Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Road Taken

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.

When I, somewhere ages and ages hence, am telling this, perhaps I will depart from Robert Frost and say, with a sigh, that although I took the road less traveled by, it made no difference at all. This will, of course, be only partially true—an echo of petulance long since forgotten, a response to tenderness not quite forgotten.

Or, more likely, I will not refer to Frost at all. I will say with a giggle that I liked moving so much that I transplanted myself across the Atlantic not once but twice, and this I did in one fateful month, many years ago...

But today I say things with a sigh, because it is fall in Chicago, and yellow-leaved, damp fall in Chicago invites sentimentality, and wallowing, and a little Robert Frost. And it invites musing—on journeys taken that finished unexpectedly; on places seen that were beautiful; on almost-homes in other-lives that ended abruptly; on cities, begrudgingly loved, that welcomed me back without grudges.

One of the first things I did in Cambridge was to buy a bicycle. 35 pounds or so got me a slightly battered Raleigh bike, purple with a tattered wicker basket. 5 pounds at the local Tesco got me a set of lights, and a little bell whose faint ding!—more an ‘um, excuse me’ than a ‘get out of my way’—betrayed its owner’s thrift. Undeterred by the twigs that had flown off the mouldering basket as I pedalled happily from Madingley Road to the center of town (an unwitting Hansel-and-Gretel trail of damp wood, pointing my way back home), I loaded it up with frozen Indian appetizers and Grown-in-the-UK (complete with a picture of the farmer) apples and lettuce from the local Sainsbury’s.

And cheese. The cheese was just so cheap. Aged cheddar, crumbly and tangy, the kind I saved up for and bought as a treat in Chicago, was cheaper than the crackers I didn’t buy to go with it.

As I biked through town, I wondered that such a place existed. The colleges, centuries old, no two alike, basked in their exclusivity. I could catch glimpses of dusty libraries through lit windows, of immaculate lawns on which no mere mortal (save for those awarded the coveted status of ‘Fellow’) might tread. Tradition, tradition, tradition—keeping things beautiful, keeping things elusive.

Even clogged with punts, the River Cam is beautiful. The colleges line it, privileged and gracious.

The architecture is human-scale. And a second look is richly rewarded with interesting details. I was partial to the heads, like this one...

and this pair...

and the wooly mammoth.

And the Ponte dei Sospiri, a bit of Venice transplanted to rainy England.

During the day, tourist crowds, jostling students, and pushy hitmen for the local punting companies, chipped away at the facades, their H&M bags and straw hats and whispered bargaining giving the whole place a Cambridge-as-Cambridgeland feel. Even the staid University of Cambridge Press bookstore caved in to the visiting hordes, greeting patrons with large tables of “Cambridge in a Day” and “Ye Olde Cambridge” books. Postcards, always in sepia, made the olde seem even older.

But in the evening, it was impossibly beautiful. When the students and the members and the fellows trotted off in orderly fashion to their rooms and their dinners, it became another place entirely. Empty cobblestone streets, locked wrought-iron gates, church bells, cows grazing unflappably in the commons, ducks paddling in the now peaceful Cam. For the outsider, the not-quite-graduated University of Chicago student, a world away from the sirens and potholes of Hyde Park.

Signs of the Darwin year were everywhere, but understated. An exhibit of “Darwin-inspired art” at the Fitzwilliam, conferences if one looked carefully, a window of Darwinia in the Cambridge UP bookstore.. Signing up for my Cambridge Library Card, I looked idly at the display cases just outside the library office and found Darwin sketchbooks, caricatures of Darwin, correspondence between Darwin and his father.

The number of pubs in a town so small was astonishing. There were the chains, of course, which were lovely, but occasionally lacking in character. The Mitre—reliable, sometimes full of undergrads, promising Pub Trivia when the semester started. But the real jewels were hidden, The Pickerel, for instance, going for several hundred years, with its crooked ceilings and dark wood.

Thus inspired, we printed off a map of Cambridge pubs, intending to make our way through the list, and record our impressions in a blog—an other-blog, for the other-life.

