From Royal Bath to Cultural Kingdom: The Enchanting History of Warsaw’s Łazienki Park
default, Chinese-style arbour, Royal Łazienki Park, photo: Arkadiusz Ziolek / East News, center, lazienki_krolewskie_w_warszawie_en_12.jpg
With a history dating back to the 17th century, Royal Łazienki Park is one of Warsaw’s most culturally rich green areas. Developed by Poland’s last king, Stanisław August, it’s home not only to striking landscapes but also a number of architectural treasures, like the immensely picturesque Palace on the Isle. Thanks to its awe-inspiring natural sights, as well as its numerous museums and artistic events, Łazienki – as it is often simply called – figures amongst the capital’s most popular destinations.
Gardens filled with history
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‘Portrait of Stanisław August Poniatowski in Coronation Costume’ by Marcello Bacciarelli, 1792, photo: National Museum in Poznań
Royal Łazienki Park is a huge, historical complex of gardens located in central Warsaw. Covering an area of 76 hectares, it lies near the esteemed Ujazdów Avenue – home to numerous embassies and former palaces – and the lush escarpment which extends along that street.
Aside from the beauty of nature, you can encounter numerous architectural wonders in Łazienki, such as the Palace on the Isle, which was the residence of Stanisław August Poniatowski, the last king of Poland and the park’s creator. His reign, as well as his own residency in the Łazienki Park, was put to an end by the last, third partition of Poland in the year 1795.
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Here’s how the park is described in the 1991 book Łazienki Królewskie (The Royal Łazienki Park) by Marek Kwiatkowski:
The Warsaw Łazienki Park or the Royal Łazienki Park – these two names are in use for this historical garden filled with precious monuments of architecture and sculpture. Once the summer residence of the last king of Poland, Stanisław August Poniatowski, and lying to the south of the city, it stands today in Warsaw’s centre and is a popular destination for walks as well as a major tourist attraction for visitors to Warsaw, both from Poland and abroad.
Springing from a grotto
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Ujazdowski Castle, Centre for Contemporary Art in Warsaw, photo: Adam Ławnik / East News
Even though Łazienki Park was created by Stanisław August, its history extends back beyond his reign (born in 1732, he ruled Poland from 1764 to 1795). In the year 1624, in an area close to today’s Łazienki Park, the Polish King Sigismund III Vasa erected the baroque Ujazdowski Castle, now home to an important museum of contemporary art. In later years, that castle, along with the wooded lands nearby, became the property of the nobleman Stanisław Herakliusz Lubomirski.
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At the turn of the 17th and 18th centuries, Lubomirski turned part of his estate into an Italianate garden. In that garden, lying below the aforementioned escarpment (the castle stands atop of it), he had a recreational pavilion built, which he called ‘the Bath’, since it included a special bathing room. That bath was to give the future Łazienki Park its name – łazienki (pronounced: ‘wah-ZHEN-key’) means none other than ‘baths’.
The Bath wasn’t your everyday garden pavilion. Its interior hid a central room styled as a grotto. In it, there was a spring, whose symbolism reached far beyond Sarmatian Poland to the times of ancient Greece and Helicon. It was a symbol of the spring that started from beneath the hoofs of Pegasus, around which the Muses danced, providing inspiration for poets and artists.
From www.lazienki-krolewskie.pl, trans. MK
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Also at Lubomirski’s request, a stream that flowed at the foot of the escarpment was transformed into a system of canals. These canals surrounded the Bath with water, putting it on a little islet.
In the first half of the 18th century, Lubomirski’s estate was leased by Poland’s King Augustus II the Strong, and in 1764, it became the property of Stanisław August Poniatowski. In the upcoming decades, the latter ruler reshaped the area, giving it a form quite similar to the one that can be seen today.
The Palace on the Isle
Initially, Stanisław August focussed on Ujazdowski Castle, wishing to turn it into his summer home (his primary seat was at Warsaw’s Royal Castle). However, the many changes he introduced to the castle didn’t, in the end, meet his requirements. Therefore, he abandoned that edifice and turned his attention to Lubomirski’s Bath.
In 1772, the king started a series of reconstructions of the Bath, which lasted – with interims – until the 1790s. As a result, the baroque pavilion was transformed into the iconic Palace on the Isle, the king’s summertime residence and the most famous building in Łazienki Park. The palace’s name comes from the islet on which it stands, located between two large ponds which were created from Lubomirski’s former canals.
