The Art of the Manor

When William Wobkowicz reclaimed his family's Czech estates, he also inherited an extraordinary collection of old masters.

During a recent visit to the Czech Republic, I took a rundown train from Masaryk Station, in Prague, to a tiny Bohemian hamlet called Nelahozeves. This uncomfortable early-morning trip lasted an hour and a quarter (you can drive the distance in 40 minutes), but I was glad to have made it by rail because of the lively scenes I glimpsed. Not far outside Prague the clock seemed to have stopped 50 years earlier—ill-dressed workers clustered in ramshackle railway cafés, sipping their breakfast lagers—and when the train arrived at my destination, I had to jump off onto the track bed. I helped two fellow passengers, old ladies wearing kerchiefs, climb over the tracks and heave themselves onto the station platform.

Looming over the village was a great stone manor, guarded by a moat and a stand of full-crowned trees, its gray stuccoed walls teeming with sgraffito figures. Across from the manor and directly in my path was a substantial burgher's cottage, which turned out to be the childhood home of Antonín Dvorák. I walked briefly through this house, which, though bereft of any of the composer's possessions except for a viola, a pen, and a hymnal, was curiously moving (and reminded me that he had spent the summer of 1893 in, of all places, Spillville, Iowa). Then I made my way up to the manor.

Reached by means of an arched stone bridge spanning the dry, grassy moat, Castle Nelahozeves rises five stories from a gentle slope overlooking the village and the Vltava River. Almost on the scale of the monumental Palazzo Strozzi, in Florence, it was built mostly in the late 16th century by architect Bonifat Wohlmuth. Once I had recovered from the castle's sheer height and bulk, I began to notice its virtues: the massive rustication of the ground floor, the Mannerist sgraffito decorations, the graceful architectural order of the courtyard facades, and a general appearance of good repair, especially in the vast, terra-cotta-tiled roof. A wedding celebration was in progress: Obviously th castle, so close to Prague, was a favorite setting for parties and functions. Though I knew the building had suffered grievously under the Communist regime, it seemed to have regained its Renaissance splendor.

Like Dvorák himself, Castle Nelahozeves forms a notable link in the Czech-American connection, and behind it lies a story as astonishing as that of the Bohemian composer's sojourn in the semi-barbarous Midwest of the 1890s. This story's protagonist is a young businessman—enterprising, optimistic, and altogether American—named William Lobkowicz, who a few years ago was living quite contentedly in Boston, not far from the town of Dover, where he had grown up. The tale itself has to do with how William came to be lord of Nelahozeves—to take possession of the manor, with its moat and park and view of Dvorák's birthplace; and it also has to do with what William and his family made of its ancient furniture, porcelain, manuscripts, and paintings—which include a Velázquez, a Brueghel, and two deliriously beautiful Canalettos.

William's father, Martin Lobkowicz, is a stockbroker of Czech origin who lives in Dover and formerly commuted to his office in Boston. While watching the TV news one day late in l989, he and members of his family saw East German refugees massed at the West German Embassy in Prague, seeking asylum; that building, the family quickly realized, was a former Lobkowicz palace. Less than a year later, the fledgling democratic government of Czechoslovakia, under Václav Havel, passed the first of several laws aimed at reversing certain property confiscations enacted decades earlier by the Communists. Obscure as it must have been to most other Westerners, the legislation bore directly on Martin and his family.

Martin Lobkowicz and his father, Maximilian, had twice been hounded out of their homeland, first by the Nazis and then by the Communists. Their family, one of the most distinguished in central Europe, belongs to a tier of the old Bohemian and Moravian aristocracy situated directly beneath the Hapsburgs. The clan, emerging from obscurity in the 15th century, when it was befriended by King Wenceslas IV of Bohemia, had gradually acquired extensive rural holdings and numerous castles. Although active in agriculture, military affairs, and later, in diplomacy, the Lobkowiczes achieved their greatest distinction as patrons of the arts. Philip Hyacinth Lobkowicz (1680-1734) played the lute and was the patron of Arcangelo Corelli. His son, Ferdinand Josef Philip (1724-84), was a friend of Gluck's and, as a very young man, had the discernment to buy, on a visit to England, two huge, panoramic pictures from Canaletto, who was living and working in London. His successor, Josef Franz Maximilian (1772-1816), converted the great hall of his country seat into a theater, maintained a 12-musician orchestra, and assiduously championed Haydn and, later, Beethoven, who dedicated the Eroica, the Fifth and the Sixth Symphonies, and the six quartets of Opus 18, among other compositions, to his Bohemian patron.

Before 1918, all the eldest Lobkowicz sons had received the title of Prince. After the birth of the Republic of Czechoslovakia, in 1918, the family lost the right to use such appellations, but apparently without regret: Martin Lobkowicz's father, Maximilian, was an ardent republican and a friend and supporter of the great Czech patriot Tomás Masaryk, and, later, of his son, Jan Masaryk. An outspoken opponent of the Nazis, Maximilian served during World War II as ambassador of the London-based Czechoslovak government-in-exile to the Court of St. James's, supporting himself largely on the proceeds from the sale of two Stradivarius violins which, in the late thirties, he had sent to London for repair. After the war he lived in Czechoslovakia for only three years before the Communist coup of 1948 drove the family to seek refuge in the United States. He died in 1967 at the age of 79.

