The Old Town Hall in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, is one of the city's most noteworthy monuments. It is located in Old Town Square.
History and architecture
Foundation of the Old Town Hall
In 1338 the councilors of the Old Town bought a magnificent patrician house by the family of Volflin and adapted it for their purposes. During centuries the original building of the Town Hall practically disappeared under the addition reconstructions of later years and one of the external remnat of the original structure today is the Gothic stone portal with mouldings in the western part of the building.
The burghers of the Old Town extended their original Town Hall towards the west by buying the adjoining house and they started the construction of a stone tower on a square plan. The tower, which was the highest in the city in the Middle Ages, was completed in 1364 and the following centuries hardly left any traces on the structure.
The Town Hall is one very unusual historical object, because it is made out of many different smaller houses. The expansion continued in 1458 when so called "Mikes' house" was added to the west side. The Council Chamber in the east wing was vaulted with the net vault, which was supported with 2 pillars, at the end of the 15th century.
The Gothic "Cock" house was bought in 1835 and the "Minute" house was sold to the town council for the extension of the Town Hall in 1896. Mikes house was rebuilt in Neo-Renaissance style in 1879–1880. The author of the project was Antonín Baum. This wing was destroyed in last days of the World War II during Prague uprising. Many architectural competitions were declared during the 20th century. They were supposed to find the right architectonic design for expanding and rebuilding the Old Town Hall. All of the competitions either did not have a winner or the winning projects were not built.
Expansion of the Old Town Hall
The architectural development of the Old Town Hall in the Middle Ages was far from completed after finishing of the tower. There was an interruption due to Hussite movement (1419–1434). In 1458 another house was bought on the west side. It made possible extensive adaptations of the interior of the object. New halls were established in the south wing, but only the council room on the upper floor has preserved in its original appearance.
Internal adaptations reflected in the external reconstruction work can be seen on the south facade to this day. The reconstruction of the entrance hall on the groundfloor of Volflin house terminated in the construction of a beatutiful new portal in the Late Gothic style, which for more than a hundred years marked urban architecture in the Czech lands. The Gothic arch of the portal has archivolts rich in stone ornaments. Decorated brackets support the outer arch which is a typical late-Gothic ogee arch crowned by an imposing finial. The brackets on either side of the portal terminate in slender pinnacles. The structure dates from the close of the 15th century, but the wooden double door itself dates as late as from the year 1652.
The window on the left of the portal was completed a few years later and kept the architectural style. The builder gave up the traditional Gothic arch in favor of a rectangular window, adoring the thickness of the walls with panelled pilasters. A moulded stone cross divides the window into four lights, the upper two of which are decorated with the amorial bearing of the Old Town of Prague and the Czech lion. Between and slightly above them may be seen the symbol "W" representing the royal initial of the Bohemian king Vladislaus II of Hungary(1456–1516)from Jagiellon dynasty. The rich vegetable decoration made from stone adorn the top of the window.
The window in the south facade is only of a slightly more recent date—the twenties of the 16th century—and already bears traces of the Renaissance style. The central window itself is the only original part, the two smaller wings were added in 1731. It has a high moulded cornice with plastic ornamentation. Brackets support panelled pilasters terminating in capitals on which rests the architrave with the inscription "Praga caput regni" (Prague, the capital of the kingdom). The window is surmounted by a semicircular tympanum with the armorial bearings of the Old Town of Prague. Generally speaking the lateral windows are kept in the same style as the original Renaissance main window, but the canopies, in the Gothic style, above the pilaster are a disturbing element. Renaissance style may also be seen in another window placed closely above the Gothic portal of Volflin house from the half of the 16th century.
The Council Chamber
The far-reaching reconstruction of the Old Town Hall at the turn of the 15th and 16th century included the erection of the east wing adjoining to the north wall of the tower. A monumental building was constructed during the Late Gothic period. There was a council chamber with a magnificent net vault that gave the room a very impressing atmosphere of spaciousness.
The original structure, however, was badly damaged by adaptions at the end of the 18th century, and finally disappeared completely, when during the forties of the 19th century a new wing was built in Neo-Gothic style. The original appearance of the east wing in Gothic style has only been preserved on old engravings.