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The edifice was designed by the royal architect Dominik Merlini and also by the architect and interior designer Jan Chrystian Kamsetzer. However, the king himself also contributed a great deal to the shape of his summer residence, overlooking its construction very carefully. Stanisław August’s detailed interest in the works can be seen in the following passage taken from a letter he sent on 11th October 1784 to the painter Marcello Bacciarelli, who helped decorate the palace interiors:
The specifications of the north elevation of Łazienki are to be executed according to Merlini's concept; that is to say, by extending the balustrade, which at present appears only at the front, around the entire building, as well as by constructing, on the first floor, a room equal in size to that of the octagonal one below it, achieved by erecting a wall upon the north wall of that room.
Trans. Lauren Dubowski
By raising the old walls, expanding the floor area and adding the northern façade, a harmonious classicist palace was created. Even though the building changed completely, one of its exterior elements clearly reminds us of its origin: the visibly protruding middle part of the southern façade. This area contains Lubomirski’s onetime Bath.
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The richly decorative interiors of the Palace on the Isle were finished in a mixed style of baroque and classicism. The grotto, after the spring’s removal from it, was turned into a circular central room.
Today, the Palace on the Isle, located in the park’s central area, is open to visitors. It houses, amongst other things, Stanisław August’s collection of paintings, numbering at 140 pieces. Here, you can find, for example, Anton R. Mengs’ splendid portrait of Sir Charles Hanbury Williams, England’s ambassador to Russia in the 18th century.
Boats & sculptures
Aside from the Palace on the Isle, there are plenty other noteworthy architectural edifices at Łazienki Park. One of them is the early classicist Myślewicki Palace, whose construction began around the year 1774. You can find this building to the west of the Palace of the Isle. Kwiatkowski describes the Myślewicki Palace in his Łazienki Królewskie as follows:
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Art history textbooks list it among Poland’s most interesting buildings. Its originality lies not only in the quarter-circular shape of the wings, but also in the specific shape of the roof, which constitutes a reference to Chinese art.
King Stanisław August gave this building, which is nowadays open to visitors, as a gift to his nephew, Prince Józef Poniatowski.
Another structure in Łazienki worth mentioning is the arresting white, brick-and-stone amphitheatre from the year 1790. It’s located to the south of the Palace on the Isle, on the so-called southern pond.
This amphitheatre is remarkable for the fact that its stage stands on an islet on the pond, whereas the seating area, capable of accommodating close to a thousand viewers, is located on the bank vis-à-vis the stage. Even though the water gap between the stage and audience is rather narrow (to enable a good view of the stage), it allowed for boats to be introduced to the plays that were put on here! The amphitheatre still serves its original purpose – during the summer, plays and concerts are performed at its premises.
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Amongst the many other historical structures you can find in the park, there’s the Old Orangery, which houses a magnificent museum of sculpture. Here, you can see a great number of interesting pieces, such as the 1881 Kuszenie (Temptation) by the acclaimed Polish sculptor Cyprian Godebski.
Some of the structures in the park appeared after Stanisław August’s death – like the Egyptian Temple and the Temple of the Sibyl, two small, sentimental structures which were raised in the 19th century. At Łazienki, you may also find many outdoor sculptures, such as the famous, 1926 Frédéric Chopin monument designed by Wacław Szymanowski, or the bust of the eminent playwright and painter Stanisław Wyspiański, whose 1904 drama Noc Listopadowa (November Night) is set in this very park.
A broad viewing perspective
Stanisław August paid close attention to the architecture in his summer estate, but he’s also credited with strongly influencing the very shape of the park. At first, he transformed the wooded estate near Ujazdówski Castle into a French-style garden (that is, one based on symmetry and man-imposed order) with straight avenues meeting in roundabouts. Certain elements of that old design – for instance, the circles in Agrykola Street and in front of the Myślewicki Palace – can still be seen today.
However, in the following years, the king was more and more inclined to give his estate the look of an English-style garden. In this case, the landscape is meant to mimic nature rather than to look like a creation of man. In this, he was aided by the landscape architect August Fryderyk Moszyński.
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Possibly the most picturesque English-style landscape design in the entire park is the water axis which extends from north to south. It consists of large ponds formed from the old canals created by Lubomirski.
When the new façade of the Bath was being built, the southern canal was transformed into a large pond with a picturesque shoreline and an islet. […] Thanks to the surface of the water, a broad viewing perspective appeared. […] The old pond and canal located to the north of the Bath underwent a similar transformation. […] Thus, the royal residence – the Bath, now visible over the water both from the north and the south – became the centre of the new landscape. This is the most beautiful spatial arrangement of 18th-century Warsaw.