Chicago is not human-scale. Each year it seeks new ways to wiggle its way into the lists of the world’s tallest buildings. Having lost the Olympic bid, though, it settles back into its old, sometimes shabby self. Potholes remain unfilled, life goes on as before. The sidewalks buckle from tree roots.

Cobblestone is restricted to the neo-Cambridge world of the University of Chicago, where professors are addressed by their first names. Nobody wears gowns here. Nobody cares if you walk on the lawns. Few traditions, but few pretenses. A little beauty lost, a little humility gained.

And so back to sentimentality and nostalgia:

Of the two roads I saw, one was the more uncertain. I took it---with hope---and it made no difference.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Springtime in Prague

Prague in spring sparkles -- it is a very different place from wintertime Prague, which is all fog-draped hills and damp cobblestone. The hills are now green, over-run with local dogs who sniff stinky things in the long grass, blithely ignoring the feeble cries of their aged owners. The cobblestone can scarcely be seen beneath the feet of tourists tramping doggedly through the streets and alleys following the umbrellas of their tour guides, hands clasping their souvenirs of open can of Staropramen (you can't do that in America!), "genuine Bohemian Crystal," perhaps a plastic Golem?

Blossoms are everywhere, and at lunchtime the parks that are hidden to all but the most intrepid tourists -- the park in the old Carmelite cloister in Mala Strana, for example, or the garden you can just barely see through the gate here, also in the Mala Strana -- fill up with locals...old ladies sit on benches grumbling, young couples flirt on the grass, solitary types pull out their sandwiches and the morning paper.

Despite the tourist crowds, it is easy enough to turn a corner and find yourself completely alone, as I did here in Mala Strana...

Sometimes even Kampa, the little (former) island just below Charles Bridge, that's with restaurants and bookshops, empties out.

Not for the faint of heart is Charles Bridge itself. There are several bridges across the river, but this is the oldest and is pedestrian-only. A bridge has been located on this spot for hundreds of years -- before the Charles Bridge, there was a bridge called the Judith Bridge located here. The statues are all from the 17th and 18th centuries, but there was a lone cross there at various points from the 14th century on. The repeated destruction and restoration of this cross, which was incorporated into a crucifixion scene in the Baroque period, indicates the bridge's role in various conflicts in the city's history --- the Hussite Wars, the invasion of the city by the Catholic troops of the Archbishop of Passau in 1611, and again in the 1640s by the Protestant armies of Christina of Sweden.

Today, traversing the Charles Bridge is a serious undertaking: it's packed with tourists, souvenir sellers, buskers, and pickpockets, and at least one part of it is always under scaffolding due to restoration work. The statue of St John Nepomuk, who was one of the most popular local saints, continues to be popular today. Poor Nepomuk, the queen of Bohemia's confessor in the very distant and murky past, met his end in the Vltava/Moldau, thrown in after he refused to divulge what the queen had told him in confession. People today touch his statue for good luck, and their ardour has left its mark in the shiny spots on his statue....

I have my own favourites, though. As someone who seems to always be on the move, despite being at heart a sometimes unadventurous homebody, I always give St Christopher, patron saint of travelers, a nod when I pass him on the bridge. There's something comforting about images of mighty St Christopher helping the tiny child across the river.

He always gets me thinking, though, of Schumann's settings of Heine in Dichterliebe, in particular the last song.... when the Dichter, the poet, having been disappointed in love, searches bitterly for a very large coffin --- a coffin so big that it can only be carried by giants, "die muessen noch starker sein wie der starke Christoph im Dom zu Koln am Rhein" -- the coffin will be so heavy, that he needs not one but 12 giants, and they have to be stronger even than the mighty St Christopher in Cologne Cathedral. The coffin isn't, of course, for himself, but for "die alte, boesen, Lieder" - the old, evil songs, the love songs he sang to his beloved...

I'd like to think Prague's Christopher stands watch over a rather happier group of travelers...

Friday, October 31, 2008

Doorways, Alleys, Windows...