Before the Communists' uncompensated seizure of private property, the Lobkowiczes had owned ten major estates in Bohemia, and their country houses had been correspondingly huge: As a child, Martin had sometimes bicycled through the long enfilades of chambers in the family residence of Castle Roudnice. So the restitution laws passed in 1990 seemed likely to have a dramatic effect on Martin's life, and, by extension, on that of William and the rest of the Lobkowiczes. It meant, simply, that legal ownership of all of their former domains—great houses, vineyards, breweries, land—might shortly be restored to them.

William, then 29, was already living in Czechoslovakia. He had recently given up his share in a Boston commercial-realty firm and moved with his then fiancée, Alexandra, to Prague in the hope of securing consultancy work with American companies that were opening offices in central Europe. Attached to his Czech roots and deeply engrossed in modern European history (his major at Harvard), William had visited the old, Communist Czechoslovakia several times, and had studied German for a year in Vienna. So when Martin Lobkowicz, who felt no desire to deal singlehandedly with something so complicated, became the claimant to the family domain, it fell to William, despite his slender resources and still-shaky knowledge of the Czech language, to reclaim the abused and mismanaged remnants of the family birthright.

This was a daunting prospect—since 1990, the titles to thousands of Bohemian and Moravian castles of the white-elephant variety had gone unclaimed—but William was fascinated by the challenge, and with the support of his wife and his father, he met it head-on. After exhaustive research to prove his family's ownership, and innumerable letters, consultations, and telephone calls, he succeeded in filing his family's claims. The ownership of one property, which was part of Prague Castle and had for decades been a state-owned museum, proved legally elusive and remains under discussion, but nearly all the others were returned to him by the government of the Czech Republic. By 1994, rather to his astonishment, William Lobkowicz, acting as his father's agent, found himself the suzerain of no fewer than nine Bohemian castles. Of these, four were direct financial liabilities, and the Lobkowicze had to sell or give them away. But they decided to retain the others, and to repair Castle Nelahozeves and then reopen it as a fine-arts museum.

Before my visit to the castle, I chatted with William Lobkowicz several times in his modest offices in central Prague. Athletic-looking and unusually tall, he is also, like so many of his forebears, a lover of music, and told me that he had taken voice lessons for many years. ("Really I'm a frustrated opera singer," he confessed at one point, sotto voce.) With his command of German and passable Czech ("It's a lifelong task," he wistfully conceded), he seemed providentially suited to his job. Thoroughly level-headed—he now presides over more than 200 staffers—yet alive to the aesthetic dimension of his new role, he hopes to revive the family's patronage of music. Alexandra, née Florescu, is herself the daughter of Romanian émigrés and actively shares his vocation: The Lobkowiczes have already organized or backed numerous concerts. Yet the family, if castle-rich, is cash-poor: Martin even withdrew the funds of his retirement account in order to hire lawyers and staff to deal with the restitution. He then established a nonprofit foundation, The American Friends for the Preservation of Czech Culture. It's clear that the labor of fund-raising, restoration, and economic development will continue for decades to come.

The fine-arts galleries that occupy Castle Nelahozeves' first and second floors are situated in long, L-shaped suites of chambers. There are three family-portrait rooms, a majolica room, another devoted primarily to Beethoven memorabilia, a dining room, and a superb so-called Knights' Hall, with a massive stone fireplace and delightful Mannerist frescoes of rather tipsy-looking warriors. There's no question, however, that the collection of easel paintings by famous artists is the chief reason to visit the castle. There are, among other works, a Velázquez Infanta (haunting though not firmly attributed), a Cranach, a Rubens, a Veronese, a Brueghel, and a Bellotto.

The pictures are heterogeneous, representing about six centuries of collecting (and commissioning) by different princes. There are, however, a number of pictorial themes that run through the gallery, of which the most richly illustrated may be the development of naturalistic landscape and cityscape painting. The Virgin and Child with Saints Barbara and Catherine (ca. 1520), by Lucas Cranach the Elder, is remarkable for the stunningly painted rocky mountainscape behind the central figures. Haymaking (the months of June and July), ca. 1565, by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, is one of the pinnacles of Flemish art and a virtual encyclopedia of peasant life, allowing the viewer to sens the entire economy of a 16th-century riverside settlement. And Bellotto's fine, brooding study, which is entitled The Lobkowicz Palace in Vienna (1759-60), enables one to further trace the unfolding of European landscape painting as it comes under the influences of scenography and architectural-rendering techniques.

