One of the key foundations of Sarmatism (a class discourse which constructed the identity of the Polish-Lithuanian elites as descendants of the ancient tribe of Sarmatians)1 was the cult of the past – the past of the family and the past of the nation understood as the nobility (szlachta), the only class with civic rights. The development of this specific attitude hinged on the role of medieval history as the most immediate source of prestige and legitimacy.2 Unlike antiquity, which in the territories of the Commonwealth produced very little material remains, the Middle Ages were a much more tangible era to the understanding of the early modern Poles, especially through evocative medieval buildings. Yet, as I will demonstrate below, while the Middle Ages did not function in early modern Polish historiography as a distinct period,3 the architecture of the Commonwealth was much more susceptible to medieval building traditions than evinced by textual sources. To address this complex intermeshing of discourses which developed around the question of the medieval past in early modern Poland (with a particular focus on residential architecture), my argument will be divided into three parts – the attitudes to the period we call the ‘Middle Ages’, the attitudes to medieval architecture, and the impact of both on early modern Polish residences.
1 The Attitudes to the Middle Ages
As has been shown in numerous studies, the Middle Ages were not perceived in the early modern Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth as being a separate historical period.4 Janusz Tazbir, for instance, has demonstrated that the difference between this past era and the present one was not distinctive enough for the Polish elites.5 The dominant cyclical (rather than linear) conception of time, rooted in repeated agricultural tasks fundamental to the Polish economy, tended to elide the growing distance between today and the past.6 Time was conceived instead in terms of continuity of blood lines and stability of family ties, underscoring the importance of ancestry and tradition.7 Symptomatic of this idea was a fairly lax attitude to the medieval past that was demonstrated by the otherwise distinguished historian Marcin Kromer (1512–1589), who used to dismiss complexities of medieval history with a casual ‘let’s drop the issues of very distant past’.8 The impressive intellectual legacy of the later Middle Ages, including historical research, therefore remained largely unpublished and little known.9 It has been shown that among sources used by Polish authors in the early modern period, the most popular was the Bible, followed by ancient authorities, with almost no references to medieval historiography.10 The antique writers enjoyed such esteem that their authority legitimized any intellectual endeavour.11 Łukasz Górnicki (1527–1603), for instance, while discussing ‘liberty’, the core value of the szlachta, in his Dialogue between the Pole and the Italian that was supposedly recorded during the election of Sigismund III in 1587, does not refer to the medieval tradition of noble privileges which secured these freedoms, but rather to Athens and Sparta as points of reference.12 It has to be remembered as well that Sarmatian identity was a product of territorial expansion and political rights received by the szlachta under the Jagiellonians (1386–1596); thus returning to the Piast era (ca. 960–1370) (despite perennial calls to choose “a Piast” during the royal elections) was deemed of little consequence for the realities of the Commonwealth.13
For reasons given above, the attitudes to a medieval past can be ascertained on the basis of scattered comments, in which the vaguely defined ‘old times’ are generally seen as a counterpoint to the present, albeit without clear distinctions.14 The focus was, understandably, on the heroic past, important for self-definition of the szlachta. The example of medieval knights, cast as paragons of military virtue, was vital for the error-prone political class of the contemporary Commonwealth, as was suggested by Szymon Starowolski (1585–1650), ‘the Polish Lipsius’.15 Medieval heroes in Starowolski’s Sarmatiae Bellatores of 1631 fight, plunder, demolish, and destroy with fire and sword (the favourite phrase of this historian), and only rarely do they build something in their domains.16 This is obviously in line with the stories from old chronicles focusing on wars, plagues, famines, and other calamities. Middle Ages were therefore associated with hardships, yet at the same time they were linked to high moral standards and religiosity, which had since been lost.17
