Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio Diary

When I entered the large courtyard of the basilica in Milan, I thought that this must be one of the most beautiful Romanesque buildings I had ever seen. I reminded myself that I was looking at one of the oldest churches in Milan, built by Saint Ambrose in the fourth century over a cemetery for martyrs. Saint Ambrose had built four churches, then situated outside the walls of the city. A monastery was located there from 789, housing two different monastic communities who had each built a bell tower.

The current appearance stemmed from a 12th century transformation into Lombard Romanesque style. In 1528, The Peace of St. Ambrose had been penned there between the nobility and the populace. Kings of Italy and emperors of the Holy Roman Empire had been crowned there during Romanesque and medieval times. There was 15th century renovation carried out by Donato Bramante, who had served as architect of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. In August of 1943, the basilica was bombed, causing much damage to the apse and other areas. Restoration had worked wonders.

Standing in the atrium, I concentrated on the exterior. The red brick color of the Romanesque architecture was stunning. I saw a portico with arches supported by semi-columns and pilasters. The portico entrance included four blind arcades. The main portal hailed from the 8th to 10th century. One side of the atrium included upper and lower loggias. I looked at the pillars surrounded by semi-columns with lavish capitals adorned with lions, angels and vegetable motifs, to name a few. These were older than the Romanesque elements. I saw the two bell towers, one from the 9th century and a higher one from the 12th century. I gazed at the white marble Devil’s Column, which, according to legend, had two holes made by the Devil’s horns after he was unsuccessful at tempting Saint Ambrose. Tombstones from the former cemetery there also stood outside the entrance.

Inside, I saw a 12th century nave with two side aisles that had stunning arcades. The ceiling had remarkable 12th century ribbed vaults, and I saw galleries above the aisles. I loved the Romanesque brickwork of the pillars. It made both the interior and exterior dynamic. There was no transept. I noticed the Serpent’s Column, which was supposedly built by Moses.

I stared at the apse with its 13th century mosaic of Christ Pantocrator or creator of all. At the sides were scenes featuring the life of Saint Ambrose. A gilded domed ceiling caught my attention as did mosaics on walls dating from the 5th century.

The pulpit was for me perhaps the most intriguing part of the church. It hailed from the 12th century and boasted two gilt copper reliefs showing an eagle and seated man, symbolizing apostles John and Matthew. The base of the pulpit was the fourth century sarcophagus of Stilicho with amazing reliefs from the Old Testament. I also noticed Apollo riding a chariot.

Also, I gazed at the 10th century ciborium which was painted with reliefs showing Christ, Saint Ambrose, Saint Benedict and Saint Scholastica. It included four columns in red porphyry and a canopy. The Golden Altar, another highlight for me, dated from the 9th century. The front showed off masterful goldsmithing skills and was adorned with precious stones. Scenes from the life of Christ decorated this side as well. The back included a silver relief celebrating the life of Saint Ambrose. The bishop’s throne hailed from the 9th and 14th centuries. I imagined the kings of Italy seated on the throne during their coronation ceremonies. Wow!

The oratory contained the relics of Saint Vittore and Saint Satiro, who was Saint Ambrose’s brother. The San Vittore in Ciel d’Oro sacellum featured a chapel to Saint Vittore. It was adorned with 5th century mosaics, with the bust of San Vittore making an appearance. The walls were striking in blue and showed six saints. The tomb of Emperor Louis II, who passed in 875, was also in the church. The chapels contained paintings by Tiepolo and Bernardo Luini, for example. In the crypt were the remains of saints Ambrose, Gervasus and Protasus.

The six-room museum included artwork and objects related to the church. Some of the highlights were Saint Ambrose’s bed and a cast of Stilicho’s sarcophagus. I also saw mosaics and triptychs.

Finally, I left the basilica, still stunned by the Romanesque pillars with delightful capitals and sarcophagus from 400 AD under the pulpit as well as the golden altar with its precious stones. The Christ Pantocrater mosaic bewitched me. The museum, too, had been more than intriguing. I gazed at the exterior from the atrium, entranced. My next stop was the Church of Saint Maurizio, where I would be overwhelmed by beauty once more.

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

Museo del Duomo in Milan Diary

When I visited the Cathedral Museum in Milan, I didn’t expect it to be so big. The museum measured 2,000 meters square, and there were 26 rooms. Set up in chronological order, the artifacts included stained glass windows, paintings, tapestries, architectural models, sculpture, bronze doors, goldsmithing artifacts and more. The museum, located on the ground floor of the Palazzo Reale, allowed me to see the various phases of construction from its foundation in 1386 to the 20th century. The museum dates back to 1953. Ten more rooms were added in 1960, and it was reopened in 1973. It underwent major renovation during this century, too.

Placed in the museum during 2013 after renovation was completed, the Treasures of the Cathedral are on display in two rooms and feature liturgical objects from the 5th to the 17th century. I saw the Cross of Chiaravalle, a masterpiece of Romanesque goldsmithing art. The Cross of San Carlo was another goldsmithing object that amazed. It was made in Mannerist style during the 1500s. The cross is even used in cathedral ceremonies new archbishops are inaugurated. La Pace di Pio V, dated around 1565, utilized lapis lazuli decoration on columns and a sarcophagus. The cross was studded with diamonds. Gold decoration added to its beauty. Il Calice delle Arti Liberali is a chalice placed on a copper gilded frame. Made in Milan during the 1500s, the chalice has enamel decoration.

