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Invalidovna: a gem of Prague architecture with baroque accents

In fact, you've probably seen it before – this old building originally intended for veterans has served as the backdrop for many films, from the Oscar-winning classic Amadeus by Miloš Forman to the Hollywood film Hellboy, or even more recently in the series devoted to Einstein and Freud.

"Everywhere mediocrities, I absolve you … I absolve you all" – these are the last words of the film Amadeus (1984), the famous biopic on Mozart, words tirelessly spoken by actor F. Murray Abraham, who won an Oscar for his portrait of the composer, Antonio Salieri, when he is taken to a dilapidated mad asylum with vaulted corridors.

It is one of the scenes – among many others – that was filmed in Invalidovna, a place of choice for international directors in the wide range of historic decorations in Central Europe, such as the Habsburg palaces in Vienna but also the French castles and many more.

(embed) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HW0-K-mx4eI (/ embed)

Several years ago, the Baroque building in the Karlín district was classified a protected national cultural monument and its management was entrusted to the National Heritage Institute – partly following a controversy among the community conservatives when it was to be auctioned (in any case, its starting price of 640 million crowns failed to attract buyers).

Invalidovna was for two centuries the hotel of veterans, disabled soldiers from all over the Austrian Empire, then from independent Czechoslovakia. It is by far the largest secular building, the work of architect Kilián Ignác Dientzenhofer. Born in Prague, he is considered a master of late baroque with almost 200 buildings to his credit throughout the Czech Republic, including the famous St. Nicholas Church in the historic district of Malá Strana in Prague.

As large as it was, the original building should have been almost 10 times larger. This is explained by Lucie Srpová from the National Institute of Monuments, who sometimes makes guided tours of the Hôtel des Invalides.

Hôtel des Invalides in 1845 by Ludwig Förster, source: public domainHôtel des Invalides in 1845 by Ludwig Förster, source: public domain

"What was built actually corresponds to 1 / 9th of the size originally thought for the building. Thus, there is only one court when it should have nine. Originally, construction was to take 40 years. The idea was to welcome 4,000 veterans and other soldiers to live here. Of course, with only 1 / 9th done, the number was smaller. However, during its most prosperous period, the hotel welcomed almost 1,500 people. "

The Austrian Emperor Charles VI commissioned the project in 1728, inspired by the Hôtel des Invalides in Paris, a building wanted by Louis XIV and built 60 years earlier, like the "El Escorial" complex built by the King of Spain Philip II. However, the construction of the "big house of the veterans" of Prague stopped definitively in 1737, for lack of financial means, after the completion of four wings around an arcaded courtyard.

Invalidovna, photo: Bohumil ŠimčíkInvalidovna, photo: Bohumil Šimčík

A "city in the city"

However, Invalidovna was almost a semi-autonomous city, according to curator Lucie Srpová:

Invalidovna, photo: Štěpánka BudkováInvalidovna, photo: Štěpánka Budková
“There was a church, a cemetery, a slaughterhouse. They also had their own bakery here. There was a bar, of course, and an officers' club. As for agriculture, there were fields, orchards – they just cultivated everything that could be. Thus, they were almost self-sufficient. If they didn't want it, they almost didn't need anything from the outside. "

The very site of Invalidovna has been known as the "hospital fields" since the 13th century when the Crusaders with the Red Star were there, a hospitable religious order founded by Saint Agnes of Bohemia, sister of King Wenceslas I.

Invalidovna, photo: Štěpánka BudkováInvalidovna, photo: Štěpánka Budková

Later, members of the order administered Invalidovna, which was to house its own brewery and distillery nearby, the complex itself comprising schools, various craft workshops, kitchens, ceremonial halls and a hospital.

Even though it only reached 1/9 of the original proportions, Invalidovna is known to have only two equivalents in Europe – the Hotel des Invalides in Paris and the Royal Chelsea Hospital in London, a hospice for veterans.

He certainly owns fairly luxurious and innovative duplex housing, having been designed at a time when the prevailing medical theory was that of miasmas – the idea that lack of light and bad air caused disease. It is for this reason that Invalidovna shines in the sun and maximizes air flow. And Lucie Srpová adds:

Invalidovna, photo: National Institute of MonumentsInvalidovna, photo: National Institute of Monuments

“The living quarters are sort of lofts. There is gallery accommodation with three aisles, which means that the bottom of the room was divided by columns into three naves and that side stairs went up to the gallery. You can imagine them as a kind of balcony. "

Opposite Invalidovna is a memorial to Count Pierre Strozzi, a Habsburg general of Italian descent, whose Florentine family had received land and titles in Bohemia in the 1630s.

Already in 1658, after a long convalescence due to an injury on the battlefield, Count Strozzi had drawn up a will in which he made available his important domain for the care of wounded and destitute veterans. A foundation for disabled soldiers was established in his name in 1664, after his death during a military siege of the Ottomans.

Invalidovna, photo: Bohumil ŠimčíkInvalidovna, photo: Bohumil Šimčík

“From the Invalids” by Josef Sudek

Invalidovna was a hospice for veterans until 1935. During the protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, the Nazis began to use the place as an archive space, a function which he then also had with the Czech army in 1945. The hospice is the oldest example of a social foundation for veterans in the country.

Josef Sudek, 'From the Invalids', photo: Archives of the Moravian Gallery in the city of BrnoJosef Sudek, 'From the Invalids', photo: Archives of the Moravian Gallery in the city of Brno

In this regard, the building is also linked to famous Czech photographer Josef Sudek, a First World War veteran, who had his right arm amputated after receiving shrapnel from a grenade on the Italian front in 1916.

Sudek has lived at the Hotel des Invalides in 1922 since 1927, where he learned the profession of photographer through a state program. His series "From the Invalids", an echo of 19th century paintings, constitute an invaluable study of the time and its fellow citizens.

Invalidovna has long housed the archives of the Institute for Military History as well as the archives of the history of architecture of the National Technical Museum, which can only be viewed by appointment.

Today, under the responsibility of the National Heritage Institute, the representative parts are open to tourists for half the year – at the end of spring, in summer and at the beginning of autumn – and other parts now house a cultural center, a creative center and a performance space, in cooperation with Studio Alta.