Charles bridge is a historic bridge that crosses the Vltava river in Prague, Czech Republic. Its construction started in 1357 under the auspices of King Charles IV, and finished in the beginning of the 15th century. The bridge over the old Judith Bridge built 1158-1172 that had been badly damaged by a flood in 1342. This new bridge was originally called Stone Bridge (Kamenný most) or Prague Bridge (Pražský most) but has been “Charles Bridge” since 1870 (Charles Bridge) was the most important connection between Prague Castle and the city’s Old Town and adjacent areas. This “solid-land” connection made Prague important as a trade route between Eastern and Western Europe.
The bridge is 621 meters (2,037 ft) long and nearly 10 meters (33 ft) wide, following the example of the Stone Bridge in Regensburg, it was built as a bow bridge with 16 arches shielded by ice guards. It is protected by three bridge towers, two of them on the Lesser Quarter side and the third one on the Old Town side. The Old Town Bridge Tower is often considered to be one of the most astonishing civil gothic-style buildings in the world [according to whom ?. The bridge is decorated by a continuous alley of 30 statues and statuaries, most of them baroque-style, originally erected around 1700 but now all replaced by replicas.
Repairs are scheduled to start in late 2019, they should take around 20 years.
Throughout its history, Charles Bridge has suffered several disasters and witnessed many historic events. Czech legend has it that construction began on Charles Bridge at 5:31 am on 9 July 1357 with the first stone being laid by Charles IV himself. This exact time was very important to the Holy Roman Emperor because he was a strong believer of numerology and felt that this specific time, which formed the palindrome (1357 9, 7 5:31), was a numerical bridge, and would imbue Charles Bridge with additional strength. The bridge was completed 45 years later in 1402. A flood in 1432 damaged three pillars. In 1496 the third arch (counting from the Old Town side) broke down after one of the pillars lowered, being undermined by the water (repairs were finished in 1503). A year after the Battle of White Mountain, when the 27 leaders of the anti-Habsburg revolt were executed on 21 June 1621, the Old Town bridge tower served as a deterrent display of the severed heads of the Czechs to stop further resistance. During the end of the Thirty Years War in 1648, the Swedes occupied the west bank of the Vltava, and as they tried to advance into the Old Town the heaviest fighting took place right on the bridge. During the fighting, they severely damaged one side of the Old Town bridge tower (the side facing the river) and the remnants of almost all gothic decorations had to be removed from it afterward. During the late 17th century and early 18th century the bridge gained its typical appearance when an alley of baroque statues was installed on the pillars. During a great flood in 1784, five pillars were severely damaged and although the arches did not break down, the traffic on the bridge had to be greatly restricted for some time.
The original stairway to Kampa Island was replaced by a new one in 1844. The next year, another great flood threatened the bridge, but the bridge escaped major damage. In 1848, during the revolutionary days, the bridge escaped unharmed from the cannonade, but some of the statues were damaged. In 1866, pseudo-gothic gas lights were erected on the balustrade; they were later replaced with electric lighting. In the 1870s, the first regular public-transport (omnibus) line went over the bridge (officially called “Charles Bridge” after 1870) later replaced by a horse tram. The bridge towers underwent a thorough reconstruction between 1874 and 1883.
On 2-5 September 1890, another disastrous flood struck Prague and severely damaged Charles Bridge. Thousands of rafts, logs and other floating materials that escaped from places upstream gradually formed a huge barrier leaning against the bridge. Three arches were torn down by the great pressure and two pillars collapsed from being undermined by the water, while others were partly damaged. With the fifth pillar, two statues – St. Ignatius of Loyola and St. Xavier, both by Ferdinand Brokoff – also fell into the river. The former statue was replaced by a statuary of Saints Cyril and Methodius by Karel Dvořák; the latter was replaced by a replica of the original. Repair works lasted for two years (the bridge was reopened on 19 November 1892) and cost 665,000 crowns.
In the beginning of the 20th century, Charles Bridge saw a steep rise of heavy traffic. The last day of the horse line on the bridge was 15 May 1905, when it was replaced with an electric tram and later, in 1908, with buses. At the end of World War II, the barricade was built in the Old Town bridge tower gateway. The capital repair of the bridge took place between 1965 and 1978, based on the collaboration among various scientific and cultural institutes. The stability of the pillars was reassured, all broken stone blocks were replaced, and the asphalt was removed. All vehicular traffic has been excluded from Charles Bridge since then, making it accessible by pedestrians only. The repair cost 50 million crowns.
During the 1990s, some people started criticizing the previous reconstruction of the bridge and proposing further work. As of the beginning of the new millennium, most of the experts appeared to agree that the previous reconstruction had not been flawless but disputed the need for further interference with the bridge. However, after the disastrous floods of 2002 (which itself caused only minor harm to the bridge), support for an overall bridge reconstruction grew. It was decided that repair and stabilization of the two pillars (numbers 8 and 9) on the Malá Strana side of the bridge would be done. These are the only river pillars that were not repaired after the 1890 floods. The reconstruction was a gradual process that closed off parts of the bridge without closing the span entirely.
Performed from 2008 to 2010, the work included bolstering the pillars and building a new hydroisolation system protecting the bridge. It also encompassed the re-paving of the bridge’s pavement and the replacement of many of the stones in the bridge walls, a matter which was controversial due to a heavy-handed approach adopted by the restoration team, which had in the previous experience in restoration of cultural heritage monuments. The result has been criticized by conservation professionals all over Europe (see photos on external links), the dozens of new replacement stones are next to each other, the amount of replaced stones is considered excessive, some stones have been inappropriately positioned, original stones have been chipped and joining materials employed are considered appropriate for the structure. In 2010 UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee adopted a decision stating that “the restoration of Charles Bridge was carried out without proper conservation advice on materials and techniques”.
The avenue of 30 mostly baroque statues and statuaries situated on the balustrade forms a unique connection of artistic styles with the underlying gothic bridge. Most sculptures were erected between 1683 and 1714. They depict various saints and patron saints venerated at that time. The most prominent Bohemian sculptors of the time took part in decorating the bridge, such as Matthias Braun, Jan Brokoff, and his sons Michael Joseph and Ferdinand Maxmilian.
Among the most notable sculptures, one can find the statuaries of St. Luthgard, the Holy Crucifix and Calvary, and John of Nepomuk. Well known also is the statue of the knight Bruncvík, although it was erected some 200 years later and does not belong to the main avenue.
Beginning in 1965, all of the statues have been systematically replaced by replicas, and the originals have been exhibited in the Lapidarium of the National Museum.