Perhaps my favorite part of the museum was the section with the stained-glass windows. I was enthusiastic about having the opportunity to see stained-glass windows up close. These panels depicting scenes from the Old Testament had been created by artists from Lombardy, France, Germany and the Netherlands. I loved stained-glass windows, and they were my favorite part of the cathedral’s interior. I spent so much time staring at those windows when I was inside the cathedral.

The sculpture was another delight. The marble Late Gothic figures hailed from the first 50 years of the cathedral’s construction. There were also statues made of terracotta from the Mannerist and Baroque eras. A few of the noteworthy sculptures featured Saint Agnes, Saint George and Galeazzo Maria Sforza. The Sforza noble family had had a vast influence on the city’s development and politics. I also was amazed by the gargoyles. I was thrilled that I had the chance to see them close up.

A model of the entire cathedral comprised three centuries of work and was made at a scale of 1:20. Another model that caught my attention was an early 16th century wooden rendition of the cathedral, made by Bernardino Zenale from Treviglio. This model provided insights into the structural development of the various sections of the cathedral, such as the apse, transept and tiberium.

I found the objects in the museum stunning. I was flabbergasted by their beauty. I had expected a small museum of liturgical items, not such an amazing array of artifacts. I had learned how the cathedral had been constructed in various eras and about the main players in the history of the structure.

Leaving the Museo del Duomo, I was very satisfied with my visit and ready for the temporary Titian exhibition in the Palazzo Reale.

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

Museo del Novecento Diary

When I looked at the Palazzo dell’Arengario, which houses the Museo del Novecento, I thought that the exterior was an eyesore as it was punctuated by a Fascist style of architecture. It was intriguing, nonetheless. The two symmetrical buildings each had three tiers. Arcades made an appearance as well as did bas reliefs. Even though construction commenced in 1936, the palace was not completed until 1956. During World War II, bombs severely damaged the edifice. In the early years of the 21st century, it was renovated. The museum opened in 2010. About 400 works by mostly Italian artists are on display in chronological order, decade-by-decade.

A spiral ramp takes the visitors to the first three floors. It may look like something out of science fiction, but I thought the ramp interrupted the space. I thought it was more of a hassle rather than a unique and innovative feature. In the Hirschhorn or Guggenheim, the ramp and the locations of the artwork complement each other. I felt that at the Museo del Novecento the ramp and pieces of art worked against each other, dividing rather than complementing.

The first painting that caught my attention was the large canvas called The Fourth Estate by Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo. It was lcreated from 1898 to 1902 in Divisionist style. This kind of painting utilizes individual points of color in a neo-Impressionist fashion. Depicting workers on strike, the painting gets its name from the working class that embodies the meaning of “the fourth estate.” Out of the crowd of demonstrators and into the light step three figures, two men and a woman holding a baby. They are walking toward the viewer confidently, not at all in a hurry. They are clearly there to try to reach a deal with their employer. But they are not panicked or nervous. They have terms and conditions that have to be met. The colors in the painting have a cold quality, but the light gives the group a vibrancy that makes them look powerful and in control of the situation.

Paul Klee’s artwork holds a prominent place in the museum.

Foreign artists represented included Georges Braque, Wassily Kandinsky, Henri Matisse, Paul Klee, Pablo Picasso and Piet Mondrian. Indeed, these works are some of the most significant in the collection. Klee’s Wald Bau from 1919 and Kandinsky’s Composition 1916 stand out, for example.

One section of the museum focuses on Italian Futurists, such as Umberto Boccioni, Giacomo Balla and Fortunato Depero. In fact, one room is dedicated to Boccioni’s works. I had visited a museum featuring Depero’s works in Rovereto a few years earlier, so I was familiar with the Futurist style. Born in Italy during the early 20th century, Futurism looked to the future rather than to the past. It praised modernity and technological advances. Industrial cities, cars and airplanes were often subjects of Futurist artworks. Depero’s creations certainly looked like they were in motion. I recalled some people depicted in one work as resembling machines.

The Novecento of the 1920s is well represented with a style that was inspired by ancient Roman art and Renaissance art, which are meshed together in an abstract way. Giorgio de Chirico’s surrealism is on display, too. In fact, his creations take up an entire room. Art Informel by Italian artists and the Azimeth group are featured in the museum, too. The last section follows trends from the Sixties to the Eighties with exhibits of Kinetic Art, Programmed Art, Pop Art, Analytical Painting and Conceptual Art. Lucio Fontana’s works take up the top floor. Take a look at his neon sculpture and you’ll realize what an artistic journey you have taken from the social realism of The Fourth Estate floors below.

A few works worth mentioning include Giacomo Balla’s Ragazza che corre sul balcone from 1912 and Umberto Boccioni’s Svilippo di una bottiglia nello spazio from 1913-35. Balla’s painting showing a boy running on a balcony is dynamic and vivacious as it shows spontaneous movement and the joy and innocence of childhood. The colors of blue, brown and green with white help to create the sense of motion that is central to the painting. Futurism is all about movement as opposed to the static and still life qualities of Cubism.

