The timeless charm of the Okoř Castle – or what is left of it

Immersed in the silence of a winter dawn, amid the mist of a void and slightly snowy landscape, the majestic ruins of the Okoř castle could be an invention of the painter Caspar David Friedrich. It wouldn’t even be difficult to imagine the firmly embedded relics on the rock. And, on a stormy night swaddled by a soft moon while a fast steed crosses the scene in a dreamlike Böcklin canvas. Or, seeing its details fade their color in a pale watercolor by Thomas Girtin or admire the ruin tower dissolving into the distance in flames of light in a view of Turner. In its present configuration, the Okoř castle seems to be the perfect subject for a romantic artist, ready to portray in inspired lyrics or capture the pervasive charm of those ruins on canvas – as it happens in some serene landscapes by Antonín Mánes and in the works of Mikoláš Aleš and Antonín Hudeček.

Nowadays, the ruins of the castle evoking a glorious past would be an unparalleled location for the final epic battle of a fantasy saga, both on the wide screen and in the thrilling gameplay of a console game. Certainly, the dense image of those relics hardly leaves anyone indifferent, throwing a “highly moral effect amid the scenery of nature”. The search for an impalpable and reassuring correspondence between what remains of ruined constructions and the transience of human life could explain for Chateaubriand the secret attraction of humans for the ruins – at least in Western culture.

Firmly anchored to a small rock, the Okoř castle, like any other ruin, displays the private architecture of every use-value, giving an illusion of eternity through its weak and transient victory against time, suspended in a sort of new status. Surrounded by trees and swaddled by the Zákolanský stream in a valley between the fields, the castle seems to have always been there, its tower dominating the valley. Here, more than anywhere else, the attraction to ruins seems to meet Simmel’s idea that indicates the origins of such a fascination in perceiving a work of man as a product of nature. This rather emotional than intellectual enthrallment, thus, reveals other forms and forces in the destruction, blending the power of nature, a tangible sign of the inevitable passage of time and the history of those who built, lived within, defended and finally destroyed this fortress found at fifteen kilometers northwest of Prague.

It is said that the toponym Okoř – close to the term kořen, root – would originate from the legendary Přemysl the Ploughman who, on his way to his Vyšehrad citadel stumbled on the rising root of a large tree. The reality shows us evidence of agricultural settlements in this valley dating back to the fourth millennium BC and an act of Ottokar I of Bohemia which in 1227 indicates Okoř as a property of the Benedictine monastery of St. George at the Prague Castle. However, a first written testimony about the castle dates back only to 1359 and assigns its foundation to the bourgeois František Rokycanský, councilor of Charles IV. Perhaps, it was the sovereign himself who assigned to the Rokycanský’s – to František or to his father Nicholas – the first settlement of the castle with the surrounding lands.

It was František who consolidated the walls of the existing chapel, raising the five massive floors of the tower, the traces being still visible at its foundation. Dated back to around 1260, the Gothic chapel left behind a high portion of apsidal polygonal wall with five ogival windows, some of them clearly having fortified mullioned windows inside, offering one of the most suggestive views of the entire complex.

The Rokycanský’s left Okoř half a century after their arrival and for over two decades the traces of the fortress were lost in the folds of history.

In 1421, the Hussites conquered the castle without fighting, installing their own representative. However, the great late-Gothic reconstruction of the entire fortress was predominantly the work of Bořivoj of Donín who inherited it in 1470 from Bořivoj of Lochovice, who had begun his expansion. Completed around 1494, the Donín family added the lower part of the castle and, most importantly, an external fortification structured in a system of bastions surrounded on three sides by a moat, offering protection to some agricultural buildings within the new walls.

The Renaissance brought a profound change both in the lifestyle and demands for representativeness in the Czech castles. Thus, the Bořita of Martinice family transformed the fortress, acquired in 1518, into a comfortable Renaissance castle. The facades were plastered and decorated with sgraffito – a widespread fresco technique in both Italian Renaissance and in the Bohemian tradition; arcades, wooden galleries and renovated interiors equipped with comfortable furniture were added to the courts. The Bořita of Martinice family held the ownership of the castle until 1649, almost continuously. Between 1618 and 1620, the property was in fact confiscated by the rebels from Jaroslav Bořita of Martinice – one of the victims of Prague defenestration.

At the end of the Thirty Years’ War, the entire complex, badly damaged, was left as an inheritance to the Jesuits of the St. Clement College in Prague who gradually repaired it in the following thirty years, making it a summer residence in Baroque style.

With the suppression of the Society of Jesus by Pope Clement XIV, in 1773, and the confiscation of all their properties, the slow decline of the Okoř castle began as well. Soon transformed into an open-air quarry and plundered of materials that could be resold, the castle in complete abandonment, became a danger to the safety of the houses crowded at its feet.

In 1921, after almost one hundred and fifty years of oblivion, securing the desolate ruins was initiated under the guidance of the eclectic architect Eduard Sochor, who restored in romantic shapes even the Kokořín castle.

Little still remains of the glorious splendors of the Okoř castle that with its palimpsest of fragments reminds us of the relentless passing in which everyone continues to change. In the shadow of the ruined tower, portions of the palace and bastions, hidden wells, mullioned windows, engraved stones and an extraordinary rock cellar-brewery where the temperature remains almost constant, the Okoř castle continues to tell its stories and legends. Thus, just like the fixed scene of a disordered classical theater, the thick windowed walls of ancient buildings dominated by the severe and watchful tower with their obstinate present absence bring us closer to the invisible.

by Alessandro Canevari