In today's Czechs in History we are going to look at Antonin Langweil and his unique paper model of Prague. The model, on a scale of 1:480, takes up an area of two-by-two metres and shows the city as it looked 150 years ago.
Antonin Langweil was born in 1791 in Cesky Krumlov into a family that worked in the services of the Schwarzenberg noble dynasty. Luckily for Langweil the Schwarzenbergs believed in educating talented children of their employees. Over four years Langweil learned geometry, mathematics, drawing, bookkeeping, and also how to make scale models.
Langweil then left for Vienna where he studied lithography. Determined to fulfill his great dream he later started his own business in
Prague but business did not go well and he had to give up after a year.
He settled down in the capital and worked as a servant in the university library. He helped with books, delivering them to readers. The job required knowledge of Czech, Latin, German, calligraphy, and was probably not too taxing as Langweil had enough time for his hobbies, mainly painting miniatures of Prague. The crucial moment in this story is the year 1826 when Langweil visited an exhibition where he saw a model of Paris. He decided to create his own paper model of Prague. Katerina Beckova is a curator of the Museum of the Capital City Prague:
"I think the main reason to create such a model was his ambition to be successful in some kind of art. He did lithography and he liked painting but he wasn't so talented as to be successful in the field. He was looking for self-realization in art and he found it in model making. It required some talent, patience and skills. He had it all and therefore he decided to make a model of Prague.
"Many people think that one of the reasons is the fact that he was worried what would happen to Prague. That Prague would change and there wouldn't be any record of it. But it is not truth. There weren't any big changes in Prague. He lived in the 20s and 30s of the 19th century and construction was at a standstill. The main changes started in the second half of the 19th century when he was no longer alive."
Langweil started his lifelong work on the 13th July 1826 on his 35th birthday. From then on he would walk around the capital from four to five in the morning or in the evening from seven to half past eight, and makes sketches. It didn't take long before people started protesting.
"How dare you walk around and draw every building and window. Do you have permission?"
This was the kind of complaint Langweil had to put up with.
After three years of hard work Langweil presented the first completed section. The public showed quite an interested in the model, which at that time included some 600 houses in the Old Town, and so Langweil, encouraged by the response, continued with the Jewish Town.
"There were some articles praising the model in newspapers but it was more a curiosity. No one had an idea what kind of importance it was going to have, that it was going to be an important document of the city. It was a kind of public attraction more than anything else. A bit like a ship in bottle.
The model drained Langweil's financial resources the family struggled to get by. It seemed that the sacrifices he had to make to realize his big dream were appreciated neither by the public nor his family.
"Whether his wife and his five daughters were pleased about his hobby is not known. I just assume that the fact that he spent all his free time and money wouldn't be much appreciated. He tried to save as much money as possible. The model is made from cardboard which he made from waste paper from the library where he worked. He stuck it together. It was an advantage but he had to buy things like glue and paint and brushes anyway."
Ill and desperate, Langweil turned to none other than the emperor Frantisek I for help. In vain. The emperor didn't reply to Langweil's plea. He tried elsewhere hoping to sell the model but died too early, before it was eventually sold for a price that would hardly even have covered the costs of making it.
"There are all architectural details and also all details from life as the author saw it when he was drawing it. He made it authentic. You can see a ladder leaning against a wall, or broken windows or barrels on the ground."
Explains Katerina Beckova. Each piece of the model is as close to the original as possible. The houses are numbered, there are lanterns, front gardens; roofs are painted in their real colours. The importance of the model grew in the second half of the 19th century when Prague changed a great deal especially the old Jewish Town. The model has been used as a document during the renovation of the facades of old houses.
"The model is a very detailed picture of Prague at the Baroque time. It is unique. Many experts say that Prague in the 18th century was more beautiful than any time before or after. We can assess that thanks to the model."
"I hope that the work and sacrifice I have made all through my life will be appreciated and approved of by experts. I hope I am leaving behind a respectable monument to my diligence"
This is what Langweil wrote about his life's work, and history has proved him right. Katerina Beckova:
"The model is the most popular exhibit in the museum. If you see it for the first time, you come closer, look at it lit in a good way you just go, 'Oh it is unbelievable that someone could have made it!' There are more than 2000 houses and it is quite amazing. When you think how difficult it is too make something simple for example for your child you realize how difficult it must have been even with great skill and talent. It is a giant work."