While Boccioni was also a Futurist, his bronze sculpture Sviluppo di una bottiglia nello spazio showcased a bottle on a plate in unique way that is reminiscent of a natura morta. This kind of still life was not at all typical for Boccioni’s style because of its lack of movement.

Another painting by Paul Klee

Amedeo Modigliani’s portraits were on display, too. He painted the Parisian art collector Paul Guillaume with one eye, for instance. In Arturo Martini’s sculpture La convalescente from 1932, the sick, young woman who is the subject of the work has been forgotten and abandoned. Her empty gaze and lost look practically ripped through my heart. It reminded me of when I was taken downstairs on a stretcher to have my gallbladder operation. The nurses left me on the stretcher in the empty space next to the operating room. I could hear the doctor trying to wake up the patient. At first she didn’t respond. He had to talk to her several times. For a few minutes, I thought that I had been abandoned and that the woman having the operation before me had died. I wanted to run out of there, but I was drugged and could hardly move. Finally, she regained consciousness.

One of the surrealist works by De Chirico

I particularly liked De Chirico’s surrealist works with vibrant colors. His I bagni misteriosi was inspired by a 16th century work by Lucas Cranach. Ever since I was a child, I have loved Klee’s abstract art. For me Klee’s art has a sense of rationality and logic that I often find absent in abstract works.

A painting with a theme of Chinese revolutions

On the third floor there are glass walls that provide great views of the Duomo Square and the cathedral as well as Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II shopping arcade. I stood in that room for a long time, surveying the passersby walking to and fro below me, gazing at the long line to enter the cathedral and the people having lunch at expensive restaurants on the square. It was nice to be up there, looking down at the crowds on that scorching hot May day.

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

Teatro alla Scala Diary

A theatre and classical music aficionado, I was excited to tour the La Scala Theatre in Milan, where operas and ballets were staged. Classical music concerts by two orchestras also took place there. A chorus called the theatre home, too. I bought my ticket for the tour online before traveling to Italy. I was not disappointed.

First, I gazed at the exterior. The neoclassical building emphasized functionality. It blended in with other buildings on La Scala Square. I had assumed the famous edifice would stand out with an exterior featuring much ornamentation. When the theatre was built, the square was nonexistent, and La Scala did not have a dominant location on the street. It was one of many buildings. Still, it looked elegant. I gazed at the decorated tympanum with bas relief and stucco adornment. I also saw half-columns and two sides of an interrupted balustrade along with decorated parapets.

Once inside, I had some free time before the tour so I walked through the Theatre Museum. I saw many busts of famous members of the opera ensemble, statues, paintings and musical instruments, such as a piano that Franz Liszt had played. There was a special costume exhibition there, too. I am afraid that I am not an expert at opera, so I was not able to recognize all the names of those represented in the museum. A legendary conductor that had worked magic at La Scala was Arturo Toscanini. He had put into place many reforms and had staged works by Richard Wagner, for instance.

Numerous operas by Verdi had been performed at La Scala, and Verdi had made a name for himself with Nabucco, staged at La Scala in 1842. Maria Callas had sung on that stage, her amazing voice filling the auditorium. Herbert von Karajan had conducted concerts at La Scala. I was familiar with his work. I had some of the concerts he had conducted in various places on CDs.

In 1965 Claudio Abbado made his debut. He conducted operas as well as concerts. Riccardo Muti first conducted there in 1981. From 1989 to 1998, he created productions of masterpieces such as Rigoletto, La Traviata and MacBeth.

Operas by Verdi, Giacomo Puccini, Amilcare Ponchielli, Vincenzo Bellini, Gioachino Rossini, Gaetano Donizetti and Karlheinz Stockhausen all had premiered at La Scala. The small museum was very intriguing and certainly a delight for opera lovers.

At the beginning of our tour, the guide told us about the history of the building. The city’s Teatro Regio Ducale burned down in 1776, and Milan needed a new theatre for operas. This edifice was constructed over the site of a demolished church called Santa Maria della Scala, from which the theatre got its name. The owners of the boxes at the destroyed Teatro Regio Ducale paid for the construction. It took two years to build.

Teatro alla Scala opened on August 3, 1778, staging Antonio Salieri’s opera Europa riconosciuta. The La Scale Theatre became an important meeting point for the upper class. At that time, there were no chairs on the main floor, so spectators had to stand during the performance. Also, there was no orchestra pit. Over 80 oil lamps provided light on the stage area while about 1,000 additional lamps were situated elsewhere in the building. Buckets full of water were stored in several rooms in case of a fire. Electric lighting was not installed until 1883. In the early days, the owners of the boxes decorated their spaces themselves, choosing various colors of wallpaper, for instance. In 1844, the boxes all were decorated in red. Today remnants of the original décor can be seen in some boxes. Some are adorned with ceiling frescoes or with mirrors and stucco ornamentation.

However, a casino was also located in the building during the initial seasons. There was a space in the theatre where much bartering took place. For example, people swapped horses. The voices in the foyer could be quite loud so that it was sometimes difficult to hear the performance.

