The history of Brno in a nutshell
Brno is the Czech Republic's second largest city and the provincial capital of Moravia, some 2 hours drive south east of Prague. It is a thriving city that stands between the cave-riddled cleft limestone landscape of Moravsky kras to the north and the UNESCO designated parkland of Lednice and Valtice to the south. The metropolitan area has a population of some 386,000 and is divided into 29 municipal districts. Today, it enjoys close links with cities all over the world.
The success of Brno has been secured throughout history by important commercial and industrial interests - notably in textiles and machine building. The city stands in a strategic position at the confluence of two rivers, close to the Austrian border - closer to Vienna than to Prague, with efficient transport routes to both capitals. Throughout its history, Brno has been populated by a cosmopolitan society: early inhabitants were drawn from Celtic and Germanic tribes (Markomen and Kvads). Later the Bohemian Empire was forged when Moravia was merged with Bohemia and ruled from present-day Poland. Then, in 1031 Prince Bretislav managed to expel the Polish occupiers and redefine the boundaries of the Czech nation. In time, Brno became a centre for international trade attracting Slavs, Jews, Germans, Flemish migrants and Walloons from the Low Countries - capped in 1348 when Charles IV issued an edict forcing all foreign traders and merchants travelling through the region to visit Brno.
Special privileges conferred by Vaclav I (1243) united the various ethnic factions and established the town as an important commercial centre allowing it to grow and prosper. Before long, the town was ringed with fortifications and served by two parish churches (St. Peter and Paul, St. James); various monastic communities were established by the Augustinians (St. Thomas), the Benedictines (Rajhrad), the Premonstrates (Zabrdovice), the Dominicanes, mendicant orders like the Minorites, Heburgs and Johannites, while nuns were accommodated at a Cistercian convent founded by Queen Eliska Rejcka. Meanwhile, the surrounding countryside was slowly transformed into market gardens and vineyards.
In the 15C, the region was preoccupied with civil war: trade dwindled; and local Catholics burned many Gothic buildings in protest against the Hussite religious reforms. In the mid-16C the city council became dominated by Protestants: so to counterbalance this, the Catholic Church encouraged the new orders - like the Jesuits and Capuchins - to establish communities there.
The second period of expansion came in the 17C when Brno took sides in the Eastern Rebellion, resisting the siege imposed by the Swedish army that allowed the Austrian Empire to rationalise its troops and counter the invader. In recompense, the special privileges granted in 1243 were reconfirmed. During the Thirty Years War, the city was made the official capital of Moravia (1641) and a substantial Baroque fortress was built which, later, was instrumental in resisting Prussian advances (1742).
During the 18C, a bishopric was established in the city (1777); trade and industry expanded. In the early 1800s, the region was overrun with Napoleonic troops. Eventually, in 1839 the railway was extended to Brno and the city was changed beyond recognition. Specialist educational institutions like the German and Czech Schools of Technology sprang up in 1873 and 1899 respectively to train the workforce. The city, known as Brünn, was dominated by Germans but before long, strong nationalist feelings were reverberating through the region.
By 1919 the numbers of Germans working in the city administration had been reduced to a minority for the first time. In the same year, the Masaryk University was founded. Nine years later, the Brno Fairgrounds were inaugurated with a major exhibition of contemporary culture. Education, commerce and industry underpinned a growing interest in the arts - largely maintained by a group of left-wing artists and designers affiliated to the Bauhaus. Meanwhile the Nationalist Socialist Movement was gaining a substantial following. In 1939 the Nationalists seized power and set up the Protektorat Böhmen und Mähren.
World War II inflicted grave scars on the city: the Jewish community was decimated, local priests and churchmen were arrested and publicly executed by the Nazis alongside other members of the resistance (at Kounicove Koleje). In 1945 Czechoslovakia was delivered by the Soviet army; large numbers of Germans were forced to take flight.
The Communists took over in 1948 and it was not long before Czechoslovakia was regarded as a satellite of the USSR. The country managed to extricate itself in 1989 when the so-called Velvet Revolution took place and the civil-rights activist and writer Vaclav Havel was elected president. In 1993, the nation was divided into Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Unlike other cities buckled by the rigours of Communism, Brno seems to have managed to recover its cultural energy and spirit of optimism, possibly because it has six universities with some 26 faculties attended by 32,000 students.
Famous residents include the father of genetics Gregor Mendel (1822-84), the great composer Leos Janacek (1854-1928), the inventor of the first water turbine Victor Kaplan (1876-1934) as well as the Modernist architects/designers Bohuslav Fuchs, Mies van der Rohe, and Arnos Vizner.
The largely pedestrianised old town is Medieval in origin. This is skirted by landscaped avenues reminiscent of Vienna's Ring, elegant Baroque churches and imposingly functional buildings designed by the likes of Bohuslav Fuchs (1895-1972). The whole is dominated by Spilberk Hill on which sits a fortress that resisted successive attack from Hussites, Swedes, Prussians, Saxons and French troops led by Napoleon before and after the Battle of Austerlitz (1805). After that, it earned a reputation as the most notorious prison in the Austrian Empire, closed in 1853 by Emperor Franz Josef but reclaimed by the Gestapo: today the remodelled castle hosts a museum dedicated to local history.
Muzeum mesta Brna, Spilberk Hill
: Exhibitions relating to the use of the building as a notorious prison and about the history of the city.
Moravska Galerie: the City Gallery boasts a fine selection of Biedermeier portraits, although the strength of the collection are the early 20C paintings, sculpture and furniture.
Dum Umeni:: changing exhibitions.
Zelny trh: a splendid Baroque building housing the Moravian
Museum. The Anthropos Pavillon in another part of the city shows prehistoric artefacts including the ancient Venus of Vestonice.
Stara radnice: the Old Town Hall is an interesting building adapted through the ages.
Katedrala sv Petra a Pavla: Cathedral of St Peter and St Paul on Petrov Hill.
Vila Tugendhat: the fine white villa designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe in 1930 forging the principles of Modernist architecture, used for the summit at which the division of Czechoslovakia into two separate republics was signed.
Janáčkovo muzeum: Janacek's Museum - permanent exhibition documenting the life and work of the composer Leos Janacek.
Opatstvi na Starem Brne: the Augustinian Abbey where Gregor Mendel lived and conducted experiments into heredity; presently the venue for a major exhibition entitled The Genius of genetics, a celebration of Gregor Mendel through science and art (www.mendel-museum.org).