Prague

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Prague

Prague (präg, prāg), Czech Praha, Ger. Prag, city (1993 pop. 1,216,500), capital and largest city of the Czech Republic and former capital of Czechoslovakia, on both banks of the Vltava (Ger. Moldau) River. A road, rail, and air transportation hub, the city also has an inland harbor that is the terminus of shipping on the Vltava river. Prague is a leading European commercial and industrial center and is the Czech Republic's most important industrial city. There are large engineering plants, machine-building and machine tool enterprises, printing and publishing houses, electronics factories, chemical plants, and breweries.

Prague is also the see of a Roman Catholic archbishop, an Eastern Orthodox archbishop, and the archbishop of the Czechoslovak Hussite Church. Educational and cultural facilities in the city include Charles Univ. (founded 1348), one of the oldest and most famous in Europe; a technical university (1707); the Czech Academy of Sciences; the National Gallery; the National Museum; and many other museums and theaters.

Culture and Landmarks

Until World War II, Prague was characterized by the generally peaceful coexistence of Czech, German, and German-Jewish cultures. It was the city of Rilke and Kafka as well as of Smetana, Dvořák, and Čapek. The city's literary, artistic, and musical life, which has a long and distinguished tradition, was very active between the two World Wars.

The old section of Prague, which occupies the center of the city, is an architectural treasure enhanced by the beauty of its location on the hilly banks of the Vltava. Hradčany Castle dominates the city; the seat of the president of the Czech Republic and the former royal residence, it is an imposing and many-winged structure, dating mostly from the reign of Charles IV. Next to it stands the largely Gothic Cathedral of St. Vitus, first built in the 10th cent., which contains the tomb of St. Wenceslaus. The Hradčany quarter also contains many other fine churches and palaces, notably the Romanesque basilica of St. George; the baroque churches of Our Lady of Victory (with the miraculous statuette of the Infant Jesus or Holy Child of Prague) and of Loretto; the magnificent Waldstein Palace, built for the imperial general Wallenstein; and the Czernin Palace.

The Old Town, on the Vltava's east bank, contains the Carolinum, the oldest part of the university; the adjacent Stavovske Theater, where Mozart's Don Giovanni had its first performance; the vast Clementinum Library; the Gothic Old Town Hall (13th cent.; burned in May, 1945) and its astronomical clock (1410); the baroque Church of St. Nicholas (18th cent.) and the Gothic Tyn Cathedral (14th cent., formerly the main Hussite church, with the tomb of Tycho Brahe); the Powder Tower (15th cent., the last city gate), and the art nouveau Municipal House (1912). Situated in the adjacent former Jewish quarter is the Old Synagogue (c.1270), Europe's oldest remaining synagogue.

In the heart of modern Prague is Wenceslaus Square, with its statue of St. Wenceslaus. It was the center of Czech resistance to the 1968 Soviet invasion and a rally site for the support of political change in 1989.

History

The earliest settlements, dating from at least the 9th cent., began around the castles standing on top of the Hradčany and Vysehrad hills (on the left and right bank, respectively, of the Vltava) that still dominate Prague's skyline. Already an important trading center by the 10th cent., it achieved real prominence after King Wenceslaus I of Bohemia established (1232) a German settlement there.

Prague grew rapidly in size and prosperity as Bohemia's capital and became under Emperor Charles IV (14th cent.) one of the most splendid cities of Europe. The city's location at the intersection of vital trade routes stimulated its economy, while scholars and students from all over Europe came to its university. From the 14th to the early 17th cent., the emperors of the Holy Roman Empire resided at Prague as well as at Vienna. Rivalry between the Czech and German elements in the city was a major factor in the popular religious reform movement led by John Huss, a professor at the university. Huss, who also condemned the secular power of the Roman Catholic Church, was burned at the stake in 1415; his martyrdom sparked the Hussite Wars. Prague's attempt to follow a moderate course in the wars was frustrated (1424) by an army led by John Zizka.

Hapsburg rule of Prague began in 1526, when the Ottoman Turks were threatening Europe. In the late 16th and early 17th cent., under Emperor Rudolf II, Prague shone as a center of science where the astronomers Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler worked. In 1618, when the Protestant Czech nobles felt the liberties of Bohemia threatened by Emperor Matthias, they vented their dissatisfaction by throwing two royal councilors and the secretary of the royal council of Bohemia out of the windows of Hradčany Castle (May 23, 1618). Although none of the victims of the so-called Defenestration of Prague were hurt, the event opened the Thirty Years War. The battle of the White Mountain (1620), fought near Prague, resulted in Bohemia's subjugation to Austrian rule. Until 1860, German was Prague's only official language. The Peace of Prague (1635) failed to end the Thirty Years War, in the last year of which (1648) a section of the city was occupied by the Swedes.

In the War of the Austrian Succession, Prague was occupied by the French (1742) and the Prussians (1744); and in the Seven Years War it was (1757) the scene of a major victory of Frederick II of Prussia. Although it had lost much of its former importance, Prague in the 18th cent. remained a brilliant cultural center. The building activities of Empress Maria Theresa and the great Bohemian nobles gave the city a predominantly baroque and rococo character. The center of the Czech national revival in the 19th cent., Prague played an important part in the Revolution of 1848 until its bombardment and capture by the Austrian field marshal Windischgrätz.

In 1918, Prague became the capital of the newly created Czechoslovak republic. Occupied (1939–45) by the Germans, it suffered hardship in World War II, but little structural damage. Prague was liberated in May, 1945, by Soviet troops after an anti-German rebellion (May 5). In 1968 the "Prague Spring," a brief period of liberal reforms attempted by the government of Alexander Dubček, was ended with the invasion of the Soviet military. In 1989 the city was the scene of massive demonstrations during the "Velvet Revolution," which brought down the Communist regime. With the breakup of Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993, Prague became the capital of the Czech Republic.

Bibliography

See P. Demetz, Prague in Black and Gold (1997); D. Sayer, Prague, Capital of the Twentieth Century (2013).

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