The Spectre of Old Town – In Depth Article

The Spectre of Old Town

“Click, clack, click, clack…” the sounds of sturdy soled shoes as they hit the cobbled pavement. Walking through the dense network of passages and streets of Prague’s Old Town, the sound of my feet underneath me reverberating against the handsome stuccoed townhouses, echoing through the portals of Baroque palaces, and dispersing in some sheltered courtyards. Alone with my thoughts, the methodical rhythm of my gait synchronizing with my heartbeat as I both leisurely, yet determinedly make my way through this heart of the city to my next destination.
This seemingly banal event now exists only in my memories of a city that no longer exists. However, unlike the very real physical destruction that befell urbanities like Dresden or Rotterdam, Prague’s Old Town maintains its morphology; it is still as physically recognizable to us as it was to Franz Kafka, 100 years ago. However, and in the spirit of the Czech nation’s centennial, it is important to examine what has changed in this often-turbulent time. People today flock to Prague, for its picturesque center, prima facie preserved in its totality, but Prague is not a relic, it is an alive force, continually changing as its environment requires. The question, therefore, becomes, are the changes of the Golden City perceptible to us, or how far through its layers must we delve before we see our own reflection in our built environment?
Of course, before it could be “The Golden City”, there had to be a city to gild. And before that, there had to be a settlement to coalesce into a city. Prague today was not always one entity. Even its historic core was once fractured and independent, like Buda and Pest. And though not the oldest of the settlements, nor the most preserved, and today not even the most densely inhabited, Old Town continues to conjure up almost metonymic associations of the city.
There doesn’t exist a specific date for the founding of the Old town as there does for the Lesser Town (1257), New Town (1348), and the Castle district (1320). Though it received municipal rights in 1232-34, the settlement here was already the economic core of the early Přemyslid state. It arose out of obscurity, the natural point of respite, after an arduous crossing of the then untamed Vltava. Adjacent to a naturally occurring riffle at the river’s bend (práh in Czech) and within the scope of the early fortifications of the Prague castle and Vyšehrad, small wooden settlements started to pop up around primary trading routes that crisscrossed the area of the future city. As frequent fires devastated trading settlements in the Periphery of the city, most notably Pohořelec at the end of the 11th century, traders definitively moved to this, right bank of the Vltava as concentrations of wares and settlements increased. Trading colonies abutted the primary trade paths leading into the city, some still easily perceptible today, namely Celetná, Dlouhá, Kaprova, and Husova. Where these primary streets met, development was forbidden, to allow for easy circulation of wares and goods. Regular markets would be established by the 11th century here, generating the name Veliky tržiště (lit. Great Market). The establishment of the Týn Yard, a fortified merchants’ yard, complete with its own walls and moat at this time solidified Old Town as the international central business district of the heart of Europe. With time and wealth, by the 12th century the wooden houses surrounding what we now call Old Town Square gave way to stone homes, in the international and avant-garde Romanesque style, and in concentrations not seen anywhere else in central Europe. Other royal towns may have had certain individual examples, especial in sacral architecture, but only Regensburg could even essay to compare to the amount such expensive structures in the residential sphere. These multi-story houses were the epitome of luxury. So peculiar and extravagant for this time, Prague gained the nickname „City of Stone“ from traders representing the interests of far-off dukes and kings.
These traders themselves were of diverse nationalities. Unlike the ancient and medieval Silk Road, which saw most of its traders localized and only the goods moving great distances. Trade networks in Central Europe often had individual merchants see their cargo off to their final destinations, incentivized by lucrative profits they would not have to share. Prague, already an early medieval trade mecca, therefore experienced the chatter of languages the world over, a melting pot of increasing diversity, not unlike its current status as an international touristic capital. In fact, the polities that inhabited the city have left their own marks. The establishment of enclosed and walled settlements like the Ungelt at the Týn Yard was far from an abnormality, it was standard practice. Already in the time of Ibrahim ibn Yaqub, in the middle of the 10th century, we have literary as well as archaeological evidence of a large and thriving Jewish community in the area now known as Josefov to the north of the Great Market. These fortified communities were established both for the safety of the Jewish traders and residents and their goods, as well as the other Polities, suspicious of the heathens in their midst. As was the case in other European towns and even other later Jewish communities in Prague, as a rule, the Jewish settlement would be relatively distant from the actual city center, at that time in the 10th century, an informal settlement directly under the fortified protection of the Prague Castle on the left side of the river, in what would later be redeveloped into the Lesser Town. The Judenstadt, or Jewish district them stood most to gain when the primary trade nexus moved directly south of them to Old Town.
