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Polish Renaissance Architecture

The Renaissance in Poland (Polish: Odrodzenie, literally 'Rebirth') lasted from the late 15th century to the late 16th century and was likely the golden age of Polish culture. The Kingdom of Poland (from 1569 known as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth), ruled by the Jagiellon dynasty, actively participated in the European Renaissance. A century without major wars - only conflicts on the sparsely populated eastern and southern borders - allowed the multinational Polish entity to experience a significant period of cultural growth. The Reformation spread peacefully throughout the country (giving the rise to the Polish Brethren), living conditions improved significantly, cities grew, and exports of agricultural goods enriched the population, especially the nobility (szlachta) who gained the dominant hand in the political system (Golden Freedom).


Jan Kochanowski, a leading poet and writer of Polish Renaissance

The Renaissance, whose influence originated in Italy, started spreading in Poland in the 15th and 16th century. This was a result of Italian artists (Francesco Florentino, Bartholommeo Berecci, Santi Gucci, Mateo Gucci, Bernardo Morando, Giovanni Battista di Quadro, etc.), merchants (Boners, Montelupi's [1]) and thinkers (Filip Callimachus) who had come to Poland since the late 15th. Most of them came to Cracow, the Polish capital until 1611.

Nicolaus Copernicus, a leading scholar of Polish Renaissance.

The Renaissance belief in the dignity of man and power of his reason found a receptive ground in Poland. Many works were translated into Polish and Latin from classical Latin, Greek and Hebrew, as well as contemporary languages like Italian. Cracow Academy, one of the world's oldest universities, enjoyed it's Golden Era between 1500 and 1535, attracting 3215 students in the first decade of the 16th century - a record not surpassed until the late 18th century. The period of Polish renaissance, supportive of intellectual pursuits, produced many outstanding scientists and artists. Among them were Nicolaus Copernicus who in his De revolutionibus orbium coelestium developed the heliocentric theory of the universe, Maciej of Miechów, author of Tractatus de duabus Sarmatis..., the first accurate geographical and ethnographical description of Eastern Europe, Bernard Wapowski, a cartographer whose maps of Eastern Europe appeared in Ptolemy's Geography, Marcin Kromer who in his De origine et rebus gestis Polonorum libri... described both the history and geography of Poland, Andrzej Frycz Modrzewski, a philosopher who advanced novel political and social theories concerning the whole state, Mikołaj Rej who has popularized the use of Polish language in poetry, and Jan Kochanowski who perfected Polish poetic language and became recognized as the most eminent Slavic poet until the beginning of the 19th century.

Title page of De revolutionibus

Young Poles, especially sons of nobility, educated in a network of more then 2500 parish schools, many gymnasium and several academies often travelled abroad to complete their education. Members of Polish intellectual elite, like Andrzej Frycz Modrzewski, Johannes Dantiscus or Jan Łaski maintained contacts with leading European luminaries, including Thomas Moore, Erasmus and Philip Melanchthon. Through this exchange of ideas Poland not only participated in major scientific and cultural developments also propagated Western heritage[2] (for example, printing, Latin language[3]) and art[4] (lke syllabic versification in poetry[5])among East Slavic nations, especially in Belorussia and Ukraine (through Kyiv-Mohyla Academy[6]), from where it was transmitted to Russia, which was increasing its ties with Europe in the aftermath of the Mongol invasion of Rus[7]. The first four printed Cyrillic books in the world were published in Cracow, in 1491[8].

Incentives for development of art and architecture were many. King Zygmunt the Old, crowned in 1507, was a sponsor of many artists, and launched an ambitious project - under Florence architect Bartolommeo Berrecci - of transforming the ancient residence of the Polish kings, the Wawel Castle, into a modern Renaissance residence. Zygmunt's zeal for Renaissance was matched not only by his son, Zygmunt II August, but by many magnates and wealthy burghers who were also eager to display their artistic tastes and patronage. In 1578, chancellor Jan Zamoyski conceived a bold plan of building the ideal Renaissance city, and he sponsored the creation of Zamość, which quickly became an important administrative, commercial and educational city in Renaissance Poland. The main beneficiaries of Renaissance art were the two largest contemporary cities - Cracow (which attracted many Italian architects) and Gdańsk (which attracted mostly architects from Germany and the Netherlands) - but many other cities also spotted Renaissance buildings.

Painting of Sebastian Lubomirski, wealthy 16th century Polish nobleman.

Renaissance painting was introduced in Poland by many immigrant artists, like Hans Dürer, Hans Suss and Lucas Cranach, and practicised by such local painters as Marcin Krober (a court painter of king Stefan Batory). The portraitists left behind a splendid pictorial gallery of the noble and the wealthy, capturing characteristic features and social position of each person.

The centre of musical culture was the royal residence at Cracow, where kings surrounded themselves with foreign and local composers and musicians. The finest works of the period include vocal and instrumental compositions, dances, organ and polyphonic music as well as solemn oratorios and masses. Especially popular were compositions for organ and the lute. The Tablature, compiled in 1540 b Jan of Lublin, was an extensive collection of all known European organ compositions. Mikołaj Gomółka was the author of musical rendition of Kochanowski's poems. The most famous Polish composer was Wacław z Szamotuł, recognized as one of the outstanding Renaissance composers.

