Prague: two Sarajevo moments

somwehere in an old building at Prague castle, to my surprise, there was a window with a notice on it saying: this is where the Defenestration of Prague happened.

The what?

Took me back to when I was 17 and doing A-level history. Long story short: Prague was an important part of the Holy Roman Empire, which was ruled by Catholics, but the local people were Protestants. The Holy Roman Emperor decided in 1618 that he was going to take away Protestant rights; the Protestant leaders didn’t like it, walked into the castle and put the Emperor’s envoys on spontaneous trial, after which they sentenced them to death and, by way of implementation, chucked them out of this window:


Looked at from the bottom – the window is the one on the top floor – that’s a fair way to fall:


but they all survived. The Catholics put this down to divine intervention, while the Protestants claimed they had landed in a dung heap. Either way, the Emperor mobilized his armies, one thing led to another and that led to the next thing, and before you know it the whole of Europe is involved, the crops are ravaged from the land, and a quarter of the population of Germany is dead. The repercussions of this one defenestration ran to three decades of bloodletting, famine, disease and death: the Thirty Years War.

If that rings a more recent bell, it’s one that tolls 30km down the road amid gorgeous forests at the Bohemian castle of Konopiste. For the last 20 years of his life, this was the home of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire, Franz Ferdinand:


That’s the one who was assassinated by Balkan nationalists at Sarajevo on June 28th 1914. And Austria invaded the Balkans, and one mobilization led to another, and so to the trenches of Flanders and the Somme and poison gas and the Russian revolution and Versailles and hyperinflation and depression and Hitler and Stalingrad and Dresden and Auschwitz and the gulags, and what percentage of Europe dead? And even after those thirty (one) years it wasn’t really finished because of Stalin and his successors, and by the time it was finally all over in 1989 there had been, for some, 75 years of it…

Franz Ferdinand’s palace is as impossible as his moustache. Can you imagine a world where people built stuff like this in all seriousness?


But at least that was benevolent. Inside the palace there are rooms and rooms full of armaments, and corridors and galleries and staircases bristling with trophy kills of wildlife, each one tagged with the place and date it died. The guide let drop the statistic that, during his life, Franz Ferdinand shot almost 275,000 animals, each one recorded and numbered. Do the maths on that. He died at 50; let’s assume he started at age five, and never took a day off. Put like that, he killed, every single day, an average of 15 animals, almost one per waking hour. That’s a murder rate almost worthy of the Nazis; in fact it makes you wonder where they got their models from. And this one-man animal genocide was the heir to the throne of one of the great European empires. It seems entirely appropriate that he was hunted to death by Balkan nationalists around the streets of Sarajevo like some kind of exotic big game.

If only the consequences hadn’t been so awful, for so long…

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Prague: beaten track

what is it with Prague?

On paper it ought to be the most attractive big city in Central Europe, out-beautifying Budapest and even Vienna. If those three cities had been goddesses and Paris only cast his eyes above two metres off the ground, Prague would win the apple hands down – it has an unbeatable richness and variety of beautiful buildings from medieval times right up to the 20th century (amazing that it survived the 20th century). It’s below the two-metre line that’s the problem, though.

Of course it’s unfair to judge a city by its tourist quarters – could you sum up London by talking about Westminster Abbey and Trafalgar Square? – but here there is something shockingly voracious and blatant that nowhere else seems to have quite so badly, from the cheesy sketch artists on the Charles Bridge to the basement museums of medieval torture instruments to the posters for Hooters (roger Houston – but in Bohemia?) to the ubiquitous Euro-American tourist babe uniform of extreme hot pants (do they save them especially for here? there are nowhere near as many in London or Paris or Vienna) to the 12-year old Italians taking photos of Franz Kafka’s birthplace as though Kafka were Bono or Lady Gaga (or do your parents really never explain their impenetrable decisions to you?), to the sheer density of numbers toting cameras. As in this picture of the interior of St. Vitus’ Cathedral in Prague Castle (could even Florence or Rome be this swamped?):


