalization period in front of the museum. He would succumb to his injuries in the hospital. The National Museum was also damaged during the construction of the Prague Metro in 1972. Six years later a large highway around the museum would prove a detriment.

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The museum has served as a backdrop for many demonstrations and events throughout Czech history. I recalled the museum looming in the background as I walked around the State of Saint Wenceslas in December of 2011, observing all the candles and tributes to former dissident-turned-president Václav Havel shortly after his death. I had set a rose in front of the statue. Thinking back, I missed those days when Havel had been in the Castle.

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The exterior of the National Museum that dominates Wenceslas Square is noteworthy. Sandstone statues, stucco and exquisite reliefs all add to its elegance and distinction. Allegorical statues are situated above a fountain, for example. The building consists of a large central tower with a dome and a lantern. There are four domes. A pantheon is located beneath the main dome. The exterior staircase is grandiose, too. In front of the museum, there is a splendid view of Wenceslas Square.

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The moment I stepped inside the museum I was again entranced with its elegance. The entrance hall consisted of a monumental staircase fit for royalty with a coffered ceiling and 20 tall columns of red Swedish granite. Above are two floors with decorated arcades and beautiful floors. Upstairs I saw portraits of rulers of Bohemia and four paintings of significant castles in Bohemia – Prague Castle, Karlštejn, Zvíkov and Křivoklát. I loved spending my spring and summer weekends castle-hopping. I remember the many strolls I took to Prague Castle across the Charles Bridge many early mornings when I first moved to Prague and resided in the center. The chapel at Karlštejn Castle was one of the most beautiful sights in a castle interior. I also spent time admiring the 12 depictions of historical places in Bohemia, such as that of Český Krumlov, the most picturesque town in the country after Prague with its castle boasting three tours and Baroque theatre as well as extensive castle garden. Bronze busts rounded out the decoration.

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The pantheon is perhaps my favorite section of the museum because it celebrates Czech history and culture, two subjects dear to my heart. The paintings, statues and busts serve as poignant reminders of the nation’s cultural accomplishments and historical contributions. Even the door of the pantheon is magnificent with its rich woodcarving. In the pantheon I found statues of Czech historical figures who have made me excited about the nation’s history – František Palacký, a 19th century historian, politician and writer dubbed The Father of the Nation. His seven-volume History of the Czech Nation in Bohemia and Moravia remains a significant source of information for modern day historians. He also was a major participant in the Czech National Revival.

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Jan Amos Comenius’s likeness was there, too. He was a religious and educational reformer who authored textbooks, encyclopedias and dictionaries as well as one of the most important works of Czech literature, The Labyrinth of the World and Paradise of the Heart. The statue of Antonín Dvořák made me think of his New World Symphony, which I saw the Czech Philharmonic perform in an awe-inspiring concert. Karel Čapek’s statue brought to mind my graduate studies that in part focused on his plethora of works of various genres. The paintings in the chamber are also extraordinary. One of the lunettes that celebrates Czech history in the pantheon shows the founding of Prague University, now Charles University, in 1348 with Emperor Charles IV playing the central role.

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The statue of first Czechoslovak President Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk has an intriguing history. It was removed during World War II and slated to be melted, but somehow survived a tenure in a junkyard and was reinstalled after the war. During the Stalinist 1950s, the government wasn’t exactly enthralled with Masaryk, so his statue was placed in the depository. When the liberal reforms of the 1968 Prague Spring were in full swing, the statue of Masaryk was reinstated in the pantheon. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Masaryk’s likeness remained there, even though the Communists did not put him in a favorable light. If I could live in another time period, I would choose the 1920s of Czechoslovakia, when the country was freshly on a democratic path with Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk leading the way.

