When you’ve lived in the same city for a long time, it’s easy to forget to look up once in a while – especially when you’re being pushed along in a crowd of crazed Christmas shoppers. In Prague it’s not just spires and arches you’ll be missing. The city is replete with remarkably intricate picture signs above doorways and under gables. They are centuries old and can appear in the most surprising places.
I was reminded of this recently when walking down Ječná street and for no particular reason looked up the façade of a grimy, rather unremarkable building on the corner of Sokolská. Just beneath the sloping roof was a colourful sign, too high for me to make out exactly what it was.
In most cases, you don’t need to strain your eyes to appreciate the frescoes and reliefs that once served a similar function as house numbers do today. Usually it’s enough to just tilt your head a little.
According to Lydia Petráňová, author of the recently released Domovní znamení staré Prahy (The House Signs of Old Prague – Czech only), the first house signs in Prague date as far back as the 13th century and the concept itself is even older. “The practice of distinguishing houses in some way using symbols is nearly as old as cities with a multitude of similar streets and houses that made these types of orientation aids a necessity,” she writes. Apparently, the oldest known house sign comes from 3rd century Egypt, and were meant to alert passers by that the person living in the house was able to interpret dreams.
The signs of Prague can be just as intriguing. Animals are a popular motif like the two bears in the case of the renowned U Medvídků pub. Lions, serpents and dragons also make an appearance.
In many cases the reasons behind a particular symbol have been forgotten. One can only guess at why a Baroque building in Prague would feature an exotic animal such as an ostrich (U tří pštrosů, U lužického semináře 12) or an elephant (U černého slona, Vlašská 26).
Most often, though, the symbol was tied in some way to the name or the profession of the family that owned the house. For instance a family of fiddlers lived in the U tří houslí (the tree fiddles) on Nerudova 12.
Some signs are roughly hewn out of stone or wood, dating as far back as the 15th century, often reminiscent of heraldic shields, while others are more refined, modern creations painted on plaster facades in the 18th, 19th or even early 20th century – such as the U modré štiky house (the blue pike) on Karlova street. The city of Prague began numbering houses in 1770, but this didn’t stop new signs from being developed.
Nerudova street in New Town has perhaps the biggest concentration of old house signs in Prague. Among them: The red lion – at number 41 or U dvou slunců (the two suns, Nerudova 47 and U bílé labutě (the white swan, Nerudova 49).
There are signs that are almost hard to miss, painted in garish colours – like in the case of U třech lvích hlav in Hradčany, which features three lion heads on a bright red background – others are more subtle, sometimes taking the form of sculptures embedded in the façade or wedged into the corner of a building (U kameného zvonu in Old Town Square or U zeleného hroznu in New Town).
Some of Prague’s most famous signs can be found in this online photo gallery.