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The Italian Court and its Treasures in Kutná Hora

Kutná Hora, a town known for its silver mining and minting of Groschen coins during the Middle Ages, still has a medieval flair, and this town on the UNESCO World Heritage list offers a plethora of sights. Tourists flock to Saint Barbara’s Cathedral with its astounding outer buttresses. Inside both Baroque and Gothic decoration enthralls. Hrádek is a museum focusing on the town’s history. Visitors can even visit a medieval mine. Near Kutná Hora, in Sedlec, there is an ossuary that shows off 40,000 bones and skulls in the shape of a chandelier, Gothic tower and chalice, to name a few. The oldest cathedral in the country is nearby.

Then there is the Italian Court in Kutná Hora proper. I did not visit the Italian Court the first several times I visited this town that was famous for its mining of silver from the 13th to 15th centuries. I dismissed it because I had not been interested in coins, and I assumed that only displays of various coins were shown there. Named after Italian experts who visited the mint and initiated minting legislation, the Italian Court does host an exhibition about the minting of coins. But it is enthralling, to say the least. It will even make you wonder about the history of the coins in your pocket.

During one visit when I had free time to kill before the bus would take me back to Prague, I was intrigued by a sculpture of a miner on the stone fountain in the courtyard of this complex. A mish-mash of architectural styles, the Italian Court played a very prominent role in Czech history, I soon learned, and the mining of silver had a great influence on the mint’s operation. In the 13th century Bohemian King Wenceslas II adopted a reform that centralized the country’s 17 mints into one mint at the Italian Court. Coins were forged here during five centuries, from 1326 to 1727. The Groschen currency, created here, was in circulation from the beginning of the 14th century to 1547. Kings and mining administrators had called the Italian Court home. In 1420 Emperor Sigismund had lived in this residence while he ordered his troops in a battle for the Bohemian crown.

Although even the Hussite wars of the 15th century did not stop the Italian Court from producing its currency, the place became dilapidated in the middle of the 16th century. Restoration took place, but during 19th century, it was in poor condition again and served as a prison. In 1881 the Municipality of Kutná Hora purchased it and gave it a makeover. Before it became a museum, a town hall, archives and a school had been situated on the premises.

I found the history of the coins intriguing. The process of minting a coin was complex and included the extraction of copper, burning of the silver, metalworking, whitening of minting pieces and the casting of the molds. Mine owners purchased the best raw silver in the form of “loaves” at an ore market, and it was bought by the Italian Court. The ore market is depicted on the title page of the Kutná Hora Hymn Book, created from 1493-1494 and showing the various stages necessary for coin minting.

At first the Groschen was made of 94 percent silver, but during the Hussite wars it contained only 10 percent silver. In the late 15th century, white money, made of argent, was introduced. This coin was worth one-seventh of a Groschen. Thalers also existed. Larger than the Groschen, the heaviest weighed 24 grams, and the coin consisted of 80 percent silver.

The Groschen enjoyed prosperity from the late 14th century to the early 15th century. When Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II took control toward the end of the 16th century, the first Czech inscription appeared on the country’s currency, and the mint was producing many of these coins. In later times production thrived as well. The tables turned again, though, and the mint was closed down in 1726.

The building still retains Gothic elements. Two Gothic portals amaze. Hailing back to 1510, one portal is decorated with an inscription from the Bible reading “Touch me not” as well as a double V symbol standing for King Vladislav Jagiellon. A 600-year old column is not just another column. People who touch it are sure to enjoy health, happiness and wealth.

However, the Audience Hall and the chapel impressed me even more than the history of the mint itself. The Audience Hall was built in the 14th century. Our guide pointed out the town symbol prominent between two windows. Two miners, a lion, an eagle and a crown are portrayed on the wall. Two paintings dominate the room, showing events that had actually taken place at the Italian Court. One focuses on the issuing of a decree at Prague University in 1409, and the other shows a teenage Vladislav Jagiellon being crowned King of Bohemia in 1471. Perhaps the most intriguing feature of the space is a 16th century council bench with movable seats. A representative could turn his chair around to express disagreement, so that the back of the chair was facing the mayor.

The Chapel of Saint Wenceslas and Saint Ladislaus is dazzling, certainly one of the most beautiful chapels I have ever seen and also one of the most unique. It combines Gothic architecture with Art Nouveau elements, as the two styles are shown side-by-side, portrayed in perfect harmony. The oldest of the three Gothic triptychs dates from the end of the 15th century. The Secession tempered paintings on the walls were created from 1904 to 1906. I noted the symbols of knights and miners as well as the townscape in the decoration while visiting this chapel. Figural representations from the lives of saints also adorn the walls. Stained glass windows add elegance to the space.

While there are many sights to visit in Kutná Hora, do not overlook the Italian Court, which shows how the minting of coins played such a major role in the town’s and country’s economy. The mint gives a fresh and fascinating perspective on the history of Bohemia. The Italian Court is a place that will make anyone feel rich for a day.

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A resident of Prague since 1991, Tracy A. Burns has published articles and stories in English, Czech and Slovak. Her work in English has appeared in The Washington Post, for instance. Her travel blog is at She also writes book reviews and essays for the Czech and Slovak academic journal Kosmas. Her writings in Czech have been published in Reflex and Listy, among others. Her articles in Slovak have been printed in SME, for example. She has edited an art catalogue for Prague's National Gallery and is a contributing author to the book The Arena Adventure, about Arena Stage theatre. Her passions are writing, reading and traveling.

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