The official and the everyday history of the city and its central square
If you stay in our hotel, you are literally just a few steps from The Old Town Square – one of the most important witnesses to Prague´s history. It has seen many of the important, history making events, but also an uncountable number of everyday, normal and unexceptional events, that made the long history of the city of Prague and its inhabitants. It has not always been the representative city center as we know it today. To the contrary: it was born spontaneously as a market on a spot, that seemed to be the most convenient for the purpose, and since its origins, it has had many different functions and looks that can be only hardly imagined today.
Present historians agree that the origin of the Old Town Square is likely much more recent then previously supposed. The first contours of the square date as late as to the last third – if not quarter – of the 11th century. And for many decades, possibly even centuries, the square only had a very local importance – it has not been mentioned in any texts of the period, nor painted or depicted anywhere – unlike some other parts of the city. The first depiction of the old town square dates to the year 1562 – in so called Vratislavský prospekt – a wood carving, that presented the city of Prague in detail from Pohořelec as far as to Vyšehrad hill. By the way, the name Large Square, emphasizing its importance, was given to this place as late as in 1895.
Long disappeared images of the square
The history of the square is paradoxically best described by the buldings which are not standing there anymore, or are hidden from the visitor´s eyes underneath the ground. Let us have a look at the old history of the square with the help of these houses and edifices.
The very first medieval vendors sold their goods from the street (just as we see it today in India or elsewhere). They spread out a piece of line or any other fabric and those buying had to bow to choose their goods. This early phase was soon changed by a sort of stalls, called „kotec“ in the Czech language. Different crafts gathered together: in the corner of today´s Pařížská street there were poultry vendors, underneath the today´s Townhall meat and fur vendors, and so on. Probably as soon as 1211 there was a man responsible for the administration of the market – collected money from vendors and managed the place in terms of cleanliness and safety.
As the importance of the market grew, separate houses started to be built at its edges. They were romanesque houses of the tower type – each house protecting its owner just as the medieval castles and their central towers – donjons. The continuous development of the old town began only in the 13th century, after Wenceslas I. constructed the first city walls – between 1231 and 1240.
Sacral buildings as the centres of major events
The early middle ages, deeply rooted in the spiritual consciousness, concentrated its highest efforts into building sacral buildings – churches, cathedrals and monasteries. Soon after the market came into existence, a church dedicated to Virgin Mary has been erected here – first mentioned in 1132AD. After this part of the city started to show its „business“ character more and more clearly, another church – that of Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of vendors– has been constructed in another corner of the market.
It was probably the first larger public building in the area, and served as such also many other purposes – the first members of the city council gathered there, just as wrongdoers were judged within its walls.
There are no records of the image of these two very first churches standing there – they were later pulled down to make space for other constructions.
As the inner matters of the city were becoming more complex, and its need for self-governance grew, the institution of the city hall was established and codified in 1338 and a building was purchased to serve as a headquarters for the public office. It was the corner house, where the astronomical clock is set today – the house was called after its original owner Wolflin from the Stone. The present prismatic tower was erected in 1364. But the very first spaces rebuilt inside the house were converted into a Chapel – ensuring the well being of the council and the citizens.
Later on, the growing requirements of the city urged larger space and other houses in the direction towards the Little Square were gradually bought – to the image of the City Hall we know today.
Buildings that are known only from pictures
Another long perished edifice is so called Krocín´s fountain. It used to stand on the eastern side of the square from 1591, and is a certain proof of the sufficiency of water in the area – there were wells standing in the middle of the market since its very outset.
The construction of the fountain was funded privately, and the city did not take any care of it, so that within the following decades and centuries there are records on leaking the water and pools around it. In its last years, it hardly held water anymore and reminded rather of a small water stream. Noone was willing to give money to repair it, and so it was dismantled in 1862.
The column of virgin Mary – a story of symbols in the life of Prague
The history of the razed St. Virgin Mary Column and its reerection is a widely known – and interesting story. The original column was set up in 1650 by the Habsburg emperor Ferdinand III as an expression of gratitude for the fact, the the Swedish armies did not succeed to plunder the city in 1648 – thanks to many devoted defenders, they did not get behind the city walls of the Old town of Prague. It has soon become a popular place of religious parades and marches – mainly due to the picture of so called Virgin Mary of the Square – a gothic painting placed inside the sanctuary. Soon after the foundation of the new and independent Czechoslovak Republic, on November, 3rd, 1918, a group of firemen from Žižkov pulled the column down – they mistakenly believed it was an order of the national representants. Noone has ever given such an order… The act was presented as a defiance towards the old catholic orders – tied to the perished monarchy. The remnants of the original column can be found in the Lapidary of the National Museum today.
The efforts to restore the column began short after its destruction, but led to success as late as in summer 2020, more than 100 years later. The copy of the original column was erected after many years of a loud controversy among its supporters who considered it a beautiful artwork documenting the history of the city and square, and opponents observing the column as a symbol of the Habsburg – and thus oppresive-governing. The truth is, that the new Column has quite changed the atmosphere of the square, adding it a bit of spirituality… Well, you shall judge by yourself – I think the column makes a nice and very functional part of the square.
On the ground
Even the ground surface of the square was a subject to many changes during its history. Originally only a simple dirt soil surface was first converted into gravel, and eventually (much later) into cobblestone.
The Nazis deemed the square a perfect place for military parades, only with a slight modification – they had a large letter „V“ assembled on the ground, which stood for Victoria – victory.
Today, if you are attentive enough, you can find another game with cobblestones there – on the side part of the Square, just in front of the non-existing townhall wing, there are little 27 crosses – symbols of the 27 Lords executed here in 1621.
The close vicinity of the Square
Many romanesque cellars and interiors that show the history of the square are unfortunately closed, but there are a few places where you can still see and touch the remnants of the early buildings here. One of them is e.g. the underground Vincent Hall of the Hotel Rott, which can boast the early romanesque walls of a stonehouse built probably after the French design – and dating back to the times of the beginnings of the market and settlement there.
When standing in the centre of the Old Town square, you should remember all the generations of people, who lived, struggled and prospered, loved, worshipped and believed in a better future. Just as we all do…
The author of the article and the manager of the hotel in one has many years experience with writing texts, she has been working as a free-lance journalist contributing to different Czech daily newspapers and other periodics of all kinds. She has spent a part of her career working as a city guide, and her articles are therefore providing a highly informed insight of a person, who was not only born in Prague, but who has crisscrossed the city streets countless times, has read hundreds pages of literature about Prague, and who constantly strives to contribute to the good reputation of the city from her todays workplace. Hopefully with a success…