Černín Palace: an impressive Baroque residence turned foreign policy hub

Černín palace

Just a few minutes’ walk from Prague Castle, the monumental Černín Palace stands out in Hradčany’s Loreto Square. Built in the 17th and 18th centuries as the residence of the Černín aristocratic family, the Baroque palace now houses the Foreign Ministry of the Czech Republic. But the history of the largest of Prague’s Baroque palaces has seen more than politics – it has witnessed ambition, corruption and even a mystery death.

For a tour of the impressive Černín palace, I am joined by Robert Janás, an art historian in the services of the Czech Foreign Ministry’s press department. The antique seat of the ministry now consists of two buildings – the Baroque palace built by the aristocratic family of the Černíns, and a 1930s office building adjacent to it. I asked Robert Janás how an aristocratic family residence became the seat of the Czech Foreign Ministry

“By the time Czechoslovakia was founded in 1918, this Baroque palace no longer belonged to the Černín family. In the 19th century, the Černíns sold it to the army and it was converted into barracks. After 1918, the state bought it from the army and its was decided that it would become the seat of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. But because the palace had been really devastated by the army, it was necessary to renovate it.”

Pavel Janák, a prominent Czech architect of the time, was entrusted with its renovation although there were many vying for this prestigious commission. But Robert Janás says that the choice of architect was a foregone conclusion.

“There was an architectural competition for the reconstruction of the palace but it was quite clear from the very beginning that Pavel Janák would win. Several rounds of the competition were held until Mr Janák came up with suitable renovation plans. Other architects took part in the tender, with Josef Sakař presenting probably the best design, but he was excluded from the competition.”

I suppose that when today the Foreign Ministry hires architects, it's done in a different way.

“Yes. Now it's done in a completely different way.” Despite the manner in which Pavel Janak got the commission, Robert Janás says he did a good job.

“I think it was a good renovation, especially the new building of the ministry. Even Prague’s biggest Baroque Palace was not big enough to house the ministry because it had expanded due to further bureaucratisation. Pavel Janák presented a very good project for a building of the same size as the original palace. It was built in the Purist style but he cleverly built it so that you can’t actually see it from the street. It's hidden behind the palace.”

The new office building designed by architect Janák in the 1920s today houses most of the offices of the Czech Foreign Ministry. The Černín Palace proper now only houses the office of the foreign minister, and several of the ministry's sections, including the press department. The rest of the impressive building is now used for representative purposes, important meetings and negotiations, especially the historic quarters preserved from the times of count Černín.

Here we are on the main staircase of the Černín Palace, I see a fresco above us – is that original from the time of the Černíns?

“Yes, this is one of the few pieces of the original Černín Palace. This is a large fresco depicting Titans Machia – the Clash of the Titans. It was painted by a very important Czech Baroque painter, Václav Vavřinec Rainer, in the first half of the 18th century – nearly one hundred years after the construction of the palace started. You see it took a very long time to complete the building.”

And have one family ruined. Are there more pieces from that time?

“Yes, there is a series of six tapestries depicting the months of the year. They were in the original Černín Palace but they eventually became the property of another important Czech aristocratic family – the Lobkowitzes. After 1918, however, they were bought in an auction and were re-installed in the Foreign Ministry.”

More than 800 employees now work in the palace for the Czech Foreign Ministry. The Černíns must have been thinking big back in the 17th century.

What were the Černíns doing building a place that now houses 800 people. Did they use it as their residence, or what did they do with it?

“It was a matter of prestige. The founder of the palace, count Humprecht Černín was quite an ambitious aristocrat who attempted to make a career at the Habsburg court of Vienna. He was a diplomat, and after successful diplomatic missions, he hoped for a career at the Vienna court. But he was disappointed. So he came back to his native Bohemia and decided to build an impressive palace that would emphasize the importance of his family, to build the biggest palace in Prague. It took a hundred years to build it, and after it was completed, the Černíns were completely out of money so they had to sell it to the army.”

When Nazi Germany occupied Czechoslovakia in the spring of 1939, the country no longer needed its own foreign ministry. The Černín Palace was turned into the office of the German administration for the occupied territory, the Reichsprotektor.

“The Černín Palace became the seat of the Reichsprotektor Office. No archives have survived from that time and so it is not clear if Reinhardt Heydrich himself had his office here but we do know that it was the seat of his subordinates. The office of Karl Hermann Frank, who was some sort of Deputy Reichsprotektor, was also here.”

After the Second World War, foreign minister Jan Masaryk resided in Černín Palace. He did not have a family, and lived in the ministerial apartment on the second floor of the palace which was established by architect Janák during the pre-war renovation. Jan Masaryk remained Czechoslovakia’s foreign minister even after the communist putsch of 1948 but not for long. On the morning of March 10, 1948, two weeks after the takeover, Jan Masaryk was found dead in the courtyard of the palace, under the window of his flat. It has never been established whether he committed suicide or was murdered, and if so, by whom.

Bathroom of Jan Masaryk’s apartment, photo: CTK
We are now standing in the bathroom of Jan Masaryk’s apartment, the place where he was allegedly thrown out of the window by KGB agents. What do you think – who murdered Jan Masaryk?

“It’s difficult to say really. Some theories say it was suicide but I think that it much more probable that he was murdered by the communist police in March 1948, after the communist putsch.”

This is the very window Jan Masaryk was thrown out of, is that correct?

“Yes, this is the window under which Masaryk’s body was found on the morning of March 10, 1948. The bathroom is by the way the only room of the whole minister’s flat which has survived in its original state.”

Once an army barracks, the seat of the brutal Nazi administration, as well as a crime scene, Černín Palace has also seen some genuinely positive events in its long and colourful history.

We are now standing in the great hall of Czernin palace, just outside the minister’s study. What is the hall used for today? I see some signs that read “dissidents and freedom”, so I assume it must be used for conferences?

“This is the place where conferences are held, big meetings of diplomats, and so on. This is the place where the Warsaw Pact was abolished, where the documents on abolishing the Warsaw Pact were signed back in 1991.”