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Czernin Palace

 

In 1923, the Czechoslovak government decided that Czernin Palace would be alloted to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the offices of which were dispersed in several places of Prague. State rooms of Czernin Palace host many significant negotiations, and serve for the purposes of multiple conferences and sessions. It is not by accident that it was here where the Warsaw Treaty was dissolved at the beginning of 1990s.

 

The idea of building his own palace in the Prague part of Hradčany originated in the head of Count Humprecht Jan Czernin of Chudenice (1628-1682).

At the time when Count Czernin lived and worked in Venezia as a diplomat in the capacity of an imperial envoy, he started to look for a capable architect, who would be able to cope with the difficult project of the future Czernin Palace.

The construction site, bought by Czernin in 1666, had many drawbacks. Its uneven shape of 60 by 250 m and the degression of 8.5 m made the work difficult, especially for architects.

Count Humprecht Jan Czernin of Chudenice was undoubtedly very demanding. He himself studied architecture, besides other specializations, during his travels over France and Italy, and, for a long time, none of the addressed architects has made his idea about an adequate Prague residence come true. Many of them claimed that they could not imagine a palace of the required size and quality on the chosen plot at all. Nevertheless, Czernin did not give up his ideas, he continued in preparatory works for the construction, and went on looking for an architect who would satisfy his longing for a monumental palace in Hradčany.

After many unsuccessful attempts at finding a suitable designer, a sudden change came on 9th November 1667. At that time Italian architect Francesco Caratti visited Czernin´s Secretary Hruška and offered his services to Count Czernin. Caratti then submitted a project of a palace, whose front side was 134.4m long. Czernin liked this project and concluded an agreement on cooperation with Caratti.

At that time Francesco Caratti was the main architect of Václav Jan Michna of Vacínov and cooperated also with the Lobkowitz family. Significant Baroque monumental buildings, such as the chateau in Roudnice nad Labem or the Dominican Church of St. Mary of Magdala near Újezd in Malá Strana in Prague, were built according to his plans.

On 23rd August 1668, Count Czernin signed a contract in Prague about the construction of the palace according to the project of Francesco Caratti with Prague builders Jan de Capauli and Abraham Leitner. Digging works for the foundations of the palace started on 26th March 1669. Stone for the construction of the palace was mined in the quarry of the Strahov Convent near Bílá Hora. The foundation walling consists of 6200 cubic meters of stone. Wood for carpenters was floated to Prague from the woods in the Křivoklát region. The floated tree trunks were at least half a meter thick.

The first column was successfully erected in the loggia in the Northern wing on 6th August 1672. It was lifted with the help of a special machine, borrowed from the armoury, and, according to the records from that time, it was witnessed by hundreds of viewers.

On 3rd September 1673, Emperor Leopold visited the construction place of the palace, and commented it caustically in the following way: "It is a big barn, but without a door." The Czernins could not forgive him this remark for many years.

Mikuláš, Count Colloredo, was of a different opinion, and on 20th July 1675, when the palace was completed on the outside and only interior works had to be carried out, he wrote: "The Palace will be the most beautiful gem of Prague. Its architecture and location are a proof of a high judgment of a cavalier who has built such a building. The history proved that he was right - the palace has been considered one of the gems of the Prague Baroque architecture to this day.

However, treasures could be found also inside the palace. There was, for example, a picture gallery, foundations of which were laid in the years 1661-1663, when Count Humprecht Jan Czernin served as envoy in Venezia, and when he bought about 50 originals of leading and less important painters of the Italian Renaissance (RAffael, Giorgione, Tizian, Palma Vecchio, Giambattista Moroni, Tintoreto, Paolo Veronese, Jacopo Bassano, Karl Lott and Joseph Heinz) and a number of copies. According to the list from 1710, there were 1300 paintings and other works of art of Baroque masters from Italy, Germany, the Netherlands and Bohemia in Czernin Palace.

After the death of Count Humprecht Jan Czernin on 13th February 1682, his oldest son Heřman Jakub took over the construction and hired architect Giovanni Battista Maderna. Ten years later, Maderna was replaced by versatile Dominico Egidio Rossi, who managed to push through a range of partial solutions and contributed significantly to the completion of internal palace arrangements. In 1696, the Czernins signed a contract with architect Giovanni Battista Alliprandi.

In 1820s, stucco works of the interior were completed, the statues of Mercury, Andronica and Cupido by Matyáš Braun were placed in the large hall, and best rooms were decorated and provided with frescoes by Václav Vavřinec Reiner. Marble cockles and fireplaces were also installed in the rooms. A garden was established near the palace and its surroundings were paved.

Czernin palace enjoyed considerable attention of the inhabitants of Prague and foreign visitors, and the tours of the palace were an everyday thing. The multitude of paintings and tapestries from French and Belgian workshops was characteristic of the palace and Count František Josef Černín enjoyed a reputation of an immensely rich man.

Czernin belonged to a group of Czech aristocracy, which disliked the disdainful attitude of the central Viennese government to the Czech countries. He was standing at the head of the commercial council, the aim of which was to raise the Czech countries economically. This endeavour, however, was encountering the disfavour of Vienna. The palace was at the top of its glory, but Czernin´s financial situation was gradually worsening and, finally, it was necessary to take economical measures. The sudden death of Frantisek Josef Czernin caused an ineluctable crisis of the family estates.

