The Manors of Mazovia: History & Culture Encoded in Architecture
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default, The Manors of Mazovia:
History & Culture Encoded in Architecture, The manor in Radachówka in the film 'The Maids of Wilko', directed by Andrzej Wajda, 1979, photo: Renata Pajchel / Zebra Film Studio / National Film A, center, panny-z-wilka-fototeka.jpg
The central Polish region of Mazovia is abundant with historic countryside manors. There are hundreds of these architectural relics and they have a story to tell – about the region’s unique history and Polish culture.
A unique treasure
Mazovia is one of the historical macro-regions of Poland, alongside those such as Lesser Poland and Greater Poland. It lies in central Poland and its area corresponds, more or less, to the area of the present-day Mazovian Voivodeship, one of the 16 main administrative regions of Poland.
One of the things that differentiates Mazovia from other parts of the country is its abundance of history-rich rural manors – residences raised by the nobility. With hundreds of these homes dotted around, you can find one in almost every little village and town in the region.
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Mazovia (…) is saturated with historic relics of the residential architecture of the nobility, and this is a unique treasure. These relics are part of Poland’s national heritage and are a tourist attraction that differentiates this region from other areas of Poland and even Europe.
From www.dwory.net, trans. MK
The reason for this elsewhere non-existent abundance of noble households lies in the high number of noblemen that inhabited Mazovia in the olden days. In general, the nobility in Poland was (proportionally) more numerous than in other European countries, constituting about 8% of the population. For example, in Germany that number stood at about 3%. But in Mazovia specifically, almost 24% of all people were considered of noble birth!
Mazovia’s abundance of noblemen was rooted in Poland’s mediaeval history. In the Middle Ages, the country was going through a period of feudal division and Mazovia was an independent duchy. The dukes of Mazovia would eagerly grant landed estates to knights willing to fight in defence of their duchy’s borders. This plan attracted plenty of new noble settlers to the area, especially since most second-born sons never inherited their family’s land. Later, when the duchy reunited with Poland, the successive kings of Poland were also eager to grant Mazovian lands to noblemen to gain political backing in the region. All of this combined led to the unusually high percentage of nobles in the Mazovian populace.
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Surrounded by a park
Since the lands of Mazovia were divided among such a great number of nobleman, the local estates were typically smaller than those in other regions of Poland. For example, landed estates in Greater Poland were often over 300 hectares, whereas in Mazovia estates were usually less than 100 hectares.
A smaller estate meant a smaller income, and therefore a more modest manor. In fact, some of the noblemen in Mazovia had a similar economic status to members of the peasantry. That’s why in Mazovia you can encounter nobleman’s residences that look much like peasant cottages! These, so to say, budget manors were often built from wood, as it was cheaper than brick. However, there are also many brick manors in the region, some of them quite simple (belonging to families of modest means), others quite elaborate.
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Even though the fancy Mazovian manors and the modest ones displayed many differences (such as in the choice of building materials), they usually had similar surroundings. Almost every Mazovian manor had an attractive park in the grounds around it.
Mazovia is a surprising land. In every village, in the supposedly flat terrain, there suddenly appears a bend, a small escarpment on a river, a delightful crossroads with a view of a forest, a locust-tree-lined avenue leading to a nobleman’s residence. That’s where someone had once created a park. Passing the old trees, carp-filled ponds and lazy little rivers, you eventually see a manor, usually a modest one. In the park that surrounds it, you can find trees of many different kinds. And if you climb the manor’s chimney, you can see its nearby neighbour and then you start wondering which place is more beautiful!
Paweł Zamoyski, present-day owner of a manor in the Mazovian village of Podkampinos.
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Thousands of porches
When it comes to manor architecture, it’s essentially a down-sized version of palace architecture. Even some of the simplest Mazovian manors aspire to palace aesthetics, such as through the use of columns in the façade. At this point, it might be worth adding that this article deals only with manors or dwellings that are smaller than palaces which, as it happens, you can also find plenty of in Mazovia.
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Referencing palace architecture meant that, aside from providing living quarters for the owners, the manors would also serve a representative purpose – namely, show the family’s stature and provide suitable space for entertaining guests. The more wealthy a family was, the more representative its residence.
A very characteristic element of the Mazovian manor (but also of manors in other areas of Poland), and one that exemplifies how the miniaturisation of palace architecture worked, is the porch. Porches became widespread in the manor architecture after Poland’s king Stanisław August Poniatowski added porticoes to his classicist residence, the Palace on the Isle, in the late 18th century. Polish noblemen sought to mimic the royal porticoes on a scale that was more realistic for their means.
The reconstruction of the Palace on the Isle in the years 1784-1788 was groundbreaking for architecture across Poland, it affected the country immensely. The exterior architecture (…) was especially influential, the porticoes in particular. Before, they were absent in Poland, after that date in a matter of a few generations thousands of porticoes and porches appeared before the entrances of palaces and manors.
From the 1972 book ‘Łazienki Warszawskie’ by Władysław Tatarkiewicz, trans. MK
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Most of the Mazovian manors that have survived to today were built in the aforementioned 18th century as well as in the 19th and early 20th centuries. When you look at them, you find traces of the various architectural styles that were fashionable in those times, like classicism and baroque. Mazovian manors also exhibit references to foreign architecture, such as Italian renaissance villas, French and English palaces or even Swiss chalets.
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At the beginning of the 20th century, a specifically Polish style of manor emerged. It was a mix of baroque and classicism, and its characteristic elements included a two-storey layout, a dual pitched hip roof concealing the upper floor, a columned porch standing in front of the entrance, and a clear division between the building’s central and side parts.
