St Andrew, Francisco de Zubaran. Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons
The heirs to the Herzog Collection, the largest private art collection in Hungary prior to World War II, filed suit in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia late yesterday to seek the return of artworks they claim were illegally held by Hungary since the Holocaust. They further claim that Hungary, a WWII-era ally of Nazi Germany that organized the dispossession, seizure, deportation, and eventual deaths of more than 500,000 Jews, exploited the fact that the family had been forced to flee Hungary as a result of Hungary‟s acts of genocide in order to retain or reacquire possession of the family‟s artworks at the end of the war.
The Herzog Collection
The Herzog family‟s lawsuit seeks the return from Hungary, three of its state-owned museums, and one state-owned university of over 40 works with a combined value over $100 million, including masterworks by El Greco, Francisco de Zurbarán, and Lucas Cranach the Elder. Regarded by art experts as the world‟s largest unresolved Holocaust art claim, the case is the culmination of a decades-long effort by three generations of Herzog heirs to recover their family‟s property.
The works come from the collection of Baron Mór Lipót Herzog, a passionate Jewish art collector whose daughter married into the de Csepel family, one of the most influential industrialist families in pre-WWII Hungary. After Baron Herzog‟s death in 1934 the collection remained intact with his wife, and after her passing in 1940 was divided among their three children, Erzsébet (Elizabeth), István (Steven) and András (Andrew), who intended to continue their father‟s legacy as a patron of the arts.
Nazi-Era Looting and Aftermath
When Germany occupied Hungary in 1944, the Third Reich dispatched the notorious Adolf Eichmann to orchestrate the annihilation of the Jews of Hungary and the plunder of their personal property and treasures. Within a matter of months, Hungarian Jews were deprived of their freedom and property, and nearly half a million Jews living on the countryside were transported by Hungarian security forces to their deaths in German concentration camps. The Hungarian government already had enacted a law requiring Jews to deposit their art with the government for “safe keeping.” The Herzog Collection, one of the most splendid in Europe, was inspected personally by Eichmann, who designated certain works for shipment to Germany. The remainder were left in Hungary‟s possession or looted by others.Stripped of their belongings and fearing for their lives, the surviving members of the Herzog family were forced to flee Hungary or face extermination. Parts of the family immigrated to the United States, while others escaped to South America or remained in Europe.
The Holy Family with St Anne, El Greco. Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.
In the years immediately following World War II, Hungary and its museums were responsible for safeguarding artworks that had been seized during the war, including those recovered in the territories of the Third Reich and returned to Hungary, until their owners could be identified and located. Instead of returning the artworks to their rightful owners as required by Hungary‟s 1947 peace treaty with the Allies, the museums managed to avoid turning over physical possession of most of the Herzog Collection. Instead, they attempted to extract substantial fees to cover the “cost” of recovering the art from the Third Reich and denied export permits to the Herzog family members who had fled Hungary during the Holocaust. In the rare instances where the government offered to return art to Herzog family representatives in Hungary, Hungarian government officials subjected those representatives to harassment, including false smuggling allegations, until they had no choice but to agree to allow the artworks to be “returned” to the museums for “safekeeping.”
Attempts at Restitution
With the opening of Hungary to the West in 1989, the Herzog heirs started making inquiries and learned that many pieces of their art collection were being openly exhibited, hanging on the walls of the Hungarian National Gallery and the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest. The tags under the paintings identified them as “From the Herzog Collection.” The family attempted to retrieve their artworks through negotiations with Hungary‟s post-communist government. Although the Hungarian government recognized the family‟s ownership rights to the artworks, negotiations were unsuccessful. After several years of negotiations, Martha Nierenberg, the daughter of Erzsébet (Herzog) Weiss de Csepel, saw no choice but to pursue legal proceedings in Hungary to recover a portion of the Herzog Collection. She was joined in that effort by then-Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY), Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-CT), Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), and the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA), among others, who appealed to the Hungarian government to return the treasured Herzog Collection to its owners. Hungary has rebuffed or ignored all such requests despite the fact that prior to many of those requests, at the 1998 Washington Conference, it pledged that it was “fully committed to the restitution or compensation of Holocaust victims concerning cultural assets” and that it would appoint a commissioner to manage the task. Twelve years later, no commissioner has been named, nothing of consequence has been returned to the Jews from whom it was taken, and works from the Herzog Collection continue to be displayed prominently, and profitably, at Hungary‟s state-owned museums.
