By Nicholas Thompson
The Prague Old Royal Palace is the oldest section of the Prague Castle which is located
in the capital city of the Czech Republic. Throughout history the Old Royal Palace has served many purposes to the reigning governance. Dating back to the 10th century, the Old Royal Palace was built to serve as the primary residence for the ruler in power of the area, and after much turnover, has since become a more historical site and a hub for presidential elections and top matters of the state.1 The original residence building at the Prague Castle was built in the 10th century out of primarily wood, but the famous Old Royal Palace was commissioned in 1135 by Sobeslav I, the current duke of the Premyslid Dynasty. The Old Royal Palace was built out of stone in a lavish early gothic and Romanesque style. The building has since undergone multiple renovations over the years incorporating Gothic, Romanesque, and Renaissance architectural styles resulting in expansions such as the Vladislav Hall and the All-Saints Chapel.2 The Old Royal Palace is an intriguing case study concerning the evolution of architectural styles over a long historical period due to its many restorations, as well as analyzing important architectural precedents such as the Vladislav Hall located within. My study will analyze the Old Royal Palaces’ renovation history, detail the Vladislav Hall, and study the building function of the remaining section of the Palace. This study will not analyze the exterior ornamentation or architectural construction methods.
Though the original wooden residence was built at the Prague Castle around the turn of
the 9th and 10th century, the Old Royal Palace was initially built out of stone in 1135 after Duke Sobeslav I wanted a more luxurious home. This initial rendition was said to consist of four chambers of Romanesque castle fortifications that held a semicircular vault and was home to small slit windows.3 After Sobeslav I, the Palace was famously home to Premysl Otakar II, until later becoming home to Emperor Charles IV in the 14th century who started the next major waves of renovation. Charles IV was the first Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and wanted the Palace to become a more home like and modern experience. In order to do so, he commissioned a major renovation and expansion that followed a Gothic Style that mirrored the trend of the current Holy Roman Empire.4 Charles IV’s renovation would include a new floor containing important spaces like Charles Hall and Wenceslas IV Hall. Aside from a brief period during the Hussite Wars, the Old Royal Palace remained the rulers’ seat throughout the 15th century, and eventually became home to Vladislav Jagiello in 1483. This era is important to note because it was under Vladislav’s rule that Benedikt Rjed was commissioned to design and build the famous Vladislav Hall, as well as the Ludvik Wing expansion to the Old Royal Palace. These were built in 1493-1503, as well as 1503-1520 respectively.5 A major shift occurred in the 16th century when the Hapsburg rulers obtained the Czech throne and decided that the Old Royal Palace was not fit to be their residency. Instead, they decided to build a new residence in the Prague Castle and repurpose the Palace to be an administrative section.6 Soon after in 1541 a major fire broke out within the Prague Castle and destroyed certain portions of the Old Royal Palace including the All Saints Chapel and the Old Diet. These were both later rebuilt by Ferdinand I Hapsburg.7 Otherwise, the last major renovation came in the 18th century with the addition of the Theresian Wing of the Palace.
Given the vast renovation history and many expansions to the Old Royal Palace, it is
important to note how the architectural styles changed throughout. The original Old Royal Palace built by Sobeslav I was a take on early Gothic and Romanesque styles. Charles IV’s renovations were much more heavily Gothic due to the importance of the Holy Roman Empire during that time. Later, we can that Vladislav’s renovations were a prime example of Late Gothic, while the Hapsburg renovations relied much more heavily on Renaissance architecture. A clear progression through the many varieties of Gothic, Romanesque, and Renaissance architecture can be seen, but it is vital to realize the connections between them all. As a result of the layering of renovations and expansions that the Old Royal Palace has endured overtime, all three architectural styles seem blend with one another in harmony. The Vladislav Hall is a prime example, as it is a direct connection between the original Old Royal Palace and its newer wings but maintains its own Late Gothic Style.
