City Museum of Prague Diary

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I had wanted to visit the City Museum of Prague again for some time, but I had just not gotten around to it. I remembered how the intriguing museum took visitors through the joys and disappointments of Czech history. This time, I went to see a temporary exhibition about Prague during the 20-year existence of the democratic First Republic, but, of course, I explored the entire museum as well.

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It was even more impressive than I had remembered. In the main hallway, I saw the calendar dial for Old Town’s Astronomical Clock, painted in 1865 by well-acclaimed Czech artist Josef Mánes. The dial was divided into circular rings. I took notice of the medieval syllable calendar. The folk costume-clad figures represented the 12 months, celebrating Slavic identity. I recognized Troský Castle in the background for September, and I knew that December symbolized the tradition of Czech pig-slaughtering, a custom the European Union did not approve of. A castle addict, I was excited to see Bezděz Castle in the background of the portrayal of March as a young farmer did his ploughing duties in the foreground. I remembered walking 4 kilometers from the train station to the ruins of Bezděz. It had entailed two kilometers of a steep, rocky incline that led to the remnants of what must have been at one time an impressive castle. I liked walking around the ruins, several pages that described each part in my hand, trying to imagine what it had looked like in its heyday. I wasn’t a big fan of ruins, but this one had charmed me.

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Mánes had also painted figures as zodiac signs. I saw dolphins with a plump cherub for Pisces. Sagittarius featured an Old Bohemian warrior while the depiction of Capricorn did not include any human figures but rather a cherub guiding a goat.

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I also noticed that Romanesque elements had greatly influenced the adornment on the dial. I recalled the Romanesque church in Regensburg, Germany, the façade an architectural delight. I had also seen many churches with Romanesque features in Czech villages. At the ruins of Vyšehrad Castle in Prague, St. Martin’s rotunda fit the Romanesque style.

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I walked into the prehistory section, not knowing if I would find it interesting as prehistory was not my cup of tea. I discovered that the first archeological find in Prague was unearthed near St. Matthew’s Church in Prague’s sixth district, a nice walk from where I had lived for many years. The small church had an intimate flair, and if I had been religious, I would have gone there for services. I would also like to be buried there. It is a relatively small and beautiful cemetery in my favorite section of Prague, but I do not think that would be possible. The cemetery is home to some famous Czech artists – architect Pavel Janák and actor Jiří Kemr.

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I also learned that the first farmers in Central Bohemia came in 6 BC. Another interesting fact was that the Celts, in the second half of 1 BC, were the first people to wear trousers in Central Europe.

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The medieval displays were eye-catching. Frescoes and wall paintings from Prague houses were highlighted. I read that Prague’s boroughs were created in the 13th and 14th centuries when a medieval fortress had been built. I already knew the Old Town was founded by King Wenceslas I during the 1230s. I read about the origins of the various districts of Prague. A statue that got my attention showed Christ in agony, hailing from 1413 and made of linden wood. Ceramic stove tiles showed pictures of Hussite soldiers from the 15th century, when the Hussite wars ravaged the Czech lands.

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Rudolf II’s Prague was also featured in the museum section that documented Prague from 1434 to 1620. Artists had flocked to Prague, which had made a name for itself as a center of European Mannerism. Rudolf II’s collection of art and curiosities was certainly impressive. An art gallery at Prague Castle displayed much art that had been attained during his reign. I had also seen many of Rudolf II’s curiosities in the Kunsthammer in Vienna.

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Of course, the Thirty Years’ War was given much attention, as the Catholic victory over the Protestants would greatly influence Prague and Czech history for hundreds of years. Before the war, there were many Ultraquists in Prague society. The defining battle for the Czech lands was at White Mountain in Prague during 1620. The townspeople of Prague were not happy with the then current legal, economic and political roles of towns and took part in this battle. During the war, the Saxons occupied Prague, and the Swedes pillaged and bombed the New Town in Prague.

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I remembered living near the Vltava embankment in the pleasant New Town. I tried to imagine the damage and destruction that those bombs had brought to the quarter. It must have been a devastating sight. Prague became part of a province after the war, and Baroque art and architecture became the fashion. In 1624 Catholicism became the only religion allowed in the Czech lands. During the Baroque period, Czech artists including the Dientzenhofer family of architects, sculptor Matthias Bernard Braun as well as painters Karel Škréta, Petr Brandl and Norbert Grund made their way to Prague in 1710 and had a great influence on the art in the city.

