A Monumental Proposal – The Mickiewicz Column in Lviv (Part One)

For a man who never visited Lviv or as he would have called it, Lwow, Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz sure has a lot of staying power in the city. Mickiewicz is revered as Poland’s greatest bard, a man whose name is synonymous with Polish romantic nationalism. Among his many literary accomplishments, he composed its epic national poem, Pan Tadeusz. His words and deeds have been revered by patriotic Poles ever since the mid-19th century. Because of Mickiewicz’s well-deserved reputation it is quite strange that one of the finest monuments ever constructed to honor him still stands today in Lviv. Placed close to the city center, visible to tens of thousands of Ukrainians that pass by the area on a daily basis, the Mickiewicz column as it is known soars above the urban masses. Even stranger is the fact that Lviv’s Mickiewicz column survived Soviet, Nazi and another Soviet occupation of the city. The fact that it still stands today in a city that now has only a smattering of Poles is nothing short of improbable. To discover Mickiewicz at the heart of what has been called “the most Ukrainian city in the Ukraine” is a strange and fascinating find.

Mickiewicz Square in Lviv - a view from above

Mickiewicz Square in Lviv – a view from above

Partitioned From The Partitions – The Exile Of Adam Mickiewicz
During the late 19th and early 20th century nationalism was rising all across the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As the Habsburgs tried to keep their empire from splintering into many disparate constituent nations they allowed certain ethnic groups to celebrate their own languages, customs and heroes. Ethnic Poles in the Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria (present day southeastern Poland and western Ukraine) were allowed self-government. This freedom helped lead to a Polish national revival. Poles controlled the provincial administration in Galicia and were virtually autonomous. They also had the weight of numbers on their side. They made up a majority of Galicia’s inhabitants. In Eastern Galicia the story was different. Poles were the majority only in the city of Lwow (the city was officially known at this time by its German name of Lemberg), Ruthenians (same as Ukrainians) were a large majority of the rural population.

Polish dominance of the growing city of Lwow was good enough though, since it was the home of social, economic and political power in the region. Because of this, it is little surprise that the Poles decided to raise monuments in honor of an exalted national hero in the city. The year 1898 was slated to be a special one for Poles memorializing Adam Mickiewicz. It was the one hundredth anniversary of his birth to a family of impoverished gentry in what is today Lithuania. At that time, the region had just become part of Russian ruled Poland. Mickiewicz would spend his entire life fighting for a reconstituted Poland. This led to a literary life lived largely in exile, first in Russia, then France, Switzerland and back to France. Eventually he would die far from his beloved Poland while in Constantinople.

The childhood home of Adam Mickiewicz in Navahrdudak, Belarus

The childhood home of Adam Mickiewicz in Navahrdudak, Belarus (Credit: Krochmal-commonswiki)

Casting A Memory – An Idea Ahead Of Its Time 
One place Mickiewicz did not live was Galicia. The only time he made a trip into Ukraine was on his way to Crimea during his exile in Russia. Nevertheless, Poles in Galicia had their imaginations captured by his patriotic verse.  They may have been split from their fellow Poles by the partitions, but Mickiewicz’s words united them.  Following his death in 1855, Mickiewicz’s fame continued to grow. Austrian Galicia was home to millions of Poles who revered his life and work. It was also the one region where Poles were given a generous amount of freedom to express their culture. Lwow became the epicenter of a surge in Polish nationalism.

The first proposal for creating a monument to his memory in Lwow was in 1856, a year after Mickiewicz’s death. It would be almost a half-century before the idea finally came to fruition.  Just over four decades later a committee was formed in Lwow to oversee the design of a monument to honor Mickiewicz. To show just how revered a figure the poet was, the committee decided that the winning design would be placed on Mariyska Square (St. Mary’s Square) in the city center. A sculpture of St. Mary, known as the “Mother of God”, that already inhabited the site would be moved to another area of the square to make room for a Mickiewicz monument.

Adam Mickiewicz in his later years

Adam Mickiewicz in his later years

Building Up To Greatness
The committee soon announced a competition for a monument project. The main motif of the monument should be a column in honor of the poet and built on Mariyska Square of our city. The monument must be no less than twenty meters in overall height, and must be made from material that can withstand all changes of our climate – either red or grey granite, whichever the Committee supplies to the artist. In the end, the cost of the monument should not exceed 60,000 golden rynskych, including the material which the Committee will supply. Models or drawings, made to an overall scale of 1:3, should be sent by September 15 of this year. The first prize is 1000 crowns, and the second is 500 crowns.” The winner did not disappoint.

Coming soon – Monumental Distortions: The Mickiewicz Column In Lviv (Part Two)

Mickiewicz Square as it looked in Lwow prior to 1904

Mickiewicz Square as it looked in Lwow prior to 1904


One thought on “A Monumental Proposal – The Mickiewicz Column in Lviv (Part One)

  1. Pingback: Monumental Distortions – The Mickiewicz Column in Lviv (Part Two) | Europe Between East And West

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