Old Town I - Locality Description



The Old Town (Old Town of Prague in the past) is a Prague town quarter (area of 1.3 sq km, part of Prague 1) and the historical town on the right bank of the Vltava River, in the very heart of the metropolis. The settlement of this place started in the 11th century; before that there were probably only cemeteries here, where the inhabitants of the area below the Castle from the other river bank used to bury their dead. The lively marketplace, located in what is today Široká Street, and the Old Town Square became the centre of the forming town. Merchants came through here to the main Vltava ford (located at today’s Mánes Bridge) and then to the Prague Castle. A Romanesque town grew around the marketplace soon, consisting of at least 70 stone houses, mostly detached. Important events include the opening of the stone Judith Bridge (located in the place of today’s Charles Bridge), which increased the importance of the settlement even further, and especially the reign of Wenceslas I the One-Eyed, who granted the Town of Prague town rights and in 1232-1234 fortified it with walls and a water moat before the Tartar threat. In 1257 the Lesser Town too obtained the privileges of a town and the Town of Prague started to be called the Larger Town of Prague to differentiate. Inhabitants were probably mostly of German origin and Germans also held the municipal offices. The influence of the Czech element was increased after the constitution of guilds in the second half of the 14th century. In 1338 king John of Luxemburg granted the citizens the right to build a town hall and three years later he granted his consent to the town to follow its own legal code. This way the citizens obtained the self-rule they sought so much.

It was only after the foundation of the New Town of Prague (in 1348), which quickly surrounded the Larger Town all along its walls, that the name Old Town of Prague started to be used. Despite the fast development of its new neighbour the Old Town retained its leading position of the political and administrative centre and its power grew even further during the Hussite Wars, when it became one of the crucial forces in the country. It kept this position up until mid 16th century when emperor Ferdinand I Habsburg punished the disobedient citizens by removing a part of their rights. The defeat of the townsmen was completed by the Battle of the White Mountain (1620) and the subsequent hard centralisation of power. Yet after the individual Prague towns were united in one whole in 1784, the quarter became the seat of the Old Town Hall, the centre of the merged municipal authority, and the historical sign of the Old Town of Prague became the symbol of the whole united Prague.

At the end of the 19th century the Old Town faced the greatest threat in all its history, greater than the wars and fires: the old buildings were found lacking in hygienic standards and unhealthy and a plan was formed to build a new representative and commercial centre of the metropolis. Old houses were to be pulled down, a wide boulevard was to run from the Wenceslas Square across the Old Town and the Old Town Square. Thanks to the growing resistance of the cultural public the already commenced destruction was slowed down at the beginning of the 20th century and then completely stopped and the old houses were sensitively adjusted to suit the needs of the modern times. Thanks to this approach the Old Town, especially the part around the Royal Route, is today one of the most valuable parts of old Prague and a great tourist attraction..


Karlova Street connects the Křížovnické Square with the Malé Square in the middle of the Old Town. After the 12th century, when the stone Judith Bridge, a technical miracle of its times and a traffic centre-point of the Prague twin town, was built near the ancient ford and the pulled-down wooden bridge across the Vltava River, the narrow and zigzagging little street found itself on the most frequent route of old Prague from the marketplace, where the Old Town Square was to stand later, to the Prague Castle. For centuries pedestrians rushed through here and carriages with goods as well as those carrying royal processions passed through here. The street was called Svatoklimentská (after the church of St. Clement from the 13th century), later its sections were called Zlatnická (Goldsmiths), Nožířská (Cutlers) or Ševcovská (Shoemakers) after the craftsmen who had their workshops here. On the turn of the 17th century the name Jezuitská (after the Clementinum Jesuit college) became the settled name for the street. The name it holds today was given to it in 1848 on the suggestion of K. Havlíček Borovský. The most precious buildings on Karlova Street are the sacral buildings in the grounds of the Clementinum (church of St. Saviour, church of St. Clement, Italian Chapel). Among others the houses At the Golden Cross (44/147) and At the Golden Well (3/175) stand out. They belong among the oldest stone buildings in the Old Town (turn of the 13th century).


The name Little Square distinguishes this place from the neighbouring large Old Town Square. The triangular plan of the Little Square still reflects its Romanesque origin and the houses too have mostly Romanesque foundations. In the Middle Ages French merchants, who also had their burial ground by the church of St. Linhart (pulled down in 1798; during the archaeological research in 1993 several dozens of graves were found directly under the paving), united here. The road from the marketplace, located where there is the Old Town Square today, bifurcated here – today’s Karlova Street led to the main Vltava ford, today’s Jilská towards Vyšehrad. During the centuries the square changed its name several times: Fruit Market (fruit used to be sold here), Garland or Hair market (after the manufacturers of ornaments for women, who had their workshops here), At the Bridle Makers or Under Bridle Makers (after the manufacturers of horse bridles). In the 17th century the name Little Market was used and in mid 19th century the square became Little Square. The place was famous for its pharmacies, which during the time spread to almost every other house. The eastern part of the square is lined with an archway; in the middle of the square there is a Renaissance well with a decorated grille. The new Rott’s House (3/142) is the most striking among the buildings. Its facade is decorated with paintings designed by M. Aleš.


The Old Town Square is undoubtedly the most significant place in the Czech lands; it is a cultural and historical centre of the Old Town as well as all of Prague. Today’s relatively regular square with the area of 15,186 sq m was originally a large uneven space by a lively merchant route to the nearby Vltava fords and in a suitable location between two ancient castles – Vyšehrad and the Prague Castle, where the wealthy concentrated and where there was the greatest demand for goods. Since time immemorial it has been one of the most significant marketplaces of the Prague agglomeration with daily, weekly as well as annual markets. In the place of today’s Little Square fruit was sold, at the mouth of Dlouhá Street it was fish, around what later became the Old Town Hall bakers and furriers concentrated, next to today’s church of St. Nicholas sellers of poultry and drapers used to have their shops. Exotic goods were available from foreign merchants in the enclosed courtyard of Týn or Ungelt, which was under the protection of the king himself. As early as in 1211 there is evidence to the existence of a keeper who collected fees and kept an eye on the maintenance of order. During the 13th century continuous lines of houses grew around the square, which more or less determined the current shape of the square. The importance of the square as the centre of the Old Town heightened even further after the foundation of the Old Town Hall in 1338. The square was called Large at first, in the 13th century it is spoken of as Old, in the 14th century the name Old Town Marketplace or simply Market place is recorded and the above mentioned names have been used throughout the history. The official name of the Old Town Square was adopted in 1895. During the centuries the square witnessed many festivities, jousts and meetings, but also bloody executions of which the execution of the 27 leaders of the rebellion of Czech estates in 1621 is the most famous. There also used to be a pillory on the square and from mid 16th century also an iron cage in which immoral people were shut, sometimes naked and smeared with honey so that insect would bite them.

During the centuries the mercantile activity left the Old Town Square and on the turn of the 20th century the last traditional St. Nicholas market also came to an end. At about the same time the whole northern side fell prey to renovation and historical houses were replaced with new buildings of lucrative rental palaces. Among the lost monuments is the magnificent Krocín’s Well built in the Rudolphinian period and dismantled in 1862, and the Marian Column from 1650, pulled down with the formation of the Czechoslovak Republic as an alleged symbol of catholic subjugation. Today the space is thus decorated mainly by the monumental Art Nouveau memorial of John Huss by L. Šaloun. The inconspicuous Prague meridian is also remarkable; for centuries it was used to measure the midday.


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