OLD POLISH ON-LINE
E Y E
T H E
Michael J. Mikoś
The Renaissance belief in the dignity of man and power of his reason found a receptive ground in Poland. The revival of interest in antiquity and learning stimulated a new world view. It manifested itself in the expanding studies of classical Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. It led to an increased interest in the disciplines of rhetoric, epistolography, and history. Important works of ancient writers, e.g., by Cicero and Seneca, were translated into Polish and imitated. So were the seminal Italian texts, e.g.,
The Book of the Courtier
, Castiglione's treatise on the ideal Renaissance man, who lives in harmony with himself and the world.
Between 1500 and 1535, the Cracow Academy enjoyed a period of growth and international recognition. In the first ten years of the sixteenth century, 3215 students matriculated in the university, a record not surpassed until after the reform of 1777-1786. Many foreign students settled in Cracow, some of them attracted by the reputation enjoyed by the Academy professors. One of the most outstanding teachers was Maciej of Miechów, the erudite author of
and of the
Tractatus de duabus Sarmatiis
, published in Cracow in 1517. The
, the first accurate geographical and ethnographical description of Eastern Europe, was translated into many languages, and went through eighteen editions in the sixteenth century. It also popularized a theory of the ancient, Sarmatian heritage of Poland.
It is not a coincidence that the fertile intellectual milieu of Cracow produced many outstanding scientists, political writers, and poets. Among Polish students at the Cracow Academy was Nicholas Copernicus, who in his opus
De revolutionibus orbium coelestium
(1543) developed a new scientific theory of the universe. His colleague and friend, Bernard Wapowski, a historian and cartographer, drafted the maps of the Polish and Ruthenian lands which appeared in the 1507 and 1508 editions of Ptolemy's
. Marcin Kromer, the author of
De origine et rebus gestis Polonorum libri III
(written about 1558) described the historical development of Poland as well as its geography, nationalities, customs, and institutions. Andrzej Frycz Modrzewski, another prominent graduate of the Academy, advanced novel political and social theories concerning the whole state. Jan Kochanowski perfected Polish poetic language and became recognized as the most eminent Slavic poet until the beginning of the nineteenth century.
In the middle of the sixteenth century, a network of more than 2500 parish schools provided elementary education to Polish children. Some gymnasia, mainly Protestant and later Jesuit, especially in Gdańsk, Toruń, Poznań, and Pińczów, offered advanced programs for students of law, medicine, theology, and mathematics. In 1579, thanks to the efforts of King Stefan Batory, the Jesuit gymnasium of Wilno was transformed into the Wilno Academy, and in 1595 Chancellor Jan Zamoyski founded the Academy of Zamość which promoted a program in the humanities and prepared its students for state offices.
Young Poles, in general sons of the gentry and of the burghers, traveled abroad to complete their education, most often to Padua, Bologna, Rome, Louvain, Paris, Wittenberg, or Basel. The university bonds were cultivated through personal contacts, official activities, and correspondence. Members of the Polish intellectual elite, e.g., Jan Dantyszek, a distinguished diplomat and poet, Jan Łaski, a religious reformer and patron of the arts, or Andrzej Frycz Modrzewski, maintained contacts with leading European luminaries, including Thomas More, Erasmus of Rotterdam, and Philip Melanchthon. Through this exchange of ideas, Poland not only participated in major scientific and political developments but also propagated Western heritage and art among the East Slavic nations, especially in Byelorussia and Ukraine, from where they were transmitted to the Duchy of Muscovy.
