The Karolinum grew-up around the 1370’s Gothic Rotlev House presented to the university in 1383 by Charlie’s son Václav (Wenceslas) IV (r.1378-1419) which in 1386 became the seat of the university. Little remains of this original building except the ornate oriel-window of the Chapel of SS Cosmas & Damian that protrudes from the south-wing. Jan Hus (1372-1415), immortalised in the 1958 statue by Karel Lidickv that stands in the courtyard, became rector of the university in 1402. Although his campaign for church reform and promotion of the Czech language was greatly opposed by the majority of staff and students who spoke German, he won wide public support. This led King Venca to issue the Decree of Kutna Hora (1409) that effectively handed control of the university over to Rector Jeník and his Hussite followers, so the Germans left to found Leipzig University.
Following Rector Jeník’s death the university became a hotbed of revolution, but after the reforms and hopes of Czech independence were crushed at the Battle of Bílá Hora (1620) control of the university was handed over to the Jesuits from the nearby Klementinum who merged the two universities in 1654 as Charles-Ferdinand University. The massive Great Hall that covers the first and second floors dates from this period as does the 1687 window inscribed Lex Civium Dux that faces onto Železná ulice the rest was completely rebuilt in Baroque-style by the architect František Maximilían Kaňka in 1718. Following the Pope’s dissolution of the order in 1773 the university was returned to state control and the condition of the Karolinum began to deteriorate. This process was exacerbated in 1882 when the Germans withdrew again as the university split following further divisions with the Czechs.
Restoration work on the dilapidated Karolinum began as early as 1934 but was interrupted by the Nazis in 1939. An anti-occupation demonstration on October 28th ended with the shooting of student Jan Opletal by German police. Further demonstrations surrounding the funeral led to the authorities closing the university on November 17th and devastating the already crumbling Karolinum. After the Nazis left in 1945 the university was reopened and the Karolinum was rebuilt by Jaroslav Fragner from 1946-50 with contributions from many of the country’s top artists including gargoyles by Vladimír Sychra and a sculpture of Charlie by Karel Pokorný, while the ugly redbrick main-entrance inscribed Universitas Carolina was added in 1969.
The Karolinum is now used mainly for ceremonial purposes and is usually closed to the public but the curiously out-of-place oriel-window is worth a look if you are in the area and you may be able to gain access to the restored gothic vaults of the south wing where regularly art exhibitions are staged.
November 2, 2005
From journal Prague’s Havelské Mĕsto: The New Old Town