The Bratislava Castle is undoubtedly a striking feature of the Slovak capital’s landscape. A casual traveller may be quick to assume that the Castle has been an enduring historical landmark since time immemorial. Such a characterisation is certainly far from the truth. The Castle was burnt down in 1811 and remained in ruins for more than 140 years. More surprisingly, some architects had proposed the demolishment of the ruins to make room for the construction of a university district during World War II. Thankfully, these plans failed to materialise and in 1953, the arduous reconstruction effort began. The Castle, as the shrine of Slovak national culture, only took its current form from the late 1960s onwards.
Delving further back into the Castle’s history, at least four other major construction projects were undertaken on the castle mount since the 15th century. Sigismund of Luxemburg commissioned the first such project by ordering the fortification of the Castle area and the construction of a new Castle palace in the Gothic style. The best-preserved Gothic architecture is the Sigismund Gate, the side entrance gate into southeastern part of Castle from the city. Its pointed arch is a distinctive Gothic structural innovation that effectively distributes the weight of the ceiling, allowing for thinner support columns, in contrast to the massive columns supporting the round arches in Romanesque architecture. Furthermore, the gate is decorated with intricately carved stone nubs known as crockets, a common type of Gothic embellishment.
Recent photo of Sigismund Gate
Following the Turkish conquest of Hungary in the Battle of Mohács in 1526, Ferdinand I designated Bratislava (then known as Pressburg) as the new capital of Hungary in 1536. The Castle became the new royal residence and was substantially rebuilt in the Renaissance style. The ornamental Gothic windows of different shapes and sizes were replaced with austere stone frames, decorated simply with symbols of the Order of the Golden Fleece. The main façade of the palace thus acquired a uniform, barrack-like look. The main entrance to the palace was also replaced; the new entrance had a flat roof covered by copper plates, instead of a high Gothic roof.
Southern view of the Castle from 1570 – Notice the buildings with flat roofs
A slight deviation from the discussion of the Castle’s façade is necessary here to point out an interesting contrast. In fact, the plain exterior of the Castle masked the opulence of its richly gilded interior. Walls in some of the Emperor’s apartments and the representative halls were lined with wooden panelling and covered by woven tapestries. Others were decorated by elaborate frescoes.
Detail of the fresco decoration in the Castle – the second half of the 16th century
Unfortunately, the Castle was significantly damaged by domestic wars and natural disasters in the ensuing decades. By the end of the 16th century, it was given to palatine Nicolaus Pálffy. Pálffy found the Castle uninhabitable and started reconstructing it in the early 17th century. After this reconstruction phase, the Castle acquired a façade that is similar to that of its present day. All faces of the Castle were made uniform, a third floor was constructed above all the wings and slim turrets were erected at all four corners.
North-western view of the Castle after Pálffy’s reconstruction
The final construction project was undertaken from 1761 to 1766, during the reign of Maria Theresa. The Castle was to be transformed into a lavish rococo residence for the Queen’s son-in-law, Albert of Saxony. The southern façade of the Castle was changed extensively. Three portals were built leading to the vestibule below the balcony on the first floor.
The plan for the decoration of the southern Castle façade
Preceding the entrance, a three-sided courtyard, flanked by two single-storey buildings and two symmetrically built ornamental gates, was constructed. Statues depicting military trophies were erected in the courtyard. Compare the two Castle’s schematic plans below to see the substantial changes made during this construction phase.
The Castle’s area in 1642
The Castle’s area after 1766
Much of the eventful history of the Bratislava Castle, including the aforementioned construction projects, was previously shrouded in mystery. Recent archaeological and architectural research has illuminated our understanding of the Castle’s evolving role and façade. Today, the Bratislava Castle is home to the Museum of History, a specialised unit of the Slovak National Museum. It boasts almost 250,000 objects, including the largest collections of Slovakian textiles and currencies.
Bratislava Castle today
By Bradley Soh
Holčík, S. and T. Štefanovičová (trans. O. Horská), The Castle of Bratislava (Bratislava: Obzor Publishers, 1982).
Slovak National Museum, About the Museum (http://www.snm.sk/?about-the-museum-3). Accessed 09 June 2015.
Swenson, A., The history of building construction – Romanesque and Gothic (http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/83859/building-construction/60122/Stone-construction). Accessed 09 June 2015.