When I think of "doorways, alleys, windows" in Chicago (or Vancouver, or New York), the kinds of things that pop into my head aren't usually beautiful. Doorways, alleys, and windows in these cities are to my mind usually interesting, sometimes dirty, occasionally upsetting. The most fascinating doors, alleys, and windows seem to hint at the seamy netherworld lurking behind or among glitzy exteriors and expensive storefronts. In Vancouver's downtown area, grotesque wealth and grotesque poverty go head-to-head daily, with dolled-up suburbanite pre-teens and beaten-down panhandlers carving out bits of the same space on Granville Street. Doorways in Chicago have double-doors, windows are barred or boarded up, alleys are to be avoided.

Prague, of course, has its very own seedy side, which I will write about at some point, but the city centre (the Old Town, New Town, Lesser Side and Castle Hill) is pristine, (uncomfortably?) sanitized --- and absolutely, breathtakingly beautiful. It is all polished up for the tourist crowds, and the only locals who hang out there seem to be those of 1) the well-heeled variety, or 2) the variety that is becoming well-heeled through the sale of any number of knick-knacks and must-have souvenirs (boomerangs emblazoned with "Praha," "My dad went to Prague and all I got was this lousy T-Shirt" t shirts, Jaromir Jagr hockey jerseys for the Canadians...). One sees the occasional person begging, but they all mysteriously disappear when the police come through. Garbage is non-existent, save for the occasional Starbucks Venti-size paper cup with plastic lid resting on a window ledge or perched precariously in a saint's hand on Charles Bridge.

The absence of anything but the tidy and photogenic --- and the Caucasian --- is somewhat disconcerting, especially in a region which is known for its problematic relationship underprivileged minorities such as the Roma. But, that is a topic for another post.

The absence of anything but the tidy and photogenic, disconcerting though it may be, makes for magical views --- down alleys, through doorways, through windows. If Vancouver's alleys offer a reminder of present-day challenges, Prague's give us a glimpse into a beautiful past. Of course, this past probably never existed. I have been reading descriptions of 17th-century Prague, for instance, and they refer to one church by the riverbank as St John by the rubbish heap. Travelers from England and Germany would often comment on the stench of Prague; one writer said it was no wonder the Turks didn't attack Prague -- they didn't want it, because it stunk so bad.

Anyway, this post is actually about some of the windows, alleys, and doorways that make Old Prague so beautiful today.

This is what the Emperor would see from Wladislaw Hall in Prague Castle...The view has changed gradually over the centuries, but not appreciably since the 19th century. Oh, except now there are cars. And trams. And a subway that careens away under the city.

This is what a guard, shivering in the cold on Castle Hill somewhere outside Wladislaw Hall (while the Emperor was all toasty inside), would see.

This is what Mozart, tickled by the affection Prague's inhabitants had for Don Giovanni, saw when he walked out of the front door of his apartment building and turned right.

This is the first thing you see when you enter the Old Town - the Jesuit Church of the Holy Saviour (S Salvator).

Also in the Old Town, this is an alley next to the Church of Mary Tyn - the centre of the Hussite religion until its supression in the 17th century.

Sometimes, there are stairways that just seem to lead to nowhere.

Sometimes, advertising gets the better of even the loveliest of doorways, such as this one, leading into a Franciscan monastery in the New Town.

And, my personal favourite, one of the more monumental of the many monumental sculptures lining Charles Bridge. I'm not quite sure which saint this sculpture honours, but the scene down below is fantastic. On the left, there's a well-fed Exotic Other (probably Turkish, perhaps Persian), leaning comfortably on a prison-like edifice (barred windows, Prague-style, I suppose). On the right-hand side there's a very curious dog peering in at the tormented sinners inside. I suppose both the dog and the Turk/Persian were originally supposed to be symbols of ferocious things guarding the prison, but the sculptor seems to have carved them with affection. They seem much more appealing than the saints, who seem to be an awfully pious lot. Wait, shouldn't the Turk as an Evil Heathen be inside the prison as well? I'm confused.

I'm beginning to think the sculptor had a Cocomutt...

Monday, October 20, 2008

I'd like to speak to a Lobkowicz, please...