“It would be so simple for the government to make this right, but our struggle goes on,” said Martha Nierenberg, the daughter of Erzsébet (Herzog) Weiss de Csepel, who fled the Holocaust with her family in 1944 and has championed efforts for the return of the collection. “I hope this lawsuit will restore what was lost to my family and has been held hostage by the government of Hungary for more than half a century.”
“In the area of Holocaust restitution, the government of Hungary has been a particularly bad actor,” said Michael S. Shuster of Kasowitz, Benson, Torres & Friedman LLP, the lead attorney
in the Herzog lawsuit. “Hungary attempts to portray itself as a nation worthy of our respect and investment, while refusing to comply with its basic obligations under international law. In contrast to Hungary, Germany returned artworks from the Herzog Collection to the Herzog heirs this spring without the need for legal action. We had no choice but to bring the Herzog family„s claim before a U.S. court.”
The case, spearheaded by plaintiff David de Csepel, the grandson of Erzsébet (Herzog) Weiss de Csepel, is filed just as Hungary has concluded a year-long cultural program in the United States. The program, known as “Extremely Hungary,” contained no references to the mass genocide of its Jewish citizens during the Hungarian Holocaust or the gruesome manner in which the government acquired some of the most significant artistic pieces in its possession and failed to acknowledge its crimes against humanity. — Information provided by Herzog family.For more information about the family and their art collection, please visit the Herzog family website at www.hungarylootedart.com
For months, the family of the Czech Art Nouveau painter Alfons Mucha has been fighting an ongoing drama with the Prague Municipal Gallery over who legally owns the artist’s work, the Slav Epic. The murals—20 in all depicting the history of Slavs from its dawn to a future of hope—are currently housed in a chateau in Moravsky Krumlov, located a four-hour drive outside of Prague. After World War II, the murals where brought to the chateau in a very poor state, and eventually restored and put on public display at the chateau.
Mucha had hoped that by depicting historically significant episodes from the Slavic past, he would teach future generations a lesson in integrity, bravery, idealism, and faith. He bequeathed the series of monumental murals, which took 20 years to complete, to the city of Prague back in 1928 — but on the condition that the murals would be displayed in a pavilion specially built to accommodate them. The Prague Municipal Gallery, however, wants the works returned to the city where they have plans to display them at the Veletrzni Palace, which shares space with the city’s National Gallery. Mucha’s heirs contest that the condition of the deed has not been met, and therefore the murals should remain in the care of the family, who also operates the Mucha Foundation. According to Radio Prague, the Prague Municipal Gallery was prepared to move the Slav Epic at noon today to its new proposed home, but all such plans were suspended at the last minute by the township of Moravsky Krumlov until the legal problem with the deed is solved. Happily, visitors may continue to view Mucha’s Slav Epic in Moravsky Krumlov.
But if you happen to be in Prague between now and September 31, 2010, be sure to check out the Alfons Mucha exhibit called the Apotheosis of Love, showing, curiously enough at the Prague MunicipalGallery. The exhibit includes photos, studies, and works that belonged in the private collection of Mucha’s heirs and has never been publicly exhibited until now. It also includes some of his most popular works, including Gismonda, the lithograph (proof print no. 1) of Sarah Bernhardt that made Alfons Mucha famous. I had the opportunity to see the exhibit in early July, and it is indeed impressive! I was particularly fascinated with Mucha’s use of the camera to capture the poses of his subjects. Give yourself at least two hours to peruse the works of art, about a hundred items total, and watch the short documentary. Beginning in October, that exhibit will travel throughout the Czech Republic. –Jessica Tudzin
Sarah Bernhardt in Gismonda, the piece that made Alfons Mucha famous.
