10 Treasures of Polish-Belarusian Architectural Heritage
default, The park & castle in Nesvizh, photo: Alexxx Malev / Wikimedia Commons / CC 3.0, center, #000000, belarus_nesvizh_castle_247727619.jpg
History has often intertwined the fates of Poland and Belarus. Many monuments dating back to the times when the two countries were joined as one state under the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth have been preserved in contemporary Belarus. Let’s take a closer look at some Polish-Belarusian architectural gems.
The Mir Castle
Located in the small town of Mir in central Belarus, this castle was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in the year 2000 because of the great value in the numerous stylistic layers of this huge edifice – it was recognised as a symbolic record of the region’s turbulent history.
The history of this fortified residence dates back to the 15th century when a gothic building was erected in this spot by the starost of Brest and Kaunas, Jerzy Illinicz. In the second half of the 16th century, the castle became the property of the Radziwiłł family for the next 300 years. Members of the family expanded and rebuilt it – for example, Mikołaj Radziwiłł, nicknamed ‘the Orphan’, gave the castle its elegant Renaissance shape and added a residential wing, and Michał Kazimierz Radziwiłł turned the building into an aristocratic baroque residence in the 18th century. At the end of the 19th century, the castle was sold to Mikołaj Światopolełk-Mirski, who renovated the neglected building and restored its splendour. During World War II, the castle was turned into a ghetto – barbed wire stretched along its walls and the Jewish population was murdered by the Nazi Germans in the castle’s park. Today, Mir Castle is one of the most interesting and best-preserved castles in Belarus, with a museum and a hotel in its meticulously renovated interior.
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The castle in Nesvizh, like most buildings of this kind, has been rebuilt many times. Each new owner or family member modified the castle’s structure according to their needs, but also according to the prevailing fashions in architecture.
The land in Nesvizh was given to Mikołaj Niemirowicz in 1446 by King Kazimierz Jagiellończyk in recognition of his service. In the following decades, the land changed owners several times, until it became the property of the Radziwill family in the first half of the 16th century. They expanded the wooden manor house located here many times, eventually turning it into a vast castle-palace-park complex, with a richly decorated castle and accompanying wings, galleries and a church.
Among the architects working in Nesvizh was a representative of the early baroque, Jan Maria Bernardoni, who designed another extension of the palace in the 1580s as well as a church situated on the property. Bernardoni designed the Church of St. Peter and Paul in Kraków, which is considered one of the best examples of early baroque architecture in Poland. In 1994, the Belarusian government recognised the Nesvizh castle as a national historical and cultural monument, and in 2005 the monument was included on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
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The ruins of the Sapieha Palace in Ruzhany
The Sapieha Palace in Ruzhany is another residence that was built and extended over the course of many centuries by the noble families who owned it. The first castle was built at the top of the hill in the early 17th century by the Chancellor of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Lew Sapieha. In the 18th century, the building was expanded; the Sapieha family hosted important figures such as King Stanisław August Poniatowski. Between 1784 and 1786, Aleksander Sapieha turned the building into an elegant palace that included an art gallery, library and theatre. At that time, the palace was one of the largest of its kind in the Republic of Poland.
Soon afterwards, however, the Sapieha family moved to other lands, and the estate in Ruzhany began to fall into decline. A section of the palace was turned into a grain warehouse in the early 19th century, there was a huge fire in the palace in 1914, and it suffered some damage during World War II. Since then, the impressive palace has been in a state of permanent ruin, but traces of its splendour are still clearly visible. In 2012, thanks to funds from the European Union, the huge, ornamental entrance gate leading to the palace grounds was renovated.
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The Niemcewicz Manor House in Skoki
The Skoki estate near Brest belonged to the Niemcewicz family from the beginning of the 18th century onwards. In 1770, Marceli Niemcewicz rebuilt the larch wood manor house in Skoki, turning it into a stylish stone palace. The two-storey building was covered with a tall, mansard roof and two three-storey towers were added to the sides of the building’s main structure. The property belonged to the Niemcewicz family until 1939.
It was here that Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz was born in 1758 – a playwright, poet, historian, journalist, member of the National Education Committee, adjutant and secretary of Tadeusz Kościuszko during the Kościuszko Uprising, and co-author (with Hugo Kołłątaj) of the Constitution of 3rd May 1791. He was one of Marceli Niemcewicz’s sixteen children; it was for the needs of this large family that the manor house in Skoki was built. It was abandoned for many years but was renovated about a decade ago, and it has housed a museum since 2013.
