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Warsaw's Glorious Royal Castle
An Artistic Legacy of Poland’s Last King

by Peter K. Gessner

The origins of Warsaw's Royal Castle or Zamek, which stands of the Vistula escarpment at the southern end of the Old Town, go back to the Mazovian Prince, Bolesław II at the turn of the 13th century. Later, King Zygmunt August held meetings of the Polish parliament there. In 1569, after the Union of Poland and Lithuania, Warsaw, conveniently equidistant from Krakow and Vilno, the two capitals, became the permanent location for such meetings which took place at the Zamek. It was also at the Zamek in 1573 that the Assembly of Warsaw enacted Poland's charter of religious freedom which proclaimed "everyone is free to worship according to his conscience's faith." This was a great achievement for though today Poland is overwhelmingly Catholic, in those times the Catholic faith was professed by less than half of the inhabitants and the charter spared Poland the horrors of the religious wars that engulfed much of Europe during the counter-reformation.

In 1611 King Zygmunt III Vaza took up residence in the Zamek, moved his court it and rendering Warsaw the de facto capital of the Polish Commonwealth. To accommodate the needed government offices he added three wings to the building, enclosing thereby a pentagonal courtyard that defines the Zamek. He surmounted the west wing entrance with a clock tower. Known thereafter as the Zygmunt Tower, it was destined to become the most easily recognizable motif of the Zamek.

His son and successor, Władysław IV, erected a monument in front of the Castle to commemorate his father. It's a column surmounted by the figure of Zygmunt Ill supporting, with one hand, a large cross and holding a sword in the other. The Zygmunt Column, one of the first secular statues in Europe, graces the Castle Square to this day.

Entering the Great Courtyard one comes face to face with a gothic wail of the original Mazovian Castle. Next to it is an inner tower build by Władysław IV. It's called the Władysławowska Tower.

Stanisław August Poniatowski

The word Zamek means Castle in Polish, but the Warsaw Zamek, whatever its origins, is not a defensive structure as the term Castle might suggests, rather it is a palace. It is a splendid palace, an icon of Polish nationalism, a symbol of its sovereignty. The decorations of the interior of the Zamek celebrate the history of the nation and the state, the achievements of its culture and the deeds of valor of its knighthood. For this the nation can thank primarily one man, Poland's last king, Stanisław August Poniatowski. The Zamek, like much of Poland, had been devastated during the Swedish wars. Stanisław August undertook a carefully planned restoration which was both spectacular and frequently much ahead of it time. It more than returned the Zamek to its former splendors. It sought to proclaim the ideal of a legitimate royal rule in a peaceful setting. It veered away from the prevailing Baroque and Rococo style and introduced Neoclassicism to Poland.

Who was Stanisław August Poniatowski, and how did he come to have the wisdom and artistic taste necessary to achieve this, and why was he Poland's last king?

Born in 1732, he was the son of a distinguished and successful Polish general and a doting mother, herself a daughter of Polish magnates, a woman of the enlightenment and high rectitude. She exposed him to a wealth of philosophical concepts and ideas when he was yet young. At 18 he was sent abroad and during the next eight years visited Saxony, Prussia, Austria, France, the Netherlands, and England. He lived for periods of time in Dresden, Berlin, Paris and London. While in Paris, he had the opportunity to see the workings of the court at Versailles, note its manners, admire its taste. His visit to England imbued him with an admiration for that country's political system and social structure.

The Grand Staircase

In 1757 he was sent to St. Petersburg as a plenipotentiary by the Familia, the Czartoryski-led faction of the Polish Magnates. There he had a torrid love affair with the Grand Duchess Catherine Alekseyevna. Five years later, her husband became Tzar Peter III and shortly, still during 1762, Catherine, having engineered a coup d'etat, became herself the sovereign destined to be called the Great.