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The reign of the Habsburgs brought with it a long period of Germanization and a centralized monarchy that dominated the 18th century. Some of the exhibits on display from this century were intriguing, to say the least. A table clock took on a macabre character, featuring a skeleton wielding a scythe. There was also a wooden throne from St. Vitus Cathedral, made in the second half of the 17th century. A glass garden with musicians and nobles was another impressive creation.

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Then Prague experienced peace for 100 years. The exhibition ended with the Baroque section, but there was more to the museum, specifically Antonín Langweil’s model of Prague, constructed from 1826 to 1837. He had worked in the University Library at the Clementinum when he was not creating this amazing three-dimensional model of the city. The precision and detail left me in awe. He did not finish the project, but what he did create is astoundingly beautiful and innovative. I saw many sights I had first become acquainted with when I was a tourist in the city during the summer of 1991 – Prague Castle, the Charles Bridge and the Lesser Quarter’s main square as well as the Old Town, St. Vitus Cathedral and the Old Jewish Cemetery.

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I recalled walking to Prague Castle across the Charles Bridge early each morning when I first moved to Prague and lived in the Old Town. I would never forget standing below the balcony of Prague Castle on a frigid February evening in 1994 while Václav Havel gave a speech as the first President of the newly created Czech Republic, his wife Olga by his side. I recalled the moment I had set my eyes on Old Town Square for the first time, back in 1991, feeling at once that I had found my true home.

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What I found just as impressive as the exhibits were the richly adorned coffered ceilings in the museum. The painting is incredible. One used to be in a house in Prague and hails from the 17th century. On walls of the upper floor is a magnificent painting of the city.

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While I already had a solid foundation in Czech and Prague history before this visit, I realized how important this museum would be as a learning experience for tourists who really wanted to become acquainted with the historical events that had shaped the city’s identity through the Baroque era.

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It was such a shame that the displays ended with the Baroque era, but there was no more space in the museum. I thought that a museum of more recent history should be created with a special room celebrating Václav Havel as a dissident, playwright and president of Czechoslovakia and the Czech Republic.

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Walking through this museum, I was moved by the lands’ often tumultuous history and reminded how the history of the city seeps into my soul every day, no matter where I am. Just looking around me, I feel the history, which is one of the traits I like most about Prague. It is one reason I feel at home here and don’t want to leave.

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

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Palazzo Leoni Montanari Diary

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My visit to the Gallerie d’Italia in the Palazzo Leoni Montanari of Vicenza proved to be one of the most enthralling art experiences I have ever experienced. The gushingly Baroque palace was built in the 1670s, commissioned by Giovanni Leoni Montanari. The combination of statuary, stucco and fresco decoration in the building enhanced my great interest in the exhibitions. Owned by Intesa Sanpaolo bank and opened in 1999, the gallery houses a collection of vases from Attica and Magna Graecia, 18th century Venetian painting, a unique 17th century Carrara marble sculpture and the most impressive collection of Russian icons I have seen outside of the Russian Museum and the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. In this post, I am concentrating on the interior of the gallery itself and the exhibition of Russian icons as well as a temporary show of Soviet era icons.

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While the palace is by no means as vast as the Hermitage or Prado, it certainly made an everlasting impression. In fact, its size allows for an intimate atmosphere in which the visitor can become well-acquainted with its displays without feeling overwhelmed, though the gallery is by no means small.

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This definitely is one of my favorite art galleries in the world, ranking up there with the Doria Pamphilj in Rome or Lazaro Galdiano Museum in Madrid. The Baroque palazzo is a work of art itself. Indeed, the palace ornamentation is unbelievably rich. The inner courtyard with loggia features a superb statue of Hercules clubbing a monster to death. Just looking at the statue makes one feel imbued with the mythological character’s strength and determination. I was reminded of the theme of Hercules that was promoted in the Teatro Olimpico, an architectural gem designed by Andrea Palladio and a breathtaking sight I had visited earlier that day. In addition, in the palace courtyard I saw five frescoes sporting classical themes.

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Sculptural adornment greets the visitor in the entrance hall as dragons and hideous creatures make appearances in stucco forms. One space near the main staircase is designed as a sort of grotto with exquisite painting decoration. The Hall of Apollo celebrates that deity as well as Hercules. It features tapestries and stucco portrayals of protagonists from The Iliad, too. The Room of the Old Testament and the Room of Ancient Rome have stunning friezes.  The Room of the Four Continents prominently displays stucco figures of America, Africa, Asia and Europe above the entrances. Frescoes take on historical themes, such as Aristotle mentoring a young Alexander the Great in geography. Allegorical statues also add eloquence to the space.

