Dr. Dirk Dähnhardt
Prag und der Hradschin
2.1.1. Altstädter Ring (Staromestské námestí)
|Like Venice and Bruges, Prague peaked
early but preserved its heritage through long centuries of decline. The
imperial glory was shortlived; economic power shifted to newer centers;
Bohemia's political authority waned until, in 1648, at the end of the Thirty
Years War, it became a vassal state of the Habsburgs in Vienna. The Old
Town Square is a mirror of these changing fortunes. [...]
How did the square look in its heyday? Every medieval city was repeatedly burned or bombarded, so that its present appearance represents the latest phase of improvement, enhanced by carefully restored or reconstructed fragments of older buildings. Prague's Old Town Square retains its irregular medieval plan - a 100,000 square-foot trade mart - but the level of the square was raised in the 13th century after repeated floods, and Gothic houses and stores were built on the Romanesque foundations.
The oldest surviving building is, appropriately, the 14th-century nucleus of the Town Hall, now used for weddings and cultural events. As the square lost its role as a market, gentrification set in; Gothic houses acquired new facades in the latest fashion. The Baroque church of St Nicholas was built in the 18th century, as well as the Rococo Kinsky Palace, from whose balcony Klement Gottwald proclaimed the communist party's seizure of power in 1948. In the mid 19th century, the Town Hall was enlarged; later, the north side of the square was rebuilt and entry streets widened as part of a program of slum clearance in the Jewish ghetto. Resistance to the Habsburgs found expression in the Hus memorial of 1915, and the destruction of the Virgin column, erected in 1650 to symbolize the defeat of the Protestant armies.
After just two decades of independence, came the brutality of the Nazi occupation, and - on the last day of the war - the vengeful destruction of the city archives and municipal offices along the west side of the square. The four competitions to complete the city hall held since 1946 have yielded proposals that range from the mundane to the monstrous. Happily, none has been approved, and the empty space is grassed over. The rest of the square has been lovingly restored most recently in 1987. Purists consider the choice of colors too bright and busy more appropriate for a town in Austria or Bavaria than this somber city. But the harsh climate should soon tone down any excesses.
Darkness harbors ghosts: of medieval rioters and victims of the gallows that stood here until 1840. Crosses in the pavement mark the place where twenty-seven leaders of a Protestant rising were executed in 1621. Rabbi Low, legendary creator of the Golem, and Franz Kafka, who chronicled the city like no other, both lived on or near the square, reminding us that Prague was enriched by its Jewish community for a thousand years before the Final Solution.
The Soviets, acclaimed as liberators in 1945, snuffed out the Prague Spring of 1968. Protestors gathered in the Old Town Square, and renewed their protest here on the twentieth anniversary of the invasion, after marching from the Wenceslas Square. No wonder the authorities nervously discouraged public assembly - fencing the Hus memorial with greenery to restrict access until 1987, and allowing cafes to open only in the last few years. A symbol so weighty is a treacherous thing to have in your midst.
(Michael Webb: The City Square. A Historical Evolution. New York: Whitney Library 1990. S. 16 - 18.)