The main incentive for the development of Renaissance art and architecture came from the royal court at Wawel. King Zygmunt the Old fell under the spell of Italian art, when as a young prince he visited the court of his brother Władysław in Buda. Crowned in 1507 King of Poland, Zygmunt launched an ambitious project of transforming the royal castle into a Renaissance residence. The new palace, with slim columns and three levels of light galleries, built by Bartolommeo Berrecci from Florence, his compatriots, and local artists, became a model accomplishment of the Polish Renaissance. Inside, residential chambers and halls were embellished with ornamental wall paintings and large tapestries from Brussels, embroidered with gold. A richly carved wooden ceiling in the Deputies Hall was decorated with one hundred and ninety four sculptures in the shape of human heads, an innovative idea which most likely originated with the King or his wife Bona Sforza of Italy, while the whole project was designed and carried out by Sebastian Tauerbach and his coworkers. The sepulchar chapel (1551), called Zygmunt's Chapel, another masterpiece of Berrecci, became the mausoleum for Zygmunt the Old and his son Zygmunt August. The two great patrons of the arts who made Wawel a truly royal residence rested there in the marble tombs, surrounded by figures of saints beneath the splendidly decorated gilded dome.
Magnates and wealthy burghers were also eager to display their artistic tastes and patronage. Foreign architects, sculptors, and craftsmen brought to Poland by King Zygmunt and Queen Bona were employed side by side with native artists to build and embellish castles, palaces, and manor houses throughout the country. Many designs imitated the arcaded courtyard and arched loggias of the Wawel palace. The Gothic castle in Pieskowa Skała near Cracow, for example, was reconstructed by the Szafraniec family in 1542-1544, its double arched loggias looking down at the courtyard and an exterior loggia overlooking the river valley. The richly decorated castles built by Santi Gucci and Galeazzo Appiani (or Appiano) for the Firlejs in Janowiec, the Krasickis in Krasiczyn, and the Leszczyńskis in Baranów, the last one known for its quadrangular courtyard and a double open stairway, were among the most beautiful Renaissance buildings in Poland.
Cities and towns did not lag far behind. The main beneficiaries of the Renaissance art were Cracow and Gdańsk, which attracted many foreign artists. Because of its location, Cracow was influenced by new trends from Italy, Hungary, and Southern Germany, while Gdańsk from the Netherlands and Northern Germany. The Cloth Hall in Cracow Market Square was rebuilt in 1555 by Giovanni Maria Padovano, who constructed a raised decorative parapet along the top of its facades, a feature imitated in many buildings. In Gdańsk, a thriving commercial port city on the Baltic coast, the Arsenal was designed by Antoni van Obbergen and Jan Strakowski in the style of the Flemish-Dutch Renaissance. The Red Room in the Town Hall was decorated with wood carvings by Simon Hoerle, its ceiling embellished with more than twenty painted allegorical compositions by Isaac van den Blocke.
Other towns, some of them quite small, were also able to express the artistic aspirations of their inhabitants. The Town Hall in Poznań was rebuilt by Giovanni Battista Quadro, gaining three-storied loggias and a tall parapet, and its walls were adorned in sgraffito. The Town Hall in Tarnów acquired a new parapet with mascarons, the work of Padovano. The same artist was engaged in remodelling the Town Hall in Sandomierz. Kazimierz Dolny, the bustling center of the grain trade was enriched by twenty five ornate granaries along the Vistula. The two arcaded houses in the Market Square which belonged to Mikołaj and Krzysztof Przybyła displayed an unusually high parapet and the facade covered fully with a mannerist decoration, featuring the owners' patron saints, narrative reliefs, and a profusion of ornaments.
In 1578, Jan Zamoyski, chancellor to three kings, conceived a bold plan of building the ideal Renaissance city. Designed by Bernardo Morando from Venice, Zamość was laid out along two axes. The large market square, dominated by the town hall, and the palace were located on the main east-west axis. Other major buildings included the academy, the library, the arsenal, and the Collegiate Church, all surrounded by modern fortifications flanked by seven bastions. Zamość grew quickly to become an important administrative, commercial, and educational center for the whole region.
