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

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Rudolfinum Diary

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The Rudolfinum with the statue of Antonín Dvořák

Back in college, on a whim I took a classical music course, and soon I was hooked. Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony and Dvořák’s New World Symphony enthralled me, but I became a fan of many other composers as well – Rachmaninoff, Vaughan Williams, Smetana, Charles Ives, Aaron Copland, Martinů, Mozart, Chopin, Bartók. Even the dissonance of Arnold Schoenberg captured my undivided attention. During my university years, I would take the bus from Smith College to Springfield, Massachusetts in order to attend Springfield Symphony concerts once a month.

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In Prague I would sometimes admire the statue of Dvořák in front of the Rudolfinum, and, occasionally, I would visit the art gallery in the building to see intriguing contemporary exhibitions. However, for some reason, I did not go into the concert hall of the Rudolfinum for a long time. I assumed all the concerts would be too expensive, and everything would sell out immediately.

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Then, a few years ago, in the midst of a classical music craving, I went to a piano recital in the Dvořák Hall of the Rudolfinum. I just had to go back. Again. And again. I went as often as I could, both to concerts in the large Dvořák Hall auditorium and to chamber concerts in the Suk Hall.  Dvořák Hall, one of the oldest in Europe, has the capacity of 1,148 places with 1,104 seats. Standing room is big enough for 40 concertgoers, and there are four places designated for the wheelchair-disabled.

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The following year I purchased season tickets to three cycles. Attending concerts not only allows me to hear worldwide acclaimed musicians but also to relieve stress and get my mind off any worries or concerns for a few hours.

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Although I studied piano for fun in college, my favorite instrument is the violin. In Prague, I discovered the masterful interpretations of Czech violinists Josef Suk, Jiří Vodička and Josef Špaček. The violin enchants me, all the more because it is an instrument I know I could never even hold properly let alone play.

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I did not know that there were tours of the Rudolfinum until I wrote to the box office and asked. I recommend all tourists interested in Czechoslovak history to take the tour, which is available in English. The story of the Rudolfinum is not only the story of Czech and Czechoslovak music but also the tale of Czech and Czechoslovak history. The Rudolfinum is not merely another music venue in Prague. It is a remarkable Neo-Renaissance building in which Czechoslovak history has been played out.

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The Rudolfinum opened its doors February 7, 1885. It was designed by architect Josef Zítek and his student Josef Schulz and named after Crown Prince Rudolf of the Habsburg clan. The Crown Prince was present at the inaugural performance. The Czech Philharmonic played here for the first time on January 4, 1896, in a concert that Dvořák himself conducted. The Czech Philharmonic has called the building home since 1946.

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However, the Rudolfinum has not only been a captivating venue for concerts. From 1919 to 1939, the seat of Czech Parliament was here. In Dvořák Hall during 1920, 1924 and 1934, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk was elected President of Czechoslovakia. Sometimes, waiting for a concert to start, I try to imagine the atmosphere of those elections playing out in the very same hall where I am seated.

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Because I like to know something about the history of the orchestra I am seeing perform, I looked up information about the various conductors of the Czech Philharmonic.

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After Czechoslovakia was founded in 1918, Václav Talich became the main conductor and would serve in that capacity until 1941. His tenure lasted almost 1,000 concerts. Thanks to Talich, the Czech Philharmonic received worldwide acclaim. He first conducted with the Czech Philharmonic in 1917 at age 34.

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Talich’s personal history is colorful. He was put in jail after World War II, accused of collaborating with the Nazis, but there was no proof to support the charge. After the Communist coup in 1948, he found himself immersed in troubles again. The Communists forbid him from conducting in any public place until 1954.

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From 1942 to 1948, Raphael Kubelík worked as the main Czech conductor with the Philharmonic, but he also was known for his accomplishments as a composer and as a violinist. He was an expert on pieces created by Czech and other Slavic composers. He also was known for his interpretations of compositions by Gustav Mahler and Béla Bartók. He emigrated after the 1948 Communist coup, when the Communists took over the Czechoslovak government.