I finally found Rudolf's art collection over the weekend. On Saturday, I realized that the building on Hradcanske Namesti (Castle Square) that I'd been admiring for the trompe l'oeil work on its facade was in fact yet another branch of the Narodni Galerie (National Gallery). And, of course, it's the one that houses the Mannerist and Baroque painting. So, I felt like a bit of an idiot, having visited every *other* branch of the National Gallery before actually finding the one I'd wanted to go to in the first place.

The National Gallery and, indeed, the city of Prague, play up the Rudolfine art aspect in the advertising. This raises interesting questions about how the "outsider" Habsburgs, villains in the national imagination for so long, are viewed in 21st-century Czech lands. I'll muse on those questions in another posting, though. Rudolf II (reigned ca. 1576-1612) was once ridiculed as the most incompetent ruler of his day. He had a penchant for natural philosophy (in his case, this involved a heady mixture of alchemy, astronomy , and astrology) and for collecting painters and paintings, wonders and curiosities, and for (horror of horrors), being a painter himself -- all at the expense of his governmental duties (or so the story goes). Lately, though, his legacy has become a big thing in Prague. There was a revival in interest in his artistic tastes during the 1980s, a revival that seems to have been triggered by one book in particular: The School of Prague, by Princeton art historian Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann. A major conference, Rudolf II and Prague, held in the late '90s, completed the recasting of his image from latter-day Nero to reincarnation of that other national hero for Bohemians, Charles IV (he of Charles Bridge fame).

So, with all the hype, I was a little disappointed in the contents of this "Rudolfine" section of the National Gallery. There was a great selection of later 17th-century paintings by the painter Karel Skreta, but there were but a few "Rudolfine paintings" -- works by people like Bartholomaus Spranger, Hans von Aachen, Arcimboldo, and Josef Heintz the Elder. I had a feeling this would be the case; as I've mentioned ad nauseam, a great deal of it is in Sweden. Rudolf's nephew, Leopold Wilhelm, also a great collector, took what remained with him, and it subsequently went with a lot of Habsburg collections to the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.

What remains in Prague seems to be the odd altarpiece and portrait that was hidden in private collections or in churches, or that didn't appeal to subsequent generations of art-lovers (or looters). The highlight was undoubtedly Spranger's Epitaph of the Goldsmith Wilhelm Muller, a piece he painted for his father-in-law. You can see it here:

It's much larger than I expected -- the Triumph of Wisdom, a kind of secular companion-piece to the Epitaph that lives in Vienna, is smaller, if memory serves me right.

Lazy as I am, I always take the streetcar uphill to Prague castle, and enjoy the walk down-hill afterwards. There are several paths down, and I haven't yet taken all of them. The one path I find myself taking over and over is essentially a set of stairs heading straight down the hill to the Wallenstein Garden, which I mentioned in previous posts. This path is particularly nice because it looks down upon an idyllic patch of green in the middle of the city. I think this is where all the various gardens of all the various former estates meet up, and for whatever reason, the areas remained as a garden. You can see a few vineyards on the hill, and then just green...

I resumed my trek downhill and spent the afternoon wandering through Mala Strana (the Lesser Quarter, or Kleinseite). This is the neighbourhood right at the foot of Castle Hill, and it's crammed full of churches and palaces. This was where the courtiers lived, so historically it was largely German and Italian, with the odd Spaniard wandering around (in the 16th century at least). I turned a corner into a small courtyard and this building, with its lovely sgraffito facade, caught my eye.

Turning around, I saw a beautiful crucifix. It turns out I'd stumbled across the house where Aegidius Sadeler, one of Europe's most famous engravers ca. 1580-1620, had lived when he was employed by Rudolf II.