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Once again, the building cast a magical spell on me as I felt overwhelmed by the painting and sculptural decoration. Both the exterior and interior were filled with a sense of grandeur and splendor that made me reluctant to leave.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

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View of Wenceslas Square from the National Museum

The Reichstag and other Monuments Diary

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The Brandenburg Gate

On my way to the Reichstag, I stopped to admire the Brandenburg Gate. I noticed the Dunkin Donuts and Starbucks on the Unter der Linden near the monument in what had once been East Berlin. I remembered passing through the Brandenburg Gate on the way to East Berlin in July of 1991. The moment I walked through the gate, I felt as if I had entered a different world – a grey, stagnant, suffocating and gloomy one. However, I remember West Berlin as vibrant and bustling during that visit.

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I took a few moments to reflect on the historical moments associated with the neoclassical gate in front of me. It was built in the 18th century for Prussian King Frederick William II to symbolize peace, but what turbulent times it has witnessed! I counted the 12 Doric columns and took a good look at the Quadriga, the goddess Victoria on a horse-drawn chariot, perched on top of the monument. Napoleon’s troops had marched through it triumphantly and then soon after the Prussians had done the same. For the Nazis, the gate made a political statement. The monument suffered damage during World War II.

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When the Berlin Wall was erected in August of 1961, it functioned as a border crossing that was closed off. West Berliners often took part in demonstrations calling for freedom near the gate. During that magic date of November 9, 1989, when the Berlin Wall no longer was a barrier between East and West, Germans celebrated their newly found freedom there. The wall was torn down in that area during 1990. U.S. Presidents had made speeches there. It was the site of President Ronald Reagan’s famous words, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” Presidents Kennedy, Clinton and Obama had spoken there as well.

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After some minutes of reflection, I went to the Reichstag entrance and presented my booking confirmation in front of a tent. I booked a tour of the glazed dome at least three weeks in advance. I had heard it was an architectural gem, and it was not possible to visit it without making a reservation. I was too early, so I decided to take a look at some monuments nearby, such as the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.

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Memorial to Politicans who Opposed Hitler

First, I noticed a small monument of crooked slabs next to the entrance tent of the Reichstag. I had read that there were 96 slabs, symbolizing the 96 members of Parliament who had opposed Hitler and had paid the ultimate price for their bravery. The sharpness of the slabs made me think of the harsh times in which the politicians had lived and how it was a time when they had to pay with their lives to stand up for what they believed in. The monument had a harshness about it – the harshness of history, the harshness of their punishment. The slabs resembled gravestones.

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Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

Then I walked across from the American Embassy and found the 2,711 concrete pillars that made up the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. All the blocks were the same size, but their heights varied. It was possible to stand on the pillars or walk between them. I was very moved by this abstract memorial. Walking through the pillars, I felt claustrophobic and trapped, feelings I would associate with the plight of the Jews commemorated by this monument. The shadows around the pillars made me think of danger lurking around every corner, Jews not knowing who would give them up if they were in hiding, not knowing when they would be gassed in the concentration camps – for them, danger had lurked around every corner. I stood on one block and looked at the others. I thought they resembled caskets. In my opinion, this monument was ingenious. I would have never guessed that a memorial made up of concrete blocks could make such a strong impression on me.

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In a park near the Reichstag, I walked through a rusty gate and noticed a small, tranquil circular pond. In the middle of the pond was a triangular stone with one flower on top. This was the Monument to the Murdered Sinti and Roma (commonly called gypsies) of Europe. On the pavement around the monument, the names of concentration camps had been inscribed. With my head down, I looked at the word Dachau on one paving stone and Auschwitz on another. Just seeing those names was poignant and powerful, heart wrenching even. It astonished me that something so simple as the names of the camps could move me so strongly. In fact, the entire monument moved me precisely because of its simplicity. The single flower on the stone slab symbolized reverence and respect for the lives lost, making me think that now the 500,000 Roma and Sinti who had died during World War II were no longer forgotten, no longer buried in history.

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Monument to the Murdered Sinti and Roma of Europe

Then it was time to return to the Reichstag for my tour. First, I was ushered in a tent with many others and underwent a security check there. Then a large group crowded near the exit of the tent, waiting for the signal that we could walk up to the historical building.