In Tarnów, Jan Tarnowski, a powerful political and military leader, employed at his court Berrecci and Padovano. The sepulchers of Tarnowski, his father, brother, and his wife Barbara, placed in Tarnów Cathedral, are famous for their elegant composition, excellent proportions, and subtle lines. The same mastery of design and workmanship can be seen in the elaborate work of Jan Michałowicz, who sculpted the mausoleums of bishops Zebrzydowski and Padniewski in Cracow Cathedral. The bronze bas relief on the sarcophagus of Chancellor Krzysztof Szydłowiecki in the Collegiate Church in Opatów, the work of Bernardino de Gianotis and Giovanni Cini, shows a group of courtiers lamenting the chancellor's death.
In painting, the Renaissance interest in man and the beauty of the world found its expression in many religious scenes and triptychs, located most often in the churches and monasteries of Little Poland. The pictures show realistic details and convey human emotions, e.g., in the figures of a suffering Christ or an expectant Mary. The art of portrait painting, practiced in Poland by such masters as Hans Süss, Hans Dürer, and Lucas Cranach, was cultivated by local painters, of whom Marcin Krober from Wrocław, a court painter of Stefan Batory and the author of his picture, was the most prominent. The portraitists left behind a splendid pictorial gallery of the noble and the wealthy, capturing characteristic features and social position of each person.
The miniatures in the Pontifical Book of Erazm Ciołek, featuring, for example, the king's coronation, show fine narrative details. Baltazar Behem's
(1505), a book of statutes and privileges presented by the author to the Cracow town council, contains twenty six color miniatures depicting with great realism various scenes from the life of local guilds. Stanisław Samostrzelnik gained recognition for his ornamental miniatures in the genealogical book of the Szydłowiecki family, polychrome painting in the Cistercian monastery in Mogiła, and portrait of Bishop Tomicki in Saint Francis Church in Cracow. Many of Samostrzelnik's religious miniatures are preserved in the collections of the British Museum, the Bodleian Library, and the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan.
The center of musical culture was the royal residence in Cracow. The kings surrounded themselves with foreign and local composers and musicians. The players and singers of Zygmunt the Old performed during court festivities and followed him on his journeys and military expeditions. In 1540, the king also founded a choir of religious vocalists who sang in the Cathedral during the matins. The finest works of the period, many of them preserved in Cracow libraries, include vocal and instrumental compositions, dances, organ and polyphonic music as well as solemn oratorios and masses.
Especially popular were compositions for the organ and for the lute. The
(c. 1540), compiled by Jan of Lublin, was an extensive collection of all known European organ compositions. The recorded works were based on religious motifs as well as on lay dances and songs of Polish, French, Italian, and German origin. Mikołaj of Cracow composed more than forty elaborate works, among them Polish songs, dances, and fragments of the mass. Wacław of Szamotuły (c. 1526-1560), recognized as one of the outstanding Renaissance composers, was the author of the five-voice
and polyphonic motets, e.g.,
In te Domine speravi
Ego sum pastor bonus
Mikołaj Gomółka (c. 1535 - after 1591) from Sandomierz spent many years of his youth at King Zygmunt's court, first singing in the royal choir, then as a trumpet and pipe player. In 1580, he published his only known work, the
Melodies for the Polish Psalter
, a musical rendition of one hundred and fifty poems translated from the Latin by Jan Kochanowski. Since Kochanowski's masterly interpretation of the psalms was published in Cracow in 1579, it is most certain that he had trusted Gomółka with his manuscripts before they were published.
Effectively using rhythm, melody, and harmony, Gomółka found a perfect idiom for expressing the lofty poetic language and spirit of the psalms. Penitential psalms were rendered in slow and sombre tones, while the psalms of joy were conveyed by lively melodies, resembling at times vivacious folk dances. The
Melodies for the Polish Psalter
, a combined effort of the two great artists, became one of the most sublime accomplishments of the High Renaissance culture in Poland.
Polish Literature from the Middle Ages to the End of the Eighteenth Century. A Bilingual Anthology
, by Michael J. Mikoś, Warsaw: Constans, 1999.