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The Měnín Gate – A Part of Brno’s History

Since the thirteenth century Brno has been an important political, administrative and economic centre both within the context of Moravia as well as all the lands of the Kingdom of Bohemia. For centuries, the city’s fortifications made it one of the best-protected cities in Europe. This fact is documented by several unsuccessful attempts to take the city (the most famous from a historical point of view was the Swedish siege in 1645; others include the 1663 siege of Brno by the Turks).

The city’s fortifications were technologically very sophisticated with many prominent experts in the field – including Giovanni Tansini, Louis François de Rochet and Pierre Philippe de Rochepin – having made contributions to their initial construction and later refurbishments, in particular during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Following the significant economic development of Brno over the course of the nineteenth century and the associated urban expansion and gradual settlement of areas outside the Medieval and Baroque walls, the system of city fortifications gradually disappeared.

Brno’s city walls have been continuously documented in detail since the period between 1243-1247. Their origins can be dated to the first third of the thirteenth century. The city’s ramparts and moats are mentioned in the Great City Privilege of Brno, issued by King Wenceslas I in January 1243; they are also mentioned around 1260 in the charters of Přemysl Otakar II.

In their classic form, the city’s fortifications were strengthened with a system of towers and bastions, whose task was to reinforce and make their defence easier. In the fourteenth century, Brno’s system of fortifications consisted of a city wall with a forward ward wall and a moat. The towers were strengthened with some fifty bastions, located forty meters from each other. At the same time, the towers themselves reinforced the ward wall. The area enclosed by the fortifications totalled about 36 hectares, which made Brno the fourth largest city in the Czech state, after Prague, Wroclaw and Olomouc. After 1486, the city fortifications were extended in the vicinity of the Augustinian monastery. In the sixteenth century, the city system of fortifications was strengthened and reconstructed. As a part of this work, all the gates were gradually reinforced with barbicans. The inner wall was protected with forty-three towers and the ward wall with eleven towers.

Brno’s system of fortifications was completely refurbished after the Thirty Years War, when Brno, together with Špilberk Castle, was transformed into a Baroque fortress beginning in the 1660s according a plan by Giovanni Tansini. This transformation was complemented in the 1730s by Pierre Philippe de Rochepin with an outside bastion belt that was destroyed in 1809, together with a part of Špilberk Castle’s fortification, by Napoleon’s armies.

During the nineteenth century, the medieval inner city wall was demolished and the filling of moats was begun in 1823. In the meantime, city gates gradually disappeared. By 1817, there were no longer gates on Veselá and Běhounská Streets. The Jewish Gate was demolished in 1835 and replaced with the Classicist Ferdinand Gate, which however, lasted only until 1864. The Brno Gate disappeared in 1848-1852, and the system of bastions was demolished between 1858 and 1863, when Greater Brno began to take form.

The Baroque city fortifications have disappeared completely, but tiny fragments of the original medieval walls have been preserved, mainly in the cellars of buildings located on the site of the original fortifications (in particular Bašty, Petrov Hill, the Denis Park, and Dominikánská and Husova Streets).

Beginning in the thirteenth century, the inner city has been accessed through five gates – the Běhounská, Veselá, Brno (“Brněnská”), Jewish (“Židovská”) and Měnín (“Měnínská”) gates. The gates had also exits for pedestrians, designated as doors (portulae). Until the middle of the eighteenth century, entry into the city was possible only through the Brno (on today’s Šilingr Square (Šilingrovo naměstí) at the end of Starobrněnská Street), Veselá (at the junction of Veselá and Česká Streets) and Jewish, later Ferdinand (on Masarykova Street) gates. These entrances to the city were located in the outer fortifications belt and there were roads leading to them. The other gates were only intended for internal use by city inhabitants.

The only gate to have survived (although in a considerably altered form) the demise of Brno’s city fortifications is Měnín Gate. It has become the only visible fragment remaining of the original system of city walls.

The Měnín Gate was named after the surrounding city quarter and was located at the mouth of Měnínská (today Orlí) Street. Mentioned as the fifth of the city’s gates, it is the only exit from the city that has been preserved and remains in use today. It is quite exceptional that only one street leads to it – some historians tend to consider this as evidence a certain deviation from the city plan and believe that there were originally two convergent streets meeting at the gate, one of which was later built over. But also this theory also has its opponents.

The first written mention of the gate can be found in a proclamation from June 1293, concerning the resolution of a dispute concerning parish borders between the Churches of St. Peter and St. James. The border between the two parishes demarcated after an examination of written documents and hearings before a commission consisting of church and secular official, presided over by Conrad, the Abbot of the Cistercian monastery in Velehrad. The commission decided to check and delimit the parishes’ border in person and therefore made an inspection of the area in question, beginning in Old Brno and following the newly established border between the two parishes, i. e. from the Brno Gate along Dolní Street, the Old Marketplace and then directly to the Měnín Gate.

The Měnín Gate is the only one in the medieval system of city fortifications to have changed its position. As of the year 1293, it is recorded as having been on a line connecting line Kobližná and Jánská Streets; in 1348, however, there is only a city door mentioned at that location, while the new Měnín Gate is located one street further to the south.

The architecture of the present gate dates to around the year 1500. At the end of the sixteenth century, more precisely in 1593, a tower clock made by a clockmaker from Přibice u Vranova was noted. The clock can be well seen in a painting showing the 1645 Swedish siege of Brno. According to city accounts, the painter Johannes created an “eine Uhrplatte” in the Měnín Gate. In 1692, the clock on the gate was upgraded by Gottfried Pobinger, a Brno burgher and clockmaker.

The gate originally had four storeys although some sources mention it as a three-storey building. By the mid-seventeenth century it had lost its importance and purpose as a massive bastion had been built in front of it during Baroque fortress construction. In 1839, the Gate was lowered, all its ornamentation was removed and it was turned into a residential structure. The Gate lost its function as a passage in 1847-1849. By the mid-nineteenth century it was in very poor condition; it was purchased by a lady merchant from Brno who used its cellars for the maturation of “tvarůžky” – a strong-smelling cheese from the Olomouc region – that she herself imported to Brno. She then used the money obtained from her business to repair the gate, which then served as home for four generations of her family. In 1945, it was badly damaged by artillery.

The last owner of the Navrátil family, who had lived in the gate for almost a century, donated it to the city of Brno in the late 1960s. The city re-sold it, but it remained unused and decaying until it was returned to the property of the city of Brno (in 1978).

Following this period of decline, the city of Brno provided funds for the renovation of the Měnín Gate (1978-1982) according to plans by the architect Kamil Fuchs. In February 1982, it came under the administration of the Brno City Museum and became a part of its exhibition space. It was opened to the public on 5 May 1983 with the exhibition “Brno and Weapons over the Centuries”. In the early 1990s, its underground rooms were briefly used as a wine bar.

At present, the Měnín Gate is used by Brno City Museum for permanent and temporary exhibitions, lectures and concerts. The first exhibition to be held on the premises of the gate – as was mentioned above – was followed between 1986 and 1989 by several temporary shows. Today, the Měnín gate houses the exhibition “Gate of Time”, which presents the results of archaeological excavations carried out within the city of Brno.

Written by PhDr. Dagmar Baumannová, CSc.
Translation PhDr. Kateřina Tlachová