The reconstruction of Prague Castle under Empress Maria Theresa

Photo: Kristýna Maková, Czech Radio - Radio Prague

It is arguably the most frequently photographed sight in the Czech capital: Prague Castle overlooking the city complete with St. Vitus’ Cathedral. In the mid-18 century, the castle complex had a markedly different look. Its present-day appearance is based on designs by the Viennese court architect Nicolo Pacassi. He was commissioned by Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa after parts of the castle were heavily damaged.

Vít Vlnas,  photo: Filip Jandourek,  Czech Radio
Prague Castle suffered damage during the wars of the Austrian Succession, namely an unsuccessful attempt by the Prussian army led by Frederick the Great in 1742. Historian Vít Vlnas told Radio Prague more:

“During the Siege of Prague, the Prussian artillery occupied parts of Břevnov. To this day there is a street called Na bateriích named after the Prussian artillery batteries. Through the bombardment, St. Vitus’ Cathedral and several other buildings were heavily damaged. This meant a lot of investment in the reconstruction of the castle.”

Maria Theresa decided damaged parts of the castle would be rebuilt in the mid-1750s according to then modern trends. Professor Vlnas again:

Nicolo Pacassi,  photo: Wolfgang Sauber,  CC BY-SA 3.0
“The renovation of residential parts of the complex was influenced also by the founding of an institute for noblewomen. The reconstruction lasted for almost 20 years and was carried out according to designs by the then Viennese court architect Nicolo Pacassi. The structural changes were extensive. Some critics have accused Pacassi of stylistically unifying the area.”

According to Vlnas, the critics spoke of a "barracks-style architecture" but the historian disagrees, saying that the architect was respectful of the various styles and elements which had come before.

“As an architect, Pacassi has a very refined approach. He reflected on the various architectural styles that already existed and respected and worked around original elements. For example, he integrated the Matthias Gate into the new court of honour with great care. Pacassi’s transformation is often only a kind of outer shell, among which the architectural styles of the past epochs continued to shine.”

The noble women’s institute,  photo: Kristýna Maková,  Czech Radio - Radio Prague
During the reconstruction of Prague Castle, what is known as First Courtyard was created. Until then, the complex had the characteristics of a fortress. The new courtyard gave the complex a more stately and representative character.

“The original style of many rooms has been preserved to this day. Only in some places were changes made in the 20th century. But, for example, the Hapsburg Hall or the Throne Hall are preserved in much the same way they were in the days of Maria Theresa.”

The noble women’s institute, meanwhile was housed in the Renaissance period Rosenberg Palace and opened in 1755. It served an important social function in its day, the historian says.

“It was intended to make a dignified life possible for unmarried ladies from important aristocratic families who had fallen into financial difficulties through no fault of their own. There were also such institutions in other countries of Europe. The women led a rather secular life there. They could, for example, have servants. In order to be admitted, they had to be able to present a certain number of noble ancestors on both the maternal and paternal sides.”