The first printing press was set up in Cracow in 1473 by Kasper Straube from Bavaria. It is estimated that between 1561 and 1600 seventeen printing houses in Poland published over 120 titles per year, with the average edition size of 500 copies. The first complete translation of the Bible into Polish was done in 1561 by Jan Leopolita. Around that time the first Polish orthography dictionary was published (by Stanisław Murzynowski in 1551); grammar books and dictionaries also proliferated. Polish renaissance was bi-lingual, with the szlachta's speech being a mixture of Polish and Latin, and various authors oscillating between Polish, Latin and a mixture of those two languages.

The general tone of Polish literature was set by the nobility, who propagated their own ideals of material and spiritual values. Thus poems extolled the virtue of manorial life and importance of agriculture: for example Rej celebrated life and occupation of country's noble, while Kochanowski wrote about the pleasures and beauty of country's lives and nature. Literary forms varied, from ode, pastorals and sonnets to elegy, satire and romance.

Polish renaissance architecture

Polish renaissance architecture is divided into three periods:[1]

First period (1500-1550), so called "Italian". Most of renaissance buildings were build in this time by Italian architects, mainly from Florence.
Second period (1550-1600), renaissance became most common, beginnings of Mannerist, influences of Niederland version of renaissance.
Third period (1600-1650), Mannerist with first signs of Baroque.

First period

Yard of Wawel Castle is an example of first period of Polish renaissance.

In 1499 Wawel Castle was partially burned. King Alexander Jagiellon in 1504 made main architect of renovation to Eberhard Rosemberger. Later he was replaced by italian-born Francesco Florentino and after his death Bartolomeo Berrecci and Benedykt of Sandomierz. As an effect of those works the Royal Castle was transformed into a renaissance residence in Florentine style. In this period also other castles were build or rebuild into new style:

Drzewica (build in 1527-1535)
Szydłowiec (rebuild 1509-1532)
Ogrodzieniec (rebuild 1532–1547)
Pieskowa Skała, (rebuild 1542–1580)
In first period of renaissance churches were still build mostly in Gothic style. In this time only chapels surrounding old churches were sometimes build in new style. The oldest of them is build in 1519-1533 by Bartolomeo Berecci Sigismund's Chapel in Wawel Cathedral.

Second period

Town hall in Poznań (Posen), rebuilt from gothic style by Giovanni Battista di Quadro in 1550-1555

The Renaissance style became the most common style in the whole of Poland. In the northern part of the country, especially in Pommerania and Gdańsk works a large group on Netherlands artists. Renaissance style in other parts of Poland varied under local conditions, giving different substyles in each region. Also some elements of Manierist are included. Architecture of this period is divided in three regional substyles:

"Italian" - mostly in the southern part of Poland (the most famous artist was Santi Gucci)
"Netherlands" - mostly in Pommerania
"Kalisz-Lublin style" - central Poland, with most known examples in Kazimierz Dolny.
In the whole of Poland, new castles were built with a new quadrilateral shape with a yard in the centre and four towers in the corners, examples are:

Castle in Płakowice (16th c.)
Castle in Brzeg, (rebuild from gothic stronghold in 1544-1560)
Castle in Niepołomice (rebuild after fire in 1550–1571)
Castle in Baranów Sandomierski, (build in 1591–1606 by Santi Gucci)
Castle in Krasiczyn
Also cities founds new building in Renaissance style. New Cloth Hall in Cracow were built, city halls were built or rebuilt in : Tarnów, Sandomierz, Chełm (demolished) and most famously in Poznań. Also whole towns were projected. Examples of Renaissance urbanism survived into modern times in Szydłoiec and Zamość.

Zielona Brama in Gdańsk (Danzig)

Examples of Pommeranian Renaissance that was under influence rather of art of Northern Europe than Italy were:

Brama Zielona in Gdańsk (build in 1564–1568 by Hans Kramer)
Brama Wyżynna in Gdańsk (Willem van den Blocke finished it in 1588)
Arsenal in Gdańsk (build in 1602-1606 by Anton van Obberghen)
Ratusz Staromiejski in Gdańsk (build in 1587-1595) probably by Anton van Obberghen)
Characteristic laicization of life in Renaissance and reformation gave only minor development of sacral art. Still mainly chapels were built in the Renaissance style, but some churches were rebuilt including:

Cathedral in Płock (rebuilt after fire by Zanobi de Gianotis, Cini, Filippo di Fiesole and later rebuilt again by Giovanni Battista di Quadro)
Collegiate in Pułtusk (rebuilt by John Batista of Venice)
Only a few new churches were founded, like collegiate of St. Thomas in Zamosć.

Houses of Przybyło brothers in Kazimierz Dolny

Third period

The fire on Wawel and moving the capital to Warsaw in 1596 stopped the develompent of Cracow, also Gdańsk. Also, the rising power of Jesuits and counterreformation gave impetus to the development of Manierist architecture and a new style - Baroque

The most important examples of mannerist architecture in Poland is a complex of houses in Kazimierz Dolny.

A sample of other buildings of Polish renaissance:






Baranów Sandomierski


Nowy Wiśnicz





^ Harald Busch, Bernd Lohse, Hans Weigert, Baukunst der Renaissance in Europa. Von Spätgotik bis zum Manierismus, Frankfurt af Main, 1960
Wilfried Koch, Style w architekturze, Warsaw 1996
Tadeusz Broniewski, Historia architektury dla wszystkich Wydawnictwo Ossolineum, 1990
Mieczysław Gębarowicz, Studia nad dziejami kultury artystycznej późnego renesansu w Polsce, Toruń 1962
Michael J. Mikoś, Polish Renaissance Literature: An Anthology. Ed. Michael J. Mikoś. Columbus, Ohio/Bloomington, Indiana: Slavica Publishers. 1995. ISBN 978-0-89357-257-0 First chapters online