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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Trója Chateau Diary

Troja10One of my favorite places in Prague is Trója Chateau, located across from the zoo in the Trója district. Built in Baroque style for Václav Vojtěch from Šternberk and his family from 1679 to 1685, it boasts a unique, captivating exterior as well as a richly decorated interior.

On this particular day I arrived at 10 am, but it was Friday, and a sign on the door informed me that the chateau did not open until one in the afternoon. As I peered at the Baroque gem, I recalled that some major historical figures had stayed here. Empress Maria Theresa had owned the place for a while but only spent the night for short periods of time, and Czech historian František Palacký – one of my heroes – stayed here on several occasions.

After spending time in the zoo watching monkeys swing from trees and polar bears wade in water, I had a leisurely lunch and returned to the chateau before 1 pm to take in its remarkable exterior and stroll through the incredible garden.

Troja2Inspired by the Roman villas he had seen during a stay in Italy, French architect Jean Baptiste Mathey designed the unconvential building with its main entrance facing the French garden. I loved the statue-flanked, two-sided staircase leading to the front doors. From the statuary created by George and Paul Heermann, I picked out the gods Hercules, Pallas Athena and Jupiter as the deities defeated the Titans.  I also was enthralled with the pilasters that displayed stars symbolizing the Šternberk clan as well as the grapes and rabbit heads that decorated the ornate façade. In the garden I took note of the busts of emperors and the fountains. The large terracotta vases added an elegant touch to one of my all-time favorite gardens.  I photographed the fountain depicting Neptune with a dolphin at his feet. I wished I had no pressing engagements that day and had time to sit on a bench near the chateau and read for hours.

Troja5When the chateau opened, a large group of more than 30 seniors marched through the entrance, and I had to wait for the second tour at 1:30 pm because the seniors had booked a tour in advance. I liked it better when you could walk through the rooms by yourself without a guide. I preferred to take my time and soak up the atmosphere of each room, reading the clear descriptions carefully and taking note of all the symbolism. I waited on a bench at the box office, noting that even this room was richly decorated with a frescoed ceiling of galloping, white horses pulling a golden chariot and a green and white tile stove.

Soon it was time for my tour. As usual, the space that impressed me the most was the Habsburg Hall, where frescoes on the ceiling and walls have a Baroque tromp d’oeil effect, and painting pretends to be plastic with illusionary statues, reliefs and busts. I gazed at the swirling scenes on the ceiling that depicted the Christians’ victory over the Turks and almost became dizzy. It was too much to take in at one time. I noted that the golden triangle in the center stood for the Holy Trinity and saw the three theological virtues of Hope, Faith and Love take a trip on a cloud.

Troja13When I looked at the western wall, I was immediately drawn to the defeated Turk flying through the air. I turned around, facing east, and took in the fresco of Justice celebrating victory over Injustice. Vice, Folly, Egoism and Avarice gathered around a fireplace, unsuccessful in their pursuits. I lifted my gaze and could hardly catch my breath as Holy Roman Emperor Conrad appeared with Albert Habsburg.  I had read that the blood on Albert’s robe and the white color that is only under the belt inspired the Austrians to make red and white their flag colors.

I had yet to absorb the scenes on the northern side, where a story focusing on Count Rudolf Habsburg, who later became emperor, played out. While hunting, he ran into a priest who was hurrying to the sick, and the count gave him a horse. The priest foresaw that Rudolf would one day be crowned emperor. Because I had visited so many castles and chateaus, I easily identified the very physically unappealing Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I with his long, dark mane of hair and ugly features. I tried to focus on each illusionary statue. I wanted to fully appreciate the reliefs of Habsburg emperors and Spanish kings, but my head was overflowing with too much visual information.

Troja8My other favorite rooms were the three Chinese-decorated spaces, dominated by remarkable wall and ceiling frescoes. I noticed boats, a meandering river, bridges, a town in the background and a rocky landscape as well as Chinese people, exotic birds, curved roofs and palm trees. A bridge with black marble pillars caught my attention.  I sensed that the gushing waterfall was about to tumble into me and took a step backward.

I could not forget the chapel, which ties with the Chinese rooms for my second favorite space. The black Madonna always took my breath away. A crowned Virgin and Child were clad in clothing with golden swiggles, draped around them as if they were wrapped tightly in a blanket. I was especially entranced by the details of their curly hair on the original statue.  I turned my attention to the large paintings of Christ’s last hours alive. The rendition of the crowning of Christ with thorns was especially moving.

Troja9There was also a new art exhibition in the chateau, which was one of the reasons I had chosen this time to visit the chateau.  The gallery of Czech landscape painting from the 1880s took up several rooms and illustrated how Classicism had given way to Modernism. I spotted some 20th century art as well.  Antonín Hudeček’s painting “The Sea” fascinated me. Composed of dark blues and greens, the work amazed me because I could almost hear the waves crashing on the rocks that were reflected in the water. Hudeček’s “Wooded Landscape” evoked optimism and delight as the trees were depicted in bright, airy colors under a pink, white and blue sky. It was altogether different than the dark and brooding creation, “The Sea.”  

Troja11Another painting that spoke to me was Václav Špála’s “Plakánek Valley,” a vibrant mixture of greens and pinks, simple shapes that created a dynamic whole. In Jindřich Prucha’s “Under the Tree” a solitary woman, clad in blue, sat under a big tree, surrounded by lush, green scenery. The guide explained how the painting depicted the darkness of the days leading up to World War I, but I only saw loneliness and emptiness. The sense of solitude and the sense of the figure being swallowed up by the environment did not evoke darkness for me. On the contrary, the green scenery gave me a positive feeling. In Zdenka Braunerová’s “Landscape After the Rain Viewed from Tábor,” I was smitten by the dark skies looming over the two small cottages in the green landscape.  I liked the works of Antonín Slavíček in the rooms as well.

There are many intriguing ceiling and wall frescoes in the chateau. One that I particularly enjoyed looking at portrayed Bacchus, the god of wine, with putti flying around him as he chugged down wine. The other side showed the morning after the drunken escapade. The putti had to hold each other up, and Bacchus was carried on the shoulders of several figures.

Finally, I left, wishing I had been allowed more time in each room. I knew that before long I would be back again to see one of the most captivating and underrated places in Prague.

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

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