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National Theatre (Národní Divadlo)

National Theatre (Národní Divadlo) (48)

The National Theatre, a lavish building dating from the late 19th century, forms part of the efforts aimed at the recognition of the Czech national spirit and its culture. The people of Prague call it “the golden chapel over the Vtlava” and, in fact, here there is as much culture as there is devotion.

In the 18th century, the German bourgeoisie dominated the institutions and there were very few cultural expressions in the Czech language. The flag-bearers of the nationalist movement wanted to have their own theatre that would symbolise the greatness of Czech culture. In 1849 they set up a fund that collected sufficient money for the construction of this building. In fact, it seems that it was the poorer social classes that contributed most to this project.

The works on the National Theatre began in 1868, following the plans of Josef Zítek, who had also designed the Rudolfinum hall. The building is in Renaissance style and recalls the Staatsoper of Vienna.

It seems that the construction of the National Theatre aroused such popular enthusiasm that 50,000 people came to the act that started the works off. Rocks were brought from the most important parts of Bohemia and Moravia. The first stone of this theatre, placed by Frantisek Palacký, came from Rip Mountain where, according to the legend, Cech, the ancestor of the Czech people, stopped and rested.

But bad luck dictated that when the works were finished and there were just a few days before the official opening, in 1881, a fire destroyed the building. Defiant before the difficulties, the organisers were able to raise sufficient funds in just a few days to rebuild it.

This time the architect entrusted with the job was Josef Schulz, who had also created the National Museum and that of Decorative Arts. Two years later, in 1883, the National Theatre was opened with the opera “Libuse” by Bedrich Smetana.

The artists who worked on the ornamentation produced such a singular piece of work that it was even said that they formed part of the Generation of the National Theatre. Among all of them, Mikulás Ales stands out, who produced the skylights in the Grand Salon inspired by the work, “My fatherland” by Smetana.

It is a good idea to get a wide perspective in order to take in the National Theatre. Otherwise its sheer size will occupy your entire field of vision and you will not be able to appreciate, for example, the curious blue tiled roof decorated with stars that symbolise artistic ambitions. On the roof, the goddess Victoria rides a bronze carriage pulled by three horses. On the west façade, there are several allegorical sculptures by the artist Antonín Wagner.

When you enter the lobby, make sure you look up to the ceiling, the spot chosen by Frantisek Zenísek in 1878 for a painting called “The golden age of Czech art”. In the main hall, you will be able to see the spectacular four-storey auditorium with boxes with paintings also by Zenísek. The gold and red curtain is an exquisite piece of work by Vojtech Hynais which recalls the origins of the theatre.

The royal box, currently called the presidential box, is lavishly covered in red velvet and decorated with figures from Czech history.

Between the late 70s and early 80s the National Theatre was restored and reopened in 1983. The students who opposed the regime occupied it as their headquarters after a police charge in 1989. For some time, this temple of the bourgeoisie was also the headquarters for mass meetings and popular mass-based actions.

But the National Theatre has grown since the time it was opened. On its centenary, a second hall was built alongside it, the work of Karel Prager, called Nova Scéna. Today the Laterna Magika theatre performs there, which means the Magic Lantern. Its shows are based on the combination of theatrical and cinematographic techniques, and are well worth seeing. Do not worry about not being able to understand Czech yet, because these shows are produced so that everybody can understand them, including visitors.

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