A walk across Prague’s Charles Bridge

11-08-2010

No visit to Prague is complete without a stroll across Charles Bridge. A masterpiece of mediaeval architecture, the bridge has survived floods, sieges and even some poorly executed renovations. In this edition of Spotlight, we walk across the bridge with architect Martin Krise from a preservationists’ association called the Club for Ancient Prague.

Once the only connection between Prague’s Old Town and Hradčany, Charles Bridge is today one of the most popular sights with visitors to the Czech capital. Lined with stalls offering all kinds of pictures, jewellery and other souvenirs, street artists and musicians, it draws huge crowds at all times of the day. I met architect Martin Krise at the foot of the bridge on the right bank of the Vltava, in the Old Town.

“It was a very advanced construction; the only similar bridge was in Regensburg, and the masons from there perhaps came here to help. It was built from local stone; it was anchored on millstones and oak pilots. It has 16 fields, and every pillar there are statues which were added in the Baroque era and then later during the Romantic period.”

When did the bridge cease being a major artery connecting the two banks of the Vltava?

“That happened in the 19th century when a new, suspension bridge was built. It was named after the Habsburg Emperor, Franz Joseph I. It was beautiful but it was later replaced with a stone bridge. It was also the only the only bridge where people did not have to pay toll.

The Old Town bridge towerThe Old Town bridge tower “In the Middle Ages, the toll for crossing Charles Bridge was levied first in this monastery here, and later, by Old Town. The town also built this beautiful tower with the toll office and a meeting room.”

The Old Town bridge tower is notoriously known for displaying the heads of 12 Czech Protestant aristocrats, beheaded on the nearby Old Town Square in 1627 for rebelling against the emperor. The heads stayed there for ten years as a warning to others. But the tower also helped prevent the occupation of the Old Town by foreign armies.

“There were several battles in this eared; the last major one took place during the Thirty Years’ War when the Swedes occupied Hradčany on the other side of the bridge, and they besieged the Old Town. There was a big barricade in the middle of this gate. Students from the nearby Jesuit college were the heroes who defended the Old Town.

“Since that time, the other side of the tower with even more beautiful and richer architecture and decoration was badly damaged by the bombing from the other side, and is now much simpler.”

BradáčBradáč Passing under the Old Town bridge tower on the right bank of the river, we entered the 515 metre-long bridge, lined with statues. But first, Mr Krise pointed to a stone head walled in just next to the bridge. The little statue is called Bradáč, or The Bearded Man.

“This is the Bearded Man. It marked the level of water that already posed a danger. When the water reached his face, it was a warning. And you see that blue mark there? It’s about 2.5 metres above the Bearded Man. That was where the water reached during the floods in 2002.”

The floods of 2002 only caused minor damage to the bridge which had been damaged by swollen waters many times in its history.

“The bridged was severely damaged in 1890 when two fields were destroyed. Prague City Hall planned to rebuild the bridge twice as wide because of the traffic. Fortunately, the contractor, Mr Hlávka, only received money for half of the job, so the bridge remained 10 metres wide, as it always was.”

Floods in 1890Floods in 1890 The pillars collapsed because some logs got stuck in front of the bridge which eventually gave in to the immense pressure. No such thing happened in August 2002 but the floods provided the momentum for a project that had been debated for years – an overall renovation of Charles Bridge. Work started in 2007 and the first phase of the project – the renovation of the pavement and railings – was completed earlier this year. But many critics, including our guide today, say that the job has not been done that well.

“Here you see the final parts of the reconstruction of the pavement, the railings and the hydro-insulation of the bridge. There were many discussions about it and rather odd reports because the method they used was rather peculiar.”

Some people say it was botched because they used a wrong kind of stone and they also worked the stone in a wrong way, not respecting the original methods…

“It’s a real pity because of the lack of skills. The railing was often destroyed but now they worked the stones with saws, and the firm also employed workers who didn’t quite know how to work with stone.

“The insulation is probably fine, because the previous system was put in in the 1970s and it was very bad. The cobblestones were also put here in the 1970s. Bu now the problem is that the firm which gained such a bad reputation is probably going to reconstruct the lower parts of the bridge, the archers. That’s much more serious, and I think they have to be more professional.

Perhaps they should work under stricter supervision?

“That, and also with people who know how to do it. I will show you some visible mistakes…

“For instance this plaster which is used in the joints is very hard and the old stones are softer. That doesn’t work together very well. When there is a crack, it’s not in the plaster but in the stone. For the dilatation of the bridge they also used plastics, so you touch the joint and it’s pliable.”

When first built, Charles Bridge had no statues. The first one was put in at the beginning of the 18th century. Today there are some 30 statues of saints by some of the best sculptors of the time, such as Matthias Braun, Jan Brokoff and his sons, Michal and Ferdinand.

The statue of Saint IvoThe statue of Saint Ivo “There are a couple of statues on every pillar of the bridge. They come from different times, most of them from the Baroque era. The first statue on the left was donated by Prague University, and it’s Saint Ivo, the patron of lawyers. You see the blindfolded Lady Justice with the sword and the poor people under the hand of the saint.”

Is there any system in the positioning of the statues along the bridge, or is it arbitrary?

“They were added one after another, and some of them were replaced by others because the fashion changed. So some very beautiful Baroque statues are now in depositories and there are some very stiff, 19th century statues in their places. There is also one modern sculpture, Ss Cyril and Methodius who brought Christianity to the Czech lands. There are also the principal Czech saints, several St Wenceslases, several Marias, and so on.”

One statue on the bridge draws the attention of the visitors more than others – St John of Nepomuk, who lived in the era of King Wenceslas IV. He was murdered at the behest of the king and was thrown off the bridge, drowned in the river. Some legends say John of Nepomuk was the confessor of the king’s wife and refused to reveal the queen’s secrets to her husband. But it’s more likely he just got involved in a power struggle at the court. His statue stands near the site of his drowning and people today touch it for good luck.

The statue of John of NepomukThe statue of John of Nepomuk “I remember that where there were no tourists, no one touched it. So it’s a kind of fashion, people see others doing it, so they do the same. They mostly touch the queen, and the saint depicted when being thrown off the bridge, and they also touch the dog. But that’s a mediaeval symbol of evil. So they touch it without knowing what they’re doing.”

Charles IV, the Holy Roman Emperor, the King of Bohemia and the Count of Luxembourg, commissioned the construction of the stone bridge in 1357, but did not live to see it finished. It only became known as Charles Bridge more than 500 years after his death. But to this day it bears witness to the greatness of the king who turned Bohemia one of the most developed countries of Europe.

11-08-2010