A lifestyle that’s gone
The countryside manor was linked to a specific, countryside way of living. The building was part of a landed estate that (in most cases) provided agricultural revenue, and the noblemen residing in the manor held a superior role to the commoners from the nearby village. Manors were inhabited by Poland’s elites – the most educated people, often active in the fields of culture and politics.
The Polish manor became (…) a national treasure as an emanation of Polish history, tradition, customs and also of moral values like attachment to land, the countryside, family and the church.
From the book ‘Dwory i Pałace Wiejskie na Mazowszu’ by Piotr Libicki, trans. MK
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Formally, the nobility’s privileged social and legal status was put to an end by the March Constitution adopted by Poland in the year 1921. The manors and estates, however, remained in the possession of the nobility. The real – and tragic – end of that class came with World War II. The Nazi German invaders would confiscate manors from their Polish owners as well as execute the owners and their family members. The Soviet invaders of Poland acted in a similar way. After the war, the Soviet Union imposed communism on Poland, and those manors and estates that remained in private hands were confiscated by the communist regime.
Today the manors are monuments to a lifestyle that’s gone. Many of them have been turned into schools, state offices, hotels, conference centres or museums. Only some of them are private residencies or reclaimed by the families of the previous owners. Unfortunately, some of them are simply abandoned and falling into ruin.
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Poetry, painting & film
To get a more direct sense of what Mazovian manors are like, it’s worth taking a look at some examples. Some you can actually see for yourself, for instance, when they’re a museum or a hotel, while others aren’t easily accessible since they’re private property. Let’s start with the wooden ones.
A delightful wooden manor dating back to the 18th century can be found in the village of Głuchy. The building is well-known as it is the birthplace of the renowned Romantic poet Cyprian Kamil Norwid (1821-1883). This single-storey structure has a hip roof and two columned porches, one in the front and one in the back. In the gable of the latter, you can find a plaster bust of the eminent poet Adam Mickiewicz, made by a one-time resident of this manor, the sculptor Bolesław Jeziorański. Although the building is in private hands you can visit it after scheduling an appointment with the owners. Their contact information is available online at the Muzeum Norwida website.
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Another wooden manor linked to a famous Polish artist stands in the village of Kuklówka Zarzeczna. This simple, gable-roofed house dating back to the 19th century once belonged to the distinguished painter Józef Chełmoński (1849-1914) who used to work on his paintings here. The building is decorated with folk-style wood carvings that bring to mind vines and has a glass veranda in the front. Today it serves as a private residence.
The wooden manor in Radachówka was built around the year 1900 and is one of the few Mazovian nobleman’s residencies that still belongs to the families of pre-war owners. It’s a single-storey building with a hip roof with extensions in the front and in the back. An interesting story accompanies the front porch: it was added in the 1970s to make the building look more traditional, when the manor became the set for Andrzej Wajda’s Oscar-nominated film The Maids of Wilko. The film is based on the same-titled 1932 short story by the acclaimed writer Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, the action of which takes place at a countryside manor.
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As mentioned before, some of the wooden manors in Mazovia were so modest that they resembled peasant homes. Examples of such manors can be found, for instance, in the villages of Gaj and Dąbrowa where very humble nobility abodes from the 1900s are located.
Memories of past times
The brick manors in Mazovia are typically more elaborate than the wooden ones and exhibit traits characteristic of particular architectural styles.
A prime example of a brick Mazovian manor raised in the Polish style stands in the village of Baniocha-Wilczynek. This single-storey building, which may bring to mind a suburban villa, dates back to the 1910s and is covered with a dual pitched hip roof with a front extension. Below the extension, you can find an inward portico with two columns that shelters the main entrance. Today the building is used as a kindergarten.
A sightly brick manor that references classicist architecture can be found in the village of Dłużew. This single-storey building covered with a hip roof was designed by the esteemed architect Jan Huerich Jr. and dates back to the year 1901. Its entrance sports a classicist portico supported by eight Tuscany columns, whose tympanum bears the Pobóg coat of arms, which was the family symbol of the first owner, Stanisław Dłużewski. Due to its visual attractiveness, in 1934 this manor became the set for the film Śluby Ułańskie (editor’s translation: Cavalier Vows) directed by Mieczysław Krawicz. Nowadays the building is owned by the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts, serving as a lodge for creative work.
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Another brick manor in Mazovia linked to artistic creation is the elegant residence in the village of Wsola. Here the writer Witold Gombrowicz worked on his celebrated 1938 novel Ferdydurke (the building used to belong to members of his family). This two-storey manor covered with a dual pitched roof was built in the 1910s and in its exterior you can find many decorative elements, such as window adornments and a gable above the front façade sporting reliefs of horn-playing angels. Since 2009, the building has housed the Witold Gombrowicz Museum.
Of course, no overview of Mazovian manors can exclude the famous residence in the village of Żelazowa Wola, which houses the Fryderyk Chopin Museum. This picturesque brick manor dating back to the early 19th century is the birthplace of the famous Polish composer and pianist. However, the residence was originally merely a standalone annex to another manor which burned down in 1812. In 1929, when it was decided that the annex should become a commemoration to Chopin, a reconstruction began under the supervision of the renowned architect Lech Niemojewski. The idea was to give the humble building a grander form, one that would be appropriate for a commemoration of the great musician. As a result, the annex was turned into a traditional Polish manor with a columned porch and a half-hip roof.
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Although many Mazovian manors have lost their original function of being countryside residences, they unalterably keep on enriching the region’s landscape. They remain an important architectural and cultural phenomenon, one that brings back memories of past times and serves as inspiration for the future.
Author: Marek Kępa, Jan 2020
stanisław august poniatowski
cyprian kamil norwid
Based on the 2013 book 'Dwory i Pałace Wiejskie na Mazowszu' by Piotr & Marcin Libicki, published by Dom Wydawniczy Rebis.