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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Nelahozeves Chateau Diary

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A comfortable 40-minute ride in a new, clean train. That’s all it took to get from Prague’s Masaryk station to Nelahozeves chateau in the village by the same name as it is a mere 30 kilometers from the capital city. Then it is only a short walk to the two-storey chateau. It was my third time here. I especially love the plethora of art work in the Italian Renaissance three-winged structure. Even from the train I could see the chateau, appearing as a sort of fortress looming above me, with its enchanting sgraffito-decorated northern wall facing me. I crossed under the oldest railway tunnel in Bohemia, dating from 1851 to 1855 and constructed in Neo Romanesque style, and then wound up gazing at the beautiful sgraffito on the façade.

Floral motifs decorate the northern wall as do scenes from The Old Testament. For example, on the wall Judith holds the head of Holofernes, Hercules fights the giant Antacus and Isaac is sacrificed. Virgil Solis, a follower of the master artist Albrecht Dürer, is responsible for the design. After crossing a stone bridge, I went through a gateway flanked by Ionic columns and arrived at a rectangular courtyard. The box office was straight ahead.

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The history of the chateau intrigued me, as it had become intertwined with the Lobkowicz family, who bought the chateau in 1623. Bavarian aristocrat Florian Griespek of Griespek constructed it, and his successor Blažej put on the finishing touches in 1614. It took 60 years to build the chateau. Griespek had an interesting background. A former court official of the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia Ferdinand I, he had spent time in Prague’s White Tower for charges of high treason. Thanks to Ferdinand I, though, he became a free man again. It was his granddaughter Veronika who sold the chateau to Polyxena of Lobkowicz. The intriguing history does not end there. Not at all. During the Thirty Years’ War, the chateau was occupied by Swedish troops and those of other nationalities as well. Then it served as a military hospital during the Austrian-Prussian War. Later it was the home of a girls’ boarding school. During World War II and under the Communist regime the items in the chateau were scattered in various locations.

Restoration did take place after World War II when it became the property of the Czechoslovak state. Then, finally, in the early 1990s, the Lobkowicz family became its owners once again. The current owners live in the USA, while their son William takes care of the noble residence. To be sure, many of the Lobkowicz clan had been active in Czech politics and culture. For example, Polyxena’s son Václav Eusebius worked as an advisor to Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia Ferdinand III and Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia Leopold I. Also, Max Lobkowicz focused his energy on the Czechoslovak exile government in England during the Second World War. During that time he also served as Czechoslovak ambassador to Great Britain.

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Perhaps the chateau is best known for its paintings.  In the Gallery of Portraits I saw paintings of members of the Lobkowitz family from the 19th and early 20th century. In my favorite, a woman in a stunning blue dress holds a budding pink rose. An admirer of Lucas Cranach the Elder’s works, I spent some time gazing at his “Madonna with Child, Saint Barbora and Saint Kateřina” from around 1520. I noticed the calming green and blue colors in the horizon as a saint in the foreground read a black book. The Madonna looked pensive while the child appeared defiant. I liked the detail of the baby’s little fingers.

There is a Peter Paul Rubens’ masterpiece on display as well. It is called “Hygieia feeds a sacred snake” and dates from circa 1614. The Baroque gem shows a snake with its mouth open, appearing famished. I could almost see its tongue flicking in anticipation.

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My beloved Bruegel clan is among those represented in the chateau’s art work, too. Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s “Haymaking” dates from 1565 and depicts women walking in the foreground, gripping hoes, while others carry baskets on their heads. Horses, used for carting hay, drink from a bucket in the middle of the foreground as people toil in a vast field. The gigantic cliff to the left in the background caught my attention just as the blue and green mountains and river did. The painting depicted two months of the year, illustrating June and July. Then there’s a winter village scene, idyllic and calming, by Pieter Bruegel the Younger around 1615.

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But that’s not all. In Canaletto’s “Thames with Westminster Bridge” from 1746 I noticed the gentle frolicking of the waves and appreciated the details of the boards, sails and oarsmen. Hundreds of black-and-white prints depicting hunting themes also line the walls of a hallway.

My favorite three paintings, though, made up a satirical series of cats posing as female nobles and monkeys representing the male nobility. They are located in a small room filled with 47 paintings. The works by Sebastian Vrancx, who lived from 1573 to 1647, include one depiction of monkeys sword-fighting. I was drawn to the bright red clothing with the stiff collar of one particular monkey as he lunges forward to strike another monkey that had fallen onto the ground. A cat on the sidelines flails her arms, as if saying, “Enough already!”

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Another shows cats and monkeys at a banquet. Two monkeys working as waiters had a well-ironed cloth over one arm. A plain chandelier is overhead while one monkey brings a kettle to a table full of chattering cats. I could almost hear the chit-chat of the seated felines.

In the third rendition cats and monkeys are on a boat in a river. A palace or manor house and another boat make up the background. One monkey reads aloud from a book while another plays the piccolo. I thought it was intriguing that the painter chose to place a monkey with his back to the viewer in the center of the foreground.

On the tour I saw much more than paintings. For example, the library contained 65,000 books, written in German, Latin, Hebrew, Italian, German, French, Spanish and Czech. There were 679 manuscripts, and 114 of them date from the Middle Ages. Subjects ranged from history, medicine, architecture, literature, law and travelogues. However, only a small portion of the books are on display in the chateau. Still, I was fascinated by the 1696 French first edition of The Art of Swimming, which ranked as one of the earliest books on the subject.

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In the Drawing Room I set my eyes on a gold Empire-style table, made with gems and decorated with intarsia. On the black table were pictures of apples, birds, and fruit and flowers in ornate bowls. In the room where the prince welcomes guests, I saw a black cabinet from the 17th century, decorated with pictures of biblical themes, birds and flowers.  In the chapel there was a three-winged altar with pictures of an angel, a man on a chariot with a skeleton to his side and a man in a long robe pointing at a manuscript on a podium.

The Dining Room exhibited exquisite Venetian decoration encased in glass. I was also impressed by the desk made out of antlers, located in the armory. In the middle of the room was a rifle for bird-hunting, decorated with a grotesque brown mask, a black ball in the creature’s mouth. Then there was the beautiful Knights’ Hall with paintings of knights on the walls and a sandstone fireplace from the 16th century. Stucco reliefs adorned the ceiling. At one time, many centuries ago, this room used to be the social center of the chateau, with its Renaissance décor.

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After the tour I wanted to get something to eat in the delightful restaurant upstairs, but it was open only to groups who book it in advance. In past years, it had been open to the public. I made my way back to the train station- a small, brick building that was more of a stop than a station. I passed Antonín Dvořák’s birthplace, a white house that was open odd hours. It was a pity the house-turned-museum was not open; I would have liked to have visited the place again as I had not been there for many years.

A comfortable, clean train came on time, and I headed back to Prague in the early afternoon.

 

 

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