Model posing in Mucha's studio, Paris, 1902. One of several photographs that can be seen at the Apotheosis of Love exhibit. Photo sourced from http://revolutsiya.wordpress.com.
It’s raining in Budapest today—a welcome relief from the humid summer heat. But it got me to thinking: we’re already halfway though summer. I’m finding that every season here brings its own rewards, but I wanted to reflect a little bit on this fleeting season, which thus far has brought us, among other things, al fresco dining, festivals and public concerts, late-night excuses for gelato on the steps of St. Stephen’s Cathedral, weekends at Lake Balaton, hours spent at public pools, and sunset boat rides on the Danube. I offer below some images from my midsummer Magyar photo album, knowing the best of summer is still yet to come. — Jessica
Anyone with an interest in Central and Eastern Europe simply cannot avoid the Habsburg family. With the end of World War I, the great dynasty they had created over 20 generations and six centuries ceased to exist. But their legacy continues to live on throughout Europe (and parts of Mexico), leaving behind art, architecture, literature, and music that they had commissioned.The first recording of a Habsburg dates back to 1090, in a charter that mentions a certain Swabian nobleman named Ottocar. He had named himself Count of Habsburg after a castle that stood at the foothills of the Jura Mountain Range in Switzerland called Habichtburg, which means Hawk Castle. His son Ratbod increased the family fortune through marriage to the daughter of the Duke of Lotharingia. Through marriage and loyal service to the imperial dynasty of the Hohenstaufen, the Habsburg family continued to increase in wealth, eventually acquiring so much land they aspired to the highest class of landowners. One heir, Albert, was given the Alsatian and northern Swiss estates, while his younger brother inherited the central Swiss domains. Albert’s branch of the family went on to play a key role in the modern history of Central Europe, and indeed the entire continent. At its height, the Habsburgs controlled a multi-national empire that in many ways resembles today’s European Union. My plan with this blog is to write much more on the more colorful characters of the Habsburg family. For now, however, I offer an encyclopedic overview on the House of Habsburgs, borrowed from www.enotes.com and wikipedia. To view the family trees in a larger format, double click on the image. And stay tuned for more posts threaded with intriguing Habsburg history. (Do note the feature image, a portrait painted by Renaissance artist Bernhard Strigel around 1520, depicting Habsburg Maximilian I, who married Mary of Burgundy and acquired all the Burgundian domains through that union. Talk about marrying well!)– Jessica Tudzin
Portrait by Renaissance painter Bernhard Strigel depicts Emperor Maximilian I with his son Philip the Fair, his wife Mary of Burgundy, his grandsons Ferdinand I and Charles V, and Louis II of Hungary (husband of his granddaughter Mary of Austria). The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH.
As royal houses are by convention determined via the male line, technically the reigning branches of the House of Habsburg became extinct in the 18th century. The Spanish branch ended upon the death of Charles II in 1700 and was replaced by the Anjou branch of the House of Bourbon in the person of his great-nephew Philip V. The Austrian branch went extinct in 1780 with the death of Empress Maria Theresa and was succeeded by the Vaudemont branch of the House of Lorraine in the person of her son Joseph II. The new successor house styled itself as House of Habsburg-Lorraine (German: Habsburg-Lothringen).
