Prague History and Culture

Prague has a long and eventful history: great Prague writers such as Kafka, but not only, have described the beautiful Czech capital over the centuries.
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Prague is often referred to as the Golden City and the City of a Hundred Towers: these names derive from its picturesque charm, the result of centuries of history and art condensed in its retro appearance.

Among the cobbled alleyways, the spires of the towers, the colours of the façades and the sinister bridges, it is still possible to immerse oneself in the Gothic and medieval atmospheres that come together to form a unique charm.

A Brief History of Prague

The history of Prague and the Czech lands is very old; the territories of present-day Bohemia were settled as early as the 4th century BC, first by Celtic peoples, then by Germanic peoples.

6th century

The first Slavic tribes settled in Bohemia. They assimilated the pre-existing populations, founded the first settlements in the area of Malá Strana and built two fortifications, one in the area of today’s Castle, the other on Vyžehrad Hill.

7th century

The Slavs were threatened by the Avar people living in the territories of present-day Hungary. They found unity and good defence under the leadership of the Frankish merchant Samos, who then ruled for 35 years.

9th Century

Bohemia became part of the Great Moravian Empire, which extended into Slovakia, Hungary and southern Poland.

The Premyslid dynasty, descended from the legendary princess Libuše, established itself. The first king of this dynasty to reign over Prague was Borivoj, who built Prague Castle around 870. At that time, the preaching of Christianity by the brothers Methodius and Cyril, ‘the apostles of the Slavs’, spread throughout the country. The king himself converted and was baptised by the preacher Methodius. His widow, Ludmilla, became the patron saint of Bohemia.

10th Century

During the reign of Wenceslas I (Václav) (925-935) – later named a Saint – Christianity became the official religion.
Wenceslas I was forced to subordinate himself to the German Emperor Henry I, which generated discontent among the ruling classes. In the conspiracy led by his brother Boleslaus, the king lost his life and Boleslaus assumed power.
His successor Boleslaw II made Prague a bishopric and founded the monastery of St George.
Prague over time became an important centre of trade and commerce and merchants from all over Europe, many of whom were Jewish, settled there.

11th Century

In 1085 Vratislav II became the first King of Bohemia but remained subordinate to the Holy Roman Empire and the King of Germany.

12th century

King Vladislav II built the first stone bridge over the Vltava River, the Judith Bridge, which collapsed due to a flood in 1342, and on whose foundations Charles Bridge was later built.

13th century

In Prague, Staré Mesto (the Old Town, the heart of the city) and Malá Strana were founded for inhabitants of German origin, who were given the right to administer themselves by applying Magdeburg legislation.

In 1300 the first Bohemian coin, the groschen, was minted.

The Premyslid dynasty died out in 1306 with the assassination of Wenceslas III, who died leaving no male heirs.
After a period of struggle for succession to the throne, the House of Luxembourg replaced the Premyslid dynasty. In 1311, Duke and Holy Roman Emperor John of Luxembourg ascended the throne (following his marriage to Wenceslas III’s daughter Elisabeth and thanks to the support of the aristocracy).
Around 1320, the suburb around Prague Castle (Hradcany) took on the title of a city.
In 1338, the Old Town Hall was founded.
The Judith Bridge was swept away by a flood of the Vltava River in 1342.

In 1347, John of Luxembourg’s son, Charles, came to the throne under the name Charles IV – former Governor of Bohemia and Moravia and King of Germany, and from 1355 also Emperor. Charles IV will be remembered as the most beloved King of Bohemia: he made Prague the capital of the Empire, elevated it to the rank of Archbishopric, enriched it with monuments (Charles Bridge, Charles University, the Nové Mesto area – the New Town, St Vitus Cathedral – the construction of which began in 1344), gave a great boost to trade by improving communication routes, enlarged its territories with dynastic acquisitions. In 1356 he promulgated the Golden Bull, a constitutional-type legislation that recognised the role and function of the elector kings.

15th century

Charles IV was succeeded by his son Wenceslas IV (1378-1419), whose reign saw the birth and spread of the Hussite movement, which was inspired by the preaching of John Wyclif and condemned the secularisation and corruption into which the church had fallen. Jan Hus, Wyclif’s heir, a theologian and university lecturer, gathered his followers in the Bethlehem Chapel in Prague, delivering sermons in Czech so that they would have the widest possible circulation. Having become dangerous to the ecclesiastical hierarchies, he was declared a heretic and sentenced to be burnt at the stake in 1415.
The death of Jan Hus started a series of revolts. One of the main episodes was the defenestration of some Catholic councillors, which started the Hussite wars that lasted for 15 years.