Significant renovation took place in 1907. The seating area originally had 3,000 seats, but after reconstruction the number of seats decreased to 1,987. In 1938 movable bridges and levels were added to the stage, so it was easy to change sets immediately. The system was actually quite complex.

La Scala was badly damaged by bombs during World War II. The theatre was reconstructed and opened with much aplomb in May of 1946. More restoration work occurred between 2002 and 2004, and the ensembles had to perform elsewhere for those two years. Today the theater is divided into four sections of boxes and two galleries for a total of six levels. The backstage area was enlarged during that renovation. The new stage remains one of the biggest in Italy. (Looking at the stage, I was struck by how large and deep it was.) Architect Mario Botta had an electronic system installed next to seats so spectators could read the libretto in English, Italian or the original language of the production while watching the spectacle. This technological feature intrigued me.

In 2005 there were many problems with management. In 2006, during a performance of Aida, the audience was incessantly booing tenor Roberto Alagna. The actor left the stage and did not return. His understudy had to take up the role immediately. He didn’t even have time to put on a costume.

The interior style was neoclassical with gold and red colors dominating the seating area. Medallions and floral as well as animal motifs provided adornment inside. I was overwhelmed by La Scala’s beauty. We sat in the royal box for a short time and watched a rehearsal for Gioconda, which had had its premiere at La Scala centuries earlier. We weren’t allowed to remain there for long, but it was still one of the highlights of my visit to Milan.

Maybe next time I come to Milan I will be able to attend an opera or a classical concert at La Scala.

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

Galleria d’Arte Moderna Milano Diary

Walking through the charming courtyard of the gallery, I noticed that the villa was in Neoclassical style as was the La Scala Theatre, which I had toured a few days earlier. On the other side of the main street was a vast park. In part of the courtyard was a posh, crowded restaurant. The edifice had two facades, one visible to visitors. Statues and reliefs with a mythological theme decorated the facades. The second façade looked out upon Milan’s first English landscape garden.

Founded in 1903, the modern art gallery was initially housed in Milan’s Castle. In 1921 it moved to its current location, the Villa Reale. Built by Leopold Pollack from 1790 to 1796, the building was originally named Villa Belgiojoso and was used as a private residence. Later, when Napoleon’s adopted son lived there, many famous people gathered at the villa, which was notable for its lavish ornamentation. On August 6, 1849, the Pace di Milano treaty was signed there, making Milan part of Austria.

Austrian Field Marshall Joseph Radetzky von Radez, a Czech noble and Chief of General Staff for the Habsburgs during the Napoleonic Wars, even called the villa home for one year in the 1850s. At one point Radetzky was even knighted for his bravery. Johann Straus composed the Radetzky March after him. His troops appreciated his valor and fairness. He died in Milan during 1858.

When the various states merged into the Kingdom of Italy, the building was no longer used. It was nationalized in 1920 and was refurbished so the Modern Art Gallery could open there the following year. Still, the gallery had to wait until 2006 before they could use the entire building for their exhibits. Before that the gallery had shared the building with other institutions.

The permanent collection started on the first floor. The first six spaces covered Neoclassical art. The works of Antonio Canova were represented there. Two rooms were dedicated to portraiture, including the renditions of Francesco Hayez. His Portrait of Matilde Juva Brunea from 1851 was one of the gallery’s masterpieces. A luxurious ballroom and the Parnaso Room with its astounding 1811 fresco had come into being during Napoleon’s era. After gazing at these two luxurious spaces, I continued to peruse artwork from the Romantic, Divisionist and Symbolist periods. There was also a temporary exhibition of Italian designer Joe Columbo’s 20th century furnishings on that floor.

From the Joe Columbo exhibition
From the Joe Columbo exhibition

The second floor housed the Grassi Collection and Vismara Collection. The Grassi Collection covered both Italian and foreign works ranging from the 14th to 20th centuries. Eduard Manet, Paul Cezanne and Vincent Van Gogh were all represented. Oriental art was on display, too. The Vismara Collection showcased 40 works of art from the 20th century. The paintings and sculptures included creations by  Picasso, Matisse and Renoir.

Some significant paintings on display included Paul Gauguin’s Donne di Tahiti from 1891; Vincent Van Gogh’s Breton Women and Children from 1888; Giuseppe De Nittis’ Breakfast in Posillipo from 1878; Eduard Manet’s Portrait of M. Arnaud from 1875 and Umberto Boccioni’s The Mother from 1907. The sculpture was just as impressive as the paintings. A bust of a madwoman caught my attention. It showed not only unique facial features but also delved into the psychological being of the woman. Via the sculpture, it was possible to see into the woman’s soul.  Other busts were just as revealing. A small statue by Rodin was exquisite, too. A bust of Beethoven was very expressive and innovative.

One bust that captured my attention.

I was thrilled to see so many amazing paintings and sculptures and looked forward to my next stop at another nearby villa, which was devoted to modern art of the 1930s.