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The Gallery of Truth is the room that most amazed me. I could not look away for a long time, as I was so mesmerized with the stucco and fresco decoration that covers the entire ceiling. The central fresco celebrates the triumph of truth. Nine muses are represented, too. Putties and garlands abound, and grotesque creatures join in the exuberant fray. The paintings show the feats of Hercules. In this room, I saw him slaying serpents, freeing Prometheus from the rock and holding up the world for Atlas.

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While ceramics are not usually my cup of tea, this collection did feature an impressive 500 items, many unearthed in Ruvo di Puglia, a town in Puglia I had visited the previous year and one of the most tranquil places I had ever seen. It brought back memories of that astounding trip to Apulian Romanesque churches and tranquil settings without hordes of tourists. Puglia had given me a sense of serenity and a feeling of peace. I was reminded of those feelings, as I better comprehended the ancient history of Ruvo di Puglia.

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The 18th century Venetian paintings brought back memories of my trip to Venice, just one of many places in Italy to which I longed to return. The 14 paintings of everyday life in the society of the Venetian nobility by Pietro Longhi triggered thoughts of a Prague exhibition of works by Rococo painter Norbert Grund, who was a masterful observer of his era. Yet Longhi did not only paint common scenes. I also admired his portrayals of exotic animals surprising and enthralling an audience.

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I was entranced with the works of Canaletto and his contemporaries. The Venice landscapes spoke to me. I recalled the exhibition of Canaletto’s works I had seen in Aix-en-Provence a few years earlier. I also thought of the Canaletto painting that I had admired in Nelahozeves Chateau and later in the Lobkowicz Museum in Prague.

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In a room punctuated by stucco decoration, I admired the unique sculpture “The Fall of the Rebel Angels” by Agostino Fasolato, created in the 18th century. Shaped as a pyramid, the sculpture features 60 intertwining figures, all twisting and turning, carved from one piece of Carrara marble. Once on display in Padua, the plethora of figures exhibit a great attention to detail as masterful as that in paintings by Pietor Brueghel the Elder. I was entranced with the dynamic sense of movement attained by the sculptor. The sculpture, indeed, seemed to be in motion as figures wiggled and writhed.

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The Russian icons enthralled me so much that I was just as astounded by this gallery as I was by the comprehensive Van Gogh exhibition at the Palladian Basilicata with its elegant arches and arcades. At this gallery I saw 140 icons ranging in age from the Middle Ages to the 20th century and giving a superb overview of the history of the icon in Russian society throughout the centuries.

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The icons boast various themes. They are inspired by the Bible, legends, liturgical hymns, theological texts and feasts, for instance. The Mother of God and Saint Nicholas are featured in some of the artistic creations. Icons of saints and monks, some with monasteries in the background, make many appearances. I also saw frames and covers for icons made with precious materials. A mastery of the goldsmith trade also is illustrated in some items. The schools represented include Moscow, Novgorod and Vladimír. The icons are organized by subject matter, which was helpful and intriguing.

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I also found the temporary exhibition of Soviet icons by Grisha Bruskin to be very impressive. A monumental painting called “The Fundamental Lesson,” created in 1945, features 256 white figures. The painting stresses the significance of statues in the Soviet Union as each person represented has an ideological meaning. Instead of a celebration of saints, Madonnas and monks, I saw workers, pioneers, athletes, functionaries, astronauts, soldiers and doctors exalted onto ideological pedestals. Small sculptures of these figures are also displayed. There are 25 porcelain pieces and 49 renditions in bronze.

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“The Fundamental Lesson”

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I remembered how, as a child growing up in America, I had been taught by society that Russia was the enemy, all Communists were bad people, and everything was black-and-white. Russia was evil, we were good. I had wondered what life was like in a Communist country. Did people ever cry with joy or truly feel happy and at peace with themselves and with the world? I wondered what people ate, what people wore, what people were thinking about.

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Overall, I was most impressed with this exhibition because it exposes the dangers of Soviet ideology. It impressed upon me how Soviet society had been inundated by the ideological myths represented by the painting and small statuary.

More Russian icons from the permanent exhibition:

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I came away from this gallery with a heightened appreciation of having grown up in a free, democratic society. I had attained a deeper understanding of the art of Russian icons. I had seen a unique sculpture carved with precision. The visit had triggered golden memories of Venice. I had examined Venetian society in the 18th century thanks to Longhi. I had seen artifacts from one of my favorite Apulian towns, Ruvo di Puglia and had thought about that unforgettable trip. I had experienced all this in a building that was a masterful work of art, the Gallery of Truth being my favorite space.

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

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