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Karel Ančerl’s biography is fraught with tragedy. He was making a name for himself as a conductor when World War II changed everything. The Nazis forced him to work as a forester, and then incarcerated him. During 1942, he was transported to Terezín, where even the depressing atmosphere of a concentration camp could not stop him from continuing musical endeavors. Two years later, Ančerl was sent to Auschwitz. He was the only member of his family to survive the war. Ančerl took over the Czech Philharmonic in 1948. He would stay for 20 seasons, until he emigrated after Russian tanks invaded Czechoslavkia, crushing the liberal reforms of the Prague Spring in 1968.

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For the past few seasons, I had watched Jiří Bělohlávek at the helm of the Czech Philharmonic. His interpretations of music received praise throughout the world. He worked with the Prague Philharmonic from 1994 to 2005 and then conducted with the BBC Symphony Orchestra from 2006 to 2012. He first held the post of main conductor with the Czech Philharmonic from 1990 to 1992. He rejoined the Czech Philharmonic again in 2012. His interpretation of the third and fourth symphonies of Bohuslav Martinů earned him a nomination for a Grammy in 2005. In April of 2012, he received the medal of the British Imperial Order. Unfortunately, he died May 31, 2017. I am honored that I was able to attend so many of his concerts.

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The tour of the Rudolfinum takes music enthusiasts onto the stage of the Dvořák Hall where one can appreciate the rich decoration on the balustrades and painted ceiling with elegant chandelier. I loved the bright blue color in the superb ceiling painting. On the balcony, there is an intimate reception room for special guests. On the roof I saw many statues as well as beehives. (The National Theatre also makes its own honey, by the way.) I admired the superb views of Prague Castle.

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On the first floor, I took note of the busts of various Czech musicians and conductors. I took a photo of the bust of Karel Šejna, who was a double bassist with the Czech Philharmonic who served as main conductor in 1950. That year he led the Czech Philharmonic in concerts in England as well as East and West Germany. He was known for his interpretations of the music of Hector Berlioz, Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler.

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The Conductor’s Room

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I was also entranced with the black-and-white photos of Czechs who made great contributions to musical history. Some of the photos were even autographed. I especially liked the Conductor’s Room. The blues and reds of the carpet appealed to me as did the various styles of furniture. I could imagine one of the former conductors playing a Mozart melody on the Petrov piano, deep in thought. The photos of musicians on the walls gave me the feeling the space was imbued with historical resonance.

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Seeing the building from a tourist’s perspective was enlightening. Still, I am most content as a concertgoer in elegant Dvořák Hall, listening to musicians warm up their instruments, anticipating the concert soon to come.

