Prague Castle Picture Gallery Diary

Joseph Heintz the Elder – The Last Judgement

The permanent collection of the Prague Castle Picture Gallery has been closed since 2019 due to an air-conditioning defect and a lack of financial means for repairs. A special exhibition of about half of the collection’s works opened at the Castle’s Imperial Stables during July of 2022 and will last for three months.

Veronese – Saint Catherine of Alexandria with an Angel

The Picture Gallery originated during the reign of Emperor Rudolf II, at the end of the 16th century. Rudolf II chose Prague as his residence when he was Holy Roman Emperor. The ruler was passionate about collecting works of art – paintings, curiosities, statues and more. For almost 30 years, Rudolf II amassed artifacts, and inherited other pieces. He exhibited his vast art collection in the then newly constructed north wing of the Castle, the part of the complex where he built the Spanish Hall. The majority of his painting collection was Italian in origin.

Joos van Cleve – Altarpiece with the Adoration of the Shephards, Saint Jerome with the Donor and Three Sons and Saint Lucy with the Donor and Three Daughters

Stellar artists worked as court painters in Prague: Hans von Aachen, Bartholomeus Spranger, Pieter Stevens and many others. First, allow me to mention Giuseppe Arcimboldo, a portrait painter serving Emperor Maximilian II and Emperor Ferdinand I. Arcimboldo began serving the emperor in 1562. Rudolf, the son of the emperor, was very taken with his work. He composed still lifes for Rudolf, and, after Arcimboldo returned to Milan in 1587 due to illness, he had a now famous portrait of Rudolf, called Vertumnus, sent to Prague. Arcimboldo’s portraits were allegorical, often composed of various objects that would make up the person’s head, for instance.

Lucas Cranach the Elder – Saint Catherine, Saint Barbara and fragments of the figures of Saint Dorothea and Saint Margaret, from Prague Altarpiece

Hans von Aachen was Rudolf II’s favorite when he was emperor. He began painting for Rudolf II in 1592 and wound up making Prague his home, where he created his best portraits. The painter became good friends with Rudolf II, too. The picture gallery still has von Aachen’s portrait of his daughter Maria Maxmiliana. His style was a precursor to the Baroque features that would later dominate Czech art.

Bartholomeus Spranger – Allegory on the Triumph of Fedelity over Destiny

Spranger’s tenure in Prague lasted from 1580 to 1590. His often complicated and ornate works displayed Mannerist features. Spranger created numerous paintings for the Rudolfine collection. In 1607, Spranger created Allegory on the Triumph of Fidelity over Destiny – Allegory on the Fate of Hans Mont, referring to the sculpture to worked for Rudolf II until an eye injury prevented him from doing so. Mont’s whereabouts were unknown. This is one of Spranger’s paintings that has remained at the Castle throughout the centuries. He also created a masterful portrait of Jacob König, a German goldsmith who was selling antiques in Italy.

Pieter Stevens – Forest Landscape with a Water Mill

Pieter Stevens was another masterful court painter. He resided in Bohemia with his family and excelled at landscapes, influenced by Paul Brill and Hans Bol. He often portrayed village scenes or rendered forests and mountains in his unique way.

In 1585, Rudolf II’s collection was comprised of 3,000 paintings, including many Italian, Dutch, Flemish and German works, not to mention the numerous curiosities and statues.

Lucas Cranach the Elder – The Ill-Matched Couple

After Rudolf II died in 1612, his successor Emperor Matthias had many of Rudolf’s paintings taken to Vienna, where he had his imperial residence. The Bohemian Estates sold some of Rudolf’s works so they had enough money to pay their soldiers. After the Catholics defeated the Protestant nobles in the Battle of White Mountain during 1620, Archduke Maximilian of Bavaria confiscated many of the works. Others were destroyed. During 1630, while the Thirty Years’ War was raging, Saxon soldiers took over Prague Castle and stole much of the artwork.

Bassano – The Good Samaritan

When the Swedes occupied Prague Castle in 1648, they took some of Rudolf’s collection to Queen Christina in Stockholm, but the most significant works had already been sent to Vienna. The queen sold some of the artwork and gave away others. She also took her favorites to her residence in Italy. Part of the collection was destroyed in a fire at the Royal Palace of Stockholm. Some works stayed in Prague when the Swedes took control because they were hidden.

Tintoretto – Christ and the Woman taken in Adultery

A few paintings made their way to England, becoming part of Lord Buckingham’s collection. Several were returned to Prague from Vienna. Other paintings were sold in Europe. Empress Maria Theresa had the picture gallery at the Castle shut down. In 1782 many of the Rudolfine artworks were sold at auction.

Domenico Fetti – Saint Jerome

Some paintings have perhaps miraculously remained at Prague Castle throughout the trials and tribulations of history. Paolo Veronese’s Portrait of Jakob König and Christ Washing the Feet of his Disciples as well as The Adoration of the Shepherds became property of the gallery in the middle of the 17th century and never left. Titian’s Young Woman at Her Toilet has called Prague Castle home since the 18th century. Several of the paintings by the Bassano brothers have remained in Prague, though many were transported to Vienna.

Bassano – September

In 1796, Czech aristocrats and burghers organized the Picture Gallery of Patriotic Friends of the Arts in Prague, which would later become the National Gallery. Some paintings were not sent to Vienna because they were on loan at the time to this Prague society. The year after its creation, the group was able to get 67 of Rudolf’s paintings back from Vienna. Gradually, they obtained more and more paintings from Vienna.

In 1918 Czechoslovakia was formed, and Prague Castle became the office of the president. In 1930 the Masaryk Fund began to purchase paintings for Prague Castle. During the Nazi Occupation some of the paintings hung at the president’s summer residence of Lány and others stayed at Prague Castle.

Peter Paul Rubens – The Annunciation to the Virgin

Much reconstruction took place at Prague Castle from 1960 to 1961. The National Gallery Commission brought many paintings to the National Gallery and the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague. Many paintings were stored in a depository at Opočno Chateau during 1961. After the reconstruction, the Prague Castle Painting Gallery was established, taking up six rooms and including works of Titian, Rubens, Veronese and Tintoretto. German masters and Baroque artists from the Czech lands and the Netherlands also made up the collection.

Titian – The Virgin and Child with the Young Saint John the Baptist

The Velvet Revolution of November of 1989 triggered the downfall of Communism. A few years later, in 1993, the Prague Castle Administration was set up. One of its purposes was to organize new exhibitions at the painting gallery. From 1995 to 1998, much reconstruction took place at the Castle, and the Prague Castle Administration bought more paintings from Rudolf’s collection.

Lucas Cranach the Elder – Portrait of a Lady with an Apple

There has not been such a vast collection at Prague Castle since Rudolf’s death. It is impossible to faithfully recreate the Rudolfine collection because there are not enough inventories. Many of the paintings taken during the Thirty Years’ War have disappeared. Still, the Prague Castle Picture Gallery houses 120 outstanding works, including ones from the original collection.

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

Veronese – Christ Washing the Feet of the Disciples
Johann Heinrich Schonfeld – Battle of Jericho
Peeter Snayer – An Ambush in a Village

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.