A further specific settlement for German traders was established in the near the current St Peter Church at Poříčí, in the extreme East of Old Town. This settlement was right on the Vicus Teutonicum an important trade route that led to the North East of the country and to the Baltic. The other preeminent trading bloc in the known world at the time was the Romance language lands. Naturally, they required their own settlement, specific for Italian, Lothringian, and Burgundian traders from beyond East Francia, which was interestingly incredibly close to the local population, having its settlement directly Southwest of the Great Market, fronting what is now the Small Square (Malé náměstí). Through a thousand years of fires, development, and reconstructions, little remains of these early settlements, though the Ungelt’s distribution of squares directly relates to where the original walls were: the walls were incorporated into later buildings. That way we can still feel the space and size of this trading community. But perhaps most important was the nature of the reason for these settlements: each of these communities following not only their own traditions but also their own laws. This would prove very important for the development of the city, especially as the wealthy German traders gained aristocratic patents and began settling out of the walls of their settlement.
The ratification of Old Town’s charter in the mid-13th century further intensified the city’s development. Already, completely urbanized, buildings in the city had to fight for the basic utilities of that time: sunlight and ventilation. Already built in stone, buildings transformed completely in functionality and access. Whereas Romanesque houses had front yards and space for ground floor warehouses and workshops, the lack of space meant, new buildings pushed the building to envelop to the limit of the building plot, by now having been divided multiple times through inheritances. These new Gothic-style homes boasted new space-saving technologies: covered arcades, which allowed them to build further into the street, maximizing upper floor space, and as a bonus allowing the public shelter during rain and snow. The oldest arcades in the country are found right on Old Town Square.
This shortage of space also led to further, and this time grander new settlements. Most important of these is decidedly the Gallusstadt that was founded around the Church of St. Gall at the Southern part of Old Town. This settlement was founded by Wenceslaus I., with a population imported from Regensburg, and most important sporting a 580m long, 3-hectare market square, intended to directly compete with the great market at Old Town Square. The settlement was bounded by high walls with towers, that were incorporated into the fortification of Old Town that was developed in the 1260s. However, standing in the city today, we would have almost no perception of this once great square. That is because it was formally incorporated into Old Town not even 50 years after it was established, in 1283. The walls that surrounded it were also largely deconstructed, for material, but also for Political purposes under the auspices of Charles IV, but that is a topic for another issue. There is one remaining vestige of this fortification, however. The House of the Blue Rose (Dům U Modré růže) on Rytířská, sports a peculiar tower not in keeping with the rest of the building’s scale. This was part of the original fortification wall, that later was incorporated into the current building. This was likewise Southern exit-point from the city.
The great square that once was, expensively cobbled from its founding, unlike Old Town Square, has been lost to numerous developments and redevelopment, its only clear remnant is the Ovocný trh, which today stands behind the late Baroque Estates Theatre. However, another peculiarity remains. The streets of Rytířská and Havelská bound a block of buildings with a long narrow alley between them. In large part, all of these buildings hare the same height, and noticeably have windows and floors on the same level too. This large block is actually the redeveloped remains of a Cloth Market Hall, like those in Krakow or Ypres, which was built on the open square in the 14th century.
The intensification of the city also led to numerous sacral changes and reorganizations. The German traders moved their settlement within the Old Town Walls to establish a chapter of the Order of Teutonic Knights at the church of St. Benedict, now the location of the Kotva shopping center. The Dominican order strengthened themselves by moving close to the Judith Bridge, which was slightly North of the current Charles Bridge. The old Romanesque Rotundas, which were privately funded began to be interconnected to networks of parish churches.