To prevent further moral erosion, three complementary aspects of medieval history were repeatedly used by early modern authors as didactic tools to aid in the formation of male noble identity. The topoi of a perfect knight and a selfless state official were complemented by another pattern of conduct rooted in the feudal past, that of a landlord engaged in the cultivation of his estate.18 So the chivalric and civic ideals were complemented by the agrarian lifestyle model.19 Ponętowski’s edition of Crescenzi’s Book of rural benefits (1571) opens with a preamble extolling these complementary lifestyles rooted in medieval tradition.20 The tales of warring knights, diligently tending to their estates (and the common good) in times of peace established a benchmark of acceptable behaviour, a code of conduct imposed on successive generations. The imitation of the noble deeds of one’s ancestors offered a guaranteed way to remain on the path to virtue and social recognition. While Bartosz Paprocki (1543–1614) in his influential armorial Seat of Virtue (Gniazdo Cnoty) of 1578 reiterated the importance of one’s lineage by showing repeated rows of indistinct forefather figures,21 Wacław Kunicki (1580–1653) in The Image of the Polish Nobleman of 1615 underscored the importance of medieval roots, ‘from the Slavonic princes’.22 Yet he defined this medieval past in the broadest of terms – ‘long ago’, ‘under the first Kings of Poland’, or ‘in the distant past’ – showing no real grasp of time.23
The situation is different with Marcin Bielski’s Chronicle (1597), in which the text and especially the illustrations suggest a distinction between the legendary antiquity and the more recent, and thus historical, Middle Ages.24 The images show the earliest legendary rulers of Poland (such as Popiel)25 in vaguely antique garb, among buildings of both ancient and medieval provenance.26 Mieszko I (d. 992),27 the first Christian ruler, is shown among exotic splendour with a cross-staff which evidently acts to chase away the lurking demons. Bolesław Chrobry (967–1025)28 wears ancient armour and is seated under a Roman tent, while Kazimierz I (1016–1058)29 is shown against a classical domed rotunda.30 These purely imaginary portraits are replaced by more historical renditions in those instances where some material evidence was available.31 Władysław Łokietek (1261–1333),32 for instance, was shown on a Gothic bench and the inscription running around the figure might have been based on the royal seal.33 There were also, of course, the royal tombs in the Wawel Cathedral to refer to.34 Similar sources were also used to depict subsequent rulers, as is evident in images of Casimir the Great (1310–1370)35 and Louis of Anjou (1326–1382).36 Władysław Jagiełło (d. 1434) [Fig. 22.1] is seated under a Gothic baldachin against a profusion of finials and traceries, just as he was represented on his great seal,37 while Kazimierz Jagiellończyk (1427–1492) [Fig. 22.2] is shown under a distinct baldacchino, with conspicuous ogival arches (not dissimilar to the ones decorating his tomb in the Wawel Cathedral).38 Clearly, a connection between these rulers and the significant objects associated with them, displaying Gothic forms, was recognized and demonstrated here, as material evidence helped to draw a distinction between legendary and historical pasts.
2 Attitudes to Medieval Architecture
Although numerous great castles bore powerful witness to the aspirations of the late Piast monarchy, the attitudes toward medieval architecture were ambiguous.39 As far as many early modern commentators were concerned, the distant past was generally short on decent buildings because of the Sarmatian legacy.40 Contemporary historians, often attempting to drum up morale among the szlachta for yet another war, were keen to emphasize that the true Sarmatians did not need more than a tent over their heads, perhaps invoking the story from Tacitus, who claimed that the Sarmatians had no fixed abodes and lived in their saddles.41 Marcin Bielski’s Chronicle proclaims that the ancestors of the Polish nobility ‘lived under their tents, not in their homes’,42 and Paprocki declares that ‘we are not noble because of the beauty of our houses’43 – both authors seemingly upholding this “traditional” contempt of building. Yet Starowolski, in Votum on the reform of the Commonwealth (1625), remarks on the decline of these old attitudes and derides contemporary youth, who do not want to camp in the field, finding it ‘better in the chamber, because it is heated all the time’.44
If the early Poles were supposed to have been content with simple abodes (if not tents), most authors agreed that the primitive forms of medieval building were replaced by new, monumental masonry architecture (especially fortifications and castles) [Fig. 22.3] under Casimir the Great, the ruler also recognized as the first law-giver.45 His reign was therefore cast as a watershed in Polish history – both solid architecture and written laws (seen together as foundations of the state) had their roots in his reign in the latter half of the fourteenth century.46 Yet the significance of this episode in history was not entirely unquestionable. Górnicki in his Dialogue embarks on a discussion of the role of Casimir the Great in the celebrated architectural revolution.47 He claims (rather provocatively) that this fundamental turn in Polish history was not the accomplishment of the last Piast, who is said to have ‘found Poland in wood and left it in stone’, but rather the work of the ‘Germans’, who had settled in Poland at the time.48 Moreover, Górnicki seems to be aware of at