Charles Bridge tower to undergo multiyear renovation

The 14th century bridge tower is in poor condition, with outdated wiring, crumbling stones, and damaged decorations. Staff

Written by Staff Published on 25.11.2022 12:57:00 (updated on 14.07.2023) Reading time: 4 minutes

The tower on the Old Town side of Charles Bridge will undergo its most extensive renovation since its original construction in the 14th century. The first repairs have already taken place in the autumn. After the winter, a survey of the tower shell will determine the full extent of the needed repairs.

The repairs will fix stonework, roofing, wiring, staircase, decorative elements, and paintings. The initial phase will mainly concern the upper shell of the tower, including the complete replacement of some of the stones, and will take place over the next four years.

The repairs will cost several hundred million crowns, according to Prague City Tourism, which manages the tower. The final amount will depend on the conclusions of the restoration research, which will determine how much work needs to be done.

Old Town bridge tower. Photo: Prague City Tourism.
Old Town bridge tower. Photo: Prague City Tourism.

The building is not in good condition. It has an outdated electrical system, which is partly from the 1960s and partly from the 1980s, and a lot of structural and technical issues, Prague tower curator Karel Kučera said.

The renovations will be overseen by a new expert committee consisting of representatives of Prague City Tourism, the Municipal Department of Heritage Care, the Municipal Department of Property Management, and the National Heritage Institute (NPÚ).

"At the moment we have a company that is carrying out a structural and historical survey, which will take about a year and a half. In parallel, photogrammetry, or a thorough analysis of the stones and an estimate of the age of the material, will be carried out," Prague City Tourism monument administration head Petr Kotalík said.

The structural and historical survey will be followed by a technical survey that will serve as the basis for the development of specific projects. After that, Prague City Tourism will create project documentation and submit it to the city.

For the last four years, the tower's caretakers have been carrying out annual inspections of the shell to identify and secure areas that could be damaged by weather and temperatures.

Some cracked stones already fixed

The renovation began this autumn with the removal of corroded railings in the gallery that were damaging the stonework in the parapet. The railings were relocated to a better position. The work was supervised by the NPÚ and structural engineers.

"The cracked stone blocks were cleaned and the damaged sections were secured with stainless steel reinforcement. The fallen parts were glued back together in order to preserve as much authentic material as possible," Prague tower curator Karel Kučera said.

Prague City Tourism aims to gradually cultivate the city’s historical gems, and the Old Town Bridge Tower is clearly one of the most valuable historical buildings in the metropolis, it said.

The newly established expert committee has now agreed on the above-mentioned procedures and a timetable for repairs.

Prague City Tourism board chairman František Cipro said that in a project of this scale, you need patience.

"At the moment, we have completed what appears to be a small but important repair of the tower's walkway railing. The complexity of the modifications and the delicacy of the material require a truly special approach from all involved – from the expert committee to the restorers themselves on the construction site," Cipro added.

Otd Town bridge tower with Prague Castle in the background. Photo: Raymond Johnston.
Otd Town bridge tower with Prague Castle in the background. Photo: Raymond Johnston.

From the time of Emperor Charles IV

Construction on the Old Town tower on Charles Bridge started in 1357, at the same time as the bridge itself. The bridge and tower have the same main architect, Petr Parléř, who also contributed to Prague Castle.

Charles Bridge was built to replace the Judith Bridge, which collapsed in 1342. The route of the new bridge is a bit different. The tower on the Malá Strana side of Charles Bridge was part of the Judith Bridge and is older than the rest of the current bridge.

The Old Town bridge tower had a defensive purpose, to protect one of the main entry points to Old Town as there were no other bridges at the time. It also served as a triumphal arch on the coronation route to Prague Castle.

Steeped in symbolism

The decorations on the outside of the Old Town tower of Charles Bridge have a symbolic meaning, tracking the celestial spheres from earthly to heavenly. On the lowest level, you can see small sculptures of people flirting and engaging in earthy behavior. Around the arch in the entry you can find 28 small knobs, corresponding to 28 days in the lunar month.

Earthy people on the lower part of the Old Town tower. Photo: Raymond Johnston.
Earthy people on the lower part of the Old Town tower. Photo: Raymond Johnston.

Above the arch, there is a large circle representing the sun, and depictions of some historical figures as well as St. Vitus, who in medieval times was associated with the sun. On the upper level, there are more saints to indicate the heavens.

The tower was damaged in the Thirty Years’ War in the early 17th century as well as the uprisings of 1848. It was renovated in the 1870s by architect Josef Mocker, who also worked on the final stages of the construction of St. Vitus’ Cathedral.

The original sculptures on the front were replaced in 1972 with concrete copies and the originals were taken to the National Gallery. The concrete copies were replaced with more accurate sandstone ones in 2006.

Other décor includes coats of arms and a painted mural in the vaulting of the arch. Sculptures of kingfishers, associated with King Wenceslas IV, are also on the facade.

St. Vitus in the middle of the circle representing the sun. Photo: Raymond Johnston.
St. Vitus in the middle of the circle representing the sun. Photo: Raymond Johnston.

The solstice mysterium

During the summer solstice around June 21 every year, if you stand at the Old Town tower and look toward Prague Castle, you will see the sun set over the altar of St. Vitus’s Cathedral. The effect, known as the “Prague solstice mysterium” is thought to have been devised by astrologers at the time of Charles IV when the bridge and tower were designed.

A live-streamed view from the top of the Old Town tower of Charles Bridge can be seen here.

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