On Sunday morning, I broke with habit, running uphill to the Castle, in order to dodge a streetcar inspector. I'm pretty sure I paid enough (26 koruny, about 1.50) for the metro-tram combination, but I wasn't entirely sure -- the payment scale isn't exactly clear. In Prague, as in Vienna and elsewhere, public transport payment operates under an honour system, bolstered by the activities of some truly fearsome inspectors who randomly hop on streetcars or wait for you menacingly at the top of the subway escalators. In any case, on Sunday, I heard the inspector making her way from the back of the streetcar to the middle, where I was. I wasn't sure if I was supposed to have an extra ticket for the streetcar, or whether my metro ticket (valid for 75 minutes) was also valid on the streetcar. My hands got sweaty when I heard her giving a very hard time to three tourist girls behind me (who had purchased tickets the day before, and never validated them, or something similarly unforgivable). Just as she finished up with them, the streetcar pulled up to a stop and I, trying to look casual, stepped off. Luckily, she did not follow, and I breathed a sigh of relief as the streetcar pulled away.

I ran up the hill to Mass at St Vitus Cathedral, having seen advertised a performance of a Renaissance mass, and not wanting to be late. When I arrived, I realized that the poster must have referred to the previous Sunday, because it was just a regular old organ+not-too-spectacular soloist combination. There was, however, lots of incense and bell-ringing. After the Credo, I thought I'd leave -- it was largely in Czech and I saw a few other people heading for the doors. Leaving wasn't as easy as I'd hoped, though... the doors were all locked! I realize this must be to keep out the masses of noisy tourists who traipse blithely through the cathedral at all other times of the week, ignoring the sign that instructs "SILENTIUM," and all but clambering over the wrought iron railings to photograph tombstones and altarpieces. In any case, if they were locked out, that meant we were locked in. I shivered back to my pew (it was cold!) and settled in for the long haul.

On the way back towards my usual pathway, I passed the Lobkowicz Palace. The name is familiar, of course. Any self-respecting classical music historian knows of the Lobkowicz family and their palace in Vienna the 18th century. There, they maintained an orchestra which they "lent" to Beethoven for his fourth and fifth symphonies. One of the Lobkovice even started a kind of stipend for Beethoven, to ensure he could keep composing what he liked without having to bother with a church job or something potentially constricting.

Upon entering, I found that they've opened up a museum there, one dedicated to the Lobkowicz family history. Turns out they still exist! They had a turbulent 20th-century -- apparently they were one of the richest families in central Europe when the Austro-Hungarian Empire fell in 1918. Like most residents of the region, they did fine in the fledgling Czechoslovak state. When the Nazis established the protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, though, they seized the Lobkowicz properties --- numbering some 100 castles, and innumerable paintings. In 1945, the family got the properties back, only to lose them again in 1948 when the Communists took over. They emigrated to America with very little (although, I suppose, very little for a Lobkowicz is probably a lot for anyone else). Their art collections languished and their palaces deteriorated. The Communists were simply in no position to maintain these vast properties or to conserve the artwork.

After the Velvet Revolution in 1989, the Lobkowicz family, now living in Boston, started a 12-year legal effort to reclaim some of their property. They eventually got a large part of it back, including the Lobkowicz Palace in Prague. Part of it was not returned, and part of it they returned to the state because its condition, or the condition of the surrounding area, was just too bad for them to be able to renovate on their own.

After the anti-climax of the National Gallery's Mannerist collection, the Lobkowicz proved to be an unexpected high point. The paintings were incredible -- many from the period I'm studying, as well -- and included a Velasquez, a Cranach, and countless other gems. The portraits of the family, going all the way back to the early 16th century, lined room after room, and were fascinating. AND, they were by some of the Rudolfine painters that I'd been looking for. Many of these paintings have rarely been reproduced, if at all, as they weren't given much exposure under the Communists. I was very surprised (and delighted) to see Pieter Brueghel's Haymakers (pictured here) on display...

One thing I loved - I wish they'd had a postcard at least for me to pick up on the way out -- was the "Dog Room." The Lobkowicze have been dog lovers since the 16th century, and have commissioned actual portraits of their beloved beasties over the centuries. Those paintings were actually my favourites in the museum... There was also an 18th-century "Bird Room," filled with odd little pictures, artfully done, of birds in watercolour and with actual bird-feathers pasted on for the plumage.

