SUPPORTED by scaffolding, Michal Tomek crouches up against the ceiling of the Troja Palace. He scrapes away layers of paint, paint covering, and plain dirt until a fleck of blue appears. ``Olympus!'' he exclaims, as the form of the mythical Greek gods' home emerges. ``After 300 years of neglect, we're finally going to be able to see what this painting looks like.''
All over Prague, workmen such as Mr. Tomek are struggling to rescue this city's glorious past. Their effort means much more than restoring ancient monuments. In many ways, they are battling to save much of the best in the European culture.
Almost alone among European capitals, this city of 1 million escaped the ravages of war. Its ancient churches, gold-tipped spires, Baroque, Romanesque, and Art Nouveau buildings form what may be the world's largest historic preservation site -- a solid five-square-mile treasure.
Film director Milos Forman chose Prague as the location for his Oscar-winning Amadeus because he considered the city richer than Vienna or Salzburg in the architecture of Mozart's time. Above the Vlatva River soars the skyline of the Hradcany Castle. Below meander narrow streets and cobbled squares. Over this matchless harmony stand ancient statues on the 14-century Charles IV Bridge.
False notes now threaten that harmony.
On the Charles Bridge, grime covers the famous statues. To save them, most have been moved into air-conditioned museums and replaced by copies. In the most ancient parts of the Lower Town, wooden roofs protect pedestrians from collapsing fa,cades. All told, about 80 percent of the city's 2,000 registered monuments need work.
The main enemy is pollution. Jan Skoda, chief of the city's environmental commission, says that Prague's position, nestled in a deep valley fold, catches fumes from steel plants as far away as West Germany. Coal-fired stoves, still the most common means of heat among residents, add clouds of noxious high-sulfur smoke. So do cars and trucks, which still tend to use high-lead gasoline.
Neglect aggravated the damage. After World War II, Czechoslovakia's new communist government concentrated its spending on heavy industry and new housing. Rows of gray prefabricated high-rises were built to ring the city while its historic core began to crumble. AS the damage mounted, both economic and political reasons weighed on the authorities. Without renovation, fewer wealthy Westerners might visit.
More important, Czechoslovakia's aging rulers, put in power by Russian tanks in the streets of Prague in 1968, want to show themselves as faithful guardians of the country's heritage. Like the East German communists who celebrated the birthday anniversary of Protestant religious leader Martin Luther, the Czech communists use nationalistic symbols to legitimize themselves. ``Without a history, your people become cynical,'' says Jaromir Sedlak of the Academy of Sciences.
For these reasons, the government has launched a two-pronged assault on the decay. Over the past five years, Mr. Skoda says some $1.5 billion has been spent to equip the city with a new, cleaner infrastructure. Gas heating is being installed in old apartments. New highways are being built on the periphery and a new subway downtown.
At the same time, the old buildings themselves are being restored. Ivan Sperling, a director of the Prague Center for Memorial Restoration, says some $35 million a year is being spent to patch up historic buildings. In the past five years, Mr. Sperling says that more than 30 historic buildings have been renovated. Scaffolding seems to cover almost every precious monument.
Even so, lethargic builders slow the work. Numerous visits to the Gothic Tyn Church, one of Prague's most illustrious architectural symbols, failed to find workers on the job. At 9 a.m. the foreman said they were taking a half-hour coffee break. At 11 a.m., they were off on an hour lunch break. At 1 p.m., they left for the day. NO wonder critics complain about the lack of progress. Restoration of the Tyn's majestic spires began in 1972. Today, only half of one spire has been cleaned. While the foreman says that work should be completed by 1995, the critics laugh at that deadline. Jiri Dienstbier, a leader of the Charter 77 human rights group, says work will never be finished.
The restorers do face enormous obstacles.
Before any renovation is begun, Sperling explains that a complete study must be done on the building to determine just how to restore it: ``Often, what looks like a Baroque church turns out to have Gothic walls and a Romanesque foundation. It takes time to figure out how we should renovate it.''
Serious shortages of high-quality materials and craftsmen further slow the work. Because of faulty paint and varnish, houses painted in glowing pastels start to turn grey soon after they are renovated.
It is also hard to find workers willing to learn demanding age-old crafts.
At the Tyn Church, the foreman is looking for stone carvers who laboriously hand-carve and replace each stone and gargoyle of the fa,cade. ``We only have 15 stonecarvers,'' he complains. ``In the Middle Ages, they had 200.''
Despite these delays, there are victories. At the Troja Palace, originally built between 1679 and 1685 for the Sternberk family, the foreman points to large, shining section and says work should be completed by early next year.
Tomek says that he will finish restoring the ceiling by October. He is every bit the professional, often restoring paintings in the West. Although his salary is much higher there, he says he could not turn down the opportunity to work in his homeland. ``There is so much work to be done here,'' he says, pointing to the painting that uses Greek gods to represent the victory of the Hapsburgs over the Turks. ``This is my heritage.''