least one important Polish patron of architecture prior to Casimir, one ‘famous and celebrated Dunin of the Łabeć arms’,49 a reference to Piotr Włostowic (ca. 1080–1153), the founder of several important buildings in today’s Wrocław.50 According to Górnicki, Włostowic was responsible for erecting scores of ashlar churches,51 but (he adds) this was not a great accomplishment for such a large kingdom. It was the Germans, then, who turned Poland from timber to masonry, not King Casimir. To this audacious dictum (voiced in the dialogue by the Italian), the Polish interlocutor dryly responds: ‘I do not know what are these cities and these walls good for’, because, he argues, the Lacedaemonians had no walls at all, entrusting the safety of their state to the strength of their warriors.52
This dialogue exposes some deeply held convictions at the heart of Polish early modern attitudes toward the ancient and medieval past. The topos of the Commonwealth sufficiently defended by the courage and skill of its warriors (and thus not needing fortifications, castles, or even cities) was repeated by numerous writers.53 By the late sixteenth century common knowledge was that the very term ‘Polacy’ (Poles) came from the fact that these people met their enemies in the open field (pole) to fight them, and for this reason did not need castles or fortifications (as explained by Paprocki).54 So the name of the Polish Kingdom and the nation itself was supposedly derived from a concept antithetical to architecture. Pole, a field, was the opposite of a building, just as nature is antithetical to culture. Starowolski in his Sarmatiae Bellatores alludes to this idea and gives the vitae of Casimir the Great a somewhat wry twist while praising him for taking the fortified castle of Kościan.55 The defenders were too confident of their keep, Starowolski claims, but Casimir proved that courage was more important than walls and fortifications – ironically, of course, because the king is said to have spent his lifetime building precisely such fortified castles. Here the Polish topos returns to interrogate one of the myths of Polish medieval history.
For Górnicki, this precarious defence strategy relying solely on resilience of the armed men was unwise at best. In his dialogue, the Italian protagonist alleges that because of the old chivalric tradition Poles do not know how to live in peace, or how to live well. The witty Italian (an alter ego of Górnicki himself) points out that (unlike Poles) ‘all the people in the world with a sane mind (including the “Affricans”) want the cities and the castles’.56 He then asks, rather impertinently, if Poles (who shun architecture) want to return to the wild, like the animals, to roam the forests and the bogs.57 If not, they should build more, especially in the borderlands, where new cities and castles would offer better protection against repeated Tatar incursions.58
A similar recommendation is articulated by Starowolski. He says that old Poles, when drunk, like to boast that (like their forefathers) they do not need walls, ramparts, or castles, because the best defence of the country is the chests of the Polish nobility. Alas, he continues, contemporary Sarmatians are not as fit as their ancestors, and should therefore build sufficient defences instead of measly henhouses – kurniki.59 Starowolski further develops his vision of the Middle Ages as the era of civic virtue that should inspire his contemporaries in a poem dedicated to Private Interest (1649).60 According to the author, particularisms rule in the seventeenth-century Commonwealth, as opposed to the spirit of public good that was dominant in the Middle Ages. Medieval architecture is cast here as the embodiment of this chivalric public-minded ethos of the past, whereas the contemporary szlachta, which only pays attention to its own business, is accused of investing in private houses.61 Starowolski writes of the old times: ‘Look at the fortified castles, at the cities, and how many masonry monasteries can you count? How many well-founded convents, how many bishoprics, abbeys well endowed?’62 These public buildings are no longer needed, argues the author, in the country now governed by private wants. For Starowolski, this social change means a shift away from medieval public edifices towards a domination of private residences: ‘I, [the author adopts here the persona of the Private Interest] do not know how to build for the public, I only know how to construct private buildings. It is because of me that the old castles are falling apart, while private palaces and manors are being erected’.63 Medieval edifices thus waste away: ‘fortifications are falling, city walls are rotting, old towers are falling down, there are holes everywhere. Where are the castellated manors, apart from the old ones built by Casimir the Great, and celebrated in Poland until today? […] Towns, castles, villages are consumed by the waters of the Vistula’.64 Medieval architecture, shown to have served public good, therefore becomes the epitome of old moral order, destroyed by the new, corrupt spirit of individualism and private gain.
