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The casemates are one of the architectural curiosities of Špilberk Castle and one of the most visited tourist attractions in Brno. They were built in 1742 during the final stage of the castle’s conversion into a baroque fortress under provincial fortress engineer Colonel Rochepin.

The origin of the word casemate(kasematte, kasemata, casamatta) derives from a dialect of a Romance language, with “casa” meaning house, and “matta” meaning dark. Casemates are, then, dark places or rooms without windows.

In the 17th and 18th centuries this was the name given to all barrel vaulted places built in the body of rampart fortifications, whose purpose was to provide shelter for the garrison and military material against artillery bombardment of the fort, and this is also true of Špilberk’s casemates, which became an important part of the inner defences of the most important fort in Moravia.

The casemates were built into the northern and southern sides of the castle moats, and were two-storey brick-built archways. The northern casemates were comprised of double archways on two storeys around 109 metres long. The southern casemates were a little shorter at around 102 metres and were single archways. A walled drainage channel passed through the lower storey. Four ovens were built into the middle of the archway on the southern storey of the casemates, in which bread could be baked for as many as five thousand people. The casemates were fitted with air wells allowing light and air to reach the furnace and its chimneys and tiled stoves.

The northern casemates could house as many as 1,200 men, while the southern casemates were to serve as storage areas. They were, however, used principally to store military requisites throughout the reign of Maria Theresa.

It was not until 1783 that Emperor Joseph II decided to use the casemates for an entirely new purpose as part of the reforms to the Austrian judicial and penal system. Part of the Špilberk fortifications was designated a prison for the worst and most dangerous criminals, and transferred to civil administration. First the upper storey of the northern casemates was converted into mass prison cells, and then in the autumn of 1784, at the Emperor’s order, wooden cells were established in the lower storey and the southern casemates, in which convicts sentenced to life imprisonment were individually chained.

A certain moderation to the severe punishments for the convicted came only with the rule of Joseph’s successor Leopold II, who in 1790 also abolished the chaining of those imprisoned for life, had the wooden cells removed and prohibited imprisonment in the lower storey of the casemates. The upper story of the casemates, however, continued to serve as a prison until the beginning of the 1830s, when the progressive humanisation of the penal system brought an end to casemate imprisonment. Imprisonment continued in areas of Špilberk above ground, officially abolished in 1820 and transformed into a state prison. The prison at Špilberk was finally abolished by Emperor Francis Joseph I in 1855, after which the castle was used as a garrison and military prison for more than 100 years.

The Špilberk casemates were the hardest prison for particularly hard criminals in the whole of the Austrian monarchy. Neither the upper classes (the nobility, officers, civil servants) convicted for various crimes and transgressions, embezzlement, falsifying official documents, etc. nor other state prisoners interned for political reasons, in particular those fighting against Habsburg absolutism (Hungarian Jacobins, Italian Carbonari, Polish revolutionaries) were imprisoned here. These categories of prisoner were located separately at Špilberk, at first largely in the upper story of the old prison building in the rear moat, and later in parts of the barracks buildings, particularly in the north wing.

The casemates were first opened to the public in 1880 by the then director of military buildings in Brno Anton Costa-Rossetti.

For more than 120 years they have attracted great interest from visitors. At the time of their opening a great many romantic and horrifying myths and legends were woven around the casemates, most of which considerably contradicted historical fact. These legends had grown over the years and entered the general consciousness, and were popular with tour guides and featured in the latest literature.

The original appearance of the casements has changed over the course of the years. The alterations made by the German army towards the very end of the Second World War played a considerable part in this. The last extensive reconstruction of the casemates in the years 1987-1992 endeavoured to return them to their original form at the end of the 18th century – the time of their transformation into the hardest prison of the times of Emperor Joseph II.