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History of Prague

When Emperor Rudolf II of the Habsburg dynasty (1552-1612) decided to make Prague his capital in 1583, the art-loving city entered a halcyon era. The imperial court in Prague began to entertain prominent scholars, astronomers and artists from all over the world. Enjoying the protection of the emperor, scholars and doctors met here to debate about the secrets of Nature, the movement of the stars and the miracles of contemporary medicine. Quite a few of them, however, engaged in alchemy, trying to produce elixirs with miraculous properties. They promised the credulous emperor they would reveal the secret of the making of gold which the court, requiring a large budget, needed so badly. The emperor's favourites were allowed to come to the Vladislav Hall at Prague Castle to buy rare books, maps, lithographs, astronomical apparatuses, paintings, statues and a range of other artefacts from foreign merchants.

A generous patron of scientists and artists, Emperor Rudolf loved to visit court studios and watch painters at work. More often than not he even assisted them in choosing a theme for a new work, which the painter then had to create according to the emperor's ideas. Rudolf's interest in art, however, acquired much larger dimensions: the emperor had a network of envoys scattered all over Europe who had the task of sending him reports about the most interesting new items on the art market and mediating the acquisition of these works for the imperial collection. Rudolf spared no expense in acquiring rare works of art and this applied especially to works by renowned masters. A typical example of this is the case of the altarpiece The Feast of the Rose Garlands by Albrecht Diirer from the Church of San Bartolommeo in Venice. The emperor was so captivated by this picture that he not only paid a huge amount of money to get it, but also commissioned Hans Rottenhammer to paint a new altar picture for the church in return for the masterpiece. The manner of the transportation of the painting to Prague is testimony to how much the emperor valued this work: wrapped in cotton wool, carpets and waxed cloth, the painting was hung on a pole and transported by bearers from Venice via the Alps to Prague Castle!

Rare originals, mostly from Italy, Spain, the Netherlands and Germany, were brought to Prague where they created, together with works by the court painters Arcimbold, Spranger, Aachen, Heintz and a number of others, a unique castle collection which had no equal in Europe at that time. Unfortunately no precise contemporary inventory of the works has survived to this day, but according to an account by the Venetian ambassador Soranzo the collection contained some three thousand paintings in 1612, in the autumn of Rudolf's life. The halls of the Rudolf Gallery alone featured, among other gems, the largest collection of Albrecht Durer's works, as well as paintings by Lucas Cranach and Hans Holbein, the Elder, to mention representatives of the older generation of German artists. In addition to this there were Italian masters - eleven paintings by Titian, six paintings by Tintoretto, five paintings by Veronese and six paintings by Corregio. As well as this, paintings hung in many other spaces at Prague Castle, including masterpieces by Leonardo (A Lady with Ermine), Raffaelo, Hieronymus Bosch, Pieter Bruegel, the Elder and dozens of other artists. Equally renowned was Rudolf's Art Chamber, the emperor's favourite retreat, where he would spend long hours in seclusion escaping the unpleasant duties of ruling and enjoying rare works of art, statuettes, books, maps, coins, astronomical apparatuses, watches, botanical and zoological collections and a range of other unique artefacts. All of this made up Rudolf's own private world, one in which he could escape people, the outside world and the turbulent times. It was also here where he died in 1612, abandoned by all.

Rudolf's art collection was not to survive its owner for long in its entirety. Well informed about the presence of exceptional works of art at Prague Castle, the world's artistic circles showed great interest in them. Like his predecessors, Rudolf II wanted his collections to remain an inseparable part of the Habsburg property. His successor on the throne, Emperor Matthias, wished the same thing for that matter. Matthias, however, failed to preserve the collection as a whole. Although on his orders most of the paintings and other jewels were transferred to Vienna, the new imperial seat, other relatives of the imperial family began to claim their parts of the inheritance, as did members of the Czech Estates who asserted that the artefacts had been purchased using taxes collected from them. Apart from this Matthias presented his loyal supporters with some objects from the collection in reward for their support in his struggle for power. Further blows came from the victorious parties in a series of onslaughts directed against Prague: after the ill-fated Battle of White Mountain in 1620 Maximilian I of Bavaria took away hundreds of artefacts from Prague Castle. Karl of Liechtenstein, an ardent lover and collector of art, who was entrusted with the administration of the Czech Lands, did not lag far behind. Later on Emperor Ferdinand tinued the practice of sferring the artefacts to Vienna, not to mention the Saxon Elector who expanded the Dresden collection at. a time when Prague was occupied by Saxon troops. There remained still enough for Queen Kristina of Sweden, who sent her troops to Prague in 1647 to take the trea-sures trom Rudolf's art chamber and his rare paintings to Stockholm. Avgreat admirer of the Italian painting school, the queen was reputedly gravely disappointed when she found out that of the 600 paintings brought from Prague only a few were of Italian origin. Although the then administrator of the castle collections managed to hide several dozen works of art prior to the invasion of foreign troops, the once massive collections of Emperor Rudolf II were reduced considerably, with artefacts disappearing in different corners of the world. Most of them have never returned to Prague!

When, after 1648, the Habsburgs began to build a new art collection to adorn the state spaces of Prague Castle, they purchased outstanding collections of paintings throughout the world. Paradoxically, these sometimes contained a work likely to have already been in Prague in the reign of Rudolf II. In spite of being much smaller than that built by Rudolf, the new castle collection featured some magnificent works of art as well.

Unfortunately, in subsequent periods the castle collections were to shrink again repeatedly due to sale or other vicissitudes. In the reign of Josef II the collection was nowhere near an integral whole put on display in a picture gallery. Mostly serving as mere decoration, individual paintings were distributed throughout the castle rooms. In 1781 there was even a public auction of the remaining artefacts from the former art chamber and several other paintings, including Durer's Feast of the Rose Garlands. Once brought on Rudolf's orders from Venice with so much care, the masterpiece was auctioned off for 1 gulden and 18 kreutzers!

Notwithstanding all the events and vicissitudes of history, Prague today boasts a wealth of rare works of art either from the time of Rudolf's reign or directly from this collection. Many of those gems can be seen on display in the Picture Gallery of Prague Castle, which continues the glorious local art tradition. They include a recently purchased rarity - a grid-based Triple Portrait by Paulus Roy. Once part of the original Rudolf collection, the work has returned to Prague Castle, after a very long journey. We would like to recommend you to visit the Castle Picture Gallery as well as the Museum of Applied Art, which offers, among other exhibitions, a newly opened permanent display of historical clocks. Collectors of works of art are recommended to make a tour of renowned Prague antique shops, where it is possible to discover many beautiful artefacts, pieces that may become gems of their private collections.

Castle of Konopiste
Kokorin castle
Horovice castle
Great peoples
Usti region
Bohemian Paradise
Ignis Brunensis

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