Panorama of Old Town

THE OLD TOWN AND THE JEWISH GHETTO

Jan Hus Memorial

Old Town (Staré Město) is the oldest and richest Prague quarter. Its inception is connected with an international market, which functioned here from at least the 9th century. The adulation of Ibrahim Ibn Jakob, the Arabian merchant who passed through here in the 10th century, pertained to this part of Prague. In the area around the Old Town Square (Staroměstské náměstí) and along the main Old Town routes, the oldest Romanesque stone buildings are preserved, which is wholly unique in central Europe. Today, more than seventy are known. Back when they were built the Old Town was called Mezihrady ([between castles] i.e. between Prague Castleand Vyšehrad) and an international market flourished on the present day Old Town Square. In the location where the Prague meridian now passes through the square, Marian’s Column once stood (from the year 1680), which at the same time served as the gnomon of a sundial. It was destroyed during the declaration of the Republic in 1918. However, at this time the Monument to Jan Hus, founder of the Czech reformation, created by Art Noveau sculptor L. Šaloun (1915), already stood on the Old Town Square. By his side stands one of the most beautiful Prague rococo structures – the Goltz-Kinský Palace by A. Lurago (1755–65), built according to the project of K. I. Dienzenhofer. Today, the National Gallery’s Graphic collections are placed here.

Medieval Prague was very cosmopolitan. To the north and northeast German entrepreneurs resided, to the south and southeast merchants from Latin countries, to the east of the square Czechs and to the northwest Jews. The oldest municipal and monarch’s structures are located in the eastern part of the square. Next to the Romanesque stone House at the Bell (dům U Zvonu), which was rebuilt in the Gothic style and in which many medieval monarchs resided, stands the quaint Týn School with an arcade from the 13th century. Behind it stands the city’s main cathedral, the Cathedral of Our Lady before Týn (chrám Panny Marie před Týnem), a large part of which was created in the 14th century by the workshop of Peter Parler. The extraordinary medieval sculptor’s ornamentation was preserved along with the tombstone of Rudolf’s astronomer Tycho de Brahe and a collection of the painter’s work.

Celetna Street

Memorable Celetná Street leads through this part of the Old Town, featuring the most noteworthy Old Town palaces; on the corner of the Old Town Square you’ll find the Štorch House (Štorchův dům), with frescos of Mikoláš Aleš in a style uniting Art Nouveau with the New Renaissance tradition of nationalist revival. In the middle of Celetná Street, on the corner of the Fruit Market (Ovocný trh), stands the majestic jewel of modern architecture – the cubist House of the Black Madonna (dům u Černé matky Boží) by Josef Gočár (1909–11), while the Fruit Market is dominated by the classicist Estates Theatre (Stavovské divadlo) building, which was, among other things, witness to the famous premier of Mozart’s Don Giovanni (1787). Adjoining the theatre is the Karolinum, a mixed complex of university buildings and a block of houses that go all the way to Celetná Street. They are mostly covered by Baroque and 19th century faćades, but many interiors are Gothic. The heart of the entire complex is the Rothlév House (Rothlévův dům), which Wenceslas IV donated to the university (1383). The university rector’s office has been based here since the year 1611. Even the latest renovations have not destroyed the mixed nature of this organism.

Celetná Street connects the main square with the Late Gothic Powder Tower (Prašná brána) by M. Rejsek (after the year 1475). The Powder Tower is closely adjoined by the Royal Courtyard. It was a favourite private residence of Czech rulers, however, it was not preserved because it was rebuilt into the Municipal House (Obecní dům), which is the most impressive palace of Art Nouveau Prague (1906–11). It was built by A. Balšánek and O. Polívka and the ornamentation was done jointly, chiefly by painter J. Preissler and sculptors Stanislav Sucharda and Ladislav Šaloun.

On the opposite, west side of the Old Town Square stands the remainder of the town hall with a chapel and tower dating from the 14th century. In front of the town hall, on the pavement, there is a cross commemorating the execution of 27 leaders of the tragic Estates Uprising in the years 1618–21. The building of the local government itself was created from several city houses that the municipality gradually connected from the year 1338, when it received the right to build a town hall. The southern side of the town hall’s faćade is decorated with the still functioning Astronomical Clock (Orloj), which was created by Mikuláš of Kadaň (1410) and was perfected by Master Hanuš (1490). In the year 1864, Josef Mánes created the Astronomical Clock calendar panel. From this side the town hall is also interesting due to its Late Gothic portal by M. Rejsek (1475) and on the corner the Renaissance Minuta House (Dům U Minuty).

