Sunday 24 November 2019
To the Strahov Monastery
Booked into the most spacious of top-floor hotel rooms for my evening at Prague's Rudolfinum hearing Semyon Bychkov conduct the Czech Philharmonic in the ultimate test of acceptance, Smetana's Má vlast, and my interview with him the next morning, I could see the Strahov Monastery from one of my big windows - and most of the other landmarks of old Prague into the bargain. Thus the Vltava, Charles Bridge and National Theatre to the left,
the Sv Mikuláš Church and Petřín Hill
and to the right of it Hradčany.
There was just one drawback about the charming Hotel Klárov with its friendly and helpful staff - I was in the Andrea Bocelli suite,
which kind of ties in with the Eurotrash with which central Prague has recently been overwhelmed (blame ownership by Russians and others eager to make a fast buck out of mass tourism). Anyway, this time I didn't hit the tack that overwhelms the Staré Město and actually found the streets heading up the hill not so packed, nor the Hradčany Square in front of the gates to the first castle courtyard.
But I had two aims - to meet my generous Czech friend Jan Kučera for lunch in U Ševce Matouše, where you used to be able to eat lunch while your shoes were cobbled (nothing special now), and then to head up to the monastery.
Though the Premonstatensian Abbey was founded in 1143, the essence of what we see now ranges from Baroque to Rococo. The grounds are beautiful and extensive; they embrace not only the big Basilica of the Assumption of Our Lady
and the early 17th century Church of St Roch, now an art gallery
but also two important libraries connected by a corridor full of cabinets of curiosities, the driving reason for my wanting to come here (with happy memories of the Vogelsaal in Bamberg, described by Simon Winder in Germania as 'perhaps the most wonderful room in the world'). Had to buy a modest photo permit as there were no postcards other than of the two library halls.
For me, these slightly tatty cases were more a source of wonder than the libraries, visible cordoned off - unless you take a private tour - beyond the corridor. The Wunderkammer tradition seems to have its roots in the Emperor Rudolph II's collections, now, I guess, dispersed. This set is not original to the monastery - it came from the estate of Karel Jan Erben in 1798. The ordering is more random than in Bamberg, but here too there are wax fruits as well as marine curiosities (two whales' penises included).
Between the cabinets of shells and corals
hangs a 12th century 'wire shirt', as the monastery text puts it,
and there are two pretty cases of butterflies
while more specimens lurk in boxes in other cabinets.
The first library you see is the Philosophical Hall, its walnut 'interior' relocated from the abolished Premonstratensian monastery in Louka - the Strahov was lucky to escape Joseph II's dissolution of the monasteries in 1783, and only lost its monks in the Communist era, after which they returned, and restoration has been ongoing - and installed between 1794 and 1797 by its original designer. Viennese artist Anton Maulbertsch painted the fine ceiling fresco on in six months with one assistant.
At the other end of the corridor is the Theological Hall of about a century earlier, and frescoed 50 years later. Here it's more clear that religious faith guides knowledge and wisdom.
Some of the cabinets in the corridor are currently empty, like this one alongside an Egyptian sarcophagus,
and I looked in vain for the dendrology library or xylotheca, with each volume featuring the bark of the tree in question on the spine. Yet beneath glass were some of the libraries' treasures, including the precious Strahov Evangeliary of 860-5
with its lavish Gothic binding;
the first manuscript to feature the translation of the Bible into the Czech language;
a symbolic map of Europe as the Virgin with Bohemia as her heart (from a Prague volume of 1592);
and an astrological volume in Arabic.
Afterwards I wandered along the Petřín Hill and ramparts above the church
with an even more spectacular view down on to St Vitus's Cathedral
and then went back down through the gate to the monastery gardens
where the view above the vineyard has to be one of Prague's (many) best,
passed Prague's Loreto Church
with holy flying house (Santa Casa) within like the spectacular one I'd seen in Brno. Only this time it was gone 6pm so interiors were closed, and I made my way round a back street with a house plaque to Tycho Brahe, the Danish astronomer to Rudolf II for two years,
and catching at sunset the statue of T G Masaryk, one of the few truly enlightened figures of 20th century politics, as it were saluting Prague laid out before him
made my way past the army security in front of the castle and headed downhill through its precincts with plenty of time to get back to the hotel and then take metro and bus to the airport (as easy as pie). With some relief, I was leaving as the English soccer fans were arriving for a match the next day; predictably, there was trouble, but not solely from the English side.