Kutná Hora's Italian Courtyard and silver-mining history

St Barbora's cathedral, photo: CzechTourism

Without question the town of Kutná Hora in central Bohemia is a must-see destination for anyone visiting the Czech Republic, a town with a long and fascinating history. In the 13th and 14th centuries the site became increasingly famous for silver deposits which drew miners and production that would eventually account for as much as a third of all the silver production in Europe.

Vlastimil Pospíšil is a local guide:

"The history of Kutná Hora is very much connected with silver mining. Already at the end of the 13th century the first rich German miners came to the area and founded the first miners' village. They uncovered a lot of silver here early on, sparking a 'silver rush'. "

Kutná Hora,  photo: CzechTourism
The prospect of wealth, early on, saw Kutná Hora grow rapidly, swelling into a mine settlement sprawling with new neighbourhoods. Eventually, Kutná Hora gelled into a single community, becoming the second most important town in the kingdom of Bohemia.

"It's possible to say that at the beginning of the 14th century was the second richest and second most important town besides Prague, with a population of around 60,000 inhabitants. There was mix of many different nationalities. Mainly Kutná Hora was a typical German-style town."

The early 1300s saw a number of significant developments among them King Wenceslas II's introduction of a new mining law. The king established the so-called "Prague groschen" a currency with a fixed content of silver. Nevertheless, its amount at 90 percent silver and 10 percent copper, would vary over the decades depending on the town's economic fortunes. Later, mid-13th century a fortified castle now known as Vlašský Dvůr (Italian Courtyard) was established, which would become the site of the Royal Mint and treasury along with smithies and a coin-striking works. A royal residence was also established for use by Czech kings.

"It is possible to say that the second very important period for the Italian Court came during the reign of Wenceslas IV who enjoyed visiting Kutná Hora between 1390 to 1400. Why? It was the period of King Wenceslas IV and the Italian Court was for him a very important place. He decided to complete a second royal seat here, a royal residence. A royal palace.

"We are standing now inside the Royal Treasury at the Italian Court. Here in front of you is an original Gothic stone portal as the central entrance to the treasury. It was private property: only for Bohemian kings!"

St Barbora's cathedral,  photo: CzechTourism
Due to its enormous wealth, Kutná Hora also saw the establishment of the prestigious St Barbora's cathedral in 1388. Builders intended for it to rival Prague's own St Vitus's and both are excellent examples of Gothic architecture in Bohemia. Like St Vitus's in Prague, St Barbora's in Kutná Hora took more than five hundred years to complete. To this day it remains one of Kutná Hora's most persistent symbols, a constant silhouette on the hilltop overlooking the town.

Back at the Mint, we are just about to see a demonstration of how master-minters worked. Traditionally, fifteen were employed hammering out an incredible 2,000 coins over twelve hours a day, times seven days a week. Says Rudolf Bezvoda, who greets tourists viewing the mint, many of them eventually lost their hearing from the constant clanging of hammers. And, although they were extremely well-paid in their day, not many lived to what one would call a ripe old age. But it was perhaps even worse for local prisoners.

"Local crooks who had been caught had to help by placing or setting the coin and if the minter happened to miss they got the full hammer's blow across their fingers. There's even a saying in Czech that when you're bad you get whacked across your fingers. The prisoners had to put up with it for a month and if they weren't crippled by the end of it they stood a chance of getting pardoned!"

All I can say is "ouch".

Kutná Hora is not just the mint: there are many other notable sites worth seeing like St Barbora's and during the high season tourists can still view part of an old mine shaft. It's not for the claustrophobic but it should be quite the experience: all other mines were long closed down, long flooded. The deepest was five hundred metres in length.

The ossuary in Sedlec,  photo: CzechTourism
Kutná Hora's suburb of Sedlec, meanwhile, is also home to a unique bone chapel, where thousands were once buried, 30,000 alone in 1318.In the late 19th century the Czech woodcarver Frantisek Rint arranged a great many of the bones and skulls, which had long been bleached and disinfected, into decorative patterns including an astounding bone chandelier. The decorations are meant to express the fleeting nature of existence. At the chapel, I spoke to a number of Canadian and Swiss students who said they'd never seen anything like it. Their words end this edition of Spotlight this day.

Swiss visitors: "It's a little bit crazy but it's good, yes."

"Never seen anything like this before, but no, I don't think it's 'spooky'."

Canadian student: "Definitely very haunting: it's very beautiful and decorative... I mean I find it really decorative and beautiful and very striking. It's very strange to see so many skeletons in one place at one time. To see them so beautifully arranged. I'm really just in awe."

The episode featured today was first broadcast on March 21, 2007.