16th century

In 1526 the Habsburg reign began and the seat of power moved to Vienna. The crown remained in Habsburg hands until 1918.
Prague Castle was rebuilt in the Renaissance style and some recreation areas were added (the Royal Garden, the Belvedere, the Pallacord Hall).
Rudolf II of Habsburg was appointed King of Bohemia in 1576 and moved his court to Prague in 1583. Prague thus became the centre of science and alchemy, which earned it the nickname ‘Magic Prague’. Personalities such as the astronomers Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler, the painter Arcimboldo and many others were called to his court.

17th Century

On 23 May 1618 there was the second defenestration of Prague in which the King’s representatives were thrown from the windows of the Castle. This event marked the beginning of the Thirty Years’ War between the Protestant nobility and the Catholic Habsburgs. Ferdinand II of Habsburg was deposed, and Frederick V of the Palatinate took his place.

The first major victory was in favour of the Habsburgs at the Battle of White Mountain (1620): Frederick V was forced to flee, his noble followers were executed and Ferdinand II brought the court back to Vienna.
A serious decline began for Prague: the castle fell into ruin, Czech culture took second place to German culture, the language of bureaucracy and literature was German, and the official religion was Catholic.
In 1689 a great fire ravaged Prague: it was an opportunity for the reconstruction and rebirth of the city and slowly began a gradual economic recovery, which continued into the next century.

18th century

In 1740 Empress Maria Theresa of Austria (1740-1780) became Empress and thanks to the reforms she implemented the condition of Prague improved substantially.
The four independent municipalities of Prague (Staré Mesto, Malá Strana, Hradcany and Nové Mesto) were unified by Joseph II of Austria in 1784, creating a single city. The Jewish quarter, named Josefov in his honour, was only added in 1850.
A Czech nationalist movement called the National Revival (národní obrození) began in 1784: Czech language and culture and national identity began to be revived. The study of the Czech language was introduced in schools and the first Czech language dictionary was published.
In 1781, the Edict of Tolerance was promulgated by Joseph II, which granted political and religious rights to minorities.

The uprisings that set Europe ablaze in 1848 did not spare Prague, but were easily suppressed.
In the 1860s, a Czech nationalist movement spread and was countered by a German nationalist movement, but Czech representatives won the majority of seats in the City Council in 1861.

During the 19th century, Bohemia experienced a phase of strong industrialisation and economic expansion: in 1845, the railway line from Vienna to Prague was opened. The growth of industry resulted in an increase in Prague’s population as a result of migration to the city from the countryside.
The Jewish quarter Josefov was added to the historical centre of Prague in 1850.
The National Revival continued: institutions were founded and large buildings constructed to celebrate Czech history and culture. In 1868 the National Theatre opened, in 1890 the National Museum and the Jewish Quarter and the New Town were redeveloped.

The defeat of Austria in World War I led to the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1918 and the declaration of independence of Czechoslovakia (formed from the union of the Czech and Slovak republics) of which Prague was elected capital.
Prague Castle became the seat of the first democratically elected Czechoslovak president, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk.
Prague grew closer to Paris between World Wars I and II.
During World War II (1939-1945) Prague and the rest of the country were occupied by Nazi Germany.
The Prague Uprising and the liberation by the Red Army ended World War II in 1945: the city emerged almost unscathed from the war.
The Communist Party took power after a coup d’état on 25 February 1948. A socialist state was founded in the form of a People’s Republic, then as a Socialist Republic from 1960.
In 1955, Czechoslovakia became part of the Warsaw Pact.
Alexader Dubcek, secretary of the Communist Party, proclaimed ‘socialism with a human face’ and a programme of liberal reforms known as the ‘Prague Spring’ began. This provoked the prompt reaction of the other Warsaw Pact states, which occupied the country militarily in August 1968 and over 100 demonstrators were killed.

1989 was the year of the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain that kept the communist blocs divided. In Czechoslovakia, the so-called ‘Velvet Revolution’ took place, which led to the fall of the regime and the opening of the borders.
The writer and playwright Václav Havel was elected president in the country’s first democratic elections in January 1990.
On 1 January 1993, Czechoslovakia was separated into two independent nations: the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Prague once again became the capital of the Czech Republic.
Václav Havel was elected the first president of the Czech Republic in January 1993.
In 1999, the Czech Republic joined NATO.
In 2002, the Czech Republic was ratified to join the European Union, which was finally accepted on 1 May 2004.