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

A bust of Beethoven

Gallerie d’Italia of Milan Diary

These three palaces, located on the Piazza della Scala near the Scala Theatre, displayed extraordinary artworks of the 19th and 20th century. In the 19th century sections, I was amazed at the vedutas of Milan Cathedral, the system of canals in Milan called Navigli and the Alpine scenes. I found myself thinking of vedutas I had seen in the Czech Republic, such as the masterful ones at Mělník Chateau near Prague.  

The landscapes from the second half of the 19th century gave me a tranquil feeling. I especially liked the landscape with a magnificent yet mysterious castle perched in the mountains. The painting of the Colosseum reminded me of showing that sight to my parents some years ago, watching them gaze with awe and amazement at the historic monument. That was one of the happiest moments of my life.

The paintings of Milan’s Duomo allowed me to appreciate the exterior and interior of that sight to an even greater extent. I recalled walking down from the roof to the ground floor of the cathedral. I had been worried I would fall because I had nursed a bad leg for nine months not long before my trip.

The bas reliefs of Antonio Canova were delights as well. They were inspired by the works of Homer, Virgil and Plato. I remembered seeing Canova’s works at the Borghese Gallery in Rome.

The Lombard painting of the 19th century showed Milan as a vibrant artistic hub and often told pictorial tales of a rapidly changing society. I saw works by Francesco Hayez and other Romanticist artists. Giovanni Migliara focused on ancient monuments.

Works representing Symbolism, Pointillism and Futurism also made up highlights of this museum’s collections. The historical paintings of fight for the unification of Italy profoundly expressed this political and social movement called the Risorgimento, which led to the formation of the Kingdom of Italy. Genre painting showcased people’s daily lives.

The Divisionism of Neo-Impressionist painting that separates colors into dots played a large role, too. The works falling into the Futurism category centered on technology and modernity, for instance. Often cars, airplanes and the industrial city figured in works of this nature.

A special exhibition displayed the Torlonia Marbles, a very significant private collection of Roman statuary with many busts. I loved how the busts, though dating back many centuries, brought out the character of the person sculpted.

The 20th century was highlighted as well. Five halls housed artwork from the 1950s to 1980s. Abstract art between the 1940s and 1950s stood out, too. The Sixties were emphasized with a focus on signs, words and images. Kinetic art also was displayed.

While I was most impressed by the landscapes and pictures of Milan’s cathedral, I gazed at each and every piece of art with awe and wonderment. This was truly a great museum.

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

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II Diary

This 19th century shopping gallery, the oldest in Italy, holds the distinction of being one of the first iron and glass buildings. It was also the first edifice in Italy to have electric lighting installed. The structure has four storeys and boasts a double arcade. It is located smack in the center of Milan, connecting the Piazza del Duomo with the Piazza della Scala. The roof is notable for its large glass dome over an octagonal space. It gets its name from the first king of the Kingdom of Italy.

The architect, Giuseppe Mengoni, had it built between 1865 and 1877. It was his claim to fame. Unfortunately, it also brought about his death. One day before the opening of the galleria on December 30, he fell while inspecting the structure’s roof. Four million people attended his funeral, showing their appreciation of his monumental design. Famous Italians were in attendance, too. For example, painter Francesco Hayez was present at Mengoni’s funeral.

The decoration of the galleria is noteworthy. On the floor, four mosaics depicting the coat-of-arms of Turin, Florence, Rome and Milan add elegance to the structure. The mosaics of the four major continents dazzle passersby near the dome. While I was walking through the space, I saw an Italian teenager spin around three times, standing on the bull’s private parts of Turin’s coat-of-arms. This was for good luck, I later learned.

The edifice was badly damaged in World War II but has since been restored to its former glory after solving some problems with its complex roof structure. In 2015, it was repaired in time for the Expo Milano event.

I was already familiar with this type of structure because, during my visit to Naples some years ago, I walked through its Galleria Umberto, a shopping arcade very similar to Milan’s building. The space in Naples opened in 1890 and is named after the then current King of Italy. The entire historic center of Naples, including the Galleria Umberto, has been recognized by UNESCO.

In the Milan galleria, there were shops selling luxurious goods, such as Gucci. Several cafes boasted stellar views of the Duomo. I made my way enthusiastically to a vast bookstore in the galleria and spent much time there perusing the wonderful collection of books.

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

Veltrusy Chateau Diary

I hadn’t been to Veltrusy since 1992 even though it was a mere 25 kilometers from Prague. I had been hoping to see the Baroque chateau again in 2001, but then that year the floods did major damage to the structure and the vast park. Reconstruction took 19 years. The chateau and park reopened with a flourish in July of 2021. I finally had a chance to visit during May of 2022.

The chateau was built in High Baroque style during the first half of the 18th century by František Maxmilián Kaňka as a summer residence for Václav Antonín Chotek, whose family would own the chateau until it was nationalized in 1945. Prague native of Italian origin Giovanni Battista Alliprandi worked magic on the chateau, too. In the courtyard I saw the Baroque statues by an unknown sculptor from the workshop of Matyáš Bernard Braun – some showed the months of the year, others were allegories of the four seasons. It was no coincidence that I thought of Braun’s statues of vices and virtues at the former hospital, Kuks. Inspired by Viennese architecture, Alliprandi had designed the east Bohemian jewel Kuks, although many of his projects had been built in Prague. I recalled that Alliprandi had designed Opočno Chateau, too. I hoped to set my eyes upon the elegant arcades of Opočno again sometime soon.