The following year, August III, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland died. Thereupon Catherine promised to help Stanisław become the elected King of Poland. Nor was this an idle boast. Poland, then one of the largest countries of Europe and in the minds of its people a sovereign state, was in fact, a protectorate, a vassal state of Russia. It had been so since 1717. The Russian sovereign and his army bad become the guarantor of the Polish nobility's "Golden Freedoms" and of a law the fixed the Polish Army at 24,000 men. And so on September 7, 1764 in a field in Wola, just outside Warsaw, Stanisław was elected King of Poland in a colorful ceremony immortalized in a painting by Bellotto. Although the painting portrays over 7000 persons, it fails to show the gleam of the bayonets of the Russian army that surrounded the field and assured an uncontested election. Even so, the new sovereign was a popular one. Intelligent, cultured and cosmopolitan he was, at last, a Pole. That was welcome for his recent royal predecessors had been all of foreign stock.

Stanisław August started the restoration of the Zamek by completely rebuilding the Royal Apartments and the Grand Staircase which led to them. Located in the south wing of the Zamek, its use is now reserved for ceremonial occasions. The King's architect at the start of this period was Jakub Fontana (1710-1773). His design of the Grand Staircase is resplendent in its Classical style. His father Józef bad also been a distinguished Warsaw architect. Jakub studied in Italy and Paris and his versatile style evolved from late Baroque and Rococo into Classicism. The first chamber of the Royal Apartments is the Guard Room (18) also designed by Fontana. Here on benches along the walls sat the soldiers of the Royal Mounted Guard protecting the King. The room in a classical style and rather austere but if one looks over the lintels of the four doors one finds charming supraportas .representing children with military accessories, the work of Jan Chryzostom Redler.

Although the Zamek has three floors, it is the second floor that warrants most attention. In addition to the Royal Apartments (rooms 18-28), which were the King's living quarters, it contains four other complexes of rooms. Thus beyond the Royal Apartments stretch the Apartments of State (rooms 9-17) which were used for ceremonial purposes. Being interconnected, the Royal and State Apartments can be toured in either direction. Historically, Stanisław August restored the Royal Apartments first and hence that will be the direction in which this virtual tour will begin.

In addition to the Royal and State Apartments, the Zamek houses the Chambers of Parliament (rooms 4-8). These are located in the west wing. The south wing contains the apartments of the King's nephew and namesake, Stanisław Poniatowski (rooms 33-36), while the wing connecting the State Apartments with the Chambers of Parliament houses the apartments of the Crown Prince. Since Stanisław August was a bachelor, the name of these chambers (rooms 29-32) refers to earlier occupants. Today, this latter apartment houses a collection of magnificent historical canvases by Jan Matejko.

The Canaletto Room

Continuing our virtual tour we pass from the Guard Room through the Guard Officers Room (19) to the Senatorial Antechamber (20) where those expecting an audience with the King were asked to wait. The room was designed by Dominik Merlini (1730-1797) who, arriving in Poland in 1750, became a student of Fontana and upon the latter's death in 1773 was appointed the King's architect. The Room is usually referred to as the Canaletto Room because it was constructed to display a series of views of Warsaw painted by Bernardo Bellotto (1721-1780), a Venetian and a nephew of Antonio Canale. Canale, who was called Canaletto , developed the technique of painting which relied on the use of a Camera Obscura, that is a dark cubicle with a pinhole in one side whereby the scene outside was projected upside down on the opposing wall and could be traced. Bellotto learned the technique from his uncle (and adopted it together with his uncle's name - a source of much confusion). For a period he worked in Dresden as Court Painter for Augustus III. Later, after the death of the latter he moved to Warsaw and from 1767 on he worked for Stanisław August.

In 18th century, well before the invention of a photographic camera, the detail in paintings produced by this technique must have been truly astounding. The detail is so great that the paintings were used by architects involved in the reconstructions of buildings destroyed during the second World War. In fact Bellotto's uncle had been consistently linked with sorcery; how else, it was said, could such paintings have been produced. In any event, the Antechamber must have instilled in those waiting there a proper sense of awe. Why was the room devoted to views of Warsaw? The message the King intended to convey was that Poland deserved a beautiful capital city and that Warsaw needed to fulfill that role.

the Audience Chamber

Bacciarelli's Audience Chamber Plafond

On the right of the Canaletto Room is the Royal Chapel (21) housed in the Grodzka Tower. On the left is the Audience Chamber (22), the most august of the rooms in the Royal Apartments. It was designed by Dominik Merlini. The room is decorated with supraportas and a ceiling by Marcello Bacciarelli (173118 18), an Italian painter born in Rome who in 1750 became court painter of August ifi in Dresden. He moved to Warsaw in 1762 and became court painter to Stanisław August in 1776.