The Habsburg dominions around AD 1200 are shown as Habsburg, among the houses of Savoy, Zähringer and Kyburg
The Habsburg dominions within the Holy Roman Empire acquired before AD 1378 are shown as Habsburg, among the houses of Luxembourgand Wittelsbach
The dynasty is named after their seat of origin, the Habsburg Castle founded by Radbot, Count of Habsburg in the Swiss Canton of Aargau. The origins of the name of the castle are uncertain. Most people assume the name to be derived from the High GermanHabichtsburg (Hawk Castle), but some historians and linguists are convinced that the name comes from the Middle High German word ‘hab/ hap’ meaning fjord, as there is a river with a ford nearby. The first documented use of the name by the dynasty itself has been traced to the year 1108. The Habsburg Castle was the family seat in the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries in the former duchy ofSwabia, which incorporated present-day Aargau, at the time of the Holy Roman Empire. From southwestern Germany (mainly Alsace, Breisgau, Aargau and Thurgau) the family extended its influence and holdings to the southeastern reaches of the Holy Roman Empire, roughly today’sAustria (1278–1382). Within only two or three generations, the Habsburgs had managed to secure an initially intermittent grasp on the imperial throne that would last for centuries (1273–1291, 1298–1308, 1438–1740, and 1745–1806).
Division of the house: Austrian and Spanish Habsburgs
After the April 21, 1521 assignment of the Austrian lands to Ferdinand I by his brother Emperor Charles V (also King Charles I of Spain) (1516–1556), the dynasty split into the minor branch of the Austrian Habsburgs and the major branch of the Spanish Habsburgs. The Austrian Habsburgs held the title of Holy Roman Emperor after Charles’ death in 1558, as well as the Habsburg Hereditary Lands and the Kingdoms of Bohemia and Hungary, while the Spanish major branch ruled over the Spanish kingdoms, the Netherlands, the Habsburgs’ Italian possessions, and, for a time, Portugal. Hungary was partly under Habsburg rule from 1526. For 150 years most of the country was occupied by the Ottoman Turks but these territories were re-conquered in 1683–1699.
A map of the dominion of the Habsburgs following the Battle of Mühlberg (1547) as depicted in The Cambridge Modern History Atlas (1912); Habsburg lands are shaded green. Not shaded are the lands of theHoly Roman Empire over which the Habsburgs presided, nor are the vast Castilian holdings outside of Europe, and particularly in the New World, shown.
Charles II’s family tree showing the large amount of inbreeding
The Habsburgs sought to consolidate their power by the frequent use of consanguineous marriages, with ultimately disastrous results. Marriages between first cousins, or between uncle and niece, were commonplace in the family. A study of 3,000 family members over 16 generations by the University of Santiago de Compostela suggests that inbreeding directly led to their extinctions. The gene pool eventually became so small that the last of the Spanish line Charles II, who was severely disabled by genetic disorders, possessed a genome comparable with that of a child born to a brother and sister as did his father, likely due to “Remote Inbreeding“. The infamous Habsburg jaw was one such prominent manifestation of inbreeding.
On August 6, 1806 the Holy Roman Empire was dissolved under the French Emperor Napoleon I‘s reorganization of Germany. However, in anticipation of the loss of his title of Holy Roman Emperor, Francis II declared himself hereditary Emperor of Austria (as Francis I) on August 11, 1804, three months after Napoleon had declared himself Emperor of the French on May 18, 1804.
Under the terms of the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867 effective autonomy was given to Hungary (seeAustria-Hungary). Under this arrangement, the Hungarians referred to their ruler as king and never emperor. This prevailed until the Habsburgs’ deposition from both Austria and Hungary in 1918 following defeat in World War I.
On November 11, 1918, with his empire collapsing around him, the last Habsburg ruler, Charles I (who also reigned as Charles IV of Hungary) issued a proclamation recognizing Austria’s right to determine the future of the state and renouncing any role in state affairs. Two days later, he issued a separate proclamation for Hungary. Even though he did not officially abdicate, this is considered the end of the Habsburg dynasty. In 1919, the new republican Austrian government subsequently passed a law banishing the Habsburgs from Austrian territory until they renounced all intentions of regaining the throne and accepted the status of private citizens. Charles made several attempts to regain the throne of Hungary, and in 1921 the Hungarian government passed a law which revoked Charles’ rights and dethroned the Habsburgs.
The Habsburgs did not formally abandon all hope of returning to power until Otto von Habsburg, Emperor Charles’ eldest son, renounced all claims to the throne.
