It’s one of the most Romantic places in the Czech capital. With its charming row of tiny houses built in the Mannerist style Prague’s Golden Lane attracts visitors from near and far. Painters strive to capture its old-world charm and tour-guides elaborate about the colourful personalities that once inhabited them – alchemists who tried to turn stone into gold or make youth elixirs, Franz Kafka who reportedly resided there for a time, or fortune-teller and astrologer Magdalena Prusova also known as Madame de Thebes who was killed by the Gestapo because she foretold the end of Nazism.
Few people know that one of the most admired sites of the Prague Castle Compound was once a rubbish dump where the castle inhabitants disposed of their refuse. It was the construction of the castle’s northern fortification wall around the existing Romanesque Castle fortress at the close of the 15th century that gave rise to human habitation. The castle marksmen who guarded the fortification asked Emperor Rudolf II for permission to build small houses there for themselves and their families. The emperor consented but only on condition that each marksman got a house, which they could not sell or rent to anyone else. Since there were 24 marksmen they built 24 tiny houses to fit into the given space –all made of stone, mud and wood. The emperor, who kept a close eye on the construction process made sure his conditions were adhered to –including a ban on windows looking out in the direction of the Stag Moat.
Over time several houses were destroyed by fire and after 1657 only 14 houses were left standing. Castle marksmen were no longer needed and as they sought work elsewhere more and more people of other professions inhabited the tiny houses –no more than 20 square meters each. The location attracted artists and the size of the houses predestined them to be painters’ studios, writers’ studies or the workplace of goldsmiths.
At one time there were so many goldsmiths residing in the lane that it was called Goldsmiths’ Lane, from which its present day name is derived. Today there are only 11 houses lining the lane though none of them date back to the late 15th century –all were built and rebuilt over the years. Larger buildings replaced the tiny original ones and were subsequently themselves restored, but the character of the picturesque street was carefully preserved for generations to come.
A year ago Prague’s Golden Lane had to be closed for extensive renovation work since the houses lining it were under threat from an antiquated 19th century rainwater drainage system. Experts feared a mudslide could make the whole lane slide downhill into the Stag Moat. As is common, the renovation was preceded by an archeological dig. Those expecting a find of immense importance were disappointed. Archeologists from the Czech Academy of Sciences found exactly what they expected to find.
“We uncovered remnants of objects and utensils for daily use -pieces of ceramics, tiles, bones and porcelain, things that would have been used by poor people, certainly no luxuries. Among the more interesting finds was a statuette and a sundial pocket watch from the Renaissance period.”
Previously to the reconstruction most of the houses sold brick-a-brack and souvenirs for tourists. After the street reopens in June of this year some of the houses will serve as museum exhibits – their interiors reflecting their former use. The task of creating perfect copies of a goldsmith’s workshop or alchemists’ den has gone to a team of specialists from the Barrandov Film Studios.
The head of the project and curator of the permanent exhibition is historian Pavel Jiras:
“We have been asked to decorate eight interiors. This meant researching how the inhabitants of these little houses lived, making detailed plans and commissioning the respective furniture, work-tools and utensils in the Barrandov studios. The carpenters there know that they not only have to make the things according to our requirements but that they have to make them look worn by age and use. Everything must look as if the inhabitants of these houses left only yesterday.”
Among the interiors being re-created are a marksman’s house, the home of fortune teller Madame de Thebes who attracted clients from all over Europe, the house of a seamstress and a goldsmith’s workshop.
The goldsmiths work table is actually authentic – donated by a woman whose great- grandfather was a goldsmith and who preserved his desk and work instruments, but in most cases the Barrandov team is not that lucky. Most of the décor has to be made from scratch. A Barrandov carpenter explains the process:
“First you have to make the wood look worn and you achieve the right look with a set of brushes and then the wood is given a patina –and as many coats of paint as necessary to create the desired effect.”
Golden Lane will also offer visitors an exposition of historic firearms and knights armor. Even that cannot be acquired the easy way as historic weapons specialist Boris Krystof explains :
“First you have to make the armor, then take it apart paint the different parts, create a used-look with the help of acid, clean it and then put it together again. Work on a single armor can take up to a year.”
The houses themselves will have brightly- coloured facades –similarly as they did in past centuries. And those which will not serve as “museums” will sell traditional wares. Reconstruction work on the Golden Lane took the best part of a year and cost forty million crowns. But those who spent a year of their lives transforming it hope that when it re-opens in June visitors will say it was worth every haller.