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Finally, we got the go ahead, and I stopped in front of the façade of the building, above which the words proclaimed “Dem Deutschen Volke” or “To the German People,” an ironic phrase considering the edifice’s turbulent history. The outer shape of the elegantly columned Reichstag had been preserved.

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I thought back to the history of the building that was inaugurated in 1894. Back then, the Imperial Diet of the German Empire discussed and debated politics there. The Reichstag continued to serve this purpose until 1933. I tried to imagine standing in the crowd below as, during 1918, politician and head of the Social Democratic Party of Germany, Philipp Scheidemann, announced the formation of the German Republic from one of the Reichstag’s windows. When democracy came to an end in Germany and Hitler asserted more power in 1933, the Reichstag was set on fire and severely damaged. Who did the evil deed is still a mystery.

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When the Russians set foot in Berlin during 1945, they placed a Soviet flag above the Reichstag. I could almost see the red flag with the hammer and sickle flapping in the breeze. The Berlin Wall, constructed in 1961, stood very near the Reichstag, which was situated in the West. During 1973, the Reichstag became home to a permanent exhibition on German history, and sometimes political meetings were held there.

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During 1990, the reunification ceremony of Germany took place in the building by which I was so entranced. In 1995 British architect Norman Foster began reconstructing the building, leaving the exterior as a sort of outer shell in its old style while redoing the interior in a modern way. During 1999 the German Parliament made its home in the Reichstag after moving from Bonn.

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The moment I walked inside the Reichstag, I got a taste of the modern interior. It was a different world from the majestic exterior. The modern design was sleek, impressive. After taking an audio guide, I took an elevator and then made my way up the dome. For 20 minutes, I listened to interesting information about the Reichstag and the historic buildings that dotted the panorama as seen from the dome. I also learned about Berlin Cathedral and the three new parliamentary buildings surrounding the Reichstag, for instance. The modern cupola had replaced the original one that burned down in 1933. The modern architectural creation had a transparent quality that I found enlightening.

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During this visit to Berlin, I felt as if the city was being transparent about its past, particularly about the horrors of World War II. The official names of the Holocaust Memorial and Monument to the Sinti and Roma have the word “murdered” in them, epitomizing harsh reality and a good, long look in the mirror of history, an acceptance of the past and a determination never to repeat it. With the right lighting, from the top of the dome there was a view of the plenary chamber. I felt as if nothing was hidden from the dome. Everything was there for everyone to see, judge and criticize as they pleased. There was a sense of fluidity and freedom in the architecture. During my visit in 1991, however, I had felt as if Berlin was trying to hide the horrific part of its past, which, of course, was impossible to do.

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I also spent time taking photos from the extensive roof terrace, which also offered stunning views of the city. Unfortunately, I did not see the graffiti the Soviets left on the roof when they occupied the Reichstag at the end of World War II. The café on the terrace was closed during my visit.

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I was very impressed with the preservation of the outer form of the building and the daring fresh look of the interior and dome. It was as if the Germans were not forgetting the past but were also moving forward.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

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Berlin Cathedral Diary

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When I entered Berlin Cathedral, the word that best described my impression was grandeur. I looked up at the dome’s eight mosaics portraying the beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount and was almost overcome with a sense of awe, even more of a sense of awe than I had felt when I viewed the western façade of the 98-meter high building. The mosaics by Anton V. Werner were stunning, indeed and my favorite feature of the cathedral.

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Mosaics in half-domes of diagonal apses showed the evangelists, and of the four sandstone figures representing personalities in the German Reformation to the left and right of the triumphal arch, I only recognized Martin Luther. There were also statues of John Calvin, a French theologian, pastor and reformer in Geneva; Huldrych Zwingli, a leader of the Reformation in Switzerland; and Philip Melanchthon, the first systematic theologian of the Protestant Reformation who had great influence on the educational system. The cathedral took 11 years to build, from 1894 to 1905. Back then, it was Emperor Wilhelm II’s personal church, constructed in Italian Renaissance style. Today it takes on a neo-Baroque character and stands out prominently in the skyline as I would find out when I walked up the ramp in the dome of the Reichstag, peering down at the marvelous and magical city.