Then, as if things couldn't get better, they had a "Family Music Room." In that one little room, there were the original performing parts for Beethoven's 4th and 5th symphonies, and the Op. 18 quartets. There was also the performing score for Mozart's re-orchestrated version of Handel's Messiah, complete with Mozart's corrections. Interesting for my own work were several bound books of lute music from the 16th-century, with bindings that match a set of bindings that I'm trying to learn more about... I read that they have just opened up their family library to scholars. It's about 25 km north of Prague, and contains the rest of their sizeable music collection -- not catalogued anywhere except in the library itself, though. I'm hoping to hop on a train out there sometime before I go back home. It may prove to be a goldmine. Which is why I'd like to speak to a Lobkowicz, please...

It is proving rather hard to get in touch with the administration of the library, though. Modern-day Lobkowiczes, it seems, have capitalized on the "destination wedding" market, and so their website (yes, they have a website: is dedicated primarily to advertising the rent-ability of their palaces for weddings. To a lesser degree, they seem interested in promoting their beer. Their specialty is the "Baron" brew. Well, it's not Beethoven, I guess, but it's beer... How times have changed!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Looking at Old Books, Part I

A word of warning: this post will tell you more than you ever wanted to know about looking at Old Books. Old Books and their mysteries are on my mind today, as I spent the first half of the day at the Strahov Monastery, and the second half in the reading room of the National Library at the former Jesuit College, the Clementinum.

This post comes in two parts. The first part is unapologetically rambling; it's my stream-of-consciousness musings on the exciting world of Prague music-printing and that sort of thing. I must note that I do (also unapologetically) fetishize text, or rather, the books that texts come in. The second part, TBA, will be a walk-through of what you might want to do when YOU look at your (first?) Old Book.

At the Monastery today, I looked at a bunch of Graduals --- these are large manuscript books containing all the music (just texted music, no plain old texts) for Masses throughout the year. The music is plainsong (also known as "Gregorian" chant), and for my purposes the main interest in these manuscripts lies in their potential to provide context for the multi-voice (polyphonic) music I'm interested in. So, today I looked at Graduals commissioned for use at Strahov between about 1580 and 1615 (the topic of my dissertation is Catholic music in Prague 1580-1612).

While Graduals are interesting, I want to write a bit about the kinds of books I was looking at at the Clementinum: sacred printed music that appeared in Prague around this time. Printed music fascinates me because it can tell an interesting story of its creation, marketing, and use. I'm particarly interested in marketing and what that might tell us about the composer's and printer's assumptions about the intended audience. This intended audience may be localized (i.e. just the Emperor and noblemen at his court, or it may be very broad (i.e. all of Christendom! Or at any rate that part of Christendom that has at its service choirs capable of singing 8-part polyphony...).

A bit about Prague's place (or lack thereof) in music historiography of this period...

Around 1600, the music-printing centres that had been around for a while were Paris, Strasbourg, Nuremberg, Antwerp, and, above all, Venice. Prague isn't usually considered to have been all that active. It's been grossly underestimated, I think, because the composers who chose to work there or have their music printed there didn't have the benefit of large personality cults after they died. Philippe de Monte (of which more later), for instance, is not a name that rolls off anyone's tongue, yet for a time his fame, and that of his colleague Jacobus Gallus, came close to that of contemporaries like Palestrina in Rome and Lassus in Munich.

I think that as inheritors of twentieth-century history we regard Prague as a relatively isolated place in "eastern" Europe. Never mind that it's actually farther west than Vienna... To get an idea of its place in 16th-century Europe you have to really zealously try and dig out a map of 16th-century central Europe. This I do not recommend. Most maps will look like ugly jig-saw puzzles, and will insist on labeling every little principality and duchy in the Holy Roman Empire. Skip it. Just picture Prague as a centre, and imagine a big circle around it. That'll give you an idea of its sphere of the top part of the circle, you'd have Saxony and Brandenburg, and in the bottom half, Vienna, the Tyrol, and what's now Slovenia (It was then known as Carniola, with the capital, Ljubljana also know as Laibach).

