La fosca a voltes creix i cal encendre
la llàntia del cor: qui pot entendre
la nua veritat ama el soscaire.
Sometimes darkness grows, then you turn on
the inner lamp: he who understands
the naked truth, loves solitude.
–Llorenç Moyà– *
“Христос воскресе! – Christ has risen!” From this nigh’s resurrection service in the Orthodox Uspensky church in Lemberg.
In nineteen-sixteen, when Makovsky painted this picture, there was war, the East and the West clashed on the territory of present-day Ukraine, just like today. In that year, there was a rare occurrence: the Easters of all the Christian denominations of present-day Ukraine coincided with each other, just like in 1942, and today. This night every church of Lemberg/Lwów/Lviv/Lvov is full. The Polish Catholic, Ukrainian Greek Catholic, Russian Orthodox and Armenian Catholic believers celebrate together the resurrection of Christ.
The Golden Angel stood in the center of Smíchov on the spot where the main road, named for the local garden of the Kinsky Princes (and since 1920 after the Slovak general Štefánik), comes from Prague’s Lesser Town through the Újezd Gate, and then crosses the other main road coming from New Town over the Palacký Bridge, which was named after the historian František Palacký (and since 1945 the martyred town of Lidice). It was a squat, one-story house, but its low tympanum proudly proclaimed that this is the most upscale restaurant of the town – because, until 1921, Smíchov was an independent town! –, the first to be encountered, both when just arriving at the Smíchov railway station two blocks away, and when coming out of Prague to look after your job in the dynamically developing industrial quarter.
In the restaurant, founded in 1869, they first served the beer of the nearby Action Brewery (from 1911 Staropramen), but nine years later they opened their own brewery in the back wing of the building. The 10° Angel beer, a “desítka” in local parlance, though brewed only in quantity of 8,400 hectoliters a year, only a quarter of the Staropramen’s production, became famous even outside of Smíchov. Until the early 20th century, by which time the Staropramen brand had become so prominent that the small breweries of the neighborhood could not compete with it any more. Nevertheless, the Angel restaurant, even without its own beer, remained an important reference point of the small town, which later became the 5th district of Prague, so that also the intersection and the surrounding area was referred to as “the Angel”, křižovatka Anděl.
The intersection of the two main streets in the 1920s, coming from the station. The Golden Angel is on the left corner.
The 1920s and 30s were the golden age of the middle class of Smíchov. Czechoslovakia finished the war on the side of the victors and, thanks to them, it received independence, new markets, and customs sufferance. Czech heavy industry flourished, the Ringhoffer-Tatra wagon and machine factory devoured entire blocks of houses in the area opposite the Angel, and glory winged its way also to lower social strata. In the downtown of Smíchov there was not a house without one or two stylish shops on the street front, and a few more in the courtyard.
The expansion of the Ringhoffer factory also laid claim to the former site of the Jewish community of Smíchov. It was for this reason that the community moved into the center, in the block of the Angel, where in 1927 they built their new synagogue at the factory’s expense, and in the new Functionalist style, fashionable throughout Czechoslovakia, about which we will write more later.
The synagogue still standing in the Station (Nádraží) Street. Behind it, to the left, the block of the Angel.
The golden age came to an end in 1948. The shops were nationalized, and in the following decades, slowly eroded. Anyone who came to Smíchov in the late 1980s was greeted by the sight of a once prosperous little town left to decay for forty years, a familiar situation throughout the Eastern block. On the majority of the once elegant houses on the main street were signs reading: “Pozor, padá omítka!” – “Caution, falling plaster!”, complemented by the folk graffitti that read: “V sobotu a v neděli též kominík!” – “On Saturday and Sunday the chimney sweeper, too!” Although Jan Čech’s 2009 blog entry lists with a profound nostalgia the small pubs and dingy canteens of Smíchov in the 70s, it is probably the magic of time which lends enchantment to the view. Nor did the Angel restaurant escape its fate: it became an eating house, “Bufet – Smáženka”, where, you remember, one could have a greasy fried sausage and an early morning beer standing at the small round tables in the unheated room on a winter morning, before beginning the sightseeing tour.
The entrance of the Angel eating house. “Smážené speciality” – “Fried specialities!” Can you imagine? Photo by Jan Čech, 1970s
The Angel junction in the late 1970s, from here
Then in 1980 this also came to an end. The Smíchov stop of the underground’s B line was placed in the block of buildings where the Angel had stood. The Golden Angel was pulled down on 16 January 1980, and the metro station, as well as the junction – for, of course, such a sacerdotal name could not be tolerated – were rechristened Moscow. Only the emblematic angel mural on the facade tympanum, the work of the eminent late 19th-century historical painter Václav Brožík (1870) was saved by the restorer Olga Beránková. And above the station they begin building the Moscow department store, which, however, was never completed. For years, from the partly finished walls of the ground floor loomed up the stumps of the iron girders of the concrete monster, planned to be five storeys.