The symbolic importance of ancestral castles comes across very strongly in Kunicki’s The Image of the Polish Nobleman. In a description of the paradigmatic nobleman, treating each part of the body in turn, the head comes first. There, we are told, virtue should preside. Significantly, she is represented in the text as occupying ‘a castle’, surrounded by her courtiers (justice, patience, liberality, etc).65 It is clear that there is a direct relationship between the castle and noble virtue as such – this is one of the associations (popularized in numerous sources) which partly explain the longevity of castellated architecture in Poland.66
Contrary to those interested in the symbolic significance of medieval architecture, others attempted to address critically some practical aspects of medieval building. Andrzej Frycz Modrzewski (1503–1572), leading a campaign to improve the ailing Commonwealth, noted that ‘Taking care of building […] according to our custom is delegated to officials whose duties concern other affairs’.67 He postulated that this reliance on non-professionals, a sign of a traditional disdain of building, should be changed to make Polish architecture sounder.68 With the same objective in mind, Frycz also lobbied for a more decisive shift towards fireproof masonry architecture, as he castigated the medieval tradition of building in timber.69 He claimed that because of frequent fires, most houses in Poland lasted no more than 30 years, and as a remedy for this situation he proposed to his compatriots either to build out of stone or to drink less! In the West, he explained, the fires are less frequent because the people ‘do not enjoy drunkenness as much’.70 Medieval building practice and traditional habits both had to be abandoned on the path to national improvement.
While Polish early modern historians might have had problems locating the material remains of Sarmatian antiquity, the omnipresent medieval monuments (described simply as staroświeckie) did not attract much scholarly attention.71 Although the earliest Piast dynasty foundations of the eleventh and twelfth centuries were scarce (most of them perished because they were constructed of timber), the great medieval churches and castles of the later Middle Ages, especially those constructed under Casimir the Great (1310–1370), provided a vital (albeit often unacknowledged) point of reference. Ecclesiastical architecture of the Middle Ages remained a powerful source of inspiration throughout the early modern period, a situation compounded by the inherent conservatism of contemporary building trades.72 The impact of medieval secular buildings, however, of which castles were the prime example, is more difficult to assess.73 The relative proliferation of medieval castles in the Commonwealth (undermining the Sarmatian topos of their uselessness) was a result of a relaxation of the law which had restricted the construction of fortified structures to the royalty and highest office-holders.74 By the late fourteenth century anyone with sufficient means could have built a fortified pile as the status symbol, starting with local overlords and high clergy (Iłża), down to the wealthiest knights (Smoleń).75 Still, the construction of the castle entailed such an enormous financial burden that no more than 5 per cent of the Polish elite could have afforded the expense.76 It is estimated that the number of castles built in the second half of the fourteenth century was around 80.77 In line with the functional diversity of these structures, no single formal type of the castle developed at that time.78 However, by the late Middle Ages the four-wing complex with a corner tower (octagonal or round) dominated in terms of spatial arrangement.79 The buildings also varied according to localization (topography) and material used: brick in the northern regions of Poland and stone in the south, with more regular forms adopted in brick castles, less regular in those executed in stone.80
In the early modern period, medieval models (associated with prestige) remained critical to both large feudal seats and smaller houses of the local gentry.81 Residences of the fifteenth century provide evidence of a survival of the four-wing castle type, now with more regular inner courtyards and communication galleries along the wings [Fig. 22.3] (Dębno (ca. 1470–1480),82 Oporów 1434–1449),83 as well as with features that played a role that was more decorative than defensive, such as towers or prominent buttresses.84 Displays of decorative sculpture, including heraldic imagery (especially around oriel windows), complemented the image of the ancestral seat.85 This type of residence was still popular in the first half of the sixteenth century (the castle in Mokrsko built ca. 1515–1532;86 or that in Szydłowiec [Fig. 22.4], rebuilt between 1509 and 1532).87 At the same time, some large medieval residences were modernized, gaining formal features rooted in the past to enhance their antiquated appearance. Ciechanów Castle (ca. 1380–1430) [Fig. 22.5], for instance, was rebuilt after 1549 for Bona Sforza, in a way which underscored its medieval characteristics, such as the towers, which were heightened, contrary to contemporary military requirements,88 while the old residential quarters were expanded, providing more comfort.