The Reconstruction also affected the historical core of the entire Town Hall complex. The interior of all three houses forming the south wing was reconstructed and Mikeš house, the third in the row, was renovated from the outside as well. Two Neo-Gothic gables and oriel were added to the facade and the architect Gruber adjusted the entrance by adding two semi-circular arches. Further renovations from the year 1879 gave the facade a Neo-Renaissance appearance and two high windows were added on the second floor, one of them bearing the inscription "Dignitatis memores—ad optima intenti" (Bearing in mind your dignity—do your best) on the architrave.
The destruction by fire of the East and the North Wing
The east wing and the addition of a further north wing was carried out during the reconstruction in the 19th century. Both these wings were destroyed by fire during the Prague uprising in May in 1945 and only the torso preserved so far, adjoining the tower gives a slight idea of how this part of the Old Town hall had looked like.
In 1835 the south wing was further extended by the addition of a fourth house, "the Cock house", bought by the Town Council that year. In this very old building Romanesque hall from the beginning of the 13th century has been preserved, on the first and second floor are Late-Gothic halls with Renaissance ceilings. The facade was renovated in the first half of the 19th century in Empire style.
The Minute House
At the end of the 19th century other buildings were added to the Town Hall block, the most noteworthy of them is the "Minute" house. This originally Gothic house dating from the beginning of the 15th century was decorated at the beginning of the 17th century by a series of sgraffito design representing classical and biblical themes. Most of the later reconstructions remained in the interior of the house and they respected the historical exterior of the south wing.
Interior of the Old Town Hall
The arrangement of the rooms is in keeping with the imposing appearance of the Old Town Hall from the outside.
The two entrance halls
The spacious entrance hall was established during the reconstructions at the end of the 15th century. The Late Gothic vault still further increases the impression of spaciousness of the entrance hall. Two large mosaics, by Vojtěch Ignác Ullmann, a Czech architect, after the design by Mikoláš Aleš (1936–1939) on the lateral walls as well as the decorations of the vault are impressing. The theme of the mosaic on the western wall is taken from national mythology. It shows Princess Libuše foretelling the glory of Prague. On the opposite wall is an allegory entitled "Slavdom's Homage to Prague". The ornaments of the vault contain coats-of-arms and symbolic depictions of great events from the nation's history. Modern renovations of the second entrance hall have changed the old architecture. There is a bronze statue (1885) by the Czech sculpturer Josef Václav Myslbek. It also deals with a mythological theme, because the statue presents the legendary singer Lumír accompanied by the allegorical figure of Song.
The first floor
The staircase designed by architect Jan Bělský (1853–1854) is leading to the first floor. Here the rooms have been adapted to serve the holding of wedding ceremonies. The interior is in the Late-Gothic style from the first half of the 16th century. The facade is dominated by a wide Renaissance window. The vaults are decorated with paintings by Cyril Bouda, a Czech painter and illustrator.
The third floor
The historically most valuable rooms are on the third floor. The Renaissance portal with intersia door is from the year 1619. It is framed by red polished marble from the end of the 16th century. Two smooth columns with shaft-rings support an entablature with gabled cornice containing a relief bust of the king and a cartouche with the inscription "Senatus". The portal is crowned by the armorial bearings of the Old Town flanked by allegorical figures representing Right and Justice. The counterpart to the old portal is formed by a new entrance of white marble bearing the inscription "Presidium" from 1945. Passing through the portal, the vestibule is entered. It is decorated with lunette-shaped pictures by Václav Brožík from the second half of the 19th century.
The Session Chamber
All vestiges of old architecture have been wiped off in the adjoining session chamber by renovations in 1879–1910. The chamber is dominated by two large canvases, the work of painter Václav Brožík. One represents Master Jan Hus's courageous defence before the Council of Constance in 1415 and the second one the election of Jiří of Podebrady in 1458. More interesting and historically valuable is the adjoining Jiřík hall in the late-Gothic style with remnants of the wall paintings dating from the end of the 15th century. The work of restoration carried out by P. Janák in the years 1936–1938 has preserved all discovered historical parts of the decoration and thus also the original atmosphere of the room.