It didn’t help that my hotel room was on the first floor directly above one of the noisiest tram junctions in Prague (the building shook every 15 seconds), or that the reception staff vied with each other to see who could be least friendly, or that considerable effort seemed to have gone into getting the details of the room exactly wrong (bedside tables and lights on the opposite side of the room from the beds, for example). But then what did I expect for €49 a night in central Prague? Call it false economy, or just bad judgement. But I dutifully did the tourist things this year that I hadn’t done last year, and quite impressive they all were in their way: the cute medieval Old Town Square, the freakish astronomical clock, the largest castle in the world (sez Guinness), the delightfully art nouveau (almost to the point of kitsch) Municipal House. Yet somehow it all seemed slathered with too much Prague-o-Disney…

Not fair to Prague; that faraway people of whom we once knew nothing have every right to make as much money out of us as they can in whatever way they see fit; they’re just making up time for that piece of paper, and all the other pieces of paper signed by the Big Three at Yalta etc. that cost them another 44 years of Soviet deep freeze. But it would be nice to get a sense of the soul (is there a soul?) Down in the back streets near the medieval Convent of St. Agnes came close, as did the Czech Cubism exhibit (some amazing stuff there from a cool hundred years ago, like the one below by Bohumil Kubista – this wasn’t on display, but I can’t get images of similar ones that were). I feel like I ought to owe Prague more time, but I can’t ever see myself coming back…


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back on the main line

On the train from Dresden to Prague, making its way from Berlin to Vienna, I got a shock: plugged back into the high voltage European backpacker circuit, every compartment filled with people half my age in big groups doing it because that’s what you do when you’re that age. There was no space at all, so I made for the restaurant car, fortunately in time to get a seat; within ten minutes it was filling with backpacker overflow. Ahead of me Americans, playing cards (because “scrabble is boring”); to my left, Spanish, playing cards and good-naturedly drinking beer; to my right, English, drinking beer and effing and blinding; behind me, Germans, discussing and analysing. I have to say I love it, even if I dread what kind of circus Prague is going to be…

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Dresden: new masters

Maybe it’s just me, but starting from about 200 years ago – around JMW Turner, Caspar David Friedrich, then the Impressionists – painting starts to make much more sense than most of the stuff I was writing about in the Alte Meister. Why? I’ve thought about that, and I really don’t know the answer. I guess I’ll have to think some more…

But then again, so does a lot of the art of the ancient world, even as far back as the Assyrians. Those Assyrians again – they seem to be following me around Europe (or is it the other way around?) Four more in Dresden, with their larger-than-life profile poses and their wings, just as spectacular as in Paris or London…

Here in the Neue Meister, a fair amount of the older stuff, and then suddenly that lift in the middle of the 19th century: some really interesting portraits and a lot of gorgeous landscape painting, the standout once again being the cool serenity of Friedrich himself:



This is a portrait by Ferdinand Von Rayski of a Saxon government official, more honest and less flattering than you’d expect for the middle of the 19th century:


War, by Otto Dix:


A sculpture called Stack by the German-resident Liverpool artist Tony Cragg (which had me suggesting to Allison that we sell for display some of the neat piles of mess she has positioned around the house):


And a couple of very recent pieces by the aging Dresden artist Gerhard Richter, Strip and Aladdin (both multi-part pieces, these just examples):



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Dresden: old masters

The Alte Meister art museum is apparently one of Europe’s most significant. It’s chocka with gut-busting Rubens numbers and superbly executed but entirely standard portraits of forgettable – and forgotten – 18th century wigs, along with stacks of alternately – even simultaneously – overdramatized and lifeless religious and mythological scenes, featuring people pointing and gesticulating in all directions at shocking supernatural happenings. No shortage of dramatically exposed female breast either; I suppose the sight of this must have been really quite something in the days before we were continually drenched with ubiquitous advertising images verging on soft porn. All of this is the European canon, full of technical and creative brilliance, thunderous in its depth and range, yet somehow adding up to what an artist friend of mine in London used to derisively call “faaaart”. It sometimes seems like so much dead plankton dropping silently to the floors of ancient seas, where it comes to form one compressed, inert mass.