Old Town Square

From the northern side of the square, the view opens up onto St. Nicholas’ Cathedral (chrám sv. Mikuláše), which was built by K. I. Dienzenhofer (1732–35). Behind the cathedral, the Jewish ghetto, which has been demolished since 1896, spreads out. The features that were preserved include the Old-New Synagogue (Staronová synagoga) from the 13th century, which is the oldest preserved and still functioning synagogue in central Europe, and the wholly extraordinary Old Jewish Cemetery, utilised from the 15th to the 18th centuries. Among the 20,000 tombstones is the grave of the famous Rabbi Löw, who in Rudolf’s time was reputed to have created the mythic Golem, an artificial person, of which, however, the rabbi lost control. The golem had to be “turned off” and hidden in an unknown location. However, most of the Jewish city underwent Art Nouveau reconstruction. Pařížská ulice (Paris Street), in particular, became a manifestation of the new style, but the riverbank outskirts of the ghetto were rebuilt even sooner. Proof of this is, for example, the Rudolfinum. It is a sanctuary of music and artistic creation from the year 1883. It was built for the German inhabitants of Prague by the main architects of the Czech National Theatre – Josef Zítek and Josef Schulz.

The Jewish Quarter was then enclosed on the eastern side by cloisters and parish churches. From the beginning of the 13th century, about thirty in total were built in the Old Town, the most famous of which is probably St. Agnes’ Convent, which was founded by Anežka Přemyslova (1234) for Franciscans and Poor Clare nuns. Anežka, a sister of King Wenceslas I, was only canonized in the year 1989, but for Czechs she became a sacred guardian immediately after her death (1282). Today the National Gallery’s collection of medieval art is on display in the convent.

Convent of St. Agnes of Bohemia

Saint Agnes of Bohemia also founded the only Czech church order – the Order of the Cross with the Red Star, which had its headquarters alongside the Old Town Bridge Tower at the foot of Charles Bridge. The order’s St. Francis’ Cathedral was rebuilt in the Baroque style by Jean-Baptiste Mathey (1689). Thus one of the most beautiful Prague Baroque churches was created. This area, west and southwest from the Old Town Square, harbours many treasures. Through here leads the coronation route of Czech kings, which connected Vyšehrad with Prague castle; here one can find (on Karolina Světlá Street) the Holy Cross Romanesque Rotunda (rotunda sv. Kříže) from the 11th century, and even the famous Bethlehem chapel (Betlémská kaple) stood here, a place where the reformer master Jan Hus preached. It was reconstructed (1950–53) according to the demolished original from the year 1391. But this part of town was also the focal point of Catholicism, because on the Cross Square (Křížovnické náměstí) from the year 1556 the Jesuit Hall was in operation here, which, particularly after the Thirty Years War, grew into an extensive complex. Named after St. Clement’s Cathedral, it is called Klementinum. Part of it consists of St. Salvador’s Church (kostel sv. Salvatora), which is connected to the so-called Italian Chapel (Vlašská kaple). This is the oldest European cathedral built with an elliptical ground plan. It dates from the years 1590–97, but it is not possible to determine its creator. What the architects in Italy only dreamed of, their Italian colleagues realised on the Prague courtyard of Rudolf II. Klementinum harbours other treasures. The Baroque-fashioned interior of the cathedral, the Mirrored Chapel (Zrcadlová kaple) (1724) and the Library and Mathematical Hall (1727–30) illustrate the development of Baroque art in Bohemia. Besides this, the Klementinum also served as a university library. Today’s National Library builds on this tradition. It keeps about six million volumes with a yearly growth of around 80,000 titles and many magnificent medieval manuscripts.

To the south of Old Town Square Wenceslas I founded (1232–34) St. Gall’s Town (Havelské město). This was supposed to be an isolated new market, but its privileges soon extended to the old settlements. St. Gall’s town became the main city market (from the coal to the fruit market) and it functions as a market to this day. In fact, New Town is connected to Old Town here, via the market.

Map of Prague

MapaTrasa
1Jewish quarter borders
2Old Town borders

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Updated 01-01-1970 01:00