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The Mickiewicz Manor House in Zavosse
According to many researchers, the Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz was born in this thatched wooden manor house in the village of Zavosse on Christmas Eve 1798, although there are no surviving documents confirming this. Soon afterwards, the Mickiewicz family moved to nearby Navahrudak (Nowogródek), but it was in this manor house that Poland’s national bard supposedly spent the first years of his life.
Although the wooden farm buildings and manor house in Zavosse were neglected for many years, the surviving buildings were restored in the 1990s, on the occasion of Adam Mickiewicz’s 200th birthday, and some were rebuilt. Today, the building houses the Adam Mickiewicz Museum, where visitors can see how the provincial nobility lived in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
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The Eliza Orzeszkowa House in Grodno
The plot of the novel On the Niemen, an important record of social relations and customs of the second half of the 19th century, takes place near Grodno, which the author of this three-volume novel, Eliza Orzeszkowa, knew very well. She was born and raised on the Milkowszczyzna estate, which inspired the setting of the story of the Bohatyrowicz and Korczyński families.
Orzeszkowa sold her inherited estate in 1869 and lived in a wooden house in Grodno. This is where the book On the Niemen and a number of other works by this Nobel Prize nominee were written. In the building where she spent a large part of her life, there is now a museum devoted to her work. Orzeszkowa is buried in the parish cemetery in Grodno, and there is a monument to her in the town.
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The Old Castle in Grodno
Grodno is said to have been the favourite city of King Stefan Batory; he spent so much time there that Grodno was considered the unofficial capital of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth during his reign. Batory resided at the Old Castle – a building that dates back to the 14th century. It was during Batory’s rule that the gothic castle was rebuilt, giving it a Mannerist style. In the following centuries the building was modernised several more times; in the 19th century it served as barracks for the Russian army, and from 1918 to 1939 it housed a museum.
Renovation of the castle has been underway since 2017 (however, some of the restoration work has been criticised by conservators as not respecting the historical fabric). The aim of the renovation is to restore the appearance of the Old Castle from the 16th century, during King Stefan Batory’s reign. The image of the king is now on the castle tower, which has been painted with the sgraffito technique.
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The Saint Francis Xavier Cathedral in Grodno
The Saint Francis Xavier Cathedral in Grodno, the largest and most ornate church in the city, originally belonged to the Jesuits. King Stefan Batory tried to attract Jesuits to Grodno by supporting the construction of a church for them in the city, and he wished to be buried there himself. The plan failed, but monks eventually became active in Grodno in the 1820s. First, they opened a school, then they built a monastery complex that included a huge baroque church with two soaring towers. It was consecrated in 1705.
The most valuable object in the church is the 17th-century painting of Our Lady of the Congregation donated by Albrecht Radziwiłł, a copy of the painting of Our Lady of the Snow in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. Many of the original, valuable 18th-century furnishings have been preserved in the Grodno basilica, including a two-tier carved main altar and baroque side altars.
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Former Bank of Poland in Brest
In the time of the Second Polish Republic, the city of Brest was not only the capital of the province, but also an important centre of local authority. It became the seat of many bureaucratic offices and institutions, such as the Provincial Office, the Provincial Headquarters of the State Police, the Brest District Office, the Regional Council, the State Treasury and the School Inspectorate.
Numerous buildings were erected in the 1920s and 1930s to serve the needs of these institutions. Some were given simple, modest forms, but others became significant structures within the city’s space. The latter group includes the headquarters of the Polish Bank, designed in 1925 by Stanisław Filasiewicz. The architect undoubtedly followed the model of numerous public buildings in dozens of cities of the Second Polish Republic designed by Marian Lalewicz, a well-known and respected architect of that time. The building was given elegant, neo-classical elements, which were particularly popular in public buildings because they made reference to the distant past through their use of columns, pilasters, domes and prominent ornamental cornices. Today, the building houses the headquarters of the National Bank of Belarus.
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Administrative housing settlement in Brest
While Brest became the seat of bureaucratic offices and institutions, housing estates for officials were also built there. The demand for new houses was so great that, in 1924, a team of fourteen architects was established to develop designs for identical houses. The investment programme to support the construction of housing settlements for Polish officials in the Eastern Borderlands was led by the Ministry of Public Works.
One of the projects carried out within this programme was an administrative housing settlement built on Unia Lubelska Street in Brest. Most of the houses were designed by Julian Lisiecki (several were designed by Marcin Weinfeld), and were based on the idea of a garden-city. Small manor houses were built along the streets, among greenery, in a Baroque-inspired style. The houses had porches supported by thick columns and tall roofs with dormer windows. There were many other housing settlements of this type built in the Eastern Borderlands in the 1920s and 1930s, but the settlement in Brest is one of the largest and, above all, best preserved.
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Originally written in Polish, translated by Scotia Gilroy, 25 Aug 2020