After the death of Emperor Charles VI. in 1740, the tensed political situation resulted in a war conflict over the Austrian heritage. Bavaria, Saxony, France and Spain opposed Maria Theresa. The war was a catastrophy for the palace. In the summer of 1742, when the French-Bavarian garrison was hemmed in Prague, the Palace was occupied by two infantry regiments and converted into a fortification. Valuables were stored in the basement, embrasures were created in the walls, the furniture, which could not be stored, was burned on open fireplaces in the rooms, and trenches went through the decorative garden.

Several thousand men died under the imperatorial bombardment (150 cannonballs fell on the palace) and during French attacks in the proximity of Czernin Palace. Damage caused to the palace by military occupants was immense. After the elapse of less than two years, the building faced another danger. During the Prussian occupation of Prague from 16th September to 27th November 1744, a troop was to be located in the palace. The Czernin family, however, finally succeeded in bribing the soldiers.

In 1745, some frescoes and decoration were repaired and, on that occasion, the entrance to the palace in the form of a covered arch was designed. The construction of the entrance was carried out in the years 1747-1749. At that time, the garden was also rearranged, and an orangery was built there. In June 1746, the statue of Hercules by Ignác Platzer was erected there, as well.

In 1779, a military hospital and pharmacy were temporarily located in the building. The palace started to fade away. The atmosphere of the old times returned in 1791, when a ceremonial cantata composed by Leopold Koželuh was presented in the large hall as a part of the coronation ceremonies of Leopold III.

The then owner of the Czernin Palace, Count Jan Rudolf Czernin, offered a part of the palace to a private company, called The Company of Patriotic Friends of the Arts, for the installation of a painting and for organizing auctions. For himself he reserved only the rooms in the first floor. As soon as the construction arrangements were completed, in 1757 Prague started to be besieged by Prussians again. On 7th May 1757, the town was surrounded and on 29th May the bombardment of Hradčany started. The palace has, admittedly, been bombed for only 12 days, but, in spite of that, there were damages again.

Family archives were placed on the ground floor and the revision office of Czernin domains with a writing room was moved to the left wing. Other rooms in the Palace were filled with tenants, and there was also a silk factory here for a short time. The rent did, however, not even suffice for covering the costs connected to the basic maintenance of the building, and Jan Rudolf decided to sell the Palace to the soldiers in the end. A number of rooms was seized for the military hospital in 1809, and the situation repeated in 1815. One year later, Czernin was willing to leave empty rooms for the establishment of a calefactory for the Prague poor. In 1818, military convalescents were accomodated in the palace. The department of artillery and then a military hospital were located in the Palace between 1829 and 1830. In 1848, the building housed 28 families, a small military troop, and the national guard was exercising in the large hall.

On 11th April 1851, a contract of purchase, through which the palace was transferred to the Army, was approved by Emperor Franz Josef and then, between 1855 and 1856, the building was rebuilt according to the project of the architect Achille Wolf. The number of floors was changed and the palace was divided into small spaces. The large halll disappeared completely. All stucco ceilings, the vaulting of the chapel, murals and all, that had something to do with changing the clearance of rooms, was destroyed. New additions included military kitchens, lavatories, bedders and offices, but also three cylindrical toiled towers, out of which the largest one had the diameter of about 8 metres. This state lasted until 1920, when soldiers left the building.

In 1923, the Czechoslovak government decided that the Czernin Palace will be allotted to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, whose offices were dispersed in several places in Prague. One year later, the architect Pavel Janák won the contest for the completion and reconstruction of the palace. In the course of five years, between 1929 and 1934, the palace was rebuilt according to the original design of Francesco Caratti, and a number of old pieces of furniture and equipment, acquired from both local and foreign antiquarians, returned to the building.

A ceremonial reception on the occasion of the completion of the reconstruction of original state spaces, hosted by the then Minister of Foreign Affairs, Edvard Beneš, and visited by both Czechoslovak and foreign personalities, representatives of the Prague diplomatic corps and participants of the 3rd International Philosophic Congress, took place in the Czernin Palace on 3rd September 1934.

In the years 1933 - 1939, an extensive administrative building, the so-called Janák extension, which has been housing offices of most departments of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the day, was added to the original Czernin Palace.

During the Second World War, the palace was a seat of the Reichsprotector, Karl von Neurath, and later Reinhard Heydrich. The Secretary of State, K.H.Frank, also had his offices here. Cellars were converted into bomb shelters, the roof was equipped with skeletons made of reinforced concrete against bombing, and the ground floor was surrounded by a strong wall of reinforced concrete, protecting the exits from the bomb shelter and a telephone central. At the end of war, a part of the the Janák extension was used as a military hospital.

The activity of the Czechoslovak Ministry of Foreign Affairs was renewed in the Czernin Palace in the May of 1945. Necessary clearing works and arrangements had to be carried out again. While dumping the sand and clay, that has been taken out of the shelter, a set of keys with numbers written with Gothic characters was found. These were the lost keys to the room, in which Czech coronation jewels were stored.

Jan Masaryk, the Minister of Foreign Affairs and son of the first Czechoslovak president, Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, used to live in the garret of the Czernin Palace in the post-war years. Masaryk´s flat also witnessed his fatal fall from the bathroom window on the ward of the palace in 1948. Circumstances of this fall have not been clarified to the day.

State rooms of the Czernin Palace host many significant negotiations, and serve for the purposes of multiple conferences and sessions. It is not by accident that it is here where the Warsaw Treaty was dissolved at the beginning of 1990s. The Czernin Palace has been visited by the council of presidents, ministers of foreign affairs and other important personalities from over the world. All Czechoslovak ministers of foreign affairs had their offices here, and also the ministers of foreign affairs of the Czech Republic continue in this tradition.

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