European painting from 15th to 18th century from collections at Prague Castle. The history of the Picture Gallery at Prague Castle
Emperor Rudolf II., who turned Prague Castle into a metropolis for the Holy Roman Empire, grew up in an environment filled with collector’s interest and support for artistic creation. His relationship to art was shaped under the influenced of Spanish King Filip 11, his grandfather Ferdinand I and father Maximilian II, and last but not least his uncle, Archduke Ferdinand II of Tirol. Rudolf II added to the collections he had inherited from his forefathers by intensively purchasing pieces of art and making orders from artists abroad, and by having hand-made work produced by his own court artists. He hired professional agents and tradesmen to seek out pieces of artwork for him, while the Emperor’s ambassadors also carried out this role in their important European courts, and court artists on their trips around Europe. The rapidly growing collection demanded spaces be built specially to accommodate them. For this reason, following 1585 when the architect, Giovanni Gargioli arrived at Prague Castle, construction got underway on the Long Construction (also called the Corridor building) beside the west-facing parapet which was finished just before 1600. On the ground floor, among others, there was a harness room, on the first floor an art chamber and on the third, a gallery. This was connected to the hundred-meter tract and in 1598, the Spanish hall – Picture (nowadays referred to as Rudolf) Gallery was finished. The Complex for the Rudolfine collections was crowned by the New (also referred to as the New Spanish) hall for the Emperor’s collection of sculptures, started during 1601 and completed in 1606. In 1600 movement of the Emperor’s collections got underway over to the completed premises. There was clear evidence in the former harness room of a collection of rare saddlery, and in the art chamber inside cupboards, trunks, cabinets as well as on tables revealed sculptures along with smaller-sized paintings, volumes with drawings and graphics, ancient art, art craftsmanship of all kinds, numistatical, ethnographic, oriental, botanical, zoological collections as well as scientific equipment and many other areas of interest for collectors, complemented by the relevant specialist literature. The paintings were spread out over the 2nd floor of the Long corridor and in the Spanish hall. There was a total of 3000 including work from all the eminent Italian, Dutch and German masters, past and present. One significant part of the collection comprised the work of Rudolfine painters and sculptors.
After the death of Rudolf II, his successor, Emperor Matthias had a significant portion of the collections secretly transported to Vienna. A part of these was to be seized by Maximilian of Bavaria after the battle at White Mountain and another part was taken away by Sachsen soldiers during the seizing of Prague in 1630. Anything that the treasurer, Miseroni didn’t manage to store in safe hiding places, was seized by Swedish soldiers in 1648 in order to appease their art-loving Queen, Kristina.
The empty halls for collections at Prague Castle were not to remain without precious contents for long. In 1650, Emperor Ferdinand III purchased a collection from Lord Buckingham by means of Archduke Leopold Vilem in Antwerp. This set of paintings was of outstanding quality, however was nowhere near large enough to fill the gallery spaces of Prague Castle. It was therefore decided to gradually enhance this set by bringing in paintings from Vienna, among which, a number came from the former collection of Leopold Vilem. The new castle collection was to be dealt a similar fate as its Rudolfine predecessor, however. The constitutionalising of official Habsburg collections in Vienna (Stallburg, later Belvedere) under Emperor Charles VI led to the most valuable paintings been moved in that direction. A lack of money in the Emperor’s coffers resulted in the highly concealed sale of paintings to Dresden (1742, 1749). When architect Nikolaus (Nicolò) Pacassi launched the Theresian rebuilding of Prague Castle, the separate picture gallery at the Castle was closed and paintings which weren’t taken over to Vienna were used to decorate the representative and residential rooms of the New Palace. During this process, it was decided to modify their dimensions so that they fit in with the regular design of the wooden panelling on the walls which clearly showed a lack of consideration to the paintings themselves. The creation of the Viennese collections resulted in further hauling over of paintings to Vienna but also expert judging of quality for the remaining Prague pieces, the return of authorship to the currently anonymous paintings and expert restoration of these. A number of prominent pieces were loaned out to the ‘Patriotic Friends of Art’ gallery in Prague at the end of the 18th century.
The moving of paintings to and fro between Prague and Vienna came to an end at the start of the 20th century. Upon creation of the Czechoslovak Republic, it was felt that there was no longer any real collection of paintings at Prague Castle, hence why in 1930 action was taken to make purchases using resources from the so-called Masaryk Trust. The bought pieces mostly involved Czech Baroque paintings and pieces by masters from the 19th and 20th centuries. In 1962 paintings of the old masters, at that time deemed inappropriate for the office of Communist Presidents, were transported to the depository at the castle in Opočna and modern pieces were handed over to the National Gallery. It wasn’t until subsequent artistic-historical and restoration research was carried out that the importance of the paintings was rediscovered from the once famous picture gallery at Prague Castle providing impetus for a new one, opened in 1965 and situated in the historical grounds beneath the halls in which the gallery was once located.
In 1998 the Administration at Prague Castle completed extensive reconstruction work to the exhibition areas and provided public access to the new Picture Gallery at Prague Castle. On top of this, the collection was enhanced by several additional works which had once adorned the Rudolfine collections. And so the oldest Picture Gallery in the Czech lands situated here as of the last decade of the 16th century at Prague Castle, is now able to present to visitors in the 21st century.