Prague houses weren’t given identifying numbers until 1770. Empress Maria Theresa was a great one for bringing the famed Habsburg trait of orderliness from Vienna to the banks of the Vltava. Before that, homes were known and located by a charming but confusing system of allegorical symbols. Although you can still find such emblematic addresses throughout the older parts of the city, Nerudova street in Malá Strana has the highest concentration of house signs in the city. Originally many of them had local significance, although today much of their meaning has been lost. The White Swan is one of these, and probably originated as a golden goose (not to be confused with the downtown department store of the same name, Bílá Labut’).
This house was the birthplace of the much-loved Czech poet and author Jan Neruda (1834–91), after whom the street is named. Traditionally, this was the writers’ and artists’ area of Prague, and Neruda conveyed the Bohemian atmosphere of Malá Strana in his work. The connection continues today with the quarter’s many small art galleries and craft shops.
Castle goldsmiths, such as the ones who worked at this house in the 17th century, paid fees to the city, unlike their colleagues who lived in the castle’s Golden Lane. As such, they were entitled to advertise their wares, as preserved today in this building’s façade.
One of the street’s more unlikely symbols, the scarlet sheep adorning this façade has a significance so arcane, not even the current house owner can explain it. Not that it matters – it remains in place as one of the city’s many charming idiosyncrasies.
This house symbol may have had something to do with alchemy – the wheel represents a stage in the magnum opus, the process by which the base metal lead was purportedly turned into gold. Modern-day alchemists are usually more interested in the meditative aspects of the art, however.
They say a demonic trio screeches on their instruments here on moonlit nights. The house was home to a family of violin-makers in the early 18th century, and the sign advertised their trade. Like many of the other buildings on this street, it is now home to a restaurant.
Although their image no longer adorns the façade, the three flowers remain atop the house. The house also lends its name to a feverish tale of passion and thunderstorms by Jan Neruda. Many of the author’s tales were set in houses such as this one.
Lucifer pops up as a cuddly character on houses all over town and in local legend, more a folksy trickster than a sinister prince of darkness. At this house he’ll tempt you to dine at the Restaurant U Čerta.
Who knows what they were thinking when they hung the crustacean above their door – probably trying to keep up with the neighbours at the Pendant Parsnip at No. 39.