The Star Summer Villa (Letohrádek Hvězda in Czech, henceforth Hvězda) is a remarkable Renaissance structure, with its six-pointed star-shaped ground plan and an interior that boasts some of the finest stucco work of the period. The cornerstone was laid in 1555 and construction completed three years later; its Habsburg patron, and resident in summers, was Archduke Ferdinand of Tyrol (1529–95), who is better known for his remodeling of Schloß Ambras (Innsbruck) and his extensive collection of armor. The possibility that Ferdinand himself had a hand in designing Hvězda is, if true, a remarkable instance of a Renaissance patron acting as an architect.
With its anomalous structure, exceptional interior decoration, and notable patron-resident, there are few (if any) comparable Renaissance buildings. Star-shaped plans were usually applied to fortress-towns (for example, Palmanova, Italy); in this case, the star shape and elevation are uniquely applied to a single building that had a very different function as a summer villa. Patron-architects come more readily to mind with the notion of city planning (for example Vespasiano Gonzaga and his citta ideale of Sabbioneta). Again, Hvězda seems anomalous. Indeed, already in the sixteenth century, Hvězda was viewed as extraordinary, as can be seen in contemporary travelers’ accounts. Yet despite its striking qualities and rich history, Hvězda is far less known today when compared to other contemporaneous villa structures (such as Palladio's villas or Bramante's loggia). Located in the middle of a game reserve about seven kilometers from the city center of Prague, Hvězda is decidedly less frequented by tourists and has featured only rarely in overviews of art and architectural history.
Therefore, the present publication is a very welcome and much needed one that goes to great lengths to redress this neglect. The Star was first published in Czech in 2014 and translated into English in 2017. Featuring superb research and high-quality photographs, this is by far the most definitive and exhaustive publication on its subject. The findings contained therein will be consulted for a long time to come. The outcome of a collaboration between four Czech scholars, this detailed and diligent research is of the highest standard, with each contributor bringing invaluable expertise to individual aspects of the totality of Hvězda. Ivan Prokop Muchka is an expert on Renaissance architecture; art historian Ivo Purš specializes in sixteenth-century alchemical and cosmological iconography; Sylva Dobalová has previously published on Renaissance gardens and landscape designs; Jaroslava Hausenblasová is known for her work on the social and cultural histories of cities and the Czech lands in the early modern period. The result is both a comprehensive overview and microscopic summation of findings that epitomize the riches that can ensue through genuine and generous collaboration.
Given the impressive CVs of these scholars, it is surprising that their biographies are not featured at the end of the book. Another minor criticism involves problems of translation scattered throughout: for example, the use of the term drawer instead of the more appropriate draughtsman; and perhaps delay would be a more appropriate term than retardation to describe the slow progress of the Renaissance in Bohemia. But these are truly minor complaints. The volume is coherently organized with sections on historical context, architecture, stucco decorations, the summer palace complex, and the afterlife of Hvězda from the Renaissance to the present day. Much appreciated—and again, the collaborative nature of this enterprise should be lauded—are the multiple perspectives included. What is especially admirable is how thorough and exhaustive the accounts are, with a fine-tuned balance between fact and richly informed scholarly suggestion. When rightfully pointing to the stucco decoration as Hvězda's main legacy, multiple iconographic possibilities are explored, rather than resorting to a facile definitive version. Multiplicity is embraced, in the spirit of the exploratory and often allegorical impulses of the period from which these stuccos stem.
The Hvězda is one of the most important buildings of the Renaissance, its superlative stucco program perhaps without equal, and the history of its patronage and reception also remarkable. This excellent volume is well positioned to enable an international audience to appreciate its riches.