The Czech Republic is famous as a country of castles but this week I had a chance to visit one that is truly exceptional: the renowned Konopiště Chateau, found just 40 kilometres south of Prague. Konopiště, together with its wide surroundings and gorgeous interiors, is of course particularly famous for its ill-fated last owner – the heir-apparent to the Austrian throne, Archduke Francis Ferdinand, assassinated, together with his wife, in Sarajevo in 1914 - the spark that set off the First World War. In this edition of Spotlight we visit some of the magnificent rooms at Konopiště which Francis Ferdinand and his family once used to welcome notable guests.
But before we get to Francis Ferdinand, a little more on the castle’s extensive history: I met with one of Konopiště’s main guides, Miroslav Marek, this week. He explained that Konopiště goes back to the late 13th century, when it was founded as a medieval castle by the Benešovs, compete with fortified walls, tall towers, and deep ditches. After their line died out in the 14th century, ownership passed to another famous noble family.
“The last in the Benešov line died out at the start of the 14th century and Konopiště came into the ownership of the Sternberks, and they had it longer in history than anyone else, for roughly 300 years. They did a lot of renovation in the gothic style.”
Other notable owners were the Vrtbas – who transformed Konopiště into a Baroque palace, but of course the one who left the greatest stamp on the chateau was its last owner, Francis Ferdinand, nephew of Austrian Emperor Franz Josef and the successor to the Austrian throne.
“The last changes of course were made by the last private owner Archduke Francis Ferdinand d’Este. Ferdinand took over Konopiště in 1887. He bought the site for 2.5 million gold coins, a huge amount of money. Imagine he was the richest Habsburg and one of the richest people in Europe. He inherited from his uncle, Franz V d'Este of Modena, in Italy, on the condition he would accept the d’Este name (ensuring its survival) and get the inheritance. Francis Ferdinand accepted and he received. He got collections, pictures, palaces, money. As an adult he bought Konopiště and began renovation at the end of the 19th century. The Konopiště we know is how it looked in his day.”
The very first room on view at Konopiště’s tour of representational chambers is a hallway stuffed with an overwhelming amount of hunting trophies, which some visitors may find shocking but which attests to Francis Ferdinand’s aristocratic rank as well as the norms of his day. The collection also attests to his abilities as a marksman; he is said to have shot with rifle only and, according to sources, followed strict hunting etiquette which required “piety” towards hunted animals. He was equally famous for downing game with one shot. Miroslav Marek again:
“Of course, it was quite common at the time that nobility had such exotic trophies. Francis Ferdinand organised a famous trip around the world which lasted ten months, including India, China, Japan, Australia, and America. And because he was a very precise Austrian gentleman, he kept records of all his successful hunts. That is how we know that during his life he brought down almost 300 thousand animals, including exotic specimens around us in this room like Russian bears, antelopes from India, and tigers from Nepal. Just here in the hall you can see more than 800 specimens on the left and right.”
By comparison, one of the next rooms on the tour couldn’t be more different: far more personal and intimate, a room connected to the Archduke’s lovely wife, Sofie Chotková, who Francis Ferdinand married against his uncle’s wishes.
“We are now entering the room known as the Pink Salon, and this room is connected to an alcove where you can see a portrait of the last lady to live here, Francis Ferdinand’s wife Sofie Chotek. It wasn’t easy for him to marry her: as Archduke and as successor to the Austro-Hungarian throne he wasn’t supposed to marry beneath his aristocratic position, a difficult situation given his wife was ‘only’ a Czech countess. Emperor Franz Josef I was against their union but they were able to luckily get permission.
But there was a penalty: they were forced to a marriage which was not ‘equal’, a morganatic marriage. Ahead of his wedding, Francis Ferdinand had to agree to renunciation before his uncle and before the court. He had to sign a law that was harsh against his future children: they lost rights, including some inheritance rights, and they lost the right to the Habsburg name but were named after their mother, who received the title of princess of Hohenberg.”
“That’s right. It was done by a Hungarian painter and she was about 40 at the time, but still very beautiful as you can see. They used to say that she was the second most beautiful woman in the empire, after Empress Elisabeth, known as Sissy, Franz Josef’s wife.”
Time passes all too quickly at Konopiště, even as history stands frozen in place. There is a cascade of impressions – from the view from the window into the gardens to the cosy upholstering and wallpapering of guest bedrooms, to the luxury of the dining hall. In one’s mine eye tries to imagine what life must have been like for the noble family that once lived in this chateau. A day is barely enough to see everything, including a walk around the grounds by the nearby lake. But it is well worth it. Even now, one can’t help but marvel over Francis Ferdinand’s renovations which completely transformed Konopiště to the comfortable family seat where he spent much his life.
“He was very wealthy but he also knew how to invest money. Since the end of the 19th century Konopiště was very well equipped: he introduced a central heating system. Since 1896 the castle had electricity thanks to an underwater turbine under the lake, and he had an elevator installed to take him to the family’s home on the 3rd floor. Plus, twelve bathrooms were introduced, with running hot and cold water and showers. We are talking about the end of the 19th century. It was a five-star hotel compared to Schoenbrunn or Hofburg!”
Konopiště is open for the better part of the year to the end of the
November. You can find out about tours in English and other languages at
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