Many say that travelling makes you free, educates you, creates a bigger network that one can benefit from and of course, learn about a foreign culture. I would agree with all that, and add, however, that it also makes you think. Climbing the 900 and more steps of the Duomo in Florence, going through the world map room and the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican City or drinking from the many fountains in Rome might just make you shiver a little inside when thoughts of being so close to the pages of history, cross your mind.
One such landmark of history is the Lobkowicz Palace at the Prague Castle, in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic. Spending half a day in this palace and listening to the mid-day classical concert, is worth the 15-20 minute walk uphill to the castle (unless you take tram 23). The palace, which was seized once by the Nazis and then by the Communists, was finally returned to the rightful owners, the Lobkowicz, after the Velvet Revolution in 1989 and the fall of the Communists respectively. Their descendants now take care of this massive property, one of several in the country.
The rooms of the palace showcase the many elements of the Lobkowicz family, starting from the very first century. Starting off with grand paintings of their ancestors, an audio guide takes the visitor through rooms filled with jewelry, pictures of family dogs, original handwritten scores by Beethoven and Mozart, to designer ceramic dinner sets and photographs of dignitaries visiting the mansion. One room in particular, which is filled with paintings by Pieter Brueghel the Elder and his sons, would definitely make an art lover sit down and think. The scenes of London, Paris and the small cities are painted to perfection, including details like the shadow of a small bird flying above a bridge or a tiny dot of a sheep escaping from the horrified shepherd.
Pieter Brueghel the Elder's artwork is so much more than mere landscapes painted in the many cities and towns he had visited. In fact, most of his paintings depict the country life, portraying the common man's day-to-day activities. For instance, the famous painting, The Hay Harvest, now one of the collections at the Lobkowicz Palace at the Prague Castle, is said to be the "pinnacle of western art" according to Prince William Lobkowicz. Here, Brueghel depicts the common man and woman, working in the fields, going about their ordinary lives, and like all his other paintings, also captures the glorious colours of nature. One of the startling elements of this painting is how the cycle of the seasons, the peasants and the colours seem to be captured the way a photographer would catch a moment on a visit to the countryside. In fact, one of the women in the painting is seen gazing directly at the painter busy capturing the scene.
Brueghel's paintings have inspired many forms of expressions, including poetry and life-writings. One such famous poem is Musée des Beaux Arts, written by W. H. Auden and published in 1940. He was inspired by Brueghel's painting of the Landscape with the Fall of Icarus. The painting is yet another depiction of an early morning village scene while the farmer ploughs his land with the help of a horse, a shepherd by the river supervises his sheep as they graze nearby. Maybe somewhere, a baker is displaying his hot loaves of bread for the women to buy and children are finishing off their chores so that they can get ready for school. Brueghel beautifully captures a sleepy village in this painting, where he shows how the cycle of seasons moves at its own pace. However, if one looks closely, there are small feet disappearing in the river clearly an image of a little boy drowning!
Auden brings this to notice: “heard the splash, the forsaken cry,” he writes in his poem. Brueghel, as Auden brings to life in his poem, explained the one single rule of life in his painting—that life goes on, no matter what. There will be deaths and tragedies in life, wars will break out and cities will diminish. The cycle of seasons, however, will move the way it has been doing for centuries and more. Maybe it is wise for one to adjust to this cycle, rather than wishing for it to change.
The guided visit ends in a large room near the concert hall, where the visitor is directed to look out from the windows located in the north of the room. Surprisingly enough, the visitor is immediately in awe of what he or she sees—centuries of history, green hills with age-old stories, the famous Charles Bridge, and old houses with red roofs—all this and so much more.
Indeed, travelling would definitely make one think, and realise how insignificant and small each of us are, especially when it comes to picturing each character in history and somehow or the other, meeting these characters by the stone pillars of their very homes.
Elita Karim is Editor, Star Youth, The Daily Star.