A Unique Paper City
‘A CITY built of paper?’ you ask. Yes, but not a real city, a scale model. The city is Prague, capital of the Czech Republic, and the model is preserved in the Prague Municipal Museum. The builder was Antonín Langweil, who worked on his model for 11 years, from 1826 to 1837, the year he died. What prompted Langweil to embark on such a difficult project?
Langweil was born in 1791 in the town of Postoloprty in what is now the Czech Republic. After studying lithography at the Art Academy in Vienna, Austria, he opened Prague’s first lithographic workshop. As a businessman, however, he was unsuccessful, and his business failed. In 1826, while attending an exhibit in Prague, he saw a plaster model of the city of Paris, France. Inspired by what he saw, Langweil decided to create a model of Prague, using cardboard and a little wood.
First, though, Langweil spent several years meticulously recording details of Prague. He walked every street, making sketches and noting the exact location of buildings, park benches, sheds, statues, and trees. He even included barrels he saw on the ground, broken windows, a ladder leaning against a wall, and piles of wood! Then he started to build his model, working to a scale of 1:480. To supplement his meager income, he also made models of the homes of nobles.
In 1837, Langweil became ill with tuberculosis and died in June of the same year, leaving behind a wife and five daughters. Three years later, his model found a home in the Patriotic Museum, now called the National Museum. How did it get there? In 1840, Langweil’s widow offered to sell the model to Emperor Ferdinand I, who purchased it and then generously donated it to what is now the Czech Republic’s national museum. It arrived in nine crates. Later, a spokesman for the City of Prague Museum, where the model now resides, stated: “Langweil’s model was exhibited only occasionally in the 19th century. In 1891 it was one of the exhibits in the Provincial Jubilee Exhibition. To mark this occasion it underwent costly repairs . . . From 1905 the model was part of the permanent exhibition in the National Museum’s Lapidarium.”
A Magnet for Historians
Langweil’s paper model is extremely popular. Measuring 18.9 feet (5.76 m) by 10.6 feet (3.24 m), it is sealed in a glass display case and illuminated with numerous tiny lights suspended inside the case. The “city” looks so real that you almost have to remind yourself that you are looking at a model! Indeed, Langweil constructed each of the more than two thousand miniature buildings with painstaking accuracy.
For example, Langweil gave the buildings a land-registration number. He added street lanterns, gutters, and cobblestones. And he faithfully reproduced churches with their stained-glass windows—including missing or broken panes. In places where the plaster had chipped off houses, his model shows the underlying bricks. He also added the Vltava River, which winds its way through Prague.
Today, Langweil’s paper model is not only an interesting museum artifact but also a magnet for art lovers and for historians who want to see how Prague has changed over time. Understandably, parts of the city look quite different because of building reconstruction or renovation, especially the Jewish quarter and a section of Prague called Old Town. Thanks to modern technology, Langweil’s model has now been digitized, allowing visitors to see the Prague of 1837 in the form of an interactive computer model.
In April 1837, an ailing Langweil asked if his model could be placed in what was then called the Patriotic Museum, but the museum was not interested. How this must have disappointed him! Imagine, though, if he could visit the museum today or “stroll” through his old Prague on a computer screen. No doubt he would feel that his painstaking efforts were not in vain.
[Picture on page 10]
[Picture on page 10]
Langweil’s paper model of the city of Prague
[Picture on pages 10, 11]
Close-up view of Langweil’s paper model
[Picture Credit Lines on page 10]
Page 10, Langweil: S laskavým svolením Národního muzea v Praze; pages 10 and 11, model photos: S laskavým svolením Muzea hlavního mesta Prahy