Yet the rarest treat in the castle must be the room with the two huge Canalettos, View of the Thames and Westminster Bridge (1746-47) and Lord Mayor's Day (1747-48). These views are not of equal quality, but the freer and more atmospheric Westminster Bridge is certainly one of the most superb cityscapes ever painted. Both pictures belong to the Venetian master's first Thames-side period, during which he invented a kind of aerial view affording a positively geographic density of description: Westminster Bridge embraces a diorama-like sweep of topography, and its vast depth of field is meticulously plumbed. With eccentric freedom Canaletto stacks his distances on top of his foregrounds, his eye cutting through the city along intimate paths and even marking out tiny loiterers or strollers—perhaps Boswellian pleasure-seekers. Here, softened by a gentle haze, is one of the loveliest visions we possess of pre-Luftwaffe London, its score of Wren steeples probing an opalescent sky.

As one might imagine, creating an enjoyable museum within Nelahozeves required long and concerted efforts. On his arrival, William Lobkowicz found a dusty repository holding many hundreds of paintings, most of which had never been cleaned. Others, formerly on view at the National Museum in Prague and other major institutions in the country, arrived at the castle in crates. To take curatorial charge of this opulent jumble, Lobkowicz hired a young American decorative-arts scholar, William Russell; and to create an enjoyable and cohesive permanent installation he turned to John Somerville, an English expert in Old-Master paintings, who, among other achievements, had created an important picture gallery in one of Britain's most splendid homes, Burghley House, in Lincolnshire.

When he arrived, Somerville told me, he was mildly appalled: "Nelahozeves, as it had been run by the state, looked like a sanatorium with a few objects dotted around." The pictures especially were ill cared for, with quite a few "boring" pieces on the walls. The castle had not been used as a home since the 17th century, a fact that Somerville had to take into account. "I didn't want to create domestic rooms," he said, "so I took the view that the best thing was to use some pictures and objects to explain the family's history and its principal players. In this way, visitors would see a progression running through the line of Lobkowicz princes." As it turned out, Somerville discovered portraits of various Lobkowiczes that were well worth interspersing among the collection's unquestioned masterpieces; there was a playfully decorated delft dinner service, hundreds of pieces strong (and the only complete set still in existence); and there was a wildly charming series of large dog portraits, which now adorn the walls of the castle's restaurant. Somerville pounced on other items that may enthrall the visiting art lover—such as a spectacular (but unattributed) portrait of Henri III of France, his head floating craftily in its ruff, and a set of tonal oil paintings of all the Lobkowicz castles by the gifted Biedermeier painter Carl Robert Croll (1800-63). The overall result of the redesign is a quiet, poignant suite of rooms that manages to focus on the Lobkowicz dynasty while also featuring world-class pictures.

As Lobkowicz familiarized himself with his family's many treasures, he was particularly amazed by the archives. The library held 65,000 volumes, and bundles of letters signed by the likes of 12th-century Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa; but thrilling beyond all else were the 4,500 musical manuscripts, including priceless autograph scores by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven. These are now available for scholarly perusal, and some are publicly displayed (along with six spectacular silver and gilded trumpets) in the castle. Today Nelahozeves' interior is permeated with the Lobkowicz family's happily fulfilled wish to make this palace a "home to music."

A major restitution can be, among other things, a psychic act, one that changes the moral order of the world. It was clear to me after talking to William Lobkowicz that, however egalitarian he and his family may be, there is no question in their minds that all of this property was theirs: It had simply been stolen, by bullies and thugs, and now it was being given back. Yet the Lobkowicz family long ago ceased to be "old money"—William smiles broadly at the term—and they didn't want to waltz ostentatiously into Prague. William had no intention of patronizing his Czech countrymen, of forgetting their hardships since 1938, of imposing unfamiliar American business methods on them, or of denying that he had become a de facto "custodian," in his father's words, of a part of the Czech national patrimony. Of all the beautiful objects the family had recovered, nothing would be sold unless absolutely necessary, and the most important pieces would be kept on display whenever possible. Obviously, much remains to be done; but already Nelahozeves, with its wistful conjuring of the Hapsburg era, has become one of the finest small museums in central Europe.

The museum at Nelahozeves Castle is open Tuesday through Sunday, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Mondays are by appointment only. The castle may be rented out for business conferences, special events, dinners, or concerts.The Lobkowicz Collections and Library, Nelahozeves Castle, 277 51 Nelahozeves, Czech Republic. 420-205-709-111; fax 420-205-709-112.

Travel directions: By train from Prague (40 minutes), take Line 091 from Masaryk Train Station to "Nelahozeves - zámek." By car from Prague (40 minutes), head north on Highway E55 toward Teplice and Dresden. Take exit 9 for Kralupy. At the end of the exit, turn right back over the highway. At the next intersection, turn right. Proceed approximately 6 km, passing through Veltrusy, then turn left just after the bridge that crosses the Vltava River. Stay on this road to the castle (3 km).

American Friends for the Preservation of Czech Culture, Box 814, Dover, Massachusetts 02030. Fax 508-785-2342.

Dan Hofstadter wrote on the Orangerie Collection in Departures' July/August 2000 issue.