Wednesday, January 23, 2008
Frank Gehry's "Dancing Couple" building
We were pretty time-limited in Prague, given our last minute decision to go to Leipzig. While I quite liked Prague, in retrospect, reading over my notes, almost all of the sites we visited were quite grim.
We started with the Cathedral of St Vitus, which has a number of interesting sights – the tomb of St Wenceslas being one. In addition to his predilection for hiking in the snow, Good King Wenceslas was murdered by his brother, who then bolstered his political position by declared his sibling a martyr, which is not unlike murdering ones’ parents in order to garner the sympathy that comes from being an orphan.
Further down the aisle from King W was the tomb of St John Nepomuk, who was tortured, killed, and then thrown off the Charles Bridge into the Vltana River. When he was exhumed, years later, his tongue was found intact in his skull, which was taken as proof that he had not broken the seal of confession under torture. Later analysis proved the bit of meat to be his brain, thus lending historical credence to the admonishment to mind your tongue.
His tomb in the cathedral was constructed using two tonnes of silver, while his statue on the Charles Bridge is supposed to assure safe crossing to all who touch it. “Tortured to death and then thrown off a bridge” is not a life story I personally would associate with good luck, but I am perhaps too literal. Enough people do believe the story that the two bas-reliefs of John on his statue are polished from the grabby attentions of the faithful.
The castle itself had the usual assortment of grand halls (in which indoor jousting tournaments were held, for which I’m sure the Royal Janitor was grateful) and council rooms, out of which several Catholic advisors were thrown during a Protestant revolt, all three of whom survived a 15 meter fall and subsequent volley of musket fire. This too, was interpreted as divine intervention, leading me to ask, wouldn’t it have been easier for God have caused the windows to jam?
The castle also housed a torture chamber. Here, legend had it, a knight who had sided with a peasant uprising had been imprisoned. Supposedly, his boredom in incarceration drove him to learn the fiddle, from which he coaxed such beautiful music that the people of Prague would gather every night outside his window for an informal concert. This, our audio guide assured us, gave rise to the Czech expression “Necessity taught whatsisface to fiddle” (an equivalent to her having been the mother of invention).
Momma never told me there were going to be days like this
However, whoever made the audio guide did not consult with whomever have made the explanatory plaque, which stated that “necessity” was a euphemism for “torture” and “fiddle” a euphemism for “confessing,” just as a 30’s era gangster might “sing.”
On to the bridge – the Charles Bridge is supposed to be Prague’s distinguishing landmark, and it is quite a sight. It is lined on both sides by towering gothic saints placed there as part of a Jesuitical Counter Reformation propaganda effort, and who keep an eye on the throngs of tourists, musicians and souvenir hawkers.
One of the more elaborate statues shows a saint holding an open pair of manacles, on a pediment against which leans an affable looking Turk in a turban, who looms over a miniature prison in which two men plead for release as a snarling dog menaces them from outside.
This statue is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to current events is purely coincidental.
“I know this one,” I said, keen to prove my know-it-all credentials, based on my recollections of a hastily read passage from our guidebook. “This guy founded an order to ransom prisoners from the Turkish army, and he converted a lot of Turks and Jews in the process. The Turk there represents a convert.”
“Oh,” said Amynah, “Don’t you think he’s a jailer?”
“No, no” I said confidently, “Look how friendly he looks.”
“But he’s holding a whip behind his back,” she pointed out.
"In my other hand? What do you mean, what's in my other hand?"
“Oh,” I said, “Well, that one wasn't very sincere, was he?”