The dynasty’s motto is “Let others wage wars, but you, happy Austria, marry!” (Bella gerant alii, tu, felix Austria, nube!), which indicates the knack of the Habsburgs to have their members intermarry into other royal houses, to make alliances and inherit territory. Empress Maria Theresa is recognized quite notably for it and is sometimes referred to as the “Great-Grandmother of Europe”.
This family tree only includes male scions of the direct House of Habsburg who survived to adulthood.
In the late Middle Ages, when the Habsburgs expanded their territories in the east, they often ruled as dukes of the Duchy of Austria which covered only what is today Lower Austria and the eastern part of Upper Austria. The Habsburg possessions also included Styria, and then expanded west to include Carinthia and Carniola in 1335 and Tirol in 1363. Their original scattered possessions in the southern Alsace, south-western Germany and Vorarlberg were collectively known as Further Austria. The Habsburg dukes gradually lost their homelands south of the Rhine and Lake Constance to the expanding Old Swiss Confederacy. Unless mentioned explicitly, the dukes of Austria also ruled over Further Austria until 1379, after that year, Further Austria was ruled by the Princely Count of Tyrol. Names in italics designate dukes who never actually ruled.
Rudolph II, son of Rudolph I, duke of Austria and Styria together with his brother 1282–1283, was dispossessed by his brother, who eventually would be murdered by one of Rudolph’s sons.
Frederick the Handsome (Friedrich der Schöne), brother of Rudolph III. Duke of Austria and Styria (with his brother Leopold I) from 1308–1330; officially co-regent of emperor Louis IV since 1325, but never ruled.
Leopold I, brother of the above, duke of Austria and Styria from 1308–1326.
Albert II (Albrecht II), brother of the above, duke of Vorderösterreich from 1326–1358, duke of Austria and Styria 1330–1358, duke of Carinthia after 1335.
Otto the Jolly (der Fröhliche), brother of the above, duke of Austria and Styria 1330–1339 (together with his brother), duke of Carinthia after 1335.
Frederick IV (Friedrich), brother of Ernst, 1402–1439 duke of Tyrol and Further Austria
Sigismund, also spelled Siegmund or Sigmund, 1439–1446 under the tutelage of the Frederick V above, then duke of Tyrol, and after the death of Albrecht VI in 1463 also duke of Further Austria.
Reuniting of Habsburg possessions
Sigismund had no children and adopted Maximilian I, son of duke Frederick V (emperor Frederick III). Under Maximilian, the possessions of the Habsburgs would be united again under one ruler, after he had re-conquered the Duchy of Austria after the death of Matthias Corvinus, who resided in Vienna and styled himself duke of Austria from 1485–1490.
King of the Romans and Holy Roman Emperors previous to the reunion of the Habsburg possessions
Philip I of Castile, second son of Maximilian I, founded the Spanish Habsburgs in 1496 by marrying Joanna the Mad, daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella. Philip died in 1506, leaving the thrones of Castile and Aragon to be inherited and united into the throne of Spain by his son:
Charles I 1516–1556, aka Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor; divided the House into Austrian and Spanish lines
Francis Stephen assigned the grand duchy of Tuscany to his second son Peter Leopold, who in turn assigned it to his second son upon his accession as Holy Roman Emperor. Tuscany remained the domain of this cadet branch of the family until Italian unification.
The kingship of Hungary remained in the Habsburg family for centuries; but as the kingship was not strictly inherited (Hungary was an elective monarchy until 1687) and was sometimes used as a training ground for young Habsburgs, the dates of rule do not always match those of the primary Habsburg possessions. Therefore, the kings of Hungary are listed separately.
The kingship of Bohemia was from 1306 a position elected by its nobles. As a result, it was not an automatically inherited position. Until rule of the Ferdinand I Habsburgs didn’t gain hereditary accession to the throne and were shifted by other dynasties. Hence, the kings of Bohemia and their ruling dates are listed separately.
From the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, the greatest non-Habsburg power in Europe was usually France. As a result, in usually futile attempts to either unite Europe under the Habsburg family or to prevent French enmity, Habsburg daughters were wed to successive kings of France.