Events connected with Prague

Prague’s name is linked to several important events, in particular:

Prague Writers

The first Prague writer of note is Franz Kafka (1883-1924), who owes much to his native city, not only as the cultural context in which he was formed, but also as the backdrop against which the exploits of his anti-heroes move.

“And yet Kafka was Prague and Prague was Kafka. Never had Prague been so fully and typically Prague, and never again would it be as it was during Kafka’s lifetime. And we, his friends … we knew that that Prague was contained everywhere in Kafka’s work, in the finest particles. In every line of it we could and still can savour it’

Johannes Urzidil, There goes Kafka, ed. e/o, 2002, p. 167

Description of a Battle is the story that most explicitly refers to Prague, although the city and its atmosphere are constantly present in all Kafka’s works, although not always explicitly.

The inspiration for The Castle does not seem to derive from Prague’s Hradcany (although there is no certainty), while in The Trial an entire scene is set inside St. Vitus Cathedral, and the final scene probably in the Strahov stone quarries above the city.

Other Czech authors

Quotes about Prague

We have collected a selection of quotes about Prague:

“All this made Prague, in its marvellous beauty, a city full of enchantments and spectres, and made it a symbol of the emptiness and shadows of life and above all of nostalgia for all that it lacks.”
“All this made it the city par excellence of disorientation, uprooting, loss, all the more felt the more tenacious and vital is the attachment to the alley, to the dive bar, to the little beloved detail that flashes through the nightmare and delirium of the dream”.

C. Magris, Fortunes and misfortunes of a triptych. An almost-Praguese story, in: J. Urzidil, Prague Triptych, Milan, Adelphi, 1993, p. 226, 228

“Prague still lives under the sign of these two writers [ndr. Kafka e Hasek], who better than others have expressed its condemnation without remedy, and therefore its malaise, its discontent, the folds of its cunning, its pretence, its prison irony. […] Every night, at five o’clock, the gothic busts of the gallery of sovereigns, architects, archbishops in the triforium of San Vito awaken. Even today, in the morning, two limping soldiers with bayonets drawn, lead Josef Svejk down from Hradcany over Charles Bridge to the Old Town, and in the opposite direction, even today, at night, by moonlight, two shiny, fat guitti, two panoptikum dummies, two automatons in finery and top hat accompany Josef K. over the same bridge to the Strahov quarry to his execution.
Even today the Fire portrayed by Arcimboldo with fluttering hair of flames rushes down from the Castle, and the ghetto is set on fire with its scrignate wooden hovels …”

“The ambiguous Vltava city does not play fair. The antiquarian coquetry, with which it pretends to be only still life, a taciturn sequence of past splendours, a dull landscape in a glass globe, only adds to its maleficence. It creeps slyly into the soul with bewitchments and enigmas, to which it alone holds the key. Prague does not let go of any of those she has captured.”

A. M. Ripellino, Magical Prague, Turin, Einaudi, 1991, p. 5, 11

“With so many contrasts, how could this city not also have had in its architecture and its face something edgy, rough, disturbing? Too many different temperaments were unleashed there. And as much as in every alley hovered the effluvia of good strong beer and smoked sausages, everywhere also floated the mists of myths …”

“Every house, every street, every square in Prague kept shouting incessantly throughout the course of history: ‘Don’t forget this! Don’t forget that!’, so that by dint of memories and revenge one even forgot the present life.”

J. Urzidil, Prague Triptych, Milan, Adelphi, 1993, p. 15, 21

‘There are many components in the history and soul of Prague. But what amazes us is how everything has merged and composed itself into a culture of great depth, which we like to read today as the result of a great commitment to intelligence, an intelligence leavened and matured in coexistence”

“In the Vltava that runs through the city we read reflected the active presence of Charles IV and the preaching of Jan Hus, the martyrdom of Jan Nepomuk, the wisdom of the great rabbi Jehudah Löw, the strength of the Golem, the whimsy of Rudolf, the extravagances of Arcimboldo […] As well as the many humiliations of its history, almost a culture of defeat: from the White Mountain to Hitler’s occupation, to Stalin’s humiliating servitude. And finally the velvet revolution led by Vaclav Havel …”

G. Gandolfo, Prague Place of the Spirit, in: Prague Myth and Literature, Shakespeare and Company, 1993, p. 256

Curiosities about Prague and the Czech Republic

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