Thursday, June 23, 2011

What legends are made of...

Recall seeing those pretty carvings on buildings? I'm sure you've seen them, perhaps even wondered, "what does it mean?"

Well, what do they mean??

The house sign - a visual symbol formed in a house's gable, carved above the entrance, or constructed into the facade itself - served as a central point of orientation within the cities of medieval Europe. Not only did these iconic symbols grant the house its identity and character, they often expressed something of the personality, profession, or even surname of the owner.

In Prague, the house insignia began to make its appearance by the end of the 14th century. Until then, houses could only be told apart by the names of their owners, or with a long verbal inscription. Early house signs were painted on wooden plaques or directly onto the facade, although soon they also came to assume the form of a quasi-sculpture in wood or stone. They could depict the likeness of animals, plants, or even to stars, the sun or the moon. They could also depict human figures - mermaids, Moors, angels, soldiers, knights - or objects of common use, such as a ring, a door, a bell, a goblet, a key, a violin.

When a house changed its ownership, it often changed its insignia as well. However, from the 15th or the early 16th centuries, the installation of an insignia on a house began to be regulated by a special department of the city government, which strove to ensure that no identical names would appear within a single street. Starting in 1770, the houses of Prague were assigned a numbering system, and the house insignia soon lost its original importance. Yet the practice of marking houses with a visual symbol didn't come to an end for quite a long time, remaining as an expression of urban tradition, or at least architectural decoration.

Of the surviving house insignia in Prague, we can assume that there are at least 200, possibly even 300. The majority of them remain visible on the walls of original medieval buildings in the historic centre of Prague - in Old Town, the Lesser Quarter, Hradčany, and even New Town, yet they can also be discovered at the very edge of the city in outlying districts. Unfortunately, many an insignia was forever lost to posterity as a result of neglect or insensitive restoration during the era of Communism.

Aside from their historic and artistic value, today they give their buildings a truly irreplaceable expressiveness and character, a charm, that so many modern buildings just can't achieve. Also, they make a direct reference to the history of the place where they stand, and to the fates of people who lived there many centuries ago. Finally, they bear within themselves their own specific magic, an uncertain boundary where the symbol ends and the legend begins. After all, each of these insignia were brought into being through a specific person's vision, ambition, story and emotions, so that these lovingly and carefully carved or painted scenes would be the originators of still further stories - those poetic legends that the people of Prague would in turn tell about them.

Capturing the unique enchantment of Prague's house insignia are the words of the great Czech poet Vítězslav Nezval, who expressed his deep-seated love for the city in his renowned prose A Wander in Prague: "It is in this sense that I understand the concept of tradition, seeing within it the dreamlike and secretive resurrection of everything that may, or that has the strength (however long forgotten) to, captivate us at those moments when we are at our most pure, in other words when our desires return us to the earliest memory of that which we ourselves are, from those times when we were intrigued far more by simple ballad and age-old tales than the vexed confusions of ordinary life."

So what exactly does this insignia of three violins represent?

The house of the Three Violins stands at the lower end of Nerudova Street in Malá Strana (Lesser Quarter).  In the 2nd half of the 17th century, it was purchased by the widow of a violin maker, Barbara Ottova, who willed it to her son-in-law, violin-maker Leonard Pradter.  The next owner of the house was Pradter's former apprentice, Tomás Edlinger.  Tomás and his son Jáchym Jan Edlinger brought the violin-making trade to great prosperity; their violins, lutes and mandolins were a household word in Bohemia and across central Europe.  And it was the Edlinger family that, sometime around 1700, commissioned the beautiful insignia of three tiny violins, to commemorate the three generations of master violin-makers who had lived there.  According to legend, the ghosts of the Lesser Quarter sometimes play upon them under a full moon.  None can say, however, if they play in tune or not.

The Three Violins
Nerudova 12