Prague city gallery brings back life and history to an Old Town palace

The Colloredo-Mansfeld Palace, photo: Milan Musil, The City of Prague Gallery

The City of Prague Gallery was given custodianship of the Colloredo-Mansfeld Palace in Prague’s Old Town a few years ago. The gallery is finally ready to open the building to the public, and possibly make it one of its main exhibition and educational sites. Radio Prague headed over to the palace to speak with the team that is working on its new appearance.

The Colloredo-Mansfeld Palace,  photo: Milan Musil,  The City of Prague Gallery
Right next to one of the busiest tourist sites in Prague, across from the Old Town entrance to Charles Bridge, the Colloredo-Mansfeld Palace disappears among the crowds of tourists and endless souvenir shops. But for some four hundred years, up until the end of World War Two, it was a place of high culture and political intrigue – both in terms of its location and social importance.

The City of Prague Gallery is preparing to open up the top floor of the Colloredo-Mansfeld Palace to the public at the end of this month. But a whole team of architects, art historians, conservationists and others have been working hard to create a larger conception of what will be done with this unique space. I spoke to Marek Pokorny, who is an external advisor to the gallery on this particular project, who sees an important future for the palace.

“It is really is a building which can play a key role for the City of Prague Gallery in the future, not only because it is in the center of the city, but it is a space that can be used for different purposes. We will be able to place an information center here for the whole institution. Then we would like to expand in two directions. We want to revitalize the preserved historical parts of the Colloredo-Mansfeld palace, including the Piano Nobile hall and the rococo elements, and open them to the public. The other floor, which will have a space for contemporary art, will open this season. And then there is also the courtyard, which will be a very important public space for us.”

One part of the fairly expansive building will be used for the gallery’s existing education program, offering various art classes for children and adults.

The top floor will open starting on May 25th housing an exhibit by Jiří David. This space will try to also offer a space for young talent, in the same way that some of the other City Gallery sites have done in the past.

Jiří David - 'Před večerem',  photo: archive of The City of Prague Gallery
The gallery is hoping that the symbiosis of new and old will provide something of interest for everyone.

The historical halls are being prepared as well for a slightly later opening. Although much work had to be done in the second floor of the building, the gallery wants to leave the historical rooms practically in the same state as when they were acquired. The palace has seen a whole slew of occupants in the past 50 years, and is little-known by most Praguers. Although it is important for the team to bring the Colloredo-Mansfeld palace back to life, they also do not want ignore its history.

“It was important for us to rehabilitate this space for the public and to offer at least basic information about its significance, its structure; what was here in different periods of time, what has survived, even if it is not in the best shape possible. I think it is important that visitors don’t just see a perfectly finished space, but if it is at all possible to witness the ravages of time on buildings of this kind.”

The team working on renovations has walked a fine line, trying to make the historical spaces acceptable for a modern audience, but also not over-renovating, which would leave the space as a sterile museum piece. Visitors to the palace will thus be able to really understand what the grand halls were used for originally, but at the same time see what time has done to the place.

“I would really not like things like air conditioning to get into this place, because it does not belong here. Rather, projects of the City Gallery will have to adjust to and work with the space that is already here.”

The halls of the palace, with wallpaper peeling off in places, beautifully creaking wooden floors and large windows looking onto the square next to Charles Bridge, have seen a long and turbulent history. The historical and artistic advisor for the renovation project Dr. Jan Nepomuk Assman, told me that there were houses standing on this coronation route for many decades before an actual palace was built.

Dr. Jan Nepomuk Assman,  photo: archive of Radio Prague
“When in the 17th century, the idea of creating a palace in this location came about, the property came into the hands of an important noble family, the Counts von Schlick of Passaun and Holíč. They owned silver mines, and minted the coin Joachimsthaler, or thaler of Jáchym, from which the word dollar comes from.”

The Schlicks were part of the growing number of protestant noblemen, and in the early 17th century their opposition to the ruling Catholic Habsburgs and their allegiance to the protestant winter king Frederick V cost Jachym Ondrej Schlick his life. He was among the first noblemen to be executed on Old Town Square in June 1621, to serve as an example to those who opposed the Habsburg rule.