Due to its proximity (geographic, strategic and religious) the Habsburgs always consolidated their alliances with the Portuguese Royal House of Aviz, which gave them this Kingdom in 1580. When the Braganzas expelled the Spanish Habsburgs (1640), new alliances were set-up, this time with the Austrian Habsburgs.
Marie Leopoldina, Archduchess of Austria (1797–1826), first wife of Peter I, Emperor of Brazil, also known as Peter IV, King of Portugal. Marie Leopoldina was Marie Louise younger sister.
Tuscan Duchy and Salzburg descendants
The members of this family bear the titles Archduke (Archduchess) of Austria, Prince (Princess) of Hungary, Prince (Princess) of Tuscany (Imperial and Royal Highness). Descendants of morganatic marriages, except those granted specific titles such as the Princes von Altenburg, generally bear the title “Graf (Gräfin) von Habsburg-[Lothringen]“.
The bookplate or ex libris has put bread and butter on many an artist’s table, and over the course of time has developed into a flourishing art form all of its own. I don’t pretend to know very much about the history and development of ex libris, but seem to have acquired some anyway. I think this little group of Austrian, Czech and German bookplates of the Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) period are particularly charming. They come from the Vienna art revue Die Graphischen Künste, from the years 1911, 1912, and 1914. — Neil Philip
Located in Berlin’s bohemian Mitte district, the newly opened SoHo House used to be a Jewish department store before Hitler’s Nazi regime claimed the space and converted it into a youth “House of Unity.” Now it houses a stylish 40-room hotel and private club where Euro jetsetters can lounge on the rooftop pool, relax in the Cowshed spa, or dine at Cecconi’s while mingling with a young creative community. For those not cool enough to get a a private membership, room rates at the hotel for nonmembers start at US$130. –Terena Thyne Eisner
“Its great courtyards and southern and western facades, which are not visible from the Danube and from the Pest side, have good 18th-century details and proportions, Baroque rather than classical, in the Austrian manner (it was said that Franz Josef had insisted on that). It would soon have a fine terrace above the river, around the equestrian statue of Prince Eugene of Savoy, whose armies reconquered Buda from the Turks in 1686.” – Budapest 1900: A Historical Portrait of a City & its Culture, by John Lukacs.
All images except Mátyás Church, by Jessica Tudzin.
The Royal Palace, originally built on the remnants of a 15th-century Gothic fortress by the Habsburgs in 1905. The palace was destroyed during the Siege of Budapest in 1945, later to be rebuilt after the war. During reconstruction, workers discovered the ruins of the medieval fortress, which were left untouched and can still be seen throughout the grounds today.
Church of St Mary Magdalene, built in the mid-13th century. During the Turkish occupation, it served as a mosque. The church was severely damaged during the liberation of Buda from the Turks. Afterwards, an order of Franciscan monks reconstructed the church and tower in the Baroque style, only to be severely damaged again in 1945. Today in partial ruins, the Church of St. Mary Magdalene sits empty within a memorial park.
While Hungarian Christians worshipped at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene, the town's German population worshipped at the 13th-century Parish Church of Our Lady Mary, known more popularly as Mátyás Church (Sometimes spelled in the Anglicized Matthias). Its name is derived from King Mátyás Corvinus, who is responsible for enlarging the church during the 15th century. Like its counterpart shown above, Mátyás Church had been converted into a mosque during the Turkish occupation. In the late 18th-century it was restored to a church in the neo-Gothic style. Today, colorful ceramic tiles made by the famed Szolnay ceramics factory in the 20th century adorn the roof. Photo courtesy of the Four Seasons Gresham Palace.
The former Ministry of Defense bears the scars of the 1945 Siege of Budapest, where Soviet forces fought the Nazis and eventually took control of the city. The battle lasted 102 days and nearly 70 percent of Budapest was destroyed or severely damaged. All seven bridges linking Buda to the Pest side were damaged. Contrary to what many guide books suggest, most of the damage from that era has been repaired. The former Ministry of Defense has been left untouched and sits on Castle Hill as a reminder of the city's turbulent WWII past.
