Kroměříž: a palace of bishops and filmmakers

Zámek v Kroměříži, foto: Vít Pohanka

There is a palace in Moravia like none other. You will find it in Kroměříž, not far from the banks of the Morava River. What used to be a summer representative residence of the bishops and archbishops of nearby Olomouc, later became a popular film location. Inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage list, Kroměříž is a „must see" for all travellers to Eastern Czechia.

Kroměříž chateau, photo: Vít Pohanka
Maybe you've seen the movie: It is the late 18th century; a darkened palace in Vienna on a cold winter evening. We can hear an elderly man, composer Salieri, calling the name of his rival Mozart, confessing to killing him. Then there are strange ominous sounds from the composer's locked chamber.

As two servants break in, using force, they find a bleeding Salieri who evidently tried to cut his own throat. They rush the moaning old man along the snow-covered Vienna streets, on a stretcher. The camera cuts dramatically between the hapless Salieri and the bright luxurious ballrooms where people are merrily dancing to the music of his rival Mozart.

In 1984, Forman’s Amadeus became one of the most decorated films of all times. It got many awards including 8 Oscars, among them one for the Best Art Direction. In other words, the American Academy of Motion Picture Art and Sciences praised specifically the overall aesthetics of the film, the design of the sets that so convincingly correspond to the music of a genius.

What comes as a surprise to many people is that anyone can experience that exquisite beauty of late Baroque in the small town of Kroměříž in Central Moravia. For some of the most memorable scenes of Amadeus were not shot in Vienna, as one might assume, but right here in the Archbishop's Palace.

Before I enter the building with its castellan and historian Martin Krčma, I want to clear up one slightly confusing matter. It is a „palace", but the official leaflets describe it as a „chateau" and when UNESCO included it in its World Heritage List it was entered as a “castle”. So, which is it? Martin Krčma explains.

“In our terminology, it is a chateau. Nevertheless, in its function and in the sense of the word as understood in a European context, it is a representative palace.”

Kroměříž has always been just a summer residence. So why did the bishops of Olomouc decide to invest so much money, time and effort to build this opulent building and fill it with treasures of European art, here in what is to this day a bit of a rustic backwater? Martin Krčma again.

“We have to understand that Olomouc, where the bishops and later archbishops had their administration center, was simultaneously a royal city and fortress. That meant that there were limited possibilities to develop a truly representative and spectacular residence. Kroměříž, where they had a much humbler residence long before they built this Baroque palace, made that possible. After all, it is not that far from Olomouc. So, for a summer residence, Kroměříž was the obvious choice.”

As often happens in the course of history, it was the devastation of war that made building something new and magnificent possible. But, as also happens, almost without exception, a unique, enlightened personality with a vision was needed, to bring it about. In case of Kroměříž, it was an Austrian nobleman who was appointed Bishop of Olomouc in the 17th century. Martin Krčma tells me how it came about.

“Karl II von Liechtenstein-Kastelkorn inherited his diocese after the Thirty-Years' War in a very poor condition. He had the opportunity to revive both its spiritual and economic life and he decided to rebuild Kroměříž palace so that it would represent the cultural and economic richness of the region. He had an excellent education himself and managed to put together a group of top architects and engineers. Together with them, he built this palace in about twenty years.”

We walk across the main courtyard into the corridors of this magnificent palace, and Martin Krčma acts as my guide.

“This is the Hunting Hall. We have, in fact, entered directly into the representative halls and are tracing the steps of the most important visitors who came for an audience with the archbishop. They would be personalities from noble families or high church dignitaries. But there were even more distinguished visitors. Right here in the Hunting Hall, we have a reminder of the most important meeting that took place here. This was when the Russian Tsar Alexander III met with the Austrian Emperor Franz-Joseph I.”

The main reason for the meeting between Alexander III and Franz-Josef I was the volatile situation in the Balkans were both powers had strategic interests. Even back in 1885, it threatened to cause a major war between the two powers. But here in Kroměříž, the monarchs wanted to demonstrate goodwill and the only bullets that flew were those when they hunted together. Martin Krčma again.