From ‘The Royal Łazienki Park’ by Marek Kwiatkowski, trans. MK
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Also in the times of Stanisław August, plenty of trees were planted in the park: chestnuts, Italian poplars, spruces and larches. Interestingly, the king didn’t restrict access to the park – anyone could visit it.
Significantly, the contemporary Łazienki Park also includes gardens that were created after the king’s death. Apart from Stanisław August’s royal garden, you can find a 19th-century romantic garden with winding paths and an artificial river, a modernistic garden dating back to the 1920s which has a geometric form, as well as a Chinese garden opened as recently as 2014. The latter garden recalls the craze for Chinese aesthetics that appeared in the era of Stanisław August and is home to, amongst other things, a Chinese-style arbour and plants that come from the Middle Kingdom.
The graces of conversation
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The Royal Gallery of Sculpture at the Old Orangery, Royal Łazienki Park, photo: Zofia & Marek Bazak / EastNews
Stanisław August always saw Łazienki not only as a place of relaxation in beautiful nature, but also as a place of culture. In this sense, he was faithful to the symbolism of Lubomirski’s Bath, whose spring referenced the ancient Muses bringing inspiration to poets and artists.
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The king gathered numerous artworks at the park – especially paintings, a gallery of which he had at the Palace on the Isle, and sculptures. Stanisław August was also a believer in the ideals of the Enlightenment, which prompted him to animate cultural and artistic life at his court. This led to the rise of the tradition of the so-called ‘Thursday dinners’, or afternoon banquets for Polish writers, scientists and intellectuals regularly organised by the king at the Palace on the Isle (and also at the Royal Castle).
Here’s how these gatherings, serving as an arena for the exchange of ideas, were described in the 1784 book Travels into Poland, Russia, Sweden and Denmark by the English historian and priest William Coxe, who visited Warsaw during Stanisław August’s reign:
[…] The king gives a dinner every Thursday to the men of letters, who are most conspicuous for their learning and abilities: his majesty himself presides at the table and takes the lead in the graces of conversation […]. The persons who are admitted to this society read occasionally treaties upon different topics of history, natural philosophy and other miscellaneous subjects. […] He is fond of poetry, accordingly that species of composition is much cultivated at these meetings.
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Sadly, Stanisław August’s dream of a place where the beauty of nature would harmonise with the beauty of thought was abruptly interrupted by the third partition of Poland. In 1795, the king was interned in the town of Grodno and forced to abdicate the throne. He would never return to Łazienki to see the effects of the last reconstruction of the Palace on the Isle, which was underway when he departed Warsaw.
Dreams of tourneys & games
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A sunday summer concert at the Frédéric Chopin monument, Royal Łazienki Park, photo: Zofia Bazak / East News
After the death of Stanisław August in 1795 in Petersburg, Łazienki Park was inherited by Prince Józef Poniatowski. In 1817, the Poniatowski family sold the park to Russia’s Tsar Alexander I Romanov, and it remained the property of the royal Romanov family until World War I.
After Poland regained independence in 1918, the buildings in the park served as official edifices of the newly recreated state. During World War II, Łazienki experienced a very sad episode, during which the Palace on the Isle was deliberately set on fire by the Nazi German soldiers occupying Warsaw. Fortunately, no other structures at the park were destroyed at that time.
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The reconstructed Palace on the Isle was opened to visitors on 16th May 1960 and has served as a museum ever since. Today, Łazienki Park attracts visitors not only with the beauty of its nature and architecture but also with its numerous cultural attractions: museum exhibits as well as events. Amongst the latter, you can find the annual series of outdoor concerts featuring the music of Chopin. The concerts are held each Sunday from May to September, near Szymanowski’s monument of the eminent composer.
In line with the symbolism of the old spring in Lubomirski’s Bath, the Łazienki Park has served as a source of inspiration to many Polish poets – including Zuzanna Rabska, who in 1916 wrote a series of poems about the park, titled Łazienki. One of these, W Amfiteatrze (At the Amphitheatre), includes the following verse:
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The white Łazienki Palace glistens on the water –
Another trembles in the water slightly, when white swans
Swim, touching it with their breasts… Memories come,
Dreams of old tourneys and games – on the water
Royal Łazienki Park
stanisław august poniatowski
August Fryderyk Moszyński
Jan Chrystian Kamsetzer
Written by Marek Kępa, Jan 2020