A Castle, but Not…
I’ve met some people who have come away from a visit to this Brno landmark rather disappointed, having expected something else. Špilberk does suffer a bit from a degree misrepresentation as a result of a majority of tourist information sources referring to it as a castle. Fortress is a much more accurate word for the structure and much more fitting to its turbulent and often dark history.
In over 700 years of existence, this structure has been a castle, fortress, prison and military barracks prior to the museum it is today.
Let’s take a look at this Brno landmark in proper context:
Seven Centuries of Change
At the time of it’s establishment in the mid 13th century, Špilberk was indeed a castle by definition and a seat to royalty until the end of the 15th century, when it entered a period of decline.
During the Thirty Years War, the fortifications of the castle and town were improved. This marked the beginning of the transformation from castle to fortress, a process which concluded in the mid 18th century and resulted in Špilberk becoming the largest and most important fortress in Moravia.
While use as a prison had always been part of Špilberk’s history, that purpose took on new importance from the early 1600s until it ceased serving as a prison in 1855 . It earned the nickname “The Prison of Nations” and was notorious as the harshest prison in the Austro-Hungarian empire. Many inmates were true criminals while many more were political dissidents to the Habsburg empire.
Notable inmates at Špilberk included many members of the Carbonari, a secret organisation that operated during the Italian unificationwhich lasted from 1815 to 1860. The Carbonari pushed for the formation of a single Italian state that could succesfully stand against Habsburg rule in the region.
The poet, Silvio Pellico, was one of the Carbonari inmates and spent eight years at Špilberk. He spent much of his time writing and brought the fortress to Europe wide attention when he published the book “My Prisons” in 1832, two years after his release.
The legacy of the Carbonari and Pellico can still be found in the vicinity of the fortress. Near the entrance gate is a stone monument dedicated to the Carbonari prisoners and a street bearing Pellico’s name runs around part of the hill that Špilberk stands on.
Shortly after it’s use as a prison ended, the fortress was converted for use as a military barracks, a purpose it would serve for roughly a century. Notoriety continued to hang over the fortress during that period; both military prisoners and civilian objectors to Austro-Hungarian rule were held there during the First World War while World War Two saw it used by German forces as a both a barracks and a transfer point for those being sent to concentration camps.
Špilberk’s role as the seat of the Brno City Musem has been held since 1960, the year after the Czechoslovak army ceased using it as a barracks.
The Fortress Today
After seven centuries of changing functions and forms, the current structure bears little to no resemblance to the true castle is began life as, so to call the current form a castle is a misnomer. It is a fortress more than anything else.
Since 1960, it has been the seat of the Brno City Museum and hosts a collection of permanent exhibitions directly linked to the fortress and its history as well as a regular rotation of temporary exhibitions.
The hill the fortress stands on is a well landscaped park that offers good views of the city’s cathedral and older sections of the city. It’s an enjoyable place to spend some time on a pleasant day and is one more example of how Brno balances urban development with green spaces.
For a fuller description of Špilberk, its history and transformations throughout that history, please follow this link: