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Lesser Town - Locality Description

LOCATION 3: NERUDOVA – LESSER TOWN SQUARE – MOSTECKÁ STREET

LESSER TOWN

The Lesser Town is a Prague quarter (area of 1.4 sq km, a part of Prague 1 and to a small extent also Prague 5) and the historical town on the left bank of the Vltava River below the Prague Castle. Of all Prague quarters the Lesser Town has changed the least during the last centuries; since the end of the 18th century only a few buildings have been added.

There were settlements under the Hradčany hill as early as in the prehistoric times. In the 9th century in the location of today’s Sněmovní Street on the road to the Castle a merchant village was formed. The street plan of the Lesser Town is in essence the remnant of the communication network formed before the end of the 13th century and of the locations of villages and courtyards that gradually merged with today’s Lesser Town (among others Obora, Trávníček, Nebovidy, Újezd, Rybáře). King Wenceslas I One-Eyed had a significant influence on the development of the area, when he had the Judith Bridge bridgehead fortified in 1253, and so did his son Přemyslid Otakar II, who surrounded the area between the Castle and the Bridge with walls with six gates, drove the inhabitants away and placed new colonists there, mainly German artisans and merchants. At the same time a new street network was measured with a central marketplace (today’s Lesser Town Square) and on it the parish church of St. Nicholas was founded and consecrated in 1283. In 1257 the king elevated the settlement into the status of a town, at first called the New Town under the Prague Castle, later the Prague Lesser Town and approximately since the 17th century it is called Malá Strana, the “Little Quarter”.

The town experienced fast development under the reign of Charles IV. Together with the fortification of the just founded New Town he built a new, wider fortification around the Lesser Town by which effort he extended the area of the Lesser Town practically to contemporary size. After this period of boom, the Hussite Wars brought ruin to the city. At the very outset of the Wars in 1419-1420 the town was burned down by the Hussites and deserted by its inhabitants. The gradually reviving town was brought to its knees again by another catastrophe which came in 1541 in the form of an all-destroying fire. But the Lesser Town continued to grow again, especially during the reign of Rudolph II, who made the Prague Castle his seat and the centre of the empire. Apart from the houses and palaces of merchants, financiers and aristocrats Italian artists also settled around the Castle and the Lesser Town became the traditional artistic centre of Prague.

The following period did not spare the Lesser Town either. It was plundered and ravaged during the invasion of the Passau army in 1611 as well as at the end of the Thirty Year’s War in 1648, when Prague was under the siege of the Swedish army. It was in the 17th and the 18th centuries in the period of the rigid re-catholicisation of the Czech lands and the strengthening of the sovereign’s power that the town blossomed into its today’s beauty: on the burnt-out and knocked-down sites as well as in places of intentionally pulled-down houses magnanimous Baroque palaces and churches started to grow and it gave the Lesser Town its current appearance. The town changed in another way too: many splendid aristocratic seats used to revive only during the period of the monarch’s presence at the Castle and common life disappeared from the streets and squares. A quiet, dreamy quarter looking inward and into its past was being created. In 1784 the Lesser Town was included in the Royal Capital of Prague and thus lost the status of a separate town.

Unlike in the right-bank Prague quarters, the modern construction activity has had almost no effect on the Lesser Town also because the inhabitants of the Lesser Town were traditionally the less affluent citizens of Prague. The quarter has thus at least partially reserved a small-town intimate character till today – as if it was a real anteroom of the royal castle which reigns over it from above.

NERUDA STREET

Neruda Street, one of the most charming and most admired streets in Prague climbs from the north-western corner of the Lesser Town to Hradčany and the turning to the Prague Castle, where it becomes Úvoz Street and Radniční Steps. For centuries it was the main thoroughfare of the Lesser Town. The street runs in the axis of an ancient road which connected the princely settlement with the fords on the Vltava, later with the Judith and then the Stone Bridge. On the hillsides adorned with vineyards and gardens around the road, edifices started to appear and change, destroyed by armies in siege of the Castle as well as natural disasters and restored again. The original street was much narrower - the Gothic cellars of the houses, which run far out into today’s street, bear witness to this fact. There used to be spars, beams, which the horses could lean on, laid in the steep slope. Up until 1711 there used to be the old Strahov (also Black or Hanstruk) Gateway with a crenelation and a drawbridge situated in the middle of the street. It was one of the six Lesser Town gateways from the reign of Přemyslid Otakar II. It was torn down during the construction of the church of St. Theatin. A part of the street above the gateway was called Na Dláždění, the lower part Strahovská and later Ostruhová (the name derives from manufacturers of spurs who worked here). The street received its present name in 1895 after the writer Jan Neruda died. He had lived here for a part of his life. Since 1973, Nerudova Street has been reserved for pedestrians only.