The interior did not disappoint. Both tours started off in the grotto with its exquisite painting of people and animals. Then we proceeded to the main hall with its stunning ceiling fresco and large portraits. One of the two monumental fireplaces in the room was artificial. One of the two elegant balustrades was also fake, though it was difficult to tell.

Rudolf Chotek, who had inherited the chateau from his father Václav Antonín, had worked for Empress Maria Theresa who spent a night in this chateau. This was a rare event because she usually stayed at Prague Castle or in a building the Habsburgs owned when she traveled. Her elegant bedroom was on display. Portraits throughout the chateau paid homage to the long-time ruler. Maria Theresa had come to Veltrusy for the trade fair, the first of its kind in the world. This large event took up space from the parking lot through the chateau grounds and promoted Czech manufactured goods. The empress was so impressed that she awarded Rudolf the Order of the Golden Fleece.

The first tour displayed mostly Baroque and Rococo styles. The tiled stoves were beautiful, especially one decorated with the body of a white serpent. What I liked best was the Chinese wallpaper that adorned a room. I also was impressed with other wallpaper that displayed red, blue and yellow designs as well as green foliage on a white background.

During the second tour we saw private rooms of the owner Jindřich Chotek and his family from the early and mid-19th century. Some décor harkened from the Renaissance era, too. Another highlight of my visit was looking at the paintings of Venice. I loved Italy, and the paintings brought back memories of my trip to Venice in 2005, when I wandered the romantic streets early one Sunday morning, practically having the city to myself. Some black-and-white etchings also captured my undivided attention.

We walked through the idyllic park, which is one of the oldest in Europe. At one time, boats had floated down a canal that had gone through the park. By the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, the condition of the park and chateau had deteriorated. Now it has been revitalized, dotted with four Classicist and Empire style pavilions, many statues and rare wooded species. Forests, meadows, gardens and fields all made up the park that spans 300 hectares.

After a delicious lunch at the chateau restaurant, we made the short trip back to Prague.

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

Chudenice Chateau Diary

It was my first visit to Chudenice. The first thing that caught my attention was the tranquility of the village. It was truly peaceful there. I felt calm in a way I was not able to feel in a busy metropolis.

I took a good look at the exterior of the chateau. One section was beautiful while another was in a dilapidated state. I thought of Nebílovy Chateau near Pilsen and how that chateau badly needed money to restore the façade of one of the buildings.

Actors in the plays Kvapil worked on.
Kvapil directed this Shakespearian classic at the Vinohrady Theatre.

We went inside. First, we visited a museum dedicated, in part, to Chudenice native Jaroslav Kvapil, who had been a poet, playwright, translator, dramaturg and director. The museum also showcased other Chudenice natives and village life. Kvapil worked with the National Theatre and Vinohrady Theatre for many years. In 1901 he wrote the libretto for Antonín Dvořák’s opera Rusalka. He was involved in the resistance during World War I as he supported the creation of an independent Czechoslovakia. During World War II, he founded an organization of resisters. Then the Nazis learned of the existence of his group. Kvapil was imprisoned for 11 months. When the Communists were taking control in 1948, he signed a petition, attempting to save democracy in Czechoslovakia. He died in 1950 and is buried in Chudenice.

Artwork also made up part of the museum.
Part of the museum dealt with village life in the past.
A mill from centuries past.

Kvapil’s career was impressive indeed. From 1893 to 1937, he directed or co-directed 205 plays at the National Theatre. Later, he took up a position with the Vinohrady Theatre. Plays by Jaroslav Vrchlický, Alois Jirásek, the Čapek brothers, William Shakespeare and Henrik Ibsen, for example, were staged under his guidance. In the small museum, I saw family photos, posters of the plays he worked on and his typewriter, for instance. I hadn’t known much about him before visiting the museum, even though I had taken a great interest in Czech theatre over the years.

At first I thought this figure was real.
An old machine used to make honey

Soon the tour began. The guide told us about the history of the chateau and town, which had been connected to the Černín family since the end of the 13th century when Drslav from Chudenice took possession of the village. A Gothic fortress originated in the 14th century. The first time the chateau was mentioned in writing occurred during 1603, after Humprecht Černín died, when his property was divided between his two sons, Jindřich and Adam, who got control of the chateau.

Even though Adam was Catholic, he sided with the nobles in the uprising of the Protestant nobility against the Catholics. Catholicism was the official religion of the Habsburg Empire, controlled by the Germans. Adam was punished for his involvement. Soon afterwards, he died, and his widow Johanka from Loksan and five children lived there. Jindřich took control of the chateau until 1629. During the Thirty Years’ War, there were periods when the chateau was filled with soldiers.

The chateau was transformed into Baroque style during 1776 and now has a Classicist appearance. After World War II, it was nationalized, and the Forest Institute took control. In 1948 the town took over, and the chateau served various functions. At one time, it included a movie theatre, library and Socialist Youth Union club. There had been apartments here, too. Later the Museum of Josef Dobrovský opened on the site, named after the historian because he had spent some time there. We even saw the bedroom where Dobrovský had slept. In 2009 the Černín family moved back to Chudenice and now live in the other chateau in the town, the Empire style Lázeň, which they are reconstructing along with its English park. The guide said the Černíns often visit Chudenice Chateau and even give private tours on weekends.

