Shakespeare’s Chair & Other Trophies: The Pilfering Polish Princess behind Europe’s First Museum
Izabela Czartoryska (née Flemming) was an extremely colourful figure from the Age of Enlightenment. Not only was her private life renowned for being abundantly sensational, but Czartoryska’s collection – initially exhibited at Poland’s first museum, the Temple of the Sybil and Gothic House in Puławy – was assembled with similar, at times scandalous, bravado.
One of the first museums in Europe
The Czartoryski Museum and Library was the first museum dedicated to the history of a nation to present its heritage through the use of historical artefacts. It was one of the first modern and publicly accessible museums in Europe, which was supposed to collect artefacts as well as works of art – it preceded the Museum of the History of France at the Palace of Versailles by 30 years.
Today the Czartoryski collection has approximately 336,000 exhibits and is one of Poland’s most important museum collections. It includes 86,000 museum pieces: sculptures, drawings, prints, objects of everyday use, sarcophagi, mummies, relics, weapons, coins and memorabilia of the famous heroes of the past, as well as over 300 paintings. And these are not just any paintings – the collection boasts two of Poland’s most prized masterpieces: Leonardo Da Vinci’s Lady with an Ermine and Rembrandt’s Landscape with the Good Samaritan. The collection also includes 250,000 manuscripts, antique books and valuable documents.
Izabela Czartoryska (née Flemming) (1746-1834), the founder of the Czartoryski Museum, was a fascinating woman. The only child of Jan Jerzy Flemming, treasurer of the Crown, owner of a huge estate and Antonina Czartoryska, a chancellor of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. She grew up to be an extremely intelligent, charming, funny and knowledgeable person – she knew French, was interested in literature and history – as well as a traveller, a patron of the arts, a philanthropist and a writer. And it was precisely her charm and intelligence which made it possible for her to assemble this unique collection… as well as her flagrant thievery.
Building the collection by any means necessary
In 1796, after the Second Partition of Poland, Czartoryska rebuilt the town of Puławy, where the Czartoryskis had a palace, and decided to open the first ‘national’ museum on Polish soil – a testament to Poles and Polish culture.
Czartoryska became interested in collecting in the 1780s. She got her first pieces during a long journey to Switzerland, England and Scotland between 1789 and 1791. But it was years of hard work, the fortune of one of Poland’s grandest families, her growing knowledge, her acquisitiveness, passion, instinct and sense of taste, as well as her family’s connections in the country and abroad, her courage and authority that allowed Izabela to create an unprecedented collection. In all fairness, there were other extraordinary collections of art in Poland at the time, however, none of them were made available to the general public.
Izabela Czartoryska built up her collection according to the Enlightenment rule by which a work’s value depended on its didactic and educational potential. Painting was certainly not her favourite art-form, although she did have sophisticated tastes. The gallery of paintings at the Gothic House was mostly acquired by her sons, Adam Jerzy and Konstanty. In 1800, in a letter to Adam Jerzy in Italy, she wrote:
I am most delighted with the curios you have chosen for me, and those you have promised. Nothing has given me such pleasure for a long time! Scipio’s urn and the obelisk are exquisite pieces. You are surprised that I have not ordered any paintings or statues from you. The former are expensive and not particularly to my liking. As for sculptures, I would ask you for a bust of a faun or a panther, either of them large enough to be placed outside. But only if they are not too expensive, my dear Adam. Since I wish to complete my temple this year, I must save up all possible funds, denying myself even the slightest whims, so as to invest all the money into it (…).
She wrote to her son again the same year:
Regarding my temple, which is coming along well, please be so kind as to inquire about something. Mr. Sta[…]O tells me that in Tivoli, the site of the ancient Temple of the Sybil, which served as a model for mine, there is an inn, and in that inn is an innkeeper, and the innkeeper has an old altar from that temple, which he uses as a table. If this is true, dear Adam, do try to acquire it for me. It is useless to him, but would be a fitting addition to my temple.
Owner of the Blue Palace in Warsaw, as well as palaces in Sieniawa and Puławy, and inheritor of a large fortune in the 1780s, Izabela’s husband, Adam Kazimierz, was amused by his wife’s antics for procuring relics from the dead. He once added a diamond over a letter ‘z’ in the phrase ‘Polish relics collected [‘zebrała’] by Izabela Czartoryska, née Flemming’, engraved on a precious ebony casket in the Temple of the Sybil, transforming the word into ‘żebrała’ (begged). On another occasion, he told a hajduk to take his boot to his wife, and tell her it had belonged to Genghis Khan.