A characteristic object gracing the room is a clock in the form of a vase with handles modeled after entwined vines. It was made by Polish artisans from a design by Jean Louis Prieur. A snake's head indicates the time. Over the lintels of the four doors Bacciarelli's paintings represent the four virtues which Stanisław August considered essential in a monarch: devotion, wisdom, justice and strength. At the far end of the room, on a dias, stood the throne.

The King's Bedroom

Next door is the King's bedroom (23). Paneled in chestnut and decorated with gilded garlands, it was the design of Fontana executed after his death. The bed, "a La Turque" however was designed by Merlini. The original is lost, but it was of a pullout variety.

The next is a complex of rooms used by the King on an everyday basis to run the government. The decorations and furnishings of these rooms were much altered during the 19th century, and though restored to the style appropriate to the latter part of the 18th, the design is not the original one. The Dressing Room (24) and its antechamber (26) served as waiting rooms for courtiers who were to be admitted to the King's study (25). The staircase in the Wladyslawowska Tower served to admit them here more directly. Adjacent were the Green (27) and Yellow (28) rooms. The former was where the King met with the Royal Council. The Yellow room served as a dining room and thus the site of the famous Thursday luncheons to which the King would invite leaders in the arts and sciences.

If Catherine, in stage managing Stanisław August's election, had counted on a pliant agent, she was to be disappointed. Upon election, Stanisław August promptly embarked on a program of far reaching reforms designed to strengthen the country and render it better able to resist the surrounding powers. Poland's gentry, more than any in Europe, was opposed to centralized power and sought to and succeeded in locating executive authority in the Sejm, or lower house of parliament. Moreover, ever since the passing of the Jagiellonian dynasty, it elected its Kings, albeit in some instances (as under the Vasas) the elections confirmed those who would have become the monarch under a hereditary system. Also, through the exercise of its "Golden Freedoms," the gentry sought equality with the monarch. In the hands of powerful magnates with parochial interests, these same "freedoms," and particularly the Liberum Veto, could be and were used to paralyze the Sejm much of the time.

The resulting conditions of near anarchy presented opportunities not lost on the absolute monarchs of the three adjoining countries, Russia, Prussia and Austria. The Russians, in particular, had managed to make themselves "guarantors" of the "Golden Freedoms" (thereby ensuring continued anarchy), and, as part of the agreement, to a limitation of the Polish Army to 24,000 men. No such limitation applied, however, the number of troops the Russians could station on Polish soil and at Poland's expense, troops that were used regularly to suppress opposition. The Russian Ambassador, for instance, thought nothing of "arresting" the Bishop of Kraków and having him deported to Russia.

Unable to increase the numbers of the Polish Army, Stanisław August founded a crack military academy, the Cadet Corps, so that, should the opportunity arise at a future date, it would be possible to expand the army rapidly. He also proposed constitutional reforms that would have strengthened the monarch's powers and would have also rendered representative government more effective. He proposed abolishing the Liberum Veto, that notorious "freedom" whereby any one member of Sejm could bring its proceedings, or even its session, to a halt. None of this pleased Catherine and by means fair and foul she forced Stanisław August to retreat. The retreat could have been temporary and tactical except that it caused the outraged gentry to resort to another of the notorious golden freedoms, that of forming a Confederation. This ancient procedure allowed the gentry, united in an assembly, to oppose a course of action by force of arms - a form of legalized Civil War. And so they formed the Confederation of Bar, so named after the place in south eastern Poland where the assembly first met. The insurgency lasted four years with Kazimierz Pułaski one of its most brilliant commanders. At one point, it even involved an attempt to kidnap the King (after a brief capture, be escaped though wounded). Finally, it was put down by the combined forces of the Royal and Russian armies.