Built in 1895, when the city was experiencing a construction boom, the Fisherman's Bastion was built solely for decoration to commemorate the fishermen who once sold fish on the banks of the Danube. The bastion affords panoramic views to the Pest side.
Statue of St. Stephens, Hungary's first king. The statue is located within Holy Trinity Square, alongside the Fisherman's Bastion and Mátyás Church.
Vintage military vehicle parked near the neo-Romanesque building that houses the State Archive of Historic Documents.
Holy Trinity Column, built in 1713 during the Baroque era as a memorial to the plague victims. The column is made of limestone and depicts at its base King David praying for an end to the plague. Crowning the top are the Holy Trinity, surrounded by clouds and angels.
The cobblestoned street of Tancsics leads to The State Archive of Historic Documents building. Much of the 19th-century Germanic architecture on Castle Hill was spared damage during the WWII era.
If you’ve been following this blog over the last few weeks, you know that I recently took a trip to Prague, aka the City of a Hundred Spires. It was my first trip to this grand Bohemian city, but it will definitely not be my last. I absolutely fell in love with it! Of course, I loved the architecture, which ranged from 1900′s art nouveau buildings in the Jewish Quarter to the 1000-year-old gothic cathedral of St. Vitus. I fell in love also with the city’s palatial gardens, the plethora of museums, and the late-harvest Czech wines. But what I found most appealing were the stories, many of them not unlike those of the dark tales told by the Brothers Grimm. With centuries of stories handed down to them, the Czechs have evolved to become natural storytellers, spinning yarns that include people getting thrown out of windows and off bridges, of a mute half-human creature walking the old Jewish ghetto, and of a mad medieval ruler who roasted his personal chef alive on a spit. Some of the stories are fantasy, many, however, are true–and the ones that cannot be verified are called legends. But some of those legends are so detailed, based on actual events and people who lived during the time, one suspects there is more truth than fiction behind them. The Legend of the Old Town Clock is one of those that come to mind.
Recorded by the Czech historical novelist Alois Jirásek (1851-1930), the story revolves around the Astronomical Clock, located in the heart of Prague, on the building of the Old Town Hall. The setting is the late 15th century, shortly after a master clockmaker and mathematician by the name of Master Hanus (born Jan Z. Ruze) improved upon the existing town clock. It had been a simple one, originally built by clockmaker Mikulas of Kadan around the year 1410. Hanus, however, transformed the clock into a curiosity, adding more than a dozen statuettes, including a skeleton that not only marked each hour by pulling a rope, but, with a running hourglass clutched in its boney hand, also served as a constant reminder that all living things grow closer to the grave. There were also medieval stereotypes: a Turk who shook his head, a Jewish moneylender who shook a money pouch, and a man who gazed vainly into a mirror. Each hour on the hour, two small windows above the magnificent dial would open, revealing a procession of 12 apostles, each one, as it rotated passed an open window, bowing to the town’s people below. After the last two apostles took their bows, the windows closed and a mechanical crow would cluck, followed by the bell towers chiming in the hour. In the medieval mind, the earth was firmly fixed in the center of the universe, and thus, Hanus imitated on the clock’s dial the orbits of the sun and moon around the earth. In addition to measuring Bohemian and Babylonian time, the clock also showed the movement of the sun and moon through the 12 zodiac signs. The unusual clock drew crowds from near and far away lands. They filled the Old Town Square, standing on tiptoe, craning their necks, eyes glued to the golden circles that made up the clock’s various dials. Indeed, Prague’s Town Hall clock was the envy of Europe – and the eventual demise of poor Master Hanus.