Interior of Vladislav Hall
Built within the castle walls, The Vladislav Hall is a large banquet hall boasting influences from Late Gothic to Renaissance to Art Nouveau architecture. The Vladislav Hall is a large gathering space measuring at 62 meters long, 16 meters wide, and 13 meters tall.8 The Hall was built from 1493-1503, and at the time of construction, was the largest arched hall in all of Europe.9 The Hall’s north and south walls are lined with large rectangular windows reminiscent of the Renaissance architecture becoming popular in Europe throughout this time.10 The most important architectural feature of the Vladislav Hall, and likely of the entire Old Royal Palace, is the Late Gothic ribbed ceiling at grand vault structure that seemingly reaches to the floor and provide a welcoming contrast to the rectangular windows.11 The intricate vaulting was designed by Benedikt Rjet in order to draw from the regional styles of elaborate ornamentation and creativity.12 The structure was considered complex because of its use of double-curved and three-dimensional lierne ribbing.13 Lierne ribbing is a more complex ribbing structure that has secondary ribs connecting to one another. This contrasts with simple ribbing which has each rib only connect with one central piece. The use of Lierne ribbing results in an elaborate structure that creates organic star shapes along the ceiling.14 The innovative design of the Vladislav Hall has led those of the time period and historians alike to consider the Hall to be among the most complex and creative vaulting from all Gothic architecture. The grand design complemented the extravagant uses of the Vladislav Hall during its early years. Until more recent history, the purpose of the Hall was to host a plethora of gatherings including banquets, councils, royal coronations, and even indoor jousting. A large enough entrance was built into the hall to allow knights to enter on horseback for these events, but also has a famous “Riders’ Staircase” which was built to allow knights to climb onto their horse before a jousting event.15 Although certain events like jousting tournaments do not occur in the Vladislav Hall in present day, the extravagant hall still provides a grand gesture by hosting events like presidential elections, top state meetings,16 and even showcasing the crown jewels of Charles IV like the Wenceslas Crown.17 The Vladislav Hall is absolutely the most noteworthy feature of the Old Royal Palace, but there are many other spaces of importance.
The All Saints Chapel sits adjacent to the east side of the Vladislav Hall and features a similar vaulted ceiling but with less complexity. The Chapel was designed by Petr Parley and rebuilt after the Prague Castle fire in 1541.18 The All Saints Chapel would replace the previous and less important old Romanesque Chapel.19 After rebuilding, the All Saints Chapel currently hosts a collection of artwork and relics of Saint Procupius.20 The southwest corner of the Old Royal Palace is home to the Ludvik wing, which was also designed by Benedikt Rjed and built directly after the Vladislav Hall was completed. The Ludvik wing extends into the Old Royal Palace gardens onto the ramparts, which is one of the many different elements that allude to the arrival of Renaissance architecture into Prague.21 The wing also is home to the Bohemian Chancellery rooms which were famous for an altercation that began the “Thirty Years War” in 1618.22 The Theresian wing which extends off of Ludvik was the last addition and is currently home to many fine art exhibitions.23 The last two important spaces to mention are the Old Diet and the opposing outlook terrace. These are on the north and south sides of the Vladislav Hall respectively, with the Old Diet being the old throne room, and the outlook terrace providing a
view over the gardens and away from the Prague Castle.24 Though there is a certain hierarchy of importance in relation to the spaces within the Old Royal Palace, they each individually have a story to tell. Each space provides a peak into the world at the time it was built, and the compilation of spaces with different architectural influences paints a large-scale picture of the growth and change over the history of Prague.
The Prague Old Royal Palace not only tells a history of Prague, but it is also a representative of the development of architecture styles in Europe of a collection of centuries. Through the multiple renovations that incorporate Gothic, Romanesque, and Renaissance architectural styles we are able to piece together the evolution or European architecture. Renovations and expansions within the Old Royal Palace such as the Vladislav Hall, which showcases a complex and innovative vault system, are shining examples of peak innovations and trends of an era. The Prague Old Royal Palace is insightful because as you study each renovation and expansion, you are able to not only learn about the development of architectural styles, but you are also able to learn about the growth of a society.
1. FG Forrest, a.s. “Old Royal Palace.” Prague Castle for visitors. Accessed December 16, 2020. https://www.hrad.cz/en/prague-castle-for-visitors/objects-for-visitors/old-royal-palace-10332.
2. Muller, Martin. “Old Royal Palace at the Prague Castle.” prague.cz. Accessed December 15, 2020. http://www.prague.cz/old-royal-palace/.
3. Královská cesta. “Old Royal Palace.” Královská cesta. Accessed December 15, 2020.
11. “Old Royal Palace: Prague, Czech Republic Attractions,” March 31, 2020. https://www.lonelyplanet.com/czech-republic/prague/attractions/old-royal-palace/a/poi-sig/401303/358835.
12. “Gothic Secular and Domestic Architecture.” Wikiwand. Accessed December 16, 2020.
15. “Old Royal Palace.”
17. Alex. “Prague Castle: Vladislav Hall.” Prague Vitruvius, July 30, 2019.