Photo by Felix Mittermeier

Possibly most interesting, however, is what happened to all the cemeteries. In Prague, as in most European cities, cemeteries, especially after the adoption of Christianity, came as a package with Churches. Very few Churches did not have cemeteries, and that was only due to their difficult locations, such as St. Francis at the river bank near the Judith Bridge simply didn’t have space. Cities were population sinks until the 19th century, so more people died there than were born. Eventually, most cemeteries had to become multilayered to keep up with demand, something still visible in the Old Jewish Cemetery, even if that one dates only from the 15th century. Urbanization, however, put even more pressure on Old Town, and even these crammed cemeteries started to disappear. Some of the Sites were redeveloped into buildings, but some remained empty, being turned into city squares. The previously mentioned Small Square is one such place, a medieval cemetery that was paved over at the end of the 13th century. The beautiful decorated well in the center of this square is also at the center of the cemetery, whose bodies at eternal rest are still there, 800 years later.
Prague, and especially Old Town was quickly becoming a Continental center of culture as well. Agnes of Bohemia, daughter of Ottokar II. And granddaughter Vaclav I. suffered when her betrothed Henry, son of Emperor Frederick II decided to marry someone else. She decided to give up her privileged, if oppressed life as a royal daughter, and contacted Clare of Assisi and her Order of Poor Ladies to construct a convent on the Northern banks of Old Town, to serve the city’s poor like their counterparts the Friars. However, she used her previous position through her father, the King, to contact the best craftsmen in Europe to aid in the convent’s construction. Many of these craftsmen came directly from the French royal court in Paris, thanks to her correspondences with The French King and Pope. The resulting convent of the Clarisses, now the National Gallery, hosting an exceptional collection of medieval and Gothic art and sculpture, contains also the first traces of truly Gothic architecture in Central Europe. Moreover, the same craftsmen who constructed the famous Sainte-Chapelle in Paris built the main chapel, which has the same monumentality. Some of these same craftsmen stayed in the city to construct other private and sacral structures, including the Old-New Synagogue. It was at this time Prague began to be called “Golden”.
The ensuing 14th and 15th centuries carried with them the marks that Old Town would export not only to the rest of the country but to Europe as a whole. Mentioned earlier, The German traders had long since begun to inhabit the areas of the city that had previously been dominated by the local, Slavic population. Their wealth, accumulated through importation of far-off luxuries, such as salt, spices, precious stones and metals, and knowledge, allowed them the means to establish themselves in the city’s government and patriciate. Old Town began to be increasingly exclusively German-dominated, as the poorer Czech population simply couldn’t afford the fees necessary to run and maintain office. Compounding this was the principle of Ostsiedlung (lit. East settling) in which Polish, Czech and Hungarian Kings invited settlers from the overcrowded German polities in the Holy Roman Empire, to settle the sparsely populated mountainous border regions of Bohemia, and thereby make those areas economically productive. This likewise led to an increase in local nobilities being established as German or Germanizing. Successive Kings were aware of this growing ethnic tension, and proceeded to attempt to alleviate the situation in Prague by first, founding the Lesser Town to lure the growing urban German aristocracy closer to the surveillance of the King, and later, the establishment of New Town, which became heavily populated by the autochthonous Czech population of the city, increasing the power of the German burghers in Old Town. Attempts to unify Old and New Town failed in 1367 spectacularly, forcing the emperor to revoke his decision just a decade later, re-establishing the division.
With ethnic tension came hand in hand religious tension as well. Europe-wide peasant revolts in the early 1380s shook the King’s faith in his safety in the city. Until this point, the King had multiple residences around the city, specifically Vyšehrad, the Prague Castle, and the King’s Court (Královský dvůr) where Art Nouveau Municipal House now stands. After experiencing the rising tensions, the king permanently evacuated to the Prague Castle, abandoning his home in Old Town. This loss in oversight allowed more violence to erupt soon after. In 1398, Prague’s most infamous pogrom against its Jewish population occurred. On Easter that year, a group of Jewish children were playing with a bag of sand, which hit a Christian priest. The priest whipped up a furor when he declared the act a „defilement of the Body of Christ“. What followed was the massacre of 3000 Jews and the expulsion and confiscation of property of all the remaining inhabitants of the Judenstadt. To this day the reason for such depraved acts is still debated, though it is commonly accepted to have stemmed from contemporary attacks on corruption in the Church. It is no surprise that this period also corresponds to the rise of the Hussites.

