While walking along the Royal Route these days, we see mostly the Baroque town; only sometimes we realize that under our steps there are other towns lying and past ages sleeping. The Romanesque town is buried the deepest, under layers of younger periods. The ground floors of Romanesque houses form the first or rather the second basements of today’s buildings. Gothic Prague sleeps on top of the Romanesque town – there are more relicts thereof preserved. However, even what’s left of the Gothic houses has been covered by later Renaissance and Baroque construction works so that the Gothic elements are scarce and difficult to identify. A façade from the end of 19th century may hide Renaissance ceilings, Baroque staircases, Gothic vaults on the ground floor and Gothic or Romanesque cellars underground – history of some houses dates back to 12th century when wooden settlements below the Prague Castle and around the marketplaces on the opposite bank of the Vltava River began to change into stone foundations of future town. The previous epochs had little understanding for the past and our predecessors would find dubious something seemingly weird as the protection of monuments… Seeing such sights is a great experience – here looms the evidence of lifestyles of the previous centuries; individual elements of various building phases usually live in a perfect symbiosis that has been tried and tested over the centuries. And there is another town which a tourist may see only if very lucky – the inner world of the houses including interior decorations and crafted artefacts from various periods; wrought staircase railings, beautiful ceramic floor tiles in living areas, painted wooden ceilings with various motifs and vivid colours, frescos, stucco decorations, delicate metal works..
New impulses for the development of the town lying on the Vltava River had usually been brought by globetrotters coming in with knowledge of French, German or Austrian architecture; however, this does not mean that Prague architecture blindly followed the foreign patterns. Prague, a city on the crossroads of cultures, was a melting pot of many influences and many buildings from all the periods show a certain extent of originality. Artists and craftsmen, regardless their previous experiences, had surrendered to the Prague’s genius loci and had given their best to the city in return.
A more rigid structure to the free agglomeration of settlements below the Prague Castle was brought during the reign of the Přemyslid dynasty; after 1230 the Romanesque style set off, particularly in the Old Town where beautiful houses had already been built. Gothic style, penetrating since mid 13th century, fully flourished during the somewhat short heyday of the Prague towns under the reign of the Emperor Charles IV, the Father of the Country, who made Prague his residential town. Beside his generous project of the Prague’s New Town, Charles IV’s most important urban projects included the foundation of St. Vitus’ Cathedral and construction of the Charles Bridge. He invited outstanding experts from abroad to carry out these and also other projects: Frenchman Matthias of Arras and German genius Peter Parléř who created absolutely extraordinary and original works of peak Gothic style in Prague. Hand in hand with great buildings of national importance, the houses of townsmen had been built and the prosperity had continued even after Charles’ death till the chaos of the Hussite wars. Vladislaus II of Jagiello had also supported new construction and commissioned German architect B. Ried to rebuild the Prague Castle; Ried’s work shows signs of the new Renaissance style, coming to countries behind the Alps from Southern Europe.
Further construction boom was brought by great fire in the Lesser Town, Hradčany and the Castle in 1541. The fire sites and ruins were gradually replaced by Renaissance buildings; great Renaissance palaces were built, particularly by Italian builders, bricklayers, stonemasons and plasterers. However, their works were not the same as in their homeland; they quickly absorbed the Prague Gothic style and created an original Czech Renaissance style characterized by high stone gables in particular. The Renaissance – or rather Mannerism - style in architecture flourished also under the reign of Rudolph II; this eccentric lover of arts and sciences had chosen Prague as his residential town and invited to his court the most significant scholars and artists from all over Europe. Buildings of Rudolph’s architects constructed mostly around the Prague Castle area show in many aspects signs of the forthcoming new Baroque style.
Baroque architecture had been developing in the Czech lands after the end of the terrible Thirty Year War and its origins are also connected to the ideological victory of the Catholic dynasty of Habsburgs. Like the previous architectural styles, Baroque architecture in Prague started off by using foreign patterns and examples – Italian and Spanish, later German and Austrian, but in short time these were modified to suit the historical heritage of Prague buildings. Social changes and wars put power and money in the hands of foreign nobility and also religious orders, mostly the Jesuits. Low prices of land in the depopulated town enabled the construction of grand palaces for the winners of the Battle at the White Mountain, as well as of religious buildings and great reconstructions of many older buildings; the end of 17th century was finally the time of building new and refurbishing old townsmen’s houses, mostly in old Gothic plots of land. Works of exceptional architects – including J. B. Mathey, G. B. Alliprandi, K. Dietzenhofer, K. I. Dientzenhofer, J. B. Santini or F. M. Kaňka – reached in cooperation with sculptors M. B. Braun and F. M. Brokof or painters P. Brandl and V. V. Reiner, the peaks of the Baroque style in Central Europe. Baroque architects strongly perceived the Prague Gothic style, particularly Santini achieved an impressive, specific synthesis of both styles so-called Baroque Gothic. Prague – and the Czech landscape – had changed into a Baroque jewel later affected with only minor modifications. The end of the Baroque period in Prague was marked by two wars – the city was occupied during the war for Austrian heritage in 1741 – 42 and against during the Seven Year War in 1757. Many houses and large parts of the Prague Castle were damaged; a project for the Prague Castle reconstruction was commissioned by the Empress Maria Theresa and carried out by N. Pacassi.
The final phase of Baroque style developed into sober Classicism; in the first half of 19th century the Romanticism prevailed in architecture and after 1850 historicizing styles dominated, aiming to revive the styles of previous epochs; reconstruction of monuments in purist style was based on this proposition. After 1900 Prague welcomed Art Nouveau and shortly after, in 1907, an original Czech style called Cubism. Following styles demonstrated modern architecture in the Czechoslovak Republic. Prague had been growing and absorbing surrounding villages to become a modern city with one million inhabitants and with a beautiful historical centre admired by amazed visitors from all over the world.