To Prussia, Russia and Austria the apparent instability of Poland was not to be suffered and these powers resolved on a partial partition of the country. On July 25, 1772 they signed a treaty of partition in St. Petersburg whereby Poland was to lose 29% of its territory. But they required the Polish Sejm to ratify it. Meeting in the Sejm Chamber (8) the body did so with only two representatives voting against it. The action of one of the two, Tadeusz Rajtan, who threw himself in the doorway leading to the Senate Chamber (4) where the final ratifying signature had to be appended, rendering his clothes and pleading with the other delegates to kill him rather than sign the document. It was a grand but futile gesture, one that was immortalized in a famous painting by Jan Matejko.

The Marble Chamber

After the partition of 1772, the gentry became even more concerned with the possible absolutist tendencies of the monarch and the Sejm further restricted the King, who thereby lost the power to appoint ministers, senators and army officers. The King and his court sought to counter this by a course of action designed to raise the prestige of Warsaw as the seat of royal authority and to enhance the latter through an architectural and artistic program. We have seen already seen the early phases of this in the refurbishing of the Royal Apartment, particularly the Canaletto Room and the Old Audience Chamber. Now an altogether more ambitious program was put together for the Apartments of State.

Although the topic of this essay is the legacy that Stanisław August left Poland in the Zamek, it would be negligent to leave the impression that this constituted his whole program. He did many other things, called together, for instance, a National Educational Commission, in fact Europe's first Ministry of Education. Through this means he gave new life to Poland's two universities, the Jagiellonian in Kraków and the one in Wilno. He opened many liberal high schools, commissioned a complete spectrum of elementary school textbooks, many so excellent that they were translated into foreign languages and used into the 20th century.

Whereas the Royal Apartments were, so to say, the King's living quarters, where he appeared much of the time in the role of the private individual, in the State Apartments he was to appear in the full majesty of the Head of State. How the complex of rooms was used depended on the occasion and number of people to whom the King gave audience. If the audience was given in the Throne Room (13), then the Marble Chamber (12), the Great Hall (10), and the Knights Hall (11) all served as Anterooms where those to be granted audience had to wait their turn.

The Great Hall

The King took a very special personal interest in the design and planning of these rooms. They were going to be seen by vast number of people with business at court, and they were therefore to be a course in constitutional history. They were to extol past monarchs and their achievements and to call attention to those great men of Poland who exemplified the strength and wisdom of the nation. These virtues the country needed badly to emulate so as to bring order and renewal to the nation.

The King found inspiration in Book VII of Virgil's Aeneid, where the King of the Latini welcomes the hero in a temple, or senate house, that is filled with statues of the country's forefathers, its kings from the earliest days, and its heroes; also with a statue of Saturn. The chamber senate house was decorated, moreover, with trophies, weapons and armaments captured in war. That this was the source of the King's inspiration is rendered plain by a quotation in Latin which is inscribed all around the wall of the Knights' Hall (11). In English translation, it reads:

Here are assembled those who suffered wounds for the sake of the nation; those who lead pure priestly lives; those poets of true integrity whose songs were worthy of Phebo (Apollo); those who by their art had elevated life; and those whose contributions have kept their memory alive.
The passage comes from Book VI of Virgil's Aeneid (lines 660-664) and it describes bow Aeneas, having descended to the netherworld of the dead finds himself in the Elysian Fields among the most righteous and meritorious of men.

The design of the room is that of Jan Chrystian Kamsetzer (1753-1795). Born in Dresden, Kamsetzer became one of the most outstanding architects in Warsaw. The King sent him on a stipend in 1776-77 to Greece and Turkey and in 1780-82 to Italy, France and England. In doing so the King revealed his Neoclassical leaning.


The Knights Hall

The room is dominated by a statue of Chronos. the Greek embodiment of time, whose scythe is a reminder of one's mortality. Chronos, the work of Jakub Monaldi, is bending under the weight of a globe which also is an embodiment of time for it is a clock. The globe, however, with its equatorial band reminds one of Saturn with its rings. Mounted on the walls of the room are five large panel paintings by Bacciarelli. These represent moments of royal glory in the history of the nation. Above the line of the Royal paintings, against a background of trophies, hang Bacciarelli's portraits of 10 Polish men of note (Copernicus, Hodkiewicz, Cromerus ... ) and, around the Hall, the bronze busts or heads of a further 22 worthy Poles (Hevelius, Kochanowski, Ossolinski ...), all the work of Le Brun. Opposite the statue of Chronos stands another sculpted by Le Brun, that of Eternal Fame, proclaiming the citizens selected here to be honored by the King.