Nerudova Street is an exhibition of representative high Baroque facades which in many places cover the original Renaissance faces as well as the Gothic elements of the buildings. The houses have uneven terraced foundations and deep courtyards in the hillside. Burgher houses prevail; there are only a few aristocratic palaces in the street. Many historical portals, antique decorated doors and locks as well as a set of house signs have been preserved.

LESSER TOWN SQUARE

The main Lesser Town Square was created as a marketplace on the crossroads between the Prague Castle and the at the time only Prague bridge across the Vltava River. The settlement was granted the status of a town in 1257 by Přemyslid Otakar II and at the same time the rectangular square, shaped as it is today, was planned. The entrance to the square was protected by four gates (Újezd in today’s Karmelitská Street, Strahov Gate in Nerudova, Písecká Gate in Valdštejnská Street and Mostecká Gate in Mostecká Street). The square was divided into the upper and the lower part probably from the very beginning: in the middle was the rotunda of St. Wenceslas with a cemetery next to which a town hall, a vicarage and a school were later built. Before 1283 a Gothic parish church of St. Nicolas was built south of the rotunda. It was replaced in the 17th century by the monumental Baroque church of St. Nicholas with a Jesuit college. In this way two squares had been created – the upper and the lower – divided by the monumental central block. As early as in the mid 14th century the area was at least partially paved.

The destructive fire of the Lesser Town and the Prague Castle in 1541 struck the construction works. After the fire most buildings had to be built anew, this time in the Renaissance style. The majority of houses then underwent Baroque and Classicist modifications. On the lower part of the square there used to stand three lines of butcheries (until 1784), two wells (a wooden one and a stone one), gallows in the 16th century, until 1782 there was a pillory here. On the upper square there were goldsmiths’ shops, spurmakers’ shops, dressmakers and other artisans. While the lower square kept its burgher character of buildings with archways, the upper part, calmer and closer to the Castle changed after the Battle of the White Mountain to a significant residence of the aristocracy. During the centuries the square was called Marketplace, Lesser Town Marketplace and Stephen Square (after the archduke Stephen, Czech governor in 1844-1847), the upper part was also called Italian Place (after Italian merchants, artisans and architects that lived here). Today’s name dates back to 1869.

The square is a collection of church, burgher as well as palace architecture, mostly Baroque; apart from the church of St. Nicholas and the Jesuit College, the aristocratic palaces, many burgher houses or the Lesser Town Hall deserve attention. The plague column of the Holiest Trinity with a well on the upper square is also a significant monument. From 1859 there was a memorial of the Austrian field marshal J J V Radecky from Radeč, built by J. Max and E. Max and designed by the head of the Prague Academy of Fine Arts Ch. Ruben, which was removed in 1918 immediately after the formation of independent Czechoslovakia (today it is placed in the Lapidarium of the National Museum). Close to its original location a memorial to the French bohemicist E. Denis by K. Dvořák was unveiled in 1928; in 1940 it was taken away by the German occupation army and melted for war purposes. The lower part of the square suffers today, like many other memorable places in the metropolis, by excessive road and tram traffic.

MOSTECKÁ STREET

Mostecká Street, or Bridge Street used to be called To the Bridge or By the Bridge. Thanks to its location it was the main thoroughfare of the Lesser Quarter for centuries: for it connected the Lesser Town Square, the main area and the marketplace of the town with the Judith, later Charles Bridge, the only Prague bridge across the Vltava River until 1841. The street line dates back to the Middle Ages when the construction was mainly wooden; among the exceptions were the more opulent buildings of the Bishop’s Court or the hospital of the Johannites with the church of Our Lady Below the Chain at the end of the bridge. The whole area between Újezd and the square turned into ashes in 1503, after which it quickly recovered and during the reign of Rudolph II, which was a period of flourishing even for the Lesser Town, the street got its burgher character. Three-storey houses with a flat face, late Baroque signs with dormers, windows in the front and flat stucco decorations which prevail in the street are characteristic of the old Lesser Town. Full of pubs and inns the street was infamous for centuries for its fights, robberies and murders. As late as in the 19th century there was a warning sign here with a cut hand painted on it to make the warning clear even to the illiterate. The name Mostecká has been used officially since 1911.

 

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