Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/The famous city of Prague - Part 1
THE FAMOUS CITY OF PRAGUE.
The ancient city of Prague is splendidly situated upon a hill overlooking the new town, with which it is connected by two bridges across the river Moldau, which divides these civic hemispheres as widely as Hyde Park separates the social worlds of Tyburnia and Belgravia; for, though the imperial palace and the residence of the Cardinal Prince Primate of Bohemia are the most prominent edifices of the Hradschin, still the Emperor Ferdinand in the halls of his ancestors, and Prince Schwarzenburg in the saloons of the Archiepiscopal Palace, are as much deserted by the fashionables of the new town as though the interesting old stone-bridge and the new suspension-bridge did not exist, and the river formed an insuperable barrier to communication between the ancient and modern cities. But, though deserted by fashion, the objects of interest are a thousand-fold greater in the Hradschin than anything the Neu Stadt can offer—the lovers of novelty alone excepted. The cathedral forms a very prominent point for miles round. Situated in the main court of the palace, above which it towers, its pinnacle is seen at an immense distance by whatever road the capital is approached. The style of its architecture is that known in England by the name of the Early English: and, should it ever be completed, it will be one of the most worthy of notice of any of the great cathedrals of Europe. Though the chancel alone is in a finished state, it is amply large enough for every service of an archiepiscopal cathedral to a city of upwards of 180,000 inhabitants. There is a covered gallery communicating between the cathedral and the palace, to enable its inhabitants to attend Divine service without passing through the great court.
On the side of the cathedral, fronting the palace, is one of the most remarkable specimens of the early art of founding extant in Europe, and one which particularly excited the admiration of our great armorial antiquary, Sir Samuel Meyrick, in his visit to this city. It is a bronze equestrian statue of St. George, of the eleventh century. The scale-armour and all the details of the horse-furniture are beautifully executed, and in as excellent the preservation as though but recently delivered from the atelier of the artist.
The oldest part of the palace now standing was built by Charles IV., in the middle of the fourteenth century, though it was modernised in the sixteenth; the present fabric is of much more recent date. Its size appears truly gigantic to those accustomed to look only on the metropolitan residence of our own sovereign; but it is by no means too capacious for its several requirements, being not only intended as the abode of the various branches of the imperial family, but likewise containing under the same roof the different salles appropriated for the meeting of the senate and the transaction of governmental duties. At the furthest end, overlooking the Moldau, are the Imperial Chapter of Canonesses, an order instituted by the benevolent Maria Theresa for indigent ladies of high descent, who under this institution enjoy privileges otherwise far beyond their reach. The abbess of this order must always be a member of the imperial family, and, upon her marriage or death, another archduchess must be appointed to succeed her by the Empress. But let not the reader suppose that because the lady president is styled an Abbess any severe monastic rules of seclusion are required. These ladies mix in the beau monde, as do the gayest of our own dames of fashion, dancing with a vigour rarely equalled by a London belle, or are to be seen nightly at the theatre in the box provided for them in the rules of their order, as laid down by their kind foundress: they never need a chaperone, as, whatever their age, once chanoinesses they cease to be mademoiselles, and if but seventeen they are styled “madame,” and considered fit to be a garde-dame to any unmarried lady, however much their senior. Servants and equipages are at their disposal; they receive a trifling pension, and are free to marry if they please, but of course then cease to be chanoinesses. All that is required of these fortunate ladies is to attend chapel every morning; on certain occasions to appear before their Abbess in a particular costume, consisting of a black mantle and a Marie Stuart hat with long white lace veils pendant from the sides, most graceful and becoming to the young and fair; and when in society of an evening to wear black dresses with the white order-ribbon, fringed with gold, under one arm and gathered on the opposite shoulder into a large knot, with a medallion-likeness of the Empress Maria Theresa pendant from the centre. That portion of the palace appropriated to the assembly of the senate bears date from the seventeenth century.
Leaving the palace, we pass the archiepiscopal residence, and stand in front of a very handsome pile of buildings forming an entire side of the Hradschin Platz, the property of the Grand Duke of Tuscany, inhabited solely by his agents, men of business, and their families, but which, judging from the present tide his affairs have taken, H.I.H. may, ere long, be happy to have set in order for his own use. Higher, upon a hill, the culminating point of the city, are the convent and gardens of the White Monks, so called from their dress of white serge. The object of peculiar interest to strangers in this establishment is the magnificence of their library and collections of MSS, maps, charts, and globes. It possesses also some very valuable paintings, the merits of which are now much defaced from being daubed over with coarse reparations. The gardens are extensive, and open to the public, and command a fine view of the city, across the river, of the Neu Stadt, and far away to the heights beyond. At the time of the troubles, in 1848, these White Monks of Strahoff were looked on suspiciously by the government from their well-known leaning to the Czeck insurrection.
On descending the hill through the principal street the attention is often painfully drawn to the clanking of chains, and we find it proceeds from miserable beings who are employed in cutting wood for firing at the different houses—wood being the sole article of fuel consumed in Bohemia, where all rooms are heated by large china or iron stoves. The parti-coloured dress of these wretched beings—one half their persons clad in black, and the other half in yellow, the imperial colours—show them instantly to be convicts, if the chains confining their legs have not before revealed their position as felons. It is the government system, instead of confining prisoners in their cells, to employ them in various useful labours, and the most usual work is cutting wood for the public, a policeman being in charge of each group while thus occupied.
Turning out of Nicholas Platz, a spot of much interest is shortly before us—the Waldstein’s Palace—once the abode of the renowned Wallenstein, and now in possession of his nearest descendants through the female line, that hero having left no son to perpetuate his glory and avenge his fate. “Put not your trust in Princes,” everyone may well exclaim with King David, on remembering what was done and sacrificed for his sovereign by that noble man, and what was the treacherous end he met with by the decree of the monarch he had served so long and faithfully. His gallant charger, which shared with him so many dangers and glories, is stuffed and stands in a hall of this princely mansion, looking really life-like, so well is the skin preserved, and so true the action. In a magnificent salle in the centre of the house are sometimes held the prettiest and most tastefully arranged flower-shows the writer has ever seen—turf and moss so artistically laid down in beds over flower-pots that they are entirely concealed from view, producing the effect of all the wonders and beauties of nature springing from and growing out of the ground itself—a deception which might advantageously be copied in our own country.
Count Irvin Nostitz’s galleries of statues and paintings are also worth a visit before the traveller leaves the Kleine Seite. And, should the weather be very oppressive, an hour’s lounge in the gardens of Prince Lobkowitz, under the chestnut groves, would agreeably complete his morning’s expedition, though we should recommend him not finally to cross the bridge without taking a peep at the church and hospital of the Knights of St. John, more generally known as the Knights of Malta, and the official residence of their Grand Master for Bohemia, which joins the church.