The Knights Hall

Eternal Fame

The adjacent Marble Chamber (12), paneled in many varieties and colors of marble during the reign of Władysław IV, was now embellished by Fontana with Bacciarelli's very fine portraits of 22 Polish Kings and the figures of Justice and Peace, sculpted by Andrzej Le Brun. The room is dominated by a full length portrait of Stanisław August in his coronation robes.

Finally one comes to the Great Hall (10), or Hall of the Columns. The most august of the Zamek's locations, where Court and State ceremony met: the center of Royal Power. It allowed a forceful demonstration of the idea of authority: through the hall's size, the rich materials employed and the fine works of art displayed. The King sought plans for it from a variety of architects. Eventually a plan by Merlini was adopted as a starting point but its final form is attributable to Kamsetzer. Broad mirrors, statues in deep niches, plain columns and round upper level windows appeared all to increase the size of the Hall. Beyond the Great Hall is the Council Room (15) where the Continuous Council met, and beyond it still the theater or concert hail (16) still so used today.

The Neoclassical Throne Room (13) is dominated by its rich gilding and the red velvet the King ordered be used on the throne and walls. The original design for the room and for the carving of the moldings were those of Victor Louis (1731-1800), one of the founders of French Neoclassicism. The Throne itself was designed by Kamsetzer and made by Polish artisans.

To the side of the Throne Room is the small Chamber of the European Monarchs (14). Here hang portraits of George III, Pope Pius VI, Joseph II of Austria, Louis XVI, Gustav III of Sweden, Frederick II of Prussia, and Catherine II of Russia. The paintings of the monarchs are first class; that of George III, for instance, is by Gainsbourough. The whole chamber is an extraordinary work of art devoted by the King to monarchs who were either hostile or indifferent to his country and His reign. The King must have often pondered how to buttress Poland's sovereignty by gaining an advantage over them on the vast chessboard that was this part of Europe in the 18th century.

The Throne Room

The Throne

The Chamber of the European Monarchs

It appeared that such an opportunity had arisen when Catherine, at war with the Turk, was being somewhat pressed. Stanisław August arranged to meet her and offered Poland's armed assistance against the Turk, subject to her permitting an expansion of Poland's army. In preparation, he had convened the Sejm to permit rapid ratification of the agreement. Catherine refused the offer out of hand. The Sejm having been convened failed, however, to dissolve itself. On the contrary it constituted itself as a Confederacy, whereby the Liberum Veto could not be employed to terminate or impede its deliberations. It stayed in session for four long years debating reforms of Poland's government and constitution.

A generation had passed and Stanisław August's educational program had its enlightening effects. The King objected to the runaway Sejm's deliberations. "The fruit is not yet ripe," he cautioned them, but unable to sway them he in the end joined them. On May 3, 1791 the Sejm enacted a new constitution in the Senate Chamber (4), the first one to be enacted in Europe and one proclaiming equality. It was altogether too liberal for the liking of the absolutist Russian Government. Soon Catherine reacted. She persuaded a few dissatisfied magnates to form a Confederation, this one at Tarnowice, and to ask for Russian help to reverse the constitution. Russian armies marched into Poland. At first the Polish army, under the leadership of Generals Tadeusz Kosciuszko and Józef Poniatowski opposed them but soon the King, concerned that the unequal fight would bring much carnage but no success, signaled his agreement to the Tarnowice Confederacy. What followed was the second and disastrous partition of Poland: only 57% of its former territory remained within the country's borders. In 1794, under the leadership of Kosciuszko, the Poles would rise against it. After initial successes, they would be crushed by Russian arms and the third partition would follow, resulting in the disappearance of Poland from the map of Europe for 123 years. Stanisław August Poniatowski. having been forced to abdicate, would spend the rest of his days near St. Petersburg as a guest and virtual prisoner of the Russian state.

Addendum: The Royal Castle and the Second World War

The above is an edited version of a presentation made to the Polish Arts Club of Buffalo on September 15, 1993.
Sources of visuals: Polska Akademia Umiejętności, Poczta Polska, and Zabytki Polski.

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