But Smíchov did not fully remain without an angel even after 1980. In 1929, they had transported over and, in the Kinsky garden, installed the wooden Greek Catholic church of St. Michael the Archangel from Nagylucska – Velyki Lučki – in Subcarpathia, which had been carved out of Hungary and awarded to Czechoslovakia by the 1920 Treaty of Trianon. The Czech public at the time cherished a kind of romantic image of the tiny, archaic and unspoiled Slavic villages in the Carpathian mountains, and they enthusiastically received this exotic ambassador from the remote province, officially a gift of the people of Rusinsko to the new capital. The archangel has ever since kept guard over the quarter from the Petřín hillside. From under the church tower an excellent view over Smíchov can be seen, as well as Vyšehrad Castle on the other side of the river.
After the Velvet Revolution, the rehabilitation of Smíchov, where the proportion of the industrial areas which was outdated or ruined during the socialist period was particularly large, took place quite slowly. Development was given a great impetus by the fact that the ING Group Real Estate chose Smíchov as its center in Bohemia, precisely because of its major brownfield areas just some minutes away from the center of Prague. In the first phase, by the autumn of 2000, they built the New Smíchov shopping center – about which we will write later – on the site of the massive Ringhoffer-Tatra factory, decaying in the center of Smíchov; and in place of the torso of the Moscow department store, that is, of the former Angel, they built the Golden Angel office building.
The architect was the Frenchman Jean Nouvel, designer of iconic buildings, such as Vienna’s Gasometers, Barcelona’s Torre Agbar, Paris’s Musée du quai Branlay, or Copenhagen’s Koncerthuset. No wonder then, that Prague’s Golden Angel also has become an emblematic building. It floats over the neighborhood like a blue ship, its stern rising up precisely at the spot of the old Golden Angel, on the corner of the block. Beneath it, at the corner of the reconstructed metro station – on the upper floor of the Colosseum pizzeria, to be exact – the angel mural saved from the tympanum of the old restaurant was exhibited. The tower is decorated with quotes from great Prague authors, such as Kafka, Rilke, Gustav Meyrink, Konstantin Biebl, and Jiří Orten. And above them, as for the third in a row, the angel who became man from Wim Wenders’ Wings of desire keeps guard over Smíchov.
Koží, that is, Goat Street, the former Ziegengasse in the old town of Prague preserves, like a geologic fossil, the traces of where the asanace – the rehabilitation, that is, the complete elimination of the crowded poor district, especially the Jewish quarter, which began with seismic force in 1893 – ended in the 1920s. The left side of the street was raised to the level of the newly erected Neo-Renaissance and Art Nouveau palaces, which lies, like a smooth-surfaced lake, above the vanished crooked streets of the former Josefov, enclosing the negative island of the lower-lying Jewish cemetery and the two surviving synagogues. The right side of the street, however, remained at the pre-rehabilitation level, and its winding streets also continue the missing tissue of Josefov.
I am rambling in the quarter of Saint Castalius, which goes for only a hundred meters, but at least a hundred years away from the palaces of the Art Nouveau Prague, when in the Street of the Sisters of Mercy, on the back wall of the deserted and decaying medieval Gemeindehaus, I catch sight of a curious plaster ad.
The ghost ad promotes Otta Soap. Its logo, the crayfish (in Czech, rak) suggests that the company was founded in Rakovník, that is, Rakonitz, by Joseph Otta in 1869. But when did they paint it here? The time delimiters are sufficient, as the Otta company, albeit nationalized, was still a going concern after the war, up until the 1990s, when it was acquired by Procter & Gamble.
I am researching in the library the traces of a disappeared inn of Prague, the Golden Angel in Smíchov, on the other bank of the Vltava, when among the old photographs of Smíchov I suddenly stumble upon this one, which depicts the building amely a Štefánikova 9/55:
The adjacent number 10/53 was built in the 1920s, leaving the firewall of number 55 free and suitable for advertisements. This photo was made in 1935. The ads change rapidly, for their effectiveness is contingent on novelty. Therefore the plaster ad in the Street of the Sisters of Mercy probably also comes from that period. In this way, it has advocated for Otta Soap for at least eighty or ninety years, since the end of the rehabilitation of the Old Town, already in its fifth generation. Time has really stopped on Koží Street.
Tábor, the tower of the South Bohemian Industrial and Military Exposition of 1929, from where the President of the Republic was greeted with trumpets, from here
“A riddle. Children, what is this? A figure? No! It is the name «Otta», the soap with the crayfish logo! Excellent and good for everything.”
in italiano • auf Deutsch • magyarul
• Alba, 1867
• Hong Kong, 1897
• Marseille, 1900
• Paris, 1904
• Valenciennes, 1918
• Buenos Aires, 1930
It’s impossible to decipher the date on the stamp, but from the gist of the letter I can imagine it was written shortly after the birth of my grand-aunt – let’s say, in 1904.
