Prague’s Prince and His Art

Recovering art and restoring palaces—his family's heritage—has become the work of William Lobkowicz's lifetime.

Jun 19, 2009
  • William Lobkowicz in front of a poster with a photograph of his grandfather Maximilian Lobkowicz
  • A detailed view of the chapel, which was improved and embellished in the mid-17th century by the politically powerful 2nd Prince Lobkowicz, Vaclav Eusebius (1609-1677)
  • Detail from the wall decoration in the chapel, depicting the Immaculate Heart
  • Rococo room on the palace's first floor
  • Detail from Alonso Sanchez Coello's painting of the Archduchess Anna of Austria, featuring the ring that Max Lobkowicz, William's grandfather, smuggled out of the country
  • Preserved instruments and portraits in the Beethoven room, one of the palace's second-floor exhibition rooms
  • Detail from a 17th-century painting of a family dog in the dog room
  • Antique arms, one of the finest collections of firearms and armour in Central Europe, on display in the armoury
  • Lobkowicz standing on the terrace of his restored palace, which overlooks the city
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William Lobkowicz in front of a poster with a photograph of his grandfather Maximilian Lobkowicz
Photography Tim Evan-Cook
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A detailed view of the chapel, which was improved and embellished in the mid-17th century by the politically powerful 2nd Prince Lobkowicz, Vaclav Eusebius (1609-1677)
Photography Tim Evan-Cook
3/9
Detail from the wall decoration in the chapel, depicting the Immaculate Heart
Photography Tim Evan-Cook
4/9
Rococo room on the palace's first floor
Photography Tim Evan-Cook
5/9
Detail from Alonso Sanchez Coello's painting of the Archduchess Anna of Austria, featuring the ring that Max Lobkowicz, William's grandfather, smuggled out of the country
Photography Tim Evan-Cook
6/9
Preserved instruments and portraits in the Beethoven room, one of the palace's second-floor exhibition rooms
Photography Tim Evan-Cook
7/9
Detail from a 17th-century painting of a family dog in the dog room
Photography Tim Evan-Cook
8/9
Antique arms, one of the finest collections of firearms and armour in Central Europe, on display in the armoury
Photography Tim Evan-Cook
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Lobkowicz standing on the terrace of his restored palace, which overlooks the city
Photography Tim Evan-Cook

Watching the television news at home in Boston one evening in November 1989, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall in Germany and Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution, a young American named William Lobkowicz was moved and fascinated by scenes of East German refugees scaling the walls and camping out on the lawn of the West German embassy in Prague.

But it was not simply these events that had him “glued” to the television. The embassy itself, he noted—an elegant baroque structure—was a building known as Lobkowicz Palace. It had once been home to his ancestors.

Family Legacy Lost and Found

He knew he was descended from a long line of princes, one of the wealthiest families in Bohemia. His father, Martin, had been born in a palace of 250 rooms at Roudnice, 50 kilometres north of Prague.

In 1939, however, the Nazis had confiscated the family’s estates, and though they were returned in 1945, the Communists had seized them again within three years. Now Eastern Europe was once again in ferment. In these times of upheaval, he wondered what might happen to them. What else in the soon-to-be renamed Czech Republic had belonged to his family?

In 1991, at age 29, he quit his job in real estate and moved to Prague. That was just as former President Vaclav Havel’s restitution laws, which provided for the return of confiscated buildings, businesses and artworks, were passed. Here he attempted to piece together the family’s heritage. “We had less than a year to come up with lists of our former possessions, to find the actual objects which had been dispersed to perhaps 100 locations, and to file the paperwork,” he says.

Artistic Treasure

Lobkowicz Palace, the finest museum in Prague, is one of nine castles that have been returned to the Lobkowicz family. (To date, five have been sold; and one, Roudnice, had been leased to the military music academy, though it reverted to William at the end of 2008.) Lobkowicz Palace stands on the northwest tip of the Castle District, close to the imperial residence, commanding superb views across the city’s spires and up the river Vltava. But though the building itself is remarkable, it pales beside the art collection now housed in it.

For this Lobkowicz Palace (not to be confused with the one across town that remains the German Embassy, and which the family has not reclaimed) is now home to one of the most fascinating private archives in the world. There are paintings, decorative arts, musical instruments and manuscripts, 65,000 books, and letters.

Among the treasures is arguably the greatest painting in the Czech Republic, Pieter Brueghel the Elder’s Haymaking. There are the two spectacular large canvases by Canaletto of the Thames. (London has rarely looked so Venetian.) Next a stunning Cranach Madonna and a superb Diego Velazquez portrait of the Infanta Margarita Teresa of Spain—the jewel in what is one of the largest collections of Spanish portraits outside the Prado.

Musical Patrons

Perhaps the most extraordinary gallery in the palace is the Beethoven Room on the second floor, a display of instruments and scores. The most fascinating archive is the 4,500 music manuscripts by, among others, Mozart (a re-orchestrated and “improved” version of Handel’s Messiah), Haydn and Gluck.

Elsewhere, at Nelahozeves Castle, Lobkowicz plans to develop a Dvorak museum. In the meantime, he hosts a Dvorak Music Festival at the castle. Its frequency depends on funds—“it’s very hand-to-mouth”—but over the past decade it has attracted world-class singers such as Renée Fleming, Barbara Hendricks and Eva Urbanova, as well as lesser-known Czech ensembles.

Music is important to Lobkowicz, who majored in history at Harvard but, as he puts it, “practically minored in music.” It’s a gift that runs in the family, for his ancestor, the seventh Prince Joseph Franz Maximilian, sang in the Czech premiere of Haydn’s Creation, funded two private orchestras and almost bankrupted the family with his patronage of Beethoven.

Maintaining the Museum

Lebkowicz has also revived the ancient family brewery, which dates back to 1466, and the winery at Roudnice, which—in the opinion of British wine authority Hugh Johnson—produces some of the Czech Republic’s better wines.

For all this, he is disarmingly modest. “Nothing in my background really qualifies me to manage a diversified portfolio of national treasures—with no cash,” he says, his interests as curatorial as his talents are entrepreneurial. But there is also a sense of patrimony, a sense that in the long term, a world war, half a century of Communism and his grandfather’s flight to England and then the United States were just a blip in the Lobkowicz history of connoisseurship, patronage and patriotism.


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One Comment about Prague’s Prince and His Art

  1. I visited the Lobkowicz palace today in Prague and was totally captivated by the Museum. Such trials and tribulations this historical family has lived through. It is only fair and right that William has been able to some small degree restore what the family Lobkowicz had been robbed of by history.

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