Santini’s Ingenious Cloister in the Marshes
Aedificium hoc sine aquist ruet, or: A building without water will fall down. This centuries old message on the wall of the convent of the Plasy cloister reminds us that Baroque architect Jan Santini Aichel was not only a master of original shapes, but also of extraordinary technical designs.
It was a barren, forested and wet region, yet the Cistercian order liked it in the first half of the 12th century. They looked for seclusion, and the floodplains of the Střela River looked promising as it was unlikely that anyone would disturb them in the marshy land. However, the Hussite wars brought an end to the promising cloister: it was burned down by Jan Žižka in the spring of 1421 and poverty reigned for the following two hundred years.
A revival came towards the end of the 17th century when construction works picked up under the supervision of Jean Baptist Mathey, who modified the Gothic Royal Chapel and had a prelature built. However, the name that got Plasy into the architectural textbooks was Jan Santini Aichel. Abbot Evžen Tyttl, an educated, ambitious and energetic man, invited Santini to the cloister in 1711 and the two of them resonated with the expansive plans.
In 1098, a part of the reforming movement of the Benedictine Order seceded as it distanced itself from luxury and flamboyance and focused on chastity and asceticism according to Benedict’s motto “Ora et labora!” (Pray and work), which the Benedictine Order gradually left. Cistercian cloisters were mostly built in remote areas and desolate regions so that the monks could more easily observe the strict discipline of the order, and they thereby contributed to the colonisation of many of the desolate areas in Western and Central Europe.
But how do you build a cloister in a marshland? When founding the new convent in Plasy, Santini used an ingenious method – he built the building on a wooden grate resting on a gravel base. The grate is placed on oak poles driven into the mud under the gravel, of which there are about five thousand. The durability of the grate is provided by its permanent placement in water, which is channelled in by a system of canals fed by local springs, and also from the Střela River in case of emergency.
Based on Santini’s project, a large Baroque building of the convent, or rather a chateau with an enclosed courtyard and bastions on the corners was built. The works were complicated due to the soaked terrain, but Santini came up with a sophisticated solution. The foundation of the building includes more than five thousand oak poles driven into the marshy base. Water is supplied through filters in which the wood basically petrified without access to air. The system of water supply canals and shafts makes sure that the poles are continuously under water. There are two pools on the ground floor to help with water management: if their level drops, the exposed poles would rot and the building would collapse – as Santini warned.
The master of a unique Baroque style also designed beautiful interiors in the cloister, in which he played with space and light that creates a strong spiritual atmosphere inside the building.
Santini designed beautiful airy ambulatories, chapels and four famous self-bearing staircases with extraordinary shape and technology. When Abbot Tyttl, who invited Santini to Plasy, died in 1723, Santini expressed how much he regretted that this “exceptionally virtuous man” had left.
Plasy and its surroundings are one of the regions strongly touched by Santini’s geniality. Some time ago, marked cycling paths called Baroque I, II and III were opened there. The first one will take you to another work by Santini: the Church of the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary in Mariánská Týnice. And if you go back through Mladotice, make a stop there as well. Santini successfully built the local chapel of the Virgin Mary for Evžen Tyttl as his first work. Thanks to this he then got the opportunity to show his geniality in Plasy.
The state treasury was drawn out during the Napoleon wars and so the cloister with the adjacent land was sold to Austrian-Hungarian Chancellor Metternich in 1826. He changed the cloister to a chateau and rebuilt a part of it as metallurgical works and housing for workers. Towards the end of WWII, the cloister was used by Russian soldiers, and in 1945 the entire estate was nationalised. Today, Plasy is managed by the National Office for the Preservation of Historical Monuments and a large part of the cloister premises now belongs to the National Technical Museum. The reconstructed hospital wing includes a very interesting exposition focused on the history of pharmacies in Plasy.