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

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Sychrov Chateau Diary

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I had visited Sychrov on two occasions. The Neo-Gothic façade never failed to captivate me. The exterior was so impressive, and I knew very well that the architecture and furnishings of the interior were just as stunning. Still, this time would be different from my previous visits because I was going on Tour B as well as Tour A. Tour B focuses on rooms decorated as they were during the First Czechoslovak Republic of the early 20th century and is only offered in July and August. Tour A takes visitors back to the end of the 19th century. While I was waiting for Tour B to begin, I studied the coats-of-arms painted on the walls facing the courtyard of the chateau and earnestly took photographs.
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I was already familiar with the history of the chateau, which had been owned by the Rohan clan of French origin for 125 years. Let’s start at the beginning: The village harkened back to the 14th century. A fortress was built there in the following century. The chateau, however, came into existence at the end of the 17th century, when French knights called the Lamotts of Frintropp erected a small, Baroque chateau with a high tower and park.
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The Rohans had to leave France after the French Revolution. Austrian Vice Marshall Charles Alain Gabriel Rohan bought the chateau in 1820, and the family’s more-than-a-hundred year tenure would make the chateau the gem it is today. The Rohan dynasty hailed from the 10th century and got their name from a town in Brittany. It is said that their ancestors even went back to the founder of Brittany, Conan Meriadoc. Prestigious members of the Rohan clan included four cardinals serving as Bishop of Strasbourg during the 18th century. Other Rohans had enjoyed political and military success, too.
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Henri, known as Duke of Rohan was successful as a writer as well as a soldier. His memoirs are considered to be one of the best by French nobility during the 16th and 17th centuries. He also penned descriptions of his travels and also published a historical account of war. As a soldier he was a leader of the Huguenots and also played a role in the Thirty Years’ War.
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One member of the family even appeared in two of Alexandre Dumas’ novels – The Three Musketeers and Twenty Years After. Marie of Rohan, also referred to as the Duchess of Chartreuse, had befriended the queen of France. She was blamed for the queen’s miscarriage and was subsequently banished from the court. Then she initiated many conspiracies against France. Exerting her political influence, she even encouraged foreign powers to take stances against France. An opera has been written about her, and several books about her life have been published.
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The Rohans made many changes to the Baroque structure, transforming it into Classicist style. During 1834 and 1835 French King Charles X and his family resided there. The king had been forced to flee from France after the July Revolution in 1830, triggered by the four ordinances he put into effect. He began censoring the press, dissolved the newly elected chamber, made changes to the electoral system and demanded new elections in September of that year. First, journalists revolted and then many others joined them. During the winter of 1832 and 1833, the king in exile lived in Prague Castle, a guest of Habsburg Emperor Francis I of Austria. He is buried in a family crypt at Kostanjevica Monastery in Nova Gorica, Slovenia.
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The chateau would undergo more changes. From 1847 to 1862, during the tenure of Kamil Josef Philip Idesbald Rohan, Sychrov became an architectural jewel in Neo-Gothic style, flaunting many romantic elements. In the 1850s the façade took on a Neo-Gothic appearance, and the two main chateau towers, the Austrian or Rohan Tower and the Brittany Tower, were built. One of the architects responsible for the Neo-Gothic designs was Bernard Grueber, who had also worked his magic on Prague’s Old Town Hall, Orlík Chateau and Blatná Chateau.
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This period proved to be Sychrov’s golden age. After this architectural transformation, Habsburg Emperor Franz Joseph I visited the chateau, and his son, Crown Prince Rudolf, stayed there twice. The last Rohan owners were Dr. Alain Rohan and his Austrian wife, Margarita. They had five daughters, one of whom died young.
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Because he had taken German citizenship, Dr. Alain Rohan lost the chateau, according to the Beneš’ decrees instigated by Czechoslovak President Edvard Beneš. I was fascinated by the tour guide’s tale of how the seven Rohan women fled from Sychrov. When the Russians came to the chateau, the seven Rohan women crawled on the floors, so the Russians would not see them. Then they fled one night to Prague. From Prague they continued to Austria. In 1945 Dr. Alain Rohan was arrested, and his wife Margarita was told that he was dead. But he wasn’t. In reality, he walked from Dresden to Austria. It sounded like a plot for a Dan Silva novel. That same year the chateau was nationalized, and during 1950 six rooms were open to the public. More reconstruction took place later that century and during this century, too.
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Soon it was time for Tour B to begin. First, we entered the Assumption of the Virgin Chapel. I was captivated by the main altar, made out of Carrara marble. Antonín Dvořák had played on the Neo-Gothic organ here. He often traveled to Sychrov to meet with his friend, the chateau’s caretaker. The pulpit was decorated with paintings of the four Evangelists and their attributes. The adornment of the stained glass windows focused on the life of the Virgin Mary. I noticed a rendering of the Annunciation in one window. The exquisite benches were made by carver Petr Bušek, who spent almost 40 years decorating the chateau with wood paneling, wooden ceilings and wooden furniture pieces during the 19th century. Also, two plaques commemorated the visits of Franz Joseph and Crown Prince Rudolf.
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We walked down a hallway where there were pictures of 19th century German soldiers in various uniforms. Then we entered a room filled with snapshots of the trips that Dr. Alain and Margarita had taken. I saw them on a ship, traveling from Milwaukee, Wisconsin to New York and I saw them in Egypt, India and Italy. I saw pictures of them on horseback and on the tennis court that once was in the chateau park. In another photo they were skiing.
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Then there were pictures of their five daughters, one of whom died young. In one photo the children were wearing masks, dressed in costumes while playing theatre. Five young girls were gathered on the roof of a cabin in a park. One photo showed a fat donkey named Muki. Yet there were not only pictures of the family in the room. When the family emerged from bad car accident unscathed, they wrote a thank you letter to the Pope. The Pope’s answer was on display.
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I liked the room decorated with photos of the family. The owners and their children were no longer only names listed in the history of the chateau. They were real people who enjoyed traveling, playing tennis and skiing. I saw pictures of the daughters, happy and content. When I looked at the pictures from their travels, I thought about the valuable insights I had gained while traveling and how the act of traveling had made me a better person – the experiences had helped me grow as a person. As I learn about a new place, I learn about myself, too.
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Another space was shaped like a Turkish tent. The Rohans collected military tents, armor and weapons. Pictures showed the area surrounding the chateau at the end of the 19th century and the interiors as they had looked during that time period.
We entered a room with a staircase, and I was captivated by the richly decorated wooden ceiling, the masterful work of Petr Bušek. The hallway sported graphics of historical themes and mythology.
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Next was Tour A, which depicted the chateau as it had been in the second half of the 19th century. We came to Staircase Hall with the impressive statue of Jindřich (Henri) from Rohan, armed with a sword, with one hand leaning on the scabbard, celebrating his military successes. He had a small, pointy beard and mustache. Then we got our first taste of the Rohan portrait gallery, which included 242 portraits of French origin, mostly of the Rohan family but also of French kings and queens. It was the biggest collection of French portrait painting in Central Europe. The first portraits were made in the 16th century. In the Royal Apartment reserved for guests, there were portraits of French kings. We also saw the Neo-Gothic bedroom where Emperor Franz Joseph and Crown Prince Rudolf had slept. The bed looked small.