Josefov before its demolition in the early 1900’s

The Hussite period mixed these religion tensions with Political allegiance. Though much of the juicy details of the conflicts are outside the scope of Old Town itself, it is important to note that Jan Hus, the father of Protestantism, himself studied and taught Theology here in the Charles University and likewise preached here, on Bethlehem Square, named after its eponymous Chapel. It is interesting to note that the chapel we currently see is largely a modern building from the 1950s, as after the Counter-Reformation set in, the building was largely demolished and replaced with an Apartment building in the 19th century. The only original remnants of that chapel are some of its exterior walls, which were reused for that apartment building. As a result, we will never know what the deeply satirical frescoes that once lined its walls said, even though we have many accounts of travelers from the 15th century describing their experiences and sometimes shock seeing them. For this period, it is, however, important to note that due to the numerous wars, Hussite loyalists took over positions of power in the city and established their own councils. Moreover, Emperor Sigismund confirmed many of the cities’ rights at this time such as naming their own magistrates, strengthening their own judicial powers, or non-Utraquist foreigners not being able to hold office as well as reinstating regular city councils, with the Old Town council numbering eighteen councilmen, increasing their independence. This status quo lasted even after the conclusion of the Hussite Wars and establishment of the Compacta of Prague, allowing freedom of religion.
The Bohemian Revolt of 1618, spelled the definitive end of the Compacta, and with it a monumental reorganization of the city’s international position, demographics, and economics. The failure of the revolt at the decisive Battle at White Mountain in 1620 and the multiple sieges of the city during the ensuing 30 Years’ War, led to a complete reorganization of Old Town’s standing. After the executions of the 27 individuals responsible on Old Town Square, 12 of their severed heads were put in cages and hanged from the Old Town Tower Gate of the Charles Bridge until they were finally removed by the Invading Saxon army that occupied the city in 1631. These were not the only retributions. All non-Catholics who did not convert to the religion were banished from the country, and their property was confiscated. Since the majority of Hussites were ethnically Czech, this had the effect of not only dropping Prague’s population from 100,000 in 1600 to only 26,000 in 1650 but also repossessing large swaths of the city. This turned Prague, into a staunch overwhelmingly German city, which was denigrated to provincial status, as all higher offices and positions were relocated to Vienna. The rebellion also severely cut down on city’s rights, increasingly subjugating Old Town to a slew of Habsburg representatives. The 17th century dealt another striking blow, as Old Town was ravaged by a massive fire in 1689, destroying much of the Renaissance and Gothic city, as well as most historic documents. However, it was exactly this devastating fire, that allowed for the city to transform into the form we know today. With its old majestic palaces ruined, the reconstruction efforts at the turn of the 18th century, the period of High Baroque architecture, gave the city the distinct core we know today. The subdivided plots of townhouses were bought up for cheap to build ostentatious palaces. Wealthy ecclesiastic orders commissioned expansive luxurious structures, namely the Jesuits who commissioned such buildings as the Klementinium, the Church of St. Nicholas on Old Town Square, St. Francis and St. Jacob.
Slowly recovering during the 18th century, the city was occupied once more by the French and Prussians during the War of Austrian Succession in 1744. Old Town saw its final blow to its sovereignty, Under Maria Theresa’s son, Emperor Josef II. Who in 1784, finally achieved what previous Kings could not, the unification of all Prague’s cities (except the Judenstadt and Vyšehrad) into one city. From then on until its destruction in 1945, the entire city was headed in the Old Town Hall. On Old Town Square. Josef II, however also abolished ecclesiastic orders, which again freed land in the city for redevelopment, with numerous monastic gardens succumbing. Most importantly, he also abolished most forms of serfdom, allowing newly unshackled peoples to travel from the countryside to cities to make better lives for themselves.