The story goes that the clock abruptly stopped running in 1497. This, according to legend, did not happen by chance. The town’s councilors enjoyed the status that the clock had brought the city, but they also feared that Master Hanus would recreate his masterpiece in another city, despite the fact that he pledged an oath that he would never betray Prague by doing such a thing. Sadly, Master Hanus’s word was not enough to ease the suspicion in the minds of the councilors, so they hatched an evil plan. Late one night, while Master Hanus worked diligently by the light of his fireplace, three hooded men broke into his home. The men gagged the clockmaker and dragged him toward the smoldering fire, where two of them held him down while the third blinded his eyes with a red-hot poker.
After their heinous act, the men wrapped a bandage around Master Hanus’s head and left him to fend for himself. Miraculously, Hanus survived, but not after suffering delirious fever and later deep depression. For the longest time, he could not understand who would ever want to do such thing to an aging clockmaker like himself. He was guilty of nothing other than taking care of the town’s beloved clock. But, as the legend states, Hanus found out the truth and revenge fell on his heart. In his blinded state, he found his way to the Town Hall to visit with his beautiful clock one last time. There, he managed to convince his way into the inner workings of the clock, explaining that wanted to adjust the weights so the clock would run more smoothly. But instead perfecting perfection, Master Hanus manipulated the machinery–as though he could see clearly–and ceased the clock just as the skeletal figure of Death began to pull its rope to mark the hour. As the clock stopped, so too did Hanus’s heart. He collapsed from a massive heart attack, taking with him to the grave the secrets to repair the clock. For the next 80 years, the Town Hall clock had told no time. — Jessica Tudzin
If you were to ask me 10 years from now what I was doing the night of March 1, 2010, I probably wouldn’t have to think too hard before I could give you an accurate answer. That was, after all, Fredrick Chopin’s 200th birthday. At least that was the day that was chosen to officially celebrate. (His baptismal certificate states he was born on February 22; it also uses the Polish spelling of his name Fryderyk.) I’ve had a wild hair for Chopin for a good number of years now, ever since listening to Scherzo No. 2 one sunny New Year’s Day in California many years ago. Actually, I may have been listening to any one of his compositions; the precise one exactly, I no longer recall. I do however have a vivid memory about the moment I first heard Chopin; I was struck by both great joy and deep sorrow. The music evoked a strong sense of longing, one that required me to sit down, close my eyes, and surrender my full attention. Chopin’s compositions still affect me like that sometimes, even after I’ve spent hundreds, maybe thousands, of hours listening to his music. (By the way, did you know that if you were to listen to all of his known compositions in one sitting, it would take you 22 hours?)
But it seems every time I listen to Chopin, I discover some new nuance in the music. Sometimes its cerebral, sometimes it’s not. There was something I once read about music not being so much the actual notes, but the pace and the length of the note, as well as the all-important spaces between the notes that give music its very soul. This absolutely applies to Chopin’s music. Not just any pianist can play Chopin in the way it is meant to be heard, which should be perfectly patterned, yet imbuing the emotion of a human voice.
So now I’m in Central Europe, an hour flight, and maybe a 6-hour train ride, from Warsaw — Chopin’s birthplace. And right there, in the actual home of his birth, the Zelazowa Wola, a new multi-media Chopin Museum has opened just a couple of months ago. Wallpaper magazine featured a wonderful photo shoot of the tricked out museum for their April 2010 issue. Check it out here. I hear the museum has sheet music in Chopin’s own hand, and even a lock of his hair. How much more can a girl take? And that’s not all that’s new in Poland. The government has spent more than a $100 million USD refurbishing a variety of sites associated with their native son, all especially for this special jubilee year commemorating his birth in 1810. Also part of the year-long celebration are a series of outdoor Chopin recitals scheduled throughout the summer in one of Warsaw’s main parks.
And what was I doing on March 1st this year? Why attending a Chopin recital here in Budapest, of course. I’m hoping a certain day soon in Warsaw might be just as memorable. In the meantime, I came across the two short films below, both of which are winners of a Chopin film contest sponsored by the Fryderyk Chopin Airport in Warsaw. Excuse me now while I contemplate some well chosen notes. – Jessicat