Kroměříž: the Palace of Bishops and Filmmakers

photo:  (radio.cz)

There is a Palace in Moravia like none other. You will find it in Kroměříž not far from the banks of the Morava river. What used to be a summer representative residence of the bishops and archbishops of nearby Olomouc, became a favorite film location. Inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage list, Kroměříž is a „must see" for all travelers in eastern Czechia.


Maybe you've seen the movie: it is a late 18th century. A darkened palace in Vienna on a cold winter evening. We can hear an elderly man, composer Salieri, calling the name of his rival Mozart, confessing to killing him. Then there are strange ominous sounds from the locked composer's chamber.

As two servants break in using force, they find bleeding Salieri who evidently tried to cut his own throat. They rush the moaning old man along the snow-covered Vienna streets, on a stretcher. The camera cuts dramatically between the hapless Salieri and the bright luxurious ballrooms where people are merrily dancing to the music of his rival Mozart.

In 1984, Film Amadeus became one of the most decorated films of all times. It got many awards and including 8 Oscars – among them one for the Best Art Direction. In other words, the American Academy of Motion Picture Art and Sciences praised specifically the overall esthetics of the film, design of the sets that so convincingly corresponds to the music of a genius. And, to many people surprisingly, you can walk right through that exquisite beauty of late baroque in the small town of Kroměříž in Central Moravia. For some of the most memorable scenes of Amadeus were NOT shot in Austrian Vienna, but right here in the Archbishop's Palace.

Before I enter the building with the castellan and historian Martin Krčma, I want to clear out one slightly confusing fact. It is a „Palace", but even the official leaflets describe it as a „Chateau" and when UNESCO included it in its World Heritage List as a castle. So, which is it?

In our terminology, it is a chateau. Nevertheless, in its function and in the sense of the word as understood in a European context, it is a representative palace.

Kroměříž has always been just a summer residence. So why did the bishops of Olomouc decide to invest so much money, time and effort to build this opulent building and fill it with treasures of European art here in what is to this day a bit of rustic backwater?

We have to understand that Olomouc, where the Bishops and later Archbishops had their administration center, was simultaneously a royal city and fortress. That meant that there were limited possibilities to develop a truly representative and spectacular residence. Kroměříž, where they had had their much humbler residence long before they built this baroque palace, made that possible. After all, it is not that far from Olomouc. So, for the summer residence, Kroměříž was the obvious choice.

As often happens in the course of history, it was war devastation that made building something new and magnificent possible. But as also happens almost without exception, a unique, enlightened personality with a vision was needed, too. In case of Kroměříž, it was an Austrian nobleman appointed the bishop of Olomouc in the 17th century:

Karl II von Liechtenstein-Kastelkorn inherited his diocese after the Thirty-Years' War in a very poor condition. He had an opportunity to kind of restart both its spiritual and economic life and he decided to rebuild the Kroměříž palace so that it would represent the cultural and economic richness of the region. He had excellent education himself and managed to put together a group of top architects and engineers. Together with them, he built this palace in about twenty years.

Says castellan Martin Krčma, as we walk across the main courtyard into the corridors of this magnificent palace:

This is the Hunting Hall. We have in fact entered directly into the representative halls and are following the steps of the most important visitors who came for an audience with the archbishop. They would be usually visitors from noble families or high church officials. But there were even the most distinguished visitors here, too. Right here in the Hunting Hall, we have a reminder of the highest meeting that took place here. The Russian Tsar Alexander III met the Austrian emperor Franz-Joseph I.

The official main reason for the meeting of Alexander III and Franz-Josef I was, in fact, the volatile situation in the Balkans were both powers had strategic interests. Even then in 1885, it threatened to cause a major war between the two powers. But here in Kroměříž, the monarchs wanted to demonstrate goodwill and the only bullets flew when they hunted together:

The two statesmen shot 6 stags. These are the trophies – each of them with a little silver plaque with the name of the hunter. And then we can see a billiard table, that was a present from Tsar Alexander do Cardinal Fürstenberg who hosted them. Both the emperors were really satisfied with their stay here in Kroměříž. It was a special meeting: they came with their families and stayed for three days. So, they all met, went together even to see a theatre play, and the emperors hunted together. The atmosphere was very friendly, and they probably wanted to demonstrate it to the outside world.