It has been noted that pseudo-feudal residences in the sixteenth century were generally erected by upwardly mobile office holders or high clergy, not the really old aristocracy.89 The invented past was, of course, a means of legitimation (as in the visual equivalents of the genealogies penned by Paprocki). The best examples are Ogrodzieniec [Fig. 22.6], rebuilt for the Boner family (merchants, royal bankers, and salt mine managers);90 Bodzentyn for Franciszek Krasiński (1525–1577), the secretary of King Sigismund Augustus and the bishop of Krakow;91 or Drzewica (1527–1535) [Fig. 22.7], for Maciej Drzewicki (1467–1535), the crown chancellor, archbishop of Gniezno, and primate of Poland.92
Lesser gentry, meanwhile, around 1500 adopted in their residences a number of spatial solutions refining medieval pattern of the residential tower.93 Its roots, deep in the medieval donjons and their diverse derivations, were updated in line with the expectations of the early modern owners.94 The royal castle in Piotrków [Fig. 22.8] provided the point of reference for these seats of varied functional and formal arrangements.95 They have been divided into proper towers (wieże) (Szamotuły, Wojciechów, and Rzemień [Fig. 22.9]); two-storey tower houses (kamienice) (Jeżów and Jakubowice); and castelli (kasztele), perhaps of Hungarian provenance96 (Szymbark ca. 1550–1600 [Fig. 22.10] and Pabianice 1565–1571).97 The symbolic value of the tower, which had since the Middle Ages been nearly synonymous with a ruler’s seat (needed for representation) is unquestionable, but in the Polish context this model also had some practical advantages: a simple pile on a compact plan was cheap, and its fortified character was useful (just in case).98 The popularity of this medieval house type ends around 1580, when the compact house of Italian origin, as in Książ Wielki, replaces this older type.99
Not all sixteenth-century residences, however, implemented this new compact model. Many, for reasons shown above, utilized the time-sanctioned four-wing arrangement, replacing old towers with bastei towers, which responded in form to the dangers of artillery fire, and which also often received new forms of crenellations in the form of the so-called Polish attic.100 Among numerous examples is Krasiczyn (ca. 1550–1620), planned around an ample rectangular court.101 The emphasis here was on genealogy and class pride, with four corner towers given names reflecting the Sarmatian view of Polish society, with the Divine tower containing the chapel, complemented by the Papal, Royal, and Noble towers.102 A similar layout was used in Ossolin where, rather late, in 1633, the ambitious Chancellor Jerzy Ossoliński (1595–1650) built a castle to legitimize his spectacular rise in the ranks.103 Having received the princely title from the pope and the emperor in the very same year (1633), Ossoliński embarked on a building campaign with an aim to construct a residence ‘in the old-fashioned’ (read: medieval) way, built ‘practically for eternity’104 (alas, the castle was blown up in 1816 by subsequent owners).105 The castellated architecture clearly served to back the claim to a higher social position.
