July 09: The Great Bohemian Bridge

2016/07/09 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1357 Emperor Charles IV laid the foundation stone of a new bridge in Prague.

The story at first sounds pretty rote. Through the ages and around the world, plenty of heads-of-state have shown up to stick a golden shovel in the sand, cut a ribbon, flip a switch, and proclaim a building project underway or complete.  This one was a little different.  Charles IV, King of Bohemia and Holy Roman Emperor (r. 1346-78), laid the regal stone with his very own royal hands, at a very, very specific time–9 July 1357, 5:31 am–the moment identified by court astrologers as the opportune moment.

Either the vision of the astrologers or the talent of the designer or the skill of the builders or the dough of the king to credit: what a bridge.  It is one of the tragedies of the Middle Ages, up there with the burning of Jean d’Arc and the troubles caused by those pesky Chinese rats, that the designers of this queen of bridges are unknown.  Sixteen arches leap across the Vltava in an entire length of over 1800 feet.  Their piers are protected by ice guards (those pointy things  that are designed to break up the ice and also direct the flow of debris in the water under the arches) and the bridge itself guarded by several fantastic towers characterized by that peculiar flavor of Prague Goth, with the dark stone, delicate details, and wedge-shaped, helmet-like roofs scraping the sky.

It’s a glorious bridge, one of the great ones of the world, built before people started thinking of these spans as means of mere conveyance over a natural obstacle–something to be accomplished to save some time and effort rather than celebrate the heroic leap against the laws of physics with the best that art can offer.  Bridges were once a significant part of the urban furniture of a place, meant to contribute aesthetically and symbolically to the city.  Charles’ bridge lives up to his station as well as the mystical fairyland in which it was built.

Image: looking at Prague from the Charles Bridge


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