The most intriguing space was the Angel’s Room, which was connected to a legend about Humprecht Černín, who worked as an imperial advisor to Emperor Rudolf II and caretaker of Prague Castle. He was also a knight of the Golden Fleece. One night during 1601, when Humprecht was 76 years old, an angel came to him and told him he would die within three days. The angel directed him to have a mass in Wolfgang Chapel above Chudenice. The prediction came true.

Now there is a fresco of a red-clad angel with silver wings on the arched ceiling. I also liked the part of another ceiling that was painted in Art Nouveau style. The porcelain in the Oriental Salon was exquisite. An Empire clock stood out as well. The Hunting Salon showcased paintings of dogs and a green tiled stove plus trophies from forests near Chudenice. There were noteworthy paintings and graphic works on display, too. A blue porcelain peacock was impressive. Some unique chandeliers were exquisite, and one Classicist tiled stove captured my attention. Old shooting targets were painted with intriguing bullet-ridden scenes. Still, I would occasionally notice that a piece of furniture needed to be repaired– for example, the upholstery of some chairs was in need of restoration. The chateau just didn’t have the finances at this point.

The portraits and photos of the family gave the chateau an intimate feel. The Černíns had made a name for themselves in Czech history, to be sure. I recalled that a famous palace in Prague, now the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was named after the Černín family, specifically after Humprecht Jan, who had it built. An employee of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had showed me around the building, and I was particularly interested in the window out of which Jan Masaryk was pushed to his death by the Communists. Jan Masaryk, the son of  son of the founder of Czechoslovakia, Tomáš G. Masaryk, had been pushed out the window by the Communists after the coup of 1948, on March 10th of that year. He had refused to resign as minister after the Communist coup. Humprecht Jan also had constructed the small chateau Humprecht near Kost Castle in the Czech Paradise. I mused that I hadn’t been there since the late 1990s or earlier.

Humprecht Jan was the most prominent member of the Černín family. The imperial count had made a name for himself as a diplomat, serving as ambassador to Venice for three years and serving Habsburg Leopold I for many years. He had inherited much property in the Czech lands, including Kost Castle, Krásný Dvůr Chateau and Mělník, all of which I had visited. While working for Czech and Austrian King Leopold I, Humprecht Jan became good friends with the Habsburg leader and even was present at Leopold I’s coronation as Roman Emperor in Frankfurt. He was a secret advisor to Leopold I and in 1675 was honored as a recipient of the distinguished Order of the Golden Fleece. He also purchased territory in Lnáře that year. I remembered Lnáře fondly as I had not only toured the chateau with its stunning frescoes but had also visited its Cat Museum, where I admired many feline-related artifacts.

Part of the Secession decoration on a ceiling

While stationed in Venice, Humprecht Jan had developed an art collection. By 1663, he owned about 300 paintings. After building Černín Palace in the 1660s, he made part of the palace into a gallery for his paintings. (Unfortunately, under his heirs the collection became dilapidated due to a lack of finances.) Humprecht Jan died when he was only 54 years old. He is buried in Černín Chapel at Prague’s St. Vitus Cathedral. 

A shooting target

After the tour, we went to the only restaurant in the village, where there were two entrees left on the menu at 2:30 in the afternoon. We had a tasty lunch. I noticed the peace and quiet, the calmness that pervaded in the village. It was wonderful to experience such tranquility in a world that can be so chaotic and troubling.

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

The room in which Josef Dobrovský stayed

Český Šternberk Castle Diary

Steep steps took me to the top of Český Šternberk, a massive Gothic structure that has an interior just as exciting as its colossal exterior. I had been there more times than I could count – with tour groups, friends, alone. The castle loomed over the surrounding countryside as it was situated 350 meters above sea level. When I had been on a tour of churches in the Posazaví region, our bus had even stopped in front of the castle because it dominated the area. This time I had come by car with a friend. We donned masks during the tour because of rules concerning the pandemic.

Whenever I visited this castle, I thought of George from Australia, my sixtyish friend whom I had met on a tour here in 1993. We spent some time together during his stay in Prague that summer and then became pen pals. About a year later, I received a letter from his daughter saying that he had died unexpectedly. I hadn’t known him well, but it was shocking all the same. So, whenever I come here, I realize how important it is to make good of the time you have with friends because they won’t be there forever.

Soon I gave the castle my full attention. I focused on the exciting history of Český Šternberk. Inside, it was hard to miss the eight-pointed star that symbolized the Sternbergs (in English the dynasty is spelled Sternberg not Šternberk), a name that harkens back to the original owner of the castle. In the mid-13th century, Zděslav of Divišov was responsible for the construction of this castle. He changed his name to a combination of the German word for star (stern) and the word for hill (berk).