Prague was at the time capital of the largest existing contiguous Empire (in Europe, certainly, and possibly in the world, although I'm talking out of my hat here). So, it was at the heart of an agglomeration of states with a lot of people, more specifically a lot of Christians, and more specific yet, a lot of Christians who went to churches that wanted polyphonic music. Prague, in the middle of the Kingdom of Bohemia, was smack-dab in the middle of all this. A composer could do a lot worse than print music there: he had markets within relatively easy reach at Leipzig, Dresden, Breslau, Vienna, Strasbourg, Speyer, the list goes on.

Music historiography of this period is Italo-philic (not that I blame anyone for being Italo-philic), and occasionally it seems that if a print wasn't printed in Italy, or purchased in Italy, or sung in Italy, it wasn't really significant. This is where intended audience comes in. Why should Joe Bloe Composer, born and raised north of the Alps, living and working in Prague, want to print in Italy? And would he be able to even if he wanted?

Anyway, having without any subtlety made the point that this stuff's not studied, let's get back to actual Old Books printed and copied in Prague. Why is it so interesting to look at the original versions, rather than rely on modern transcriptions, or microfilms?

Well, my main interest is usage. I feel that focusing on usage humanizes these objects. Unlike paintings, in which human creativity is (almost) always palpable, notated music has a way of appearing lifeless. If it is not sung, it is nothing but text on a page. Paintings also give you an immediate window, however murky, into the culture that produced them. It is hard to fully grasp this when looking at a modern transcription of music, or even just hearing a recording.

When you hold an old book, though, leafing through its pages, feeling the bumps on the binding, seeing the places where it's stained and where someone has doodled in the margins, seeing the markings of the clasp that used to hold it together but is broken after 500 years of use...

...when you sneeze from 500 years worth of dust wafting up and gently tickling your sinuses every time you turn the page...then, and only then do you begin to sense what that music in that book meant to the people who sang it...

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

In search of...

Today was a bit of a patchwork day: the monastery reading room was closed, as was the music reading room (studovna) of the National Library (Narodni Knihovna), so I was forced to fill my day with activities besides looking at old books.

I decided I'd go on a quest for what remains of Rudolf II's art collection (the bulk is, you guessed it, in Sweden). Rudolf II was one of the most prolific collectors of his time, and probably of any time. He collected paintings, sculptures, engravings, as well as painters, sculptors and engravers. I'd seen a few pieces in the Prague Castle Collections, and I knew that the National Gallery was where I'd find most of them. But...

...I never actually found them. It turns out the National Gallery is actually spread among 4 (or 5, or 6, or 7, or 8) palaces around the city. It's not entirely clear (even to the staff) how many different outposts there are, and what each one holds. I'm not complaining at all! It just meant that I didn't get to see any of the paintings I was looking for. I did, however, see many many many other paintings, and I feel a bit overwhelmed by it all.

I started out at the Sternberg (Sternbergsky) Palace, which is an 18th-century edifice up on Castle Hill. Things looked promising: the sign said Old Masters, so I paid my 80 koruny (about 5 dollars) and wandered in. I saw an (early) Rembrandt of a scholar in his study, some astonishing 15th-century altarpieces, too many paintings by Rubens, and a bunch of Pieter Brueghel II. The tourist buses apparently stick to Prague Castle, so I had the place to myself, save for the occasional walk-through by a yawning security guard.

The Austrian/German old masters were across the courtyard, and that part of the palace was even more deserted. When I walked in, the two security guards were chatting animatedly. I wandered into a room to my left, noticing that as I did so the security guards snapped to attention. I didn't think anything of it, and settled in admiring some small-scale religious paintings. Then I turned around and saw....

...Durer's Rosenkranz Madonna. No wonder the security guards were alert! Durer painted it for a brotherhood of German merchants in Venice ca. 1500, and Rudolf II had it hand-carried (!) over the Alps for his collection about 100 years later. (He also had his own court painters make copies of Durer paintings he couldn't acquire). Sometime after he died, the painting was severely damaged down the middle and was not taken to Sweden in 1648 (because it was damaged??). My dad tells me that he read that the Madonna painting spent time nailed to a roof in Prague somewhere, which certainly can't have helped matters. In any case, the damage is visible, but the painting is still spectacular. All those people who skip visiting the gallery are missing out...