The palace changes a number of owners after the battle of White Mountain, and had been transformed a number of times, but the remnants of the interior that are still visible today go back partly to the first half of the 18th century.

“The most important year for us is 1735, when this building was greatly improved by the prince Mansfeld Fondi, which is where the one half of the Colloredo-Mansfeld name comes from. He also owned the Dobříš chateau. Since the prince had no male heirs, his estate went to his daughter Isabella, who married František de Paula Gundaccar from the Colloredo family. So this is how the Colloredo-Mansfeld dynasty was formed.”

The surviving interiors in the second floor of the palace, reminiscent of the Viennese Schonbrun, but also Parisian styles and Rococco, were carefully renovated an upheld by Franz Joseph Auersperg [aushperg] in the late nineteenth century. Probably the most stunning is the so-called Piano Nobile – an oval-shaped dance and reception hall, with large mirrors and beautifully decorated ceiling. This hall had most likely even seen performances of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, since the Colloredo-Mansfeld family was among the most honored nobility at the time of Mozart’s frequent visits to Prague.

“It is very likely, because Mozart was invited into the homes of all the high nobility – the Thunes, the Buquoys, the Choteks, the Nostizs – and all of these palaces were very close by. And the Colloredo-Mansfeld family were the third most respected noble family at the time. These families ruled over the cultural life of the city from their palaces. Mozart’s visits were always received with great appreciation. Though a visit specifically to this palace was not in his surviving notes.”

The Colloredo-Mansfeld Palace,  photo: Milan Musil,  The City of Prague Gallery
In the 1980’s Miloš Forman even used the Piano Nobile hall in the Colloredo-Mansfeld palace to shoot some of the scenes for the movie Amadeus.

The Piano Nobile also contains a very unique piece of art. The frescos on the ceiling, although by content they were very similar to other decorative art of their time, were carried out in a technique that is now extinct. The architect responsible for the renovation, Stanislva Běhal, described the technique to me.

“The most amazing element in this room are the frescos. They are not that amazing in terms of their artistic value or even craftsmanship, but what makes them unique is that they have basically been left touched since they were created in the 1760s, so this is truly the original. It is of course has gotten dirty over the years, but we can see here the original painting techniques, including the fact that they would finish painting, let it dry, and then if something didn’t seem right they would fix it up with dry chalk.

“This is something we cannot see almost anywhere in Europe. We knew of the technique, but it was not preserved in most places. So, this will be an important part of the historical tour.”

The tour of the historical spaces will offer a number of these types of hidden mysteries, revealing what the shape of the floor tells us about the structure of the rooms, or how the salons were protected from sunlight.

The unique appearance of the inside of the palace is undisputable, but still the question remains whether this highly frequented location will attract the audience it seeks. Of course, thousands of tourists pass by the Collodero-Mansfeld Palace every day, but this part of town does not naturally attract many locals, specifically because of how crowded and tourist-focused it is. Marek Pokorny isn’t worried, however.

“I think the location is brilliant in itself, but also from the point of view of the City of Prague Gallery. First of all, the amount of attention that sites on the so-called the King’s Route receive is enormous. So, we can certainly expect a great deal of interest from tourists. Before they get to the street crossing and walk onto the Charles Bridge, they do have a tendency to stop and look around. Even now when the doors of the palace are closed, they try to get in. So the historical information about this place will be meant primarily for the tourists.

Marek Pokorný,  photo: archive of the Ministry of Culture
“On the other hand, the other activities that the gallery will be running here will serve as a good reason for Praguers, who usually try to avoid these central places in the city, to visit them. I am hoping that the cultural programs scheduled for the evenings will attract a certain type of visitors, who will be interested in activities tailored specifically to them.”

Locals and tourists alike will be able to get the first look at the Colloredo-Mansfeld Palace already this week. In the upcoming months the historical tour will also open, and the ground floor of the palace will offer not only an information center about the Prague city gallery but also an art café, which should be a welcome respite from the crowds outside.