Kroměříž chateau - park, photo: Vít Pohanka
“The two statesmen shot 6 stags. These are the trophies – each of them with a little silver plaque with the name of the hunter. And then we can see a billiard table, that was a present from Tsar Alexander to Cardinal Fürstenberg who hosted them. Both emperors were really satisfied with their stay here in Kroměříž. It was a special meeting: they came with their families and stayed for three days. So, they all met, attended a theatre play together, and the emperors hunted together. The atmosphere was very friendly, and they probably wanted to demonstrate that to the outside world.“

They did and it would take nearly thirty more years before the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Bosnian Sarajevo triggered a regional conflict that would immediately explode into a global conflagration.

Martin Krčma leads me into the Throne Hall, richly decorated and full of valuable works of art. It was here that bishops and archbishops would hold audiences when they wanted to impress their visitors:

“We are now surrounded by 99 paintings in one of the most representative parts of Kroměříž Chateau. There are two paintings missing here and they are considered to be the most significant of the whole gallery. The first is Titian's Flaying of Marsyas and right opposite the throne, there used to be David Contemplating the Head of Goliath by Artemisia Gentileschi. It was symbolic. Imagine the ceremonial meetings taking place here under these paintings with biblical and mythological significance. David with the Head of Goliath symbolized the victory of good over evil in the Judaic Christian tradition. The Flaying of Marsyas represented the punishment of pride or victory of wisdom over pride. These two paintings are not now here in the Throne Hall, but visitors can still admire them in the gallery on the next floor where we concentrated 100 of the most significant works from our collections.”

Finally, we make our way into what is the probably most famous hall of all. Martin Krčma explains.

“Movie fans all over the world are familiar with our Parliament Hall, often without even realizing it. It is a very popular film location. It was here that Miloš Forman shot some of the most spectacular scenes of his Oscar-winning Amadeus. And scenes from many other movies were shot in this hall. Most recently it was the Oscar-nominated Danish film A Royal Affair.”

But the name Parliament Hall indicates that it was also the setting for real historical events, not just film scenes. It was right here that the first democratically elected Austrian Parliament met in the revolutionary year of 1848. More than 400 deputies came to Kroměříž from all corners of the old empire. Martin Krčma again.

“They originally met in Vienna. But after the revolution and uprising in October 1848 took the city by storm, Emperor Ferdinand and his court moved to Olomouc. The parliament came here to Kroměříž so that they could stay in close touch – it was close to the Imperial Court. Another reason was that the size of this palace made it possible to house such a large number of men at short notice.”

Kroměříž, photo: Vít Pohanka
“The hall is richly decorated in the style of Viennese Rococo (or late Baroque). It was rebuilt after a devastating fire in the second half of the 18th century. It ranks among the largest halls of this type in Central Europe. What makes it unique are the ceiling paintings – they are not frescoes but huge canvases fastened to the ceiling. They celebrate the builder of this Hall, Bishop Hamilton. He was really instrumental in rebuilding this Baroque palace after the great fire that I mentioned, and we can see him in the front painting.”

Bishop Maximillian Hamilton, as his surname suggests, came from an old Scottish Catholic family. His ancestors fled during the Glorious Revolution and settled in Bavaria. He studied to be a priest, rose in the church ranks and was finally appointed Bishop of Olomouc. Like his predecessor Karl von Lichtenstein-Kastelkorn one century earlier, he left an indelible mark on Kroměříž and the Parliament Hall is just a small part of his legacy. Martin Krčma leads me to another.

“The Chateau Garden is the most visited part of our complex. Entrance is for free and it is open all year around. We estimate that it is visited by about half a million visitors yearly, though we do not know for sure because it is a freely accessible area. The second most visited is actually the Flower Garden located a little distance away. The chateau, itself comes only third, all its art treasures notwithstanding. So, it is really the magnificent gardens that draw visitors to Kroměříž.”

“The chateau originally had a 20-acre garden. It underwent significant changes depending on the prevailing trends of different periods. What we can see today, is basically an English Park of the second half of the 19th century. It is one of the best-preserved examples of this style. That was, in fact, one of the main reasons why the chateau and its gardens were recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.”

Be it as it may, Kroměříž Chateau itself is a wonderful place full of beautiful paintings, furniture, and interior design. Trust me, you don't have to be an art connoisseur to appreciate its unique beauty or special atmosphere that bespeaks of the historical events that took place within its walls.