The 19th century saw many changes for this part of the city. Growing suburbs in the form of Karlín and later Smíchov depressed the historic fabric and metallurgical workshops along the banks of the river in Old Town. At the same time, the increase in population from Czech peasants started to change the city’s demography. By 1860, the city council has become for the majority Czech, by 1900, the German Population of the city dropped to just 15%. The Rise of Prague as the center of Czech culture and then Nationalism reverberated in the desire for it to become a World Class Metropolis for the Czechs. The city, therefore, underwent numerous large-scale redevelopments to achieve this. Some of the earliest urbanistic changes for Old Town happened right at the Start of the century. The place of the previously mentioned Old Town Walls and their abutting moats, saw the moats filled in, the walls having long since been destroyed in 1367. In this place, the newly created boulevard was paved over with Linden trees planted. We see remnants of this past in the name Na příkopy (On the Moat), but what we now call Národní třída (National Avenue), was at the time of its reconstruction called Alejová (Alley, after the alley of trees that lined it). Larger palaces were reconstructed to face into the street, like the Platýz Palace, which before its reconstruction had fronted into Uhelný trh (Coal Market). A detail on the Platýz Palace betrays one of the few influences of French Revolutionary Architecture, namely the principle that buildings to be able to be read in a way that they tell you their function. Here, next to the entry portal is a small sculpture of an owl, on a perch. Historically, if this owl was upright it meant there was a capacity to rent in the building, but if it was twisted down, the building was full.

Photo by Chelsea London Phillips

The second largest change for Old town must have been the construction of Embankments on the Vltava River. Old Town had always suffered from seasonal flooding, which led to schemes to raise the city, but it was never enough. Starting from the 1850s however, being inspired by the Victoria Embankment in London, Prague began destroying the baroque workshops, dye factories, and tanneries on the riverfront to make pleasant embankments for promenading. Later, important public buildings such as the Rudolfinum concert hall, National Theatre and Academy of Applied Arts among others.
The final great change for Old Town was decidedly the destruction of the Jewish Quarter, the Judenstadt and its redevelopment. Inspired by Baron Hausmann’s famous Renovation of Paris under Emperor Louis Bonaparte, Prague had by the 1870s been the only city in Europe aside from Rome that had not embarked on an extensive system of demolishing its historic inner-city core in order to rebuild it to better hygienic standards. As a result, much of the Northern section of Old Town, not only the Judenstadt, but also the remaining gothic quarter near the Church of St. Francis and the Convent of St. Agnes was slated to be torn down and rebuilt. Thankfully, the full plan was never achieved, thanks in part to the founding of monument protection societies. Nevertheless, the entire Judenstadt, save for 4 buildings and part of its historic cemetery were leveled and on their place, a few decades later arose the fashionable and ornamented apartment palaces that now are emblematic of the Pařížská locale. For the Jewish community that one lived there, those who were better off chose to move to the newly founded city of Vinohrady, until the community was decimated in the Second World War.
The redevelopment of the city core in this manner started a demographic trend that has not stopped since 1900. Old Town had and continues to progressively lose inhabitants every year. Whether it was under the auspices of the First Republic, which encouraged the growth and incorporation of rapidly urbanizing suburbs in the vicinity of the historic core, or the Socialist Regime that intentionally moved citizens from the city core to newly built, healthier and more comfortable sprawling housing estates in the city’s periphery, Old Town experienced the one constant of depopulation. This trend has only increased after the Velvet Revolution. The lack of a developed central business district due to Socialist planning led the free market to choose one. What were for hundreds of years individual townhouses with workshops on their ground floors are now unified into block-sized hotels. I do not lament the loss of the composition of Old Town as it was. I do not fear that the district itself will cease to exist. It has shown resilience for over a thousand years, through disaster, through hardship, through prosperity. But I do wonder whether an overreliance on one industry, as globalized and pervasive as tourism can be, is not doing a disservice to an urbanity that is such a dense microcosm of different layers, different peoples. I enjoyed my walks through Old Town, hearing the soles of my shoes reverberate off those handsome buildings, listening for the minuscule changes in echo that give every trip through there a sense of uniqueness. Today, between the shouts of generic buskers, large tour groups chanting in unison, the fake klaxons of new cars masquerading as old, I cannot hear this echo anymore.