Armor-clad George of Poděbrody
Chapel off the Knights’ Hall

In the Knights’ Hall, the vast first room, a portrait of Czech King George of Poděbrady, who had been related to the Sternbergs, hung prominently. A coat-of-arms representing the marriage of George of Poděbrady to Kunhata of Sternberg featured prominently in the space along with many other intriguing coat-of-arms. Indeed, George of Poděbrady influenced the history of the castle. During the 15th century Hussite wars, Catholics including castle owner Petr Sternberg fought against Hussite Czech King George of Poděbrady, who promoted the Utraquist religion. In 1465 Zdeněk Konopistský Sternberg even fought against George of Poděbrady, who was victorious and even destroyed the castle. George of Poděbrady would be the only ruler to conquer Český Šternberk.

Jiří Sternberg

Reconstruction took place in the 15th and 16th centuries. The Thirty Year’s War caused much damage and other difficulties. Still, the castle survived. Due to early Baroque reconstruction in the second half of the 17th century, Český Šternberk could no longer be used for defensive purposes. When the last member of the Holič branch of the Sternbergs passed away, there was not an heir, and the Sternbergs lost the castle. However, they would make a comeback in 1841 when Zdeněk Sternberg purchased it. The castle would remain in the family until 1949. The Communists took over the castle in 1949, but owner Jiří Sternberg was allowed to reside at the castle with his family in two small rooms. Jiří worked as a castle guide during the totalitarian period. He died in 1964. Due to his diligence and attention to detail, a precise inventory was created. This is why it is possible to see many of the original possessions there. A few years after the Velvet Revolution, Zdeněk Sternberg received the castle in restitution. Some 20 generations of Sternbergs have worked and lived there since the castle was built.

The first room, the Knights’ Hall, has always been my favorite. Every time I stepped inside, I felt overwhelmed by the beauty of the large space with 17th century stucco decoration and two Czech crystal chandeliers weighing 250 kilograms each. An eight-pointed Sternberg star decorated the floor. On the walls portraits of generals from the Thirty Years’ War stared at me. George of Poděbrady’s painting also made an appearance. A variety of chairs were situated in this space. Some cozy-looking seating dated from the early 20th century while others hailed from the Gothic and Renaissance periods. I especially was drawn to the 17th century Florentine cabinet. The semi-precious stones and pieces of marble decorating it were sublime.

You can see the eight-pointed star in the coats-of-arms above.

The Sternberg star was evident in the Dining Room, too, another of my favorites and the second largest room. A Bethlehem star was shining in the night sky of a painting of the Three Kings adoring Jesus. Of course, the star had eight points.

I loved the wall painting of idyllic landscapes in the Yellow Salon. I also was captivated by yellow because it had been the color of my mom’s kitchen, where I grew up. The color symbolized for me my mother’s optimism and calming voice telling me my problems would soon be solved, the sun would soon be out. The ceiling was captivating, too. The 18th century stucco ornamentation was amazing. In the Ladies’ Lounge, the ceiling was no less spellbinding. I was enamored by the Baroque frescoes above me. It intrigued me that the 18th century Rococo chairs lacked armrests. Ladies had donned such wide and huge dresses that the armrests were not needed. I would have loved to have been seated at the writing desk hailing from the second Rococo period. What kind of letters would I have written at that desk decorated with carved ivory? Perhaps letters to my parents and friends in the USA.

Dutch Baroque style grandfather clock

I also was excited to find some Dutch Baroque furniture in another space. The furnishings had a floral theme. Some paintings showing the Thirty Year’s War were on display here, examples of battle scenes from the 545 paintings in the Sternberg’s collection that depicted the conflict. My favorite of these renditions is the one showing the Charles Bridge. Back then, it was the only bridge joining both banks of the Vltava River.

Painting supposedly by Petr Brandl

The main altar in the chapel was home to the painting called The Passion of Saint Sebastian as the religious space is dedicated to that saint. What I liked best about the library was a painting that was said to be Apostle Peter, though he is depicted without attributes. The surprised expression on the face of the figure with the thick beard intrigued me. It was probably created by my favorite Baroque painter, Petr Brandl. I recalled his paintings in the cathedral of Sedlec near Kutná Hora. I had been enamored by so many of his works throughout the decades.

I was also astonished at the beauty of the Oriental Antechamber, which was decorated in furniture made from mother-of-pearl and ivory. I have always loved visiting Oriental rooms in castles and chateaus because they remind me of my mother’s fondness for antique Chinese porcelain and how I had come by pieces in various cities in different countries.

Battle of Hradec Králové

A painting that interested me in the hallway that showcased a variety of artifacts at the end of the tour was one by Filip Sternberg, a talented artist who had studied under the tutelage of Art Nouveau master Alphonse Mucha. My parents and friends always enjoyed visiting the Mucha Museum when they came to Prague. The rendition by Sternberg showed the Battle of Hradec Králové (also known as Koeniggraetz), which is situated in east Bohemia. During that 1866 conflict, the Austrians were defeated by the Prussians. Filip had painted the scene masterfully even though he had only been 14 years old when the actual battle had been fought.

Pipe collection

I always leave this castle realizing it is one of the most beautiful castles in the Czech lands if not the most beautiful. This time we retreated to the restaurant below and had a delicious lunch before making our way back to Prague.

Rest In Peace, George.

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