The bed where Emperor Franz Joseph and Crown Prince Rudolf slept

The bed where Emperor Franz Joseph and Crown Prince Rudolf slept


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Kamil Rohan’s study focused on botany, one of his hobbies. On his desk was a book about herbs, a globe and microscope. A large book about herbs from the first half of the 19th century was on a stand at one side of the room. The book contained handwritten drawings. I wished I could turn the pages and look at all the drawings closely.
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In the Yellow Salon, used for unofficial visits, three yellow vases got my attention. I loved the color yellow because it looked so cheerful. It reminded me of my mother, always the optimist. We saw a narrow, spiral wooden staircase with rich woodcarving designs by Bušek from the 1850s. What masterful woodwork! It reminded me of the spiral staircase at Lednice Chateau, also Neo-Gothic in style, in south Moravia. I also gazed at paintings of the Rohan ancestors from the Middle Ages. Because the Rohans did not know what these ancestors had looked like, Czech painter Karel Javůrek used his imagination when rendering the portraits. In the Blue Cabinet there were exquisite figures of Viennese and Meissen porcelain. A black jewel chest with gemstones decorating the drawers got my attention, too.
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The Fireplace Room was impressive as was the Reception Room, which featured rich wood paneling and an impressive wooden ceiling. More impressive carving by Bušek! The library held about 7,000 books, including 1,614 prints dating before 1800 and a manuscript from the 15th century. A folding leather chair caught my eye, too. The Prague Salon featured authentic leather wallpaper. The Big Dining Room looked a bit like a Knights’ Hall from the Middle Ages. It featured large portraits of Rohan owners. In one portrait Kamil Rohan looked suspicious of the photographer. I loved the wooden chairs with the “R” gold monograms and richly decorated backs.
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After the tour I walked through the park and took a seat outside at the Neo-Renaissance Orangery, from which I gazed at the chateau and admired its two-arm monumental sandstone staircase. The park covered 26 hectares, and included many kinds of woody plants thanks to Kamil Rohan and his interest in botany. The many kind of trees included Dawn Redwood and oak-leaf beech. I had a piece of tasty cake and a cup of cappuccino. I reflected on how enriched my life had been thanks to travel and how grateful I was to have the opportunity to travel. In my mind I saw the photos of the Rohan family on their trips and wondered how travel had enriched their lives. I had lunch in the chateau restaurant, sitting outside on such a sunny day.
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Then it was time to head back to Liberec, where I would get a bus to Prague. Sychrov had more than lived up to my expectations. I felt as if I had personally known Dr. Alain Rohan and his family thanks to the snapshots. The Neo-Gothic façade and interiors did not disappoint, either. What a skilled craftsman Petr Bušek had been! I loved the woodwork, especially the wooden ceilings and wood paneling. Again, it reminded me of Lednice Chateau, also one of my all-time favorites. Sychrov was certainly one of the most impressive chateaus I had seen.
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Tracy A. Burns is a proofreader, writer and editor in Prague.