astronomical clocks, pt. 2: Olomouc

despite the radiance of the Prague Clock, I found the clock in Olomouc (along with almost everything to do with the town) equally or more impressive and much, much less touristy. part of this stems, as alluded to in recent posts, from Olomouc’s interesting relationship with the realities and after-effects of communism, lasting realities that one can see with the city’s own Astronomical Clock.

also dating from the early 1400s (1420 in this instance), clock-makers remodeled and updated the Olomouc clock every century or so until, in 1945, as in Prague, the retreating Nazi army blasted the hell out of the clock, leaving only a few pieces to start a collection in the nearby history museum. the new communist regime proved keen to rebuild the clock, but naturally eschewed the religious aesthetic of the destroyed clock for one more representative and suitable for the ideal(ized) socialist state. rather than kings and saints, the clock features athletes, workers, farmers and scientists. while the calendar face still contains a listing of saints days, it also lists important dates in communist history, such as Stalin’s birthday.

after the end of communist rule, the new democratic regime elected to remove and/or destroy much of the statuary and public art associated with or a product of the socialist state. the remarkable nature and detail of the Olomouc clock, however, saved it from destruction and, as I said, it’s absolutely fascinating to behold. when compared to the clock in Prague, the mosaic background of the Olomouc clock sets it apart — and above, for me. the Olomouc clock has the lengthy chronology and the same weight of history, but with the additional, intriguing dimension provided by the social-realist redesign.

and perhaps even more winningly, standing and waiting for the noon display in Olomouc, I didn’t have to contend with anyone for a good view. well, no one apart from a pack of three-foot tall kindergartners in yellow safety vests on a field trip. but they didn’t do much to obstruct my view.

astronomical clocks, part 1: Prague

the Astronomical Clock is perhaps the most iconic image of Prague. it is certainly one of the most visited sites in the city, particularly at midday when people crowd into the square next to the Town Hall and crane their necks for a glimpse of the noon display. the oldest part of the clock — the mechanical clock and astronomical dial — dates from the early 1400s (1410). the current clock has three components: the astronomical dial, which includes depictions of location of the Sun and Moon; a calendar dial with ornate medallions representing each month; and the Apostles that parade past the two doors at the top (closed in the picture) to mark each hour. (for more on how to read the clock, check out the Clock’s Wikipedia page.)

for centuries, legend held that renowned the clockmaker called Hanuš, or Jan of Ruze, created the clock and refused to share the designs with anyone. when the city elders heard rumors that Hanuš planned to construct an even more intricate and elaborate clock in another city, they had him blinded so that no other city could compete with their Clock. taking revenge, Hanuš damaged the clock such that no one could ever repair it to its initial, smooth working condition. unfortunately, documents uncovered in the 1960s proved this legend simply that; while Hanuš possibly did repair work the clock, the man who constructed the mechanics of the astronomical dial was actually Mikulas of Kada, working in cooperation with Jan Sindel, a professor of astronomy at Charles University.

a tale of revenge from a bitter clockmaker makes a much better story as to why the Clock broke down so routinely, especially when it more or less broke down all together in the early 18th century and thereafter remained motionless for nearly a century. retreating Nazis set fire to the buildings on the southwest side of the Old Town Square, severely damaging the Clock in 1945. once again, restoration took place and within three years the improved mechanics had the clock chiming out Central European Time (rather than Old Czech Time, wherein 24 marked sunset, a time which varied by up to four hours depending on the season.)

(if you’re inclined, a better explanation of the Prague Clock.)

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Melantrich Building

it never fails that I set out to write a quick post about some place of seemingly limited historical significance, only to learn it’s far more important than I understood at the time of my visit.

situated on the southwest side of Wenceslas Square, the Melantrich Building doesn’t stand out from other facades but is steeped in history. it was reconstructed in the early 1920s and renamed for the Czech-language publishing firm that occupied the building. until well into the twentieth century, German was the official language of the Czech lands and there is a long history of fighting or Czech language rights to support Czech autonomy.

the publishing firm was established in 1897 and lasted until 1999, surviving the many political ups and downs of the twentieth century. initially, it was associated with the Czech National Social Party (which formed after breaking with the Social Democratic Party) and began a “printing press for national socialist workers”. a printer from the firm (Jaroslav Šalda)began a successful daily in 1907, “The Czech Word”, and with it’s success the firm purchased the Hvězda building (or “The Star”) on Wenceslas Square and began reconstruction to suit its purposes. during this period of success, the firm adopted the name of Melantrich (after Jiří Melantrich from Aventino, a 16th century printer) and gave the building that name after completion of reconstruction in 1922.

in 1919, the publishing firm obtained an official permit to print newspapers and began to expand throughout the country and, in the 1930s, even got into film production. during the years prior to Nazi occupation, circulation on some of the newspapers and journals reached hundreds of thousands and, in a few cases, over a million.

during the Nazi occupation, the press was taken over by the Germans and Šalda was thrown into prison. the communists took over publication in 1948 but Šalda no longer wanted to participate in politics and was removed from his position by the communist party leaders.  the firm was split into three parts and, while technically owned by the state, the party ran publication. this odd arrangement resulted in protracted legal battles during the 1990s and, eventually the firm was sold off and, when the new owner bankrupted in 1998, what remained of the firm couldn’t compete.

and now the part I set out to tell you: in 1989, the balcony of the building was used as a platform for those addressing protesters gathered in Wenceslas Square during the Revolution. the success of the protests, moreover, was confirmed when Vaclav Havel (future president of the new democratic Czechoslovak Republic) announced the end of the communist state from the balcony.

the building is now luxury apartments and a Marks & Spencer.