So, I still had not found my Rudolfine art. The woman at the ticket desk said to check out the branch of the gallery at St George's Convent, within Prague Castle. So, I paid another 80 koruny and found myself in an exhibit of 19th-century Bohemian art. Um. It was all quite interesting. A lot of domestic scenes, landscapes, portraits. An interesting window into 19th-c Bohemia.

I found this painting interesting: it's by a Prague painter and depicts a scene from the Ring of the Nibelung. It was painted right around the time Wagnermania was sweeping Europe in the 1870s-80s.

Then, I found this lovely set of miniatures depicting all the Kings of Bohemia, going all the way back to the mythical "Krok," the first king of all. It was painted by a 19th-century Prague painter for his own private enjoyment (he kept it all his life), and is based on a set of paintings (now lost) in Prague castle from the Renaissance. He continued it all the way into his time. So, he painted the famous Libuse, the Presmyslid dynasty, and of course the Habsburgs. There's my man, Rudolf, at the upper left of this picture. Sorry for the poor quality!

Back outside the Castle, in Hradschin Square (Hradcansky Namesti), I saw a fascinating Renaissance palace. It looks like it's straight from Italy, and the stones look like they're carved into little pyramids. See?

On closer inspection, I realized it was all clever trickery --- trompe l'oeil. Kind of humorous, in a way.

All of this took some time, and I still had to go to the National Library to see if I could get a reader's card, so I headed down the hill to the Old Town. The National Library is located within the former Jesuit College, the Clementinum. You can see from this photo:

that the Jesuits picked their location strategically: their church of St Salvator is the first thing you see when you enter the Old Town from Charles Bridge. The Old Town was mostly Hussite and Czech, so the Jesuits were laying down the gauntlet when they set up shop there in the late 16th century.

Getting a library card was no problem, and I managed to get one even with my incoherent Czech. It cost me about 6 dollars for a year. I must add that the National Library provides a great example of how a library can democratize its treasures -- they have a massive digitalization project for all their rare holdings, and have partnered with several important institutions in Germany as well (i.e. University of Heidelberg). Institutions anywhere can subscribe to this website ( and all their students can access high-quality images of manuscripts and early printed books.

I had one more quest: I needed to find the Italian Chapel (Wallsche /Vlasske Kaple). This was the first Baroque building in Prague, built from 1590-1600 by the large Italian community that lived in the area immediately around the Clementinum. The Italians were Catholic, and were the architects and stonemasons that designed and built Renaissance and Baroque Prague. They founded their own Marian confraternity under the protection of the Jesuits --- and here's why I'm interested --- they sponsored and sang polyphonic music in their new chapel and in processions through the streets on important feast days.

It took me a while to find it - the Clementinum was built up around it in the 17th century. It was a bit of a disappointment, as it was closed and in a state of some disrepair. Still, I look forward to seeing its interior at some point....

I needed a quiet place to sit down, so I wandered through Old Town Square to the Church of Mary Tyn.The church gets its name from the Tyn (Umgeld) courtyard just behind it. It was the main church for the Hussites, and had a big golden chalice on the front. The chalice symbolized the Hussite desire to partake jointly in both body and blood of Christ. When the Jesuits got hold of the church (forcibly!) after about 1620, they melted the chalice down and replaced it with a golden Virgin Mary, which you can still see today.

I love the spires on Mary Tyn. I haven't seen anything like them anywhere else.

Inside, I found the grave of Tycho Brahe, mathematician and colleague of Kepler's at Rudolf's court. Brahe was a Lutheran, so I'm a bit puzzled as to why he chose to be buried in the Hussite church when he died (ca. 1600). Then again, I don't think the Lutherans had a church in Prague until around 1600, so maybe he thought it was the next best thing... I wish I knew more about what exactly Brahe did, but I don't. I know he completed the Tabula Rudolphina, astronomical tables for his patron, good old Rudolph...and also that he still believed that the planets travelled in circular orbits. (Kepler corrected him on that, only by then Brahe was dead).
I will have to ask a physicist about Brahe. Helloooo? Anyone? Yoohoo?