And yet, of course, every such museum has its showstoppers. Like Holbein on the French ambassador to London (a lot in the hands here too):


or Titian’s knowing Christ (render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s):


or, among the dramatisers, the clarity of Botticelli:


or the lighting in this Correggio, which somehow captures the force of the moment when so many others fail:


some sumptuous but understated Venice-scapes by the various Canalettos:



and a self-portrait by the 18th century portraitist Anton Graff:


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Dresden: the Saxon one percent

Upstairs in the Royal Palace of the Kings of Saxony is a spectacular collection of Ottoman weaponry, from the days when the Turks had Hungary and threatened Vienna. Downstairs, the so-called Green Vault: two floors of unbelievable and unnecessary trinkature for the upper classes. The most extreme is this depiction of the court of the 17th century Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, which cost more than the construction of an entire palace building:


And this jewel-encrusted obelisk designed to convince someone or other (not the poor, surely?) that the Saxon king was in the direct line of, and capable of standing in the same company as, the Roman emperors:


Then there is the Dresden green diamond, a huge translucent green rock (some geophysical process, apparently) set in a tangle of regular diamond crystals that spangle with an otherworldly brilliance in all the colours of the rainbow (not that you get that from this photo – you really have to be there):


It’s no wonder that a peasant encountering these might have felt they were in the presence of someone touched by God.

These artifacts intersperse with many less spectacular but still incredibly valuable ones, ranging from the pretty to the drab to the vulgar, all superb examples of craftsmanship – and all presented with hardly any clue as to the financial circumstances of the day. When all these unimaginable sums were being spent on trinkets by the one percent of their day, what was life for regular people? Were they reasonably comfortable, or were they starving in the streets? The one fact we do learn is that there are only three pieces left of the original silver collection, because it was all melted down in 1772 to help pay the outstanding bills of the Seven Years’ War (1756-63). They say that the debts of that war were a substantial cause of the French Revolution – I guess, as a tottering monarch in those days, melting down the family silver must have seemed a small price to pay…

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Dresden: twice risen

Sad though it may seem, Dresden’s greatest claim to fame these days is probably that it was bombed pretty much out of existence by the RAF on the night of February 13th 1945:



There are lots of modern buildings interspersed with what was left over and what has been rebuilt to original specs, but it really doesn’t look too bad at all, especially considering that it then had 45 years of communism to deal with. The showpiece of the reconstruction, the Frauenkirche, looks like this from the outside:


At rear left (if you look carefully) and in a few other scattered places you can see the original blackened stone, which was re-used; all the rest is new. Inside, it seems to have been reconstructed perfectly down to the last loving detail of the original design, but the fact is that it looks like a new church – because it is. It has no atmosphere; the accumulated centuries of prayer and celebration were blown away in a single night, and the clock reset to zero. Why did they target this, not the bridges or the railway tracks or the industrial areas outside the city? Yet the damage to the fabric was not the worst thing; that was the death of all those civilians (25,000 in a few hours, the sober historians reckon). The anger that fueled this destruction, anger that Hitler and his satanic cronies had put Europe through entirely unnecessary torment in pursuit of their vicious dreams, and at the waste of all those young lives, is entirely understandable, indeed unavoidable even three generations on; but couldn’t it have been more accurately directed? It is to Britain’s shame that Churchill, Eden, Harris (though the last may well have been a psychopath who should have been on a much tighter leash, to say the least) let it get the better of them when cooler heads could have prevailed and done Britain credit. Where were the bombs on the factories, the infrastructure, Auschwitz? They claimed they couldn’t guarantee precision, but they achieved it on other occasions, and couldn’t they at least have tried?

The main Catholic church, the Hofkirche, was also damaged that night, though not as badly. Hence it doesn’t feel so new. Surprisingly for a baroque church, especially a Catholic one, it has almost no ornament; it is plain white and filled with a sense of space and light. This is uplifting: eyes and spirit are drawn upward to high windows:


Then after the war came the communists:


I am staying in Neustadt, where they have techno playing and lots of restaurants and bars as well as things that now seem unimaginable further west, like headshops! I want to go back 25 years and see momentarily what these streets looked like then…no wonder this place seems more alive than most in Europe, they must really know the value of their liberty. I like this 1990 picture by Wolfgang Koethe, called Small Freedoms:


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