The Council Chamber
The old council chamber flanking the session chamber on the other side is one of the most beautiful rooms of the entire Town Hall. Though renovated many times it has preserved its original late-Gothic character dating from about 1470. The wooden coffered ceiling, polychromed in the second half of the 16th century, rests on moulded beams strengthened in 1638 by the addition of strong gilded chains. The walls are adorned by Gothic wooden panelling, a number of emblems, the armorial bearings of the Old Town . Both entrance portals are in late-Gothic style. The most precious feature of the interior, however, is a wooden sculpture of Christ Suffering from the beginning of the 15th century. It is placed on a bracket decorated with the bust of an angel and the inscription "Juste iudicate filii hominis" (Judge justly, O Sons of Man), as an injunction to the councillors sitting there. The statue is in the "beautiful style, the climax of Czech Gothic at the turn of the 14th and 15th centuries. The other sculptures of the old council chamber are of a more recent date: the Madonna is from the 16th century, St. Wenceslas and St Ludmila from the 17th century and the statue of John the Baptist from the 18th century. The Baroque stove with gilded grille and the statue of Justice bearing the date 1736.
The Town Hall Chapel
The former public hall and the Town Hall Chapel are reached through a metal-fitted door. The public hall, once destined for the sessions of the assemblies of the Town Council, was probably built in the second half of the 15th century just like the council chamber. Unfortunately it was completely destroyed during the fire in May 1945. The Town Hall chapel in the tower, consecrated in 1381, suffered a similar fate. Only the magnificent portal, one of the oldest preserved monuments, has survived. Interesting is the moulding of the wall, the semi-circular arch with rich mouldings is supported on slim columns terminating in Gothic pinnacles. There are interesting emblems, often repeated on structures dating from the reign of Wenceslas IV. They consists of a kingfisher and the letter "E", surrounded by torse. Both the style and these Wenceslas' personal emblems indicate that the portal was built by the royal stonemasons' lodge.
The Hall of Architects
The Institute for Planning and Development of the Capital City of Prague ensured the preparation and organization of exhibitions in the Hall of Architects at the Old Town Hall and co-organized informational events in the field of architecture, urban planning and spatial planning. The exhibition hall is located on the fifth floor in the attic of the Town Hall. This space is newly refurbished and equipped with modern technology, which serves the events. Seminars, conferences and various exhibitions are held here. Permanent exhibition: Model of the Capital City of Prague from the end of the 20th century at a scale of 1: 1000. One of the last exhibitions: Do you know Prague? City in the maps, charts and numbers (October 1 – March 31, 2016), PRAGUE: planning and development of the metropolis in the 21st century (October 2, 2014 - June 26, 2015). The exhibitions are usually free of charge. The space has moved to the new area of the Center for Architecture and Urban Planning (CAMP) on Vyšehradská 57, (Prague 2) in April of 2017.
The horologe is the most fascinating feature of the Town Hall, it was first built in the first decade of the 15th century. In 1410 its first version was constructed by the skilled clockmaker Nicholas of Kadaň in collaboration with the astronomer Jan Šindel. Later reconstructions changed the first horologe completely, but written records confirm the it already possessed all basic features. The first far-reaching reconstruction was undertaken in 1490 by the clockmaster Hanuš, an old town locksmith, who produced an excellent timepiece based on the pendulum system. The architectural decoration date is from this time, too. This consisted of a system of slender late-Gothic columns that framed it and rich plastic decorations of both figural and floral motifs. There are a lot of stories about the horologe but the only true element is probably the part about the clockwork not functioning properly. At that time there were only few clockmasters skilful enough to keep such a complicated timepiece in order and this is evidently also the reason why after master Hanuš's death the horologe stopped. The learned Jan Táborský of Klokotská Hora repaired and perfected the Old Town horologe in the years 1552–1572. His adjustments have survived the passing of the years and though some changes were made in the external appearance of the horologe, its fundamental features have remained unchanged. The most recent repairs were made out after the Second World War when the badly damaged original figures were replaced by Vojtěch Sucharda's charming statues.
The statues of the Horologe
The horologe consists of three independent units: the moving figures, the astronomical dial and the calendar dial. The figures are set in motion on the stroke of every hour by very complicated mechanism. First Death the Reaper on the right of the horologe starts to move.
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