An over-zealous collector
Czartoryska was such a zealous collector that she sometimes even resorted to theft. On display at the Gothic House was a ‘fragment of a salmon smock of King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden’, cut out by the princess herself and brought back from the Vienna Arsenal. Professor Zdzisław Żygulski, Jr. confirmed that the royal salmon smock currently stored at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna does indeed have a rectangular piece missing. But how did Izabela manage to obtain a ‘human bone removed from the Morat Ossuary in Switzerland’? She described it as follows:
At the end of October 1789, late in the evening, whilst driving along the moonlit road from Bern to Neuchâtel, a bolt fell out of my carriage and we were obliged to dismount. As it was a beautifully bright, quiet night, we decided to walk to the first village and await the carriage there. On the way, we noticed a wayside chapel with an iron grille. According to a sign, for nearly four centuries the chapel had sheltered the bones and remains of Burgundians killed during the famous battle in which Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, was defeated by the Swiss in 1477. (…) Looking at these relics, I pondered upon how, in the past, they had belonged to famous warriors, valiant soldiers (…).
Moved by it all, and unable to resist the temptation, I reached through the bars and took one of those bones, to place it with the other relics at the Gothic House. Soon afterwards, the newspapers reported that the chapel in Morat had been completely destroyed during the French Revolution, along with many other monuments, and the bones had been scattered, so no other mementos of the valiant Burgundians are left in this world, except in Puławy.
The marriage of Izabela’s daughter, Maria, to Duke Louis of Württemberg, brought her closer to Frederick II, King of Prussia. One day, she visited him at lunchtime at his Potsdam residence. Curious, she walked up to a desk strewn with papers.
I approached it, and picked up a pen still full of ink, with which he had just been writing a moment before. This very same Frederick II had torn my homeland apart. He was the cause of so many of our woes, and I was taking his pen as a valuable souvenir! (…) I simply must tell you what occurred after I had taken the pen: a few days later, while I was attending a court luncheon, the king leaned over to me and said, in jest, that I had committed theft in his room. ‘Sire’, I replied, ‘that theft cannot be an insult to Your Majesty, for you must be a person of exceeding brilliance and exceptional fame if a Polish woman values your pen so highly.’ He laughed at this truth, and was unable to reply.
Izabela could also be ruthless. While in England, she visited Stratford, and in Shakespeare’s house, she noticed a chair – the playwright’s favourite place for work and relaxation.
Sitting in that chair, Juliet, Romeo, Miranda, Desdemona, Hamlet and Ophelia all sprang up in my imagination. (…) I must confess in advance that, upon seeing Shakespeare’s chair, I vowed to have it, by whatever means necessary, and transport it to the Gothic House. Indeed, my first request in this regard was rejected. The house-owner, not a particularly wealthy woman, explained to us that, apart from being attached to this memento (which was so dear to her as she was a member of Shakespeare’s family, and wished to immortalise the fact), she also made a fair income from it, since everyone who visited her house was willing to pay handsomely for the tiniest shavings or splinters from the chair, which they would set into rings and medallions. After lengthy negotiations, twenty guineas settled the matter. Having exchanged the chair for the money, the caring widow gladly forgot all about it.
Czartoryska goes on to describe how, while a mason was removing the chair from the wall to which it had been attached, the house-owner’s granddaughter, who adored Shakespeare and was deaf-mute due to smallpox, rushed into the alcove:
…and hurled herself onto the chair at speed, clutching at it with all her limbs, and finally her teeth, trying to hang on to it. Peculiar cries betrayed her profound despair. In the end, blood began to drip from her mouth and nose, and she flopped down beside the chair in a faint. When she came back to her senses, she mournfully signalled to her grandmother, accusing her of preferring money to that which she should have treasured the most, and without letting go of the chair, showed that she’d sooner die than let them take it away from her. (…) We had to involve the local pastor, who explained to her that granny was poor, and the money would allow her to live more comfortably, so she would be healthier. After a lengthy dispute, exhausted and fainting, she finally conceded to our pleas, but on condition that at least the chair’s legs would stay, and become her property when she was older.
The grand buildings which have housed the Czartoryski Collection over the years – the Gothic House, the Temple of the Sybil, and the headquarters of the Czartoryski Museum in Kraków – have therefore been storing works of art and objects obtained in a manner rather unsuited to their gravitas. Izabela Czartoryska clearly never lacked cunning, nonchalance or a sense of humour, and was certainly never one to be put off by obstacles.
Author: Katarzyna Bik, July 2017, translated by MB, Jan 2018, adapted by NR, Jan 2018