Located high above the Vltava river in Bohemia in the Czech Republic, 30 minutes by car north of Prague, lies the beautiful Renaisance Nelahozeves Castle, dating from 1566. It's remarkable exhibition 'Six Centuries of European Art Patronage' offers a unique collection of never before seen paintings, musical instruments and precious manuscripts spanning the last six centuries. The exhibition was inaugurated by the Czech President Vaclav Havel, himself a great lover of fine art and music.
'My father's family has played a central role in the history and culture of Bohemia for more than 600 years,' says with a smile the 39-year old American-born William Lobkowicz. 'They included many Princes of the Holy Roman Empire and High Chancellors of Bohemia. Many of them were awarded the Order of the Golden Fleece, the highest honor of the Holy Roman Empire, but today we are virtually paupers.'
'You see, I was born in United States. It never occurred to me that I would leave America - until the fall of 1989. One evening, I saw a television news report showing hundreds of East Germans taking refuge in the West German Embassy in Prague - proof that the Communists' grip on the country was weakening. But what riveted my attention was the building the Germans were storming: it was a former Lobkowicz palace. Suddenly I knew that I wanted to find a way to live in Czechoslovakia - to learn Czech and try to rebuild the family identity that the Nazis and Communists had tried so hard to kill. So, during 1990, I took a crash courses in Czech, bought every language tape I could find and took a three-week scouting trip. In January 1991, I moved to Prague.'
This impressive art collection is an important part of Czech cultural heritage, and it rivals the collection of paintings at the Prague Castle itself. It reflects the major themes of the cultural and political history of Bohemia and Europe, from the Renaissance until 1930's. In it are thousands of works from the collection of the Roudnice branch of the Lobkowicz family. Among them are paintings by Lucas Cranach the Elder, both Pieter Brueghel the Elder and Younger, Paolo Veronese, Rubens, Velasques, and Canaletto. The exhibition also features a major collection of furniture, ceramics, porcelain, family photographs, manuscripts, arms and armors which decorated the many Lobkowicz castles over the centuries.
Highlights of the 25 exhibition rooms include the Family Portrait Galleries, which contain among others paintings by Spranger, Sanchez-Coello, and Hans von Aachen. Other galleries include court, diplomatic and marriage portraits illustrating the family connections to royal and aristocratic courts of Europe: Emperor Rudolph II, Kings Phillip II and III of Spain, King Henry II of France and his wife, Catherine de Medici, and the Emperor Charles VI of Austria.
The Dutch Cabinet room is devoted to Dutch, Flemish and German paintings, while another one focuses on two views of London by Canaletto purchased by Prince Ferdinand Philipp Lobkowicz in England in 1746. The paintings in all the rooms are accompanied by relevant decorative arts.
After the fall of communism, Martin and William Lobkowicz, the eldest son and grandson of Prince Maximilian Lobkowicz, returned to Czechoslovakia. One of the results of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the European Revolution of 1989 was the passage of restitution laws, designed to repair some of the injustices of the communist regime, and to revitalize the country. Thus, some real estate and personal property could be returned to its previous owners, whose property had been confiscated by the communists.
This turned out well for the Lobkowicz family. Nine castles were returned back to the Roundnice branch of the family, but most of them in a state of bad disrepair. Two of them were in relatively best condition: Nelahozeves Castle and Roudnice Castle.
'Deteriorating castles and conservation of priceless music were just two fields in which my family suddenly needed expertise. Paintings were another. A wonderful canvas, Haymaking, by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, was among the items returned by the government. Two splendid Canalettos, a Rubens and works by Velasquez, Lucas Cranach the Elder and other European masters were also recovered - treasures of incalculable worth,' recalls Lobkowicz. 'My family felt we owned and cared for these objects as custodians; to make them available to the public was a responsibility. We dedicated ourselves to the goal of keeping the castles open for visitation, the art work on permanent exhibit and the music (as well as the library and archives) available for study by scholars,' explains Lobkowicz.
The Roudnice branch of the Lobkowicz family was perhaps best known as patrons of Beethoven, Goethe and Dvorak. Richard Wagner's stay at the Lobkowicz castle at Strekov inspired him for the creation of Tannhäuser.
And so, another treasure room is devoted to Ludwig van Beethoven and his patron, Prince Josef Franz Lobkowicz. Musical scores, manuscripts and instruments are displayed here, many of which have never been seen by the public.
Among other treasures, this collection includes first editions of Beethoven's Third, Fourth, and Fifth Symphonies, with the composer's notes; a first edition of Handel's Messiah, with annotations by Mozart; Gluck's autograph score of Enzio; and an early printed edition of Don Giovanni. The family had acquired them thanks to the passion of Josef Franz Maximilian, the seventh Prince Lobkowicz (1772-1816), who from early youth was a friend and generous patron of Beethoven. Indeed, his patronage led Beethoven to dedicate numerous works to him, including the Third (Eroica), Fifth, and Sixth Symphonies, the Opus 18 string quartets, the Triple Concerto and the song cycle "An die ferne Geliebte."
Nelahozeves is a charming Renaissance chateau, located in the village in which the composer Antonin Dvorak was born, his birth house also being returned to the family. The castle continues the tradition of the family in patronizing the arts by remaining open to the public.
William Lobkowicz continues his story: 'My family nurtures a dream that the musical-instrument collections may some day be revived, and the previously unplayed or unknown works of great composers - among the several thousand collected by my ancestors - may be played again in the castle. Already, a popular music tradition has been started: the Dvorak Music Festival at Nelahozeves. In the last six years, more than 120 concerts have taken place.'
The family had made great financial efforts to repair the castle and keep it operating. One of their successful ventures was re-energizing the family brewery which dates from 1466. They are now selling their Lobkowicz beer internationally. And they succeeded in doing the same for the Castle Roudnice Vinyards, founded in 1603, where winemaking had never stopped, even under the Communists. When Queen Elizabeth II paid the first English Royal visit to Bohemia in 400 years, their Roudnice wine was served at the state dinner given in her honor.
With pride, William Lobkowicz looks at his wife and says, 'My French-Romanian wife Alexandra has been very enthusiastic about taking part in our work. She now also manages all the non-profit activities, including the Roudnice Lobkowicz Foundation, and oversees the staff who care for all the family art collections. With an English curator, she created the exhibition "Six Centuries of European Art Patronage,' which was opened by President and Mrs. Havel to critical acclaim in April of 1997. '
The castle is ideal for tourism. With that in mind, the Lobkowicz family started a travel agency, Lobkowicz Travel Services, which specializes in group tourism, business meetings and congresses for clients coming to the Czech Republic. The castle itself is the site of many popular commercial and cultural events year-round. Groups and individuals can rent rooms in the castle for social gatherings, gala dinners, garden parties and weddings. Post-conference programs, tours of the nearby city of Prague, all kinds of transportation and custom-made tours in the Czech Republic are also available.
What is the greatest challenge ahead for William and Alexandra? "I think it is the creation of an archive building for the library to house music manuscripts and approximately 28,000 boxes of materials, dating back more than 600 years. This is our most important project at this time, and we give it all our energy. Our philosophy is to make positive contributions to society by supporting arts and culture,' concludes the young and energetic man.