It might have developed as one would have assumed, but Charles Square is ringed by no small amount of important historical sites and plenty of statues honouring influential men and women in marble and stone. If one takes the Charles Square exit from the metro, the first statue one sees is an almost blinding white monument to a woman by the name of Eliška Krásnohorská, although that isn’t the moniker that was inked onto her birth certificate. She was born Alžběta Pechová in the year of our good lord 1847, and it didn’t take long for tragedy to make its presence felt in her life. Her father passed away when she was just two years old, leaving Alžběta to be educated by her brothers. Somehow this led to her receiving a better education than if she had instead gone to school, and she soon excelled in the musical realm. A chronic joint problem meant she couldn’t play for long without feeling discomfort and pain, so she decided instead to throw herself in feminism and literature, far less painful endeavours (at least on the physical front). Along the way, she picked up the pseudonym Eliška Krásnohorská.
Krásnohorská wrote immensely descriptive lyrical poetry that was unashamed in its eroticism, influenced no doubt by her self-imposed celibacy. She was attacked from all sides as a result, although you don’t need to be an expert in gender history to realise that that means she was attacked by the males of society. Critics frequently cried that her work was unsuitable for an unmarried woman, that it wasn’t ladylike. Quite what business males have deciding what is ‘ladylike’ is another discussion, although the term itself can largely jog on. Not that Eliška gave a hoot, as she wasn’t writing for the benefit of society’s powerful men. She was a constant figure at the front of Bohemia’s late 19th and early 20th century women’s rights movement, opening the first gymnasium for girls in the entire Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1890, demanding the respect of all and sundry along the way.
Eliška Krásnohorská was introduced to feminism and literature by another figured honoured in Charles Square today, the indomitable Karolina Světlá. She was another important writer in the well-stocked Czech catalogue, albeit one with an immensely different upbringing to that of her protege. Světlá was born into wealth and received a fantastic education from a young age, although this didn’t lead her down the path her parents envisaged. She instead rolled up her sleeves and forced her way to the front of the women’s rights movement, campaigning left and right for a better position in society for the females of Bohemia. She was hindered later in life by her failing eyes, but this barely slowed her down. Unable to pick up a pen herself, she dictated her novels and birthed an entire genre of literature that focused on village life as opposed to the wider picture. She was a member of the Májovci (head back to Malostranská for them) along with Vítězslav Hálek, an optimistic soul also commemorated in Charles Square. Benedikt Roezl, our orchid-obsessed buddy from Bořislavka, is also here.
The final Czech hero honoured in the country’s biggest square has nothing to do with the Májovci and barely anything to do with orchids, although I can’t vouch for his flower preferences. In his time he was one of the most famous Bohemians on the planet and one of the most famous scientists in Europe, a man so popular that any post coming his way from across the ocean was simply addressed to ‘Purkyně, Europe’. Jan Purkyně was born in a castle as opposed to a house, which doesn’t sound so bad, but his father died when he was just six years old. This likely put a dampener on the whole ‘born in a castle’ thing. It did lead to Jan becoming a little bit of a child prodigy, a boy extremely proficient in languages and music who was accepted into a prestigious school on the back of his singing voice alone.
Jan the boy grew up to be Jan the Man, a fairly standard sequence of events, although he grew up to become a man who discovered an unusual optical illusion that takes his name today. The Purkyně Effect is the state where the human eye experiences reduced sensitivity to dimmed red objects as opposed to dimmed blue ones. In laymen’s terms, blue objects appear brighter than red ones in poor light.
Purkyně also founded the very first physiological institute in the world, when his requests for an achromatic microscope were finally answered. The microscope allowed Purkyně to examine the microanatomy of animal and plant tissue, which itself led to a veritable horde of new discoveries. Jan eventually got his hands on the first practical microtone, the instrument that allows lab workers to cut off wafer-thin slices of things in order to slide them under a ready and waiting microscope, allowing the structures hidden within to be seen more accurately. He managed to do all of this while overdosing himself on a variety of drugs in order to see what impact they had on his physical and mental statue, a constant experiment that likely led to him being the first to use the word ‘photo-plasm’ in a scientific sense.
In Via The Left Bank of the ‘90s, John Bills takes the reader on a tour of Prague using the underground network as his guide, from the birth of the city at Vyšehrad through to the Velvet Revolution at Národní Třída and everywhere in between, including blokes who loved orchids and no small amount of executions. This is everything you ever wanted to know about Prague, and then some. The eBook available in our splendid little shop here.