Krzysztof Ossoliński (1587–1645), the older half-brother of Jerzy and from 1638 the Sandomierz woivode, also chose to demonstrate his social ascent by erecting a residence that still stands as a great testimony to the attraction of medieval, chivalric architecture – Castle Krzyżtopór in Ujazd.106 Ossoliński, who was a well-educated and well-travelled man,107 most likely provided a design of his own invention.108 Often compared to Caprarola, the seat was in fact an apex of a long tradition of Polish castles, a palazzo in fortezza set within a system of novel bastion fortifications.109 Although they are not as effective as they may seem, Ossoliński (who saw combat against the Turks in 1612 and financed a detachment of husaria cavalry) might have treated the defensive function as important, hence the gigantic scale and impressive fortifications exploiting the opportune location and a natural source of water within the walls. His residence, however, had all the hallmarks of modernity, even luxury, which was at odds with its consciously pseudo-medieval programme, driven by the obsessive theme of a family past seen as a vital part of more universal history, indeed cosmic in its scope (hence 4 towers, 12 halls, 52 chambers, and 365 windows).110 The heraldic note is present right at the entrance [Fig. 22.11], with the armorial Cross (Krzyż) and Axe (Topór) referring to the family coat of arms.111 At the centre of the programme was the amazing gallery of ancestors [Fig. 22.12], allies, and exempla of noble ethics, elucidated by suitable mottoes and epigrams. The images were not executed al fresco, but must have been painted on cloth or wood and mounted on the elevation of the courtyard, whereas the verses were executed in fresh plaster.112 The rationale for this gallery was a feudal concept of status derived from blood (as seen in Paprocki), the sense of self-importance provoked by the enormous success of Krzysztof’s younger half-brother, Jerzy, as well as prestige of Krzysztof’s wife’s family, the Firlejs, who had a number of extravagant residences in eastern Poland, including Janowiec [Fig. 22.13], an imposing rendition of a medieval castle.113
The foolhardy tendency to build castles continued, however, ruining many fortunes – notable examples are Zbaraż, for Krzysztof Zbaraski (built in the 1620s),114 or Wiśnicz Nowy (1615–1621) and Łańcut (1629–1641), for Stanisław Lubomirski115 – so much so that by the 1650s, the anonymous author of the Brief Study of the Construction of Manor Houses felt compelled to address the issue.116 He advised strongly against the construction of castles as being costly, being unpractical, and not fulfilling defensive objectives, but most of all, as being ill-suited to the Polish custom!117 In the end, he uses à rebours the argument deployed by the earlier authors, that it is the warriors, not the walls, that are the true defence, and the army to guard a castle can only be mounted by the wealthiest lords. Still, the Polish patrons were obviously moved more by the rhetoric of some Sarmatian historians and their admiration for medieval virtues than by the sensible advice of building professionals and theoreticians.
The evidence presented above seems to suggest that the attitudes to a medieval past and medieval architecture among the elites of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (as far as these opinions can be reconstructed) were embedded in a number of distinct, and often contradictory, discourses. For the majority of the nobles, the sense of the past was literally incorporated in the figures and deeds of the ancestors. One’s family history and the narratives construed around the accomplishments of one’s forefathers were used to inspire the subsequent generations of the szlachta in their contribution to the repeated cycle of life. The awareness of the historical significance of the ‘middle ages’ was thus a rare phenonomenon among contemporary Poles, who were also much more at ease with classical antiquity than their own past, mainly due to texts which formed the backbone of early modern education. Lacking comparable written sources concerning the local ‘dark ages’, Poles had to rely on the available material evidence to grasp it. Late medival architecture seemed to offer a perfect instrument of such inquiry, as it offered a spectacular corroboration for claims of greatness of the nation and verified the might of each aristocractic clan. Not surprisingly, the castle, as a building type largely defined in the second half of the fourteenth century under Casimir the Great, remained a powerful sign of the past and provided an important point of reference for early modern patrons. Yet there was a tension between the discourse of appreciation of medieval monuments and the chivalric values they embodied and one of the aspects of the ideology of Sarmatism, which gradually gained ground in the Commonwealth after the end of the Jagiellonian monarchy. Sarmatism, with its cult of an ancient nomadic tribe of Sarmatians as putative ancestors of the szlachta, served to devalue the role of architecture in construction of national/class identity. Ancient Sarmatians did not build houses and met their enemies in the open field – hence Poles, as their descendants, were persuaded by many contemporary thinkers to disregard the role of residences or fortifications. The quest for social status embodied by the traditional form of a castle, however, proved unrelenting in the Commonwealth throughout the early modern period, with those lacking the aristocratic pedigree particularly eager to employ medieval forms as a means of legitimization.
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, Torbus T. “Architektura siedzib Zygmunta Starego jako wyraz dbałości o wizerunek dynastii”, in (eds.), Europa Jagiellonica 1386–1572. Sztuka, kultura i polityka w Europie Środkowej za panowania Jagiellonów ( – Mrozowski – Tyszka Węcowski Warsaw: ) 2015 161– 196.