Krakow and Prague. Two Central European Capitals


Materials from a conference organized by the International Cultural Centre in June 2000. Both Prague and Krakow are among the nine cities that have been awarded the status of European Capital of Culture. Both of them offer images of Central European civilization. Relationships between the two cities, constantly changing over the centuries, now inspire a deeper reflection on the culturally, politically, socially and economically complex process of the sustained existence of Poland and the Czech state in Europe for over one thousand years. With its range of overlapping topics, the publication is addressed especially to architects (issues of functional and urban transformations in Prague and Krakow, the urban landscape), city planners (e.g. the continuity of the urbanistic traditions, the two cities’ development concepts and strategies in the new reality), historians (e.g. the appearance of capital centres, the shaping of the metropolises), art experts (a comparison of the Baroque style in Prague and Krakow), philologists (e.g. Polish celebrities in Prague, the Polish and Czech modernists), and finally cultural anthropologists (ethnic variety, the cities’ role in the process of forming the national culture and myth). The book inspires thoughts on chances for more intense relationships in all areas and closer cooperation between both nations for the Central European cause.

Jiři Pešek

Prague, caput regni Bohemiae or mater urbinum, as it is described in its coat of arms, was never an imperial city. Nevertheless, the Czech king was the primus among the electors and enjoyed a number of exceptional rights (including his exemption from participating in parliamentary sessions held a long way from his kingdom). Exceptional was also the location and position of Prague as residence, which, although outside the “core” of the Reich, was situated centrally in an empire greater than the Roman Empire. Charles sought to secure his position in the Reich, such as by buying towns and construction sites one after another. He created a trail of his estates bridging Bohemia with the hub of the Reich, and with Nuremberg farther on. (A surviving heraldic gallery in Lauf Castle outside Nuremberg still stands witness to that ambition and confidence in his power). Travelling to a parliamentary session of the Reich he could thus stay safely overnight in his estates. However, activities within the protective city walls of Prague engrossed him a lot more than moving from one end of the Reich to another. As a result, permanent residences were built in Prague for foreign diplomats and the Reich’s most eminent aristocrats in the 14th century.

The founding of Prague’s New Town, which Charles announced in 1347 and realised in 1348, should also be looked at in the context of Charles’s idea of Prague having a central role in the land under his rule. It was not that Prague’s towns were too modest for a royal seat or did not meet royal standards with respect to its representational qualities. Unlike his father and his successors, Charles resided in Prague Castle, which he had remodelled and embellished at immense expense. Also, both of the existing towns still had reserves of space for new building developments. Yet Charles wished to set up a metropolis on a global scale, a new Rome, comparable to the largest cities of contemporary Europe, at least in terms of size.

Archaeologists, planners and historians have discussed Charles’s concept of the gigantic urban project for decades. Some see it as an ideal structural concept of a heavenly Jerusalem, others point to the fact that the New Town, which embraced a number of existing settlements, monasteries and even a small royal fortress on a hill next to Monastery Emmaus founded by Charles (the hill was torn down in the late 19th century), could not be any smaller exactly for strategic reasons. If the New Town was to be able to provide military defence, it had to reach up to the royal fortress of Vyšehrad, with its walls running along the Nusle Valley, climbing up to Karlov, and from there swinging down towards the Vltava.

The big expanse of the New Town included large markets (Dobytci, Konský and Senný), which were to blend it in time with the Old Town into one whole. This intention was confirmed already in 1347 when a vast, ultimately unfinished, monastery of St. Mary of the Snows was founded, envisaged as the main church of the united, right-bank Prague, and located by the monarch in the New Town, close to the Old Town walls. The integration of the Old and New Towns was to be facilitated by tearing down a section of the city walls and filling in the moats between the towns, which the emperor carried out in 1367. Ten years later Charles was forced to separate back the two towns. The united Prague appeared too powerful and politically hazardous to the aging king tired with conflicts with the Czech nobility.

The population of the Prague metropolis was probably over 40,000, at the time, having no equal beyond the Alps or beyond the Rhein.

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