They did and it would take nearly thirty more years before the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Bosnian Sarajevo start a regional conflict that would immediately explode into a global conflagration of World War I. We are now surrounded by 99 paintings that represent one part of the Kroměříž Chateau.

Castellan Krčma shows me into the Throne Hall richly decorated and full of valuable works of art. It was here that bishops and archbishops would hold audiences and they wanted to impress their visitors:

There are two paintings missing here and they are considered to be the most significant of the whole gallery. The first is Titian's Flaying of Marsyas and right opposite the throne, there used to be David Contemplating the Head of Goliath by Artemisia Gentileschi. It was symbolic. Imagine the ceremonial meetings taking place here under these paintings with biblical and mythological significance. David with the Head of Goliath symbolized the victory of the good over evil in the Judaic Christian tradition. Flaying of Marsyas represented punishment of pride or victory of wisdom over pride. These two paintings are not in here in the Throne Hall but visitors can still see them in the gallery on the next floor where we concentrated 100 most significant works from our collections.

Finally, we make our way into the probably most famous hall of all: Movie fans all over the world know our Parliament Hall often without even realizing it. It is a very popular film location. It was here that Miloš Forman shot some of the most spectacular scenes in his multiple-Oscars winning Amadeus. There are many other movies with scenes shot in this Hall. Last, but not least, was Oscar-nominated Danish film A Royal Affair.

But the name Parliament Hall indicates that it was also a set of actual and real historical events, not just film scenes. It was right here that the first democratically elected Austrian Parliament met in the revolutionary year of 1848. More than 400 deputies came to Kroměříž from all corners of the old empire

They met originally in Vienna. But after the revolution and uprising in October 1848 took the city by storm, the Emperor Ferdinand and his court moved to Olomouc. The parliament came here to Kroměříž so that they could stay in close touch – it was close to the Imperial Court. Another reason being that the size of this Palace made it possible to house such a hastily moved large body of men.

The Hall is richly decorated in the style of Viennese rococo (or late Baroque). It was built after a devastating fire in the second half of the 18th century. It ranks among the largest halls of this type in Central Europe. What makes it unique are the ceiling paintings – they are not frescoes but huge canvases fastened to the ceiling. They celebrate the builder of this Hall, Bishop Hamilton. He was really instrumental in rebuilding this baroque palace after the great fire that I mentioned, and we can see him in the front painting.

Bishop Maximillian Hamilton, as his surname suggests, came from an old Scottish Catholic family. His ancestors fled during the Glorious Revolution and settled in Bavaria. He studied to be a priest, rose in the church ranks and was finally appointed to Olomouc. Like his predecessor Karl von Lichtenstein-Kastelkorn one century earlier, he left an indelible mark on Kroměříž and the Parliament Hall is just a part of his legacy:

The Chateau Garden is the most visited part of our complex. The entrance is for free and it is open all year around. We estimate that it is visited by some half a million visitors yearly, though we do not know for sure because it is a freely accessible area. The second most visited is actually the Flower Garden located a little distance away. The Chateau, itself comes only third, all its art treasures notwithstanding. So, it is really the gardens that draw visitors to Kroměříž.

The Chateau as a baroque palace had originally 20-acre garden. It underwent significant changes depending on prevailing trends of different periods. What we can see today, is basically an English Park of the second half of the 19th century. It is one of the best-preserved examples of this style. That was, in fact, one of the main reasons why the Chateau and its gardens were recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Be it as it may, the Chateau itself is a wonderful place full of beautiful paintings, furniture, and interior design. Trust me, you don't have to be an art connoisseur to appreciate its unique atmosphere that makes you feel the importance of historical events witnessed by its walls.

Author: Český rozhlas Radio Praha
Added: 12.01.2018

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