Darkness, damp, and the musty smell of decay and rot; on the other hand, the mystery of ancient times, forgotten history, and the spirit of a place, as well as the human creativity and masterful craftsmanship of previous generations. These are the attributes of the hidden and forgotten underground structures and objects that our ancestors left in the historical centre of the city where they lived and worked, experiencing the daily hustle and bustle of the joys and sorrows of their time. The Brno underground is a phenomenon not only for the previous inhabitants, but for everyone who is interested in the history of Brno. It is a phenomenon unique in its attraction, magic, and omnipresent mystery. Let’s gaze into these dark and engaging places over the course of several centuries…
14th Century – The Century of Builders
In the 14th century, Brno was one of the most important cities of the Czech Kingdom. The population rose to a remarkable 7,500 and Brno became the third most populous city in the kingdom. The increasing number of merchants, craftsmen, and nobility who established their residence in the city required additional space to accommodate the new residents and to store more goods and food. The houses were gradually expanded, and new stone cellars of various sizes and numbers were created under the new tracts, connected by underground corridors. The stone was mined initially in Petrov and Špilberk, and later in the quarry on Červený kopec.
15th Century – The Century of Traders
Underground spaces in the 15th century were called brews, pubs, lagoons, and pools. The word ‘cellar’ was also used to describe commercial warehouses and shops, more or less sunk below the street where merchandise was sold. The entrance staircase to the cellars was mostly placed in the passageway, but for better supply access, entrances were set up directly from the street: a cellar passage with a trapdoor. For easier manipulation with stored goods, but mainly because of lowering barrels, stakes were hammered into the ground at the front of the trapdoor. These encroached on the street and complicated pedestrian and wagon traffic. For security reasons, their establishment was eventually banned.
16th Century – The Century of Stabilisation
With the stabilisation of the economic situation, the development of trade, and the growth of the wealthy citizens’ property, a new phase of cellar construction began and continued through the 16th century. Using new underground mining methods, the cellars were expanded into public areas. Cellars made of mixed stone and brick masonry completely replaced solid brick masonry in the 16th century. The original flat ceilings were replaced by brick barrel vaults or cross vaults. By expanding and merging plots, new Renaissance houses and palaces were created that did not destroy the original cellars but used them in new ways. New cellars were also built into the courtyard spaces and even under narrower passageways.
17th Century – The Century of Wine
The effort to acquire additional space led 17th century homeowners to extend and expand their cellars to the very limits of usability. The floor of the lower basement was often at groundwater level, which led to occasional basement flooding and damage to stored supplies, and sometimes even to its destruction. Branched labyrinths arose under the yards or neighbouring buildings and extended deep in front of streets and under public spaces, streets, and squares. There are rumours of mysterious and extensive corridors of Brno that extend far beyond the city walls.
18th Century – The Century of Technology
In the mid-18th century, much more intensive construction of underground technical structures started, including drainage tunnels, sewers, and municipal water systems supplying the city with drinking water. Other specific strategic underground structures were also developed. With the construction of a new bastion fortification system, cellars and casemate corridors were built in the fortification area. Some cellars were constructed in secrecy, as they were intended for storing valuable items and property or as escape routes in case of threat or enemy attack.
19th Century – The Century of Industry
With the development of manufacturing and the first factory buildings in the 19th century, the construction of cellars in the city centre gradually ceased. New warehouses in the suburbs are much better equipped for storing goods in terms of technical and transport issues. In connection with the extensive renovation of urban buildings, entire complexes of old cellars were subjected to the construction of new, multi-level apartment buildings. Cellars without access points and control are cut off from ventilation and drainage systems. However, underground structures of a technical nature were created, supporting the functioning of the expanding city.
20th Century – The Century of Modernisation
It seems that for centuries the structures hidden under the paving of streets and squares were forgotten, only accidentally discovered during construction work. The fact is, however, that the underground often offers reminders of itself in such a way that it cannot be overlooked. In the 20th century, during the modernisation and reconstruction of houses and whole blocks, the cellars that had lost their original function as cold storage or cellars to store wine and merchandise were often filled with garbage or rubble and walled up. Subsequent structural failures of houses, cave-ins of the road surface, and emerging caverns in the city streets were the first manifestations of the collapse of underground structures, and the city management had to deal with the Brno underground with great seriousness.
21st Century – The Century of the Present
The systematic exploration of the Brno underground in the 21st century continues to produce new discoveries and information about buildings that were once part of the city blocks and streets. Cellars and underground structures still exist below the current street level. However, many of them have disappeared and are being replaced by new constructions. Although the incorporation of historical cellars into newly constructed buildings is technically possible, it occurs only rarely. Usually, the historically valuable cellars present an unwelcome technical barrier to new constructions and are thus removed. The documentation of this disappearing history is often the only evidence of the structural changes of the city over the past centuries.