I also don’t know where this picture was taken, so perhaps my reconstruction is just mere imagination.
Let’s say that I found a place which, more than a century ago, might have been this place.
A place deserted today, in fact deserted since the death of the old blacksmith, thirty years ago. His widow then closed the house and the workshop, and she left.
Might the blacksmith have been one of the children on the picture? No, he was too young when he died, he could have not born before 1910. Perhaps he is rather the son of one of the men smiling at us.
And the two small girls, then? Born around 1900?
I know nothing of them.
But there are stories about two such small girls in the village, two orphaned sisters, charity cases. They never married, remained servants until their death. The elder by just one year was Louise, the younger Blanche.
I knew only Blanche, when I was a child. Louise had already been dead for years, but my father still remembered her chasing him as a small boy and whipping him with nettles in a fit of anger. The Blanche I knew was a large, wild woman with a knot of white hair, pushing a wheelbarrow full of laundry, and talking to herself. She had a tired old black dog, and she kept yelling at him in the village lanes “Allez viens, Gamin!” – “Come on, Lad!”
A very frightening old lady indeed, but she too must have been a child long time ago, like everybody else. One day, as she came uphill from the washhouse, she met my mother on the road and, though she never spoke to anybody, she dove into her basket, took out a bunch of onions, and gave it to my mother. “Take, it’s for you”, she said. I hope that, for those onions, she got a peaceful little corner in Heaven.
As for the deserted workshop, I presume it’s the same old place as the one on the postcard. The craftsman was a modest iron-worker, who made iron gates, gutters, grates, chains, tie rods for the masons and carpenters of the village – some of these pieces are still waiting to be used, leaned up against the wall. And behind the dusty windows, the workshop appears very quiet, ghostly quiet, with all the machines waiting to start the work again.
en français • in italiano • auf Deutsch • magyarul
|Album de famille:|
• Alba 1867
• Hong-Kong, 1897
• Marseille, 1900
• Paris, 1904
• Valenciennes, 1918
• Buenos Aires, 1930
Impossible de déchiffrer la date sur le timbre mais, du contenu de la lettre, on peut supposer qu’elle fut écrite peu de temps après la naissance de ma grand-tante — disons vers 1904.
Je ne sais pas non plus où la photo a été prise ce qui fait que ce que je vais reconstituer n’est sans doute que pure imagination.
Disons que j’ai retrouvé un endroit qui pourrait avoir été, il y a plus d’un siècle, ce lieu.
Un endroit aujourd’hui désert, déserté en fait depuis la mort du vieux forgeron il y a trente ans. Sa veuve a fermé alors la maison et l’atelier, et puis elle est partie.
Le forgeron pourrait-il être l’un des enfants sur la photo ? Non, il était trop jeune lorsqu’il est mort, il n’a pas pu naître avant 1910, le fils peut-être de l’un de ces hommes qui nous sourient.
Et les deux petites filles, alors ? Nées vers 1900 ?
Je ne sais rien d’elles.
Elles me font penser à deux de ces petites filles du village, deux sœurs orphelines, qui ont grandi grâce à la charité publique, ne se sont jamais mariées mais sont restées servantes jusqu’à leur mort. L’aînée, plus âgée d’un an, se nommait Louise, la cadette Blanche.
J’ai connu seulement Blanche dans mon enfance, Louise était déjà morte depuis des années mais mon père se souvient encore comment elle l’avait pourchassé en le fouettant avec des orties dans un accès de colère. La Blanche que j’ai connue était une grande femme farouche, ses cheveux blancs noués en arrière, qui poussait une brouette chargée de linge en parlant toute seule. Elle avait avec elle un vieux chien noir fatigué qu’elle appelait continuellement en passant par les ruelles du village « Allez viens, Gamin ! ».
Une vieille femme très impressionnante — mais elle aussi avait dû être un enfant longtemps auparavant, comme tout le monde. Un jour, comme elle remontait la colline depuis le lavoir, elle rencontra ma mère sur le chemin et, alors qu’elle ne parlait jamais à personne, elle s’était arrêtée, elle avait plongé la main dans son panier pour en tirer une botte d’oignons qu’elle lui avait offerte : « tenez, c’est pour vous ». Et j’espère que, pour cette botte d’oignons, elle a gagné un petit siège au Paradis où se reposer.
Quant à l’atelier déserté, j’imagine que c’est le même que celui sur la photo. L’artisan était un modeste métallurgiste qui fabriquait des grilles d’entrée, des gouttières, des garde-feu, des chaînes, des tirants métalliques, pour les maçons et les charpentiers du village — dont certains attendent encore de servir, posés contre le mur. Et derrière les vitres poussiéreuses du hangar, l’atelier apparaît si tranquille, fantomatique, avec toutes ses machines prêtes à reprendre du service.
in English • in italiano • auf Deutsch • magyarul