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I was aware that the history of the cathedral was a turbulent one. Much of the cathedral had been destroyed by a bomb in May of 1944. That is when the dome had collapsed. Much of the interior had been reduced to ruins, and even the tombs in the crypt hadn’t fared well at all. While reconstruction did not get underway until 1975, it would take many years to do a full makeover so that Berlin Cathedral could once again be a place epitomizing grandeur. The baptism and matrimonial church section was ready for the public within five years, but for the main church, the path back to grandeur would be a very long one. The main church was reopened in 1993, but the reconstruction wasn’t actually finished until 2002.

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The sarcophagi in the cathedral were made in various styles, created from an array of materials, making an eclectic display of funerary monuments to significant players in German history. The medieval sarcophagus of Electoral Prince Johann Cicero was the oldest, dating back to the 16th century. While that memorial was bronze, the monument of Emperor Friedrich III was made of marble. King Friedrich I and Queen Sophie Charlotte had golden sarcophagi, both with impressive statuary decoration at the foot of the monuments. I liked the figure of Death writing in a book on the funerary tribute to Queen Sophie Charlotte. Electoral Prince Friedrich Wilhelm and his second wife Dorothea were buried in sarcophagi featuring Baroque elements.

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The main altar was made of white marble with yellow onyx columns. Candleholders were created from gilded iron while the Apostles’ Screen was constructed from gilded bronze. I admired the masterful carving of the pulpit with its elegant gold decoration.

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I’ve always admired stained glass windows, and the windows in this cathedral were no exception. I saw stained glass representing the birth, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In another window, a stained glass banner denoting victory symbolized hope.

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Four sandstone reliefs showed scenes from the Acts of the Apostles. I admired the majestic atmosphere created by the red velvet banner decorated with gold that was part of the Emperor’s Box, from which the royals would have observed the religious service. Candelabras and a coat-of-arms added to the elegance. The chancel boasted gold decoration in wall panels, for instance.

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Built at the same time as the cathedral, the organ was once the largest in Germany. Manufactured by Wilhelm Sauer, the organ is one of the most important instruments of its kind from the German Late Romantic period. It includes 7,269 pipes, 113 stops and four manuals. Later, I was reading about the history of the organ. While it suffered only minor damage during World War II, after the war more than a thousand of its pipes were stolen and sold as scrap metal. The organ was under reconstruction from 1991 to 1993.

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The Emperor’s Staircase added to the superb grandeur of the place, made with various colors of marble and decorated with a gilded bronze chandelier. The golden glass in the doors and panels was also impressive, to say the least. I tried to imagine the nation’s leaders entering by this staircase.

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The upper level was not without its delights, either. No less than thirteen wall and ceiling paintings there depicted stories from the life of Christ and parables of Jesus. The baptism and matrimonial chapel, still in use today, flaunted three impressive paintings and a superb organ.

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The crypt was a visual narration of 500 years of the prominent figures in history from the Hohenzollern dynasty. There were 94 members of the clan buried in tombs, coffins and sarcophagi, dating from the end of the 16th to the beginning of the 20th century.

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I did not remember the cathedral from my trip to Berlin in 1991. At that time, perhaps only the baptism and matrimonial church had been open to visitors as the crypt had been under reconstruction for a while after being severely damaged during the war. I remember that everything was centered on what was then West Berlin in those days, so I may not have even ventured as far as the cathedral site.

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Berlin Cathedral was the first monument I visited during my second trip to Berlin, and I knew that I would be very impressed with the city after my trip got off to such a good start. It was in delightful location, too, on the embankment of the Spree River. From the cathedral, I made my way to museums on Museum Island. There was much to see in a city whose magic was already casting a spell on me.

Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.

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