A Towering Presence: Konstanty Korniakt’s Achievement (Lviv: The Story of a City In Ukraine #4)

It seems that every great Eastern European city has a certain architectural landmark associated with it. There is Berlin and the Brandenburg Gate, Krakow with Wawel Castle, Prague’s Charles Bridge and Budapest’s with the shimmering Hungarian Parliament. The same can be said for Lviv, the only problem is there are multiple landmarks to choose from, both notable and noticeable. These include the grandiose Opera House, a handful of spectacular churches and the Austro-Hungarian era train station. These buildings all leave a lasting impression, but there is one structure that literally towers above the rest. This is the Korniakt Tower attached to the northern façade of the Dormition (or Assumption) Church. At 66 meters it is the tallest building in the Lviv’s Old Town area. The tower can take hold of wandering eyes, drawing them upward, skyward towards its apex, a cupola and four cornered obelisk. The tower brings together elements of the two most memorable architectural styles of the Old Town, Renaissance and Baroque.

The Korniakt Tower and Dormition Church in Lviv

The Korniakt Tower and Dormition Church in Lviv (Credit: Jan Melich)

The Wealth of Migrations – Lviv as an Economic Hub
The Korniakt Tower has stood the test of time, not only stylistically, but also physically. Though it suffered badly following a late 18th century fire, having to undergo substantial restoration, the tower has survived every trial of its structural integrity, whether from below (earthquakes), above (as a target for lightning strikes) or at ground level (numerous fires). The tower’s legacy has been lasting. That must have been what the man who commissioned it had in mind. Rightfully the tower goes by his name, a name that uniquely does not derive from any of the major ethnic groups that have dominated Lviv’s history. Konstanty Korniakt was neither a Pole, Ukrainian or Jewish and certainly not Russian or German, he was born and bred from an entirely different stock, Greek. Yet it was not so much Korniakt’s ethnicity, but the social class from which he came, the merchants, left a lasting mark on Lviv’s history.

Merchants such as Korniakt were creators of the wealth that made Lviv one of the great medieval European trading centers. There was a long tradition of mercantilism in Lviv hundreds of years before Korniakt’s arrival. Merchants created the wealth that made the city powerful, but they could not have done so without two key laws. The first was the Magdeburg rights granted to the city by a Polish king. These were special privileges that allowed urban communities to regulate trade to the benefit of local merchants. The Magdeburg rights fed into a second legal instrument, the so called “law of storage.” This banal sounding phrase was actually critical to making Lviv an economic powerhouse.  It required all merchants traveling the trade routes through Lviv to be quartered in the city for two weeks. They then had to offer their goods for sale to the city’s merchants. Having first choice on these goods placed Lviv’s trading place at a considerable advantage. Because of these privileges Lviv became a trading hub for among other things furs, wine, honey and wax. The merchants made fortunes. This in turn attracted traders from a wider geographical area to the city. Armenians, Germans and Greeks made Lviv their home.

Konstanty Korniakt - a man of great wealth and even greater devotion

Konstanty Korniakt – a man of great wealth and even greater devotion

The Outsider On The Inside – A Man of Wealth and Devotion
Konstanty Korniakt was born far away from western Ukraine (what was then the eastern reaches of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth) on the island of Crete, he eventually made his way to Wallachia, in what is now present day Romania. There he collected customs duties and royal tolls for the Moldavian Hospodar (Lord) Alexandru Lapusneanu. Lapusneanu was the founder of the first Dormition Church in Lviv, which would succumb to fire. In 1560 Korniakt moved to Lviv where he boosted his already substantial wealth through involvement with international trade. He was the city’s wealthiest man at the time, but not the most trusted one. Local officials eyed Korniakt with suspicion and attempted to exclude him from city affairs. Because of his wealth Korniakt enjoyed the favor of the Polish king, Sigismund II Augustus, who also borrowed money from him. The upshot of this relationship resulted in Korniakt being given an official title of nobility, increasing his power and prestige. Befitting his outsider status, in a city ruled by officials of the Roman Catholic faith, Korniakt was instead an ardent follower of the Orthodox religion. He was a stanch supporter of the rights of the Ruthenian Catholic community. Korniakt’s devotion led him to support the construction of a great architectural wonder.

The same year that Korniakt received his title of nobility, a terribly destructive fire torched the Jewish section of the town and the first version of the Dormition Church along with it. As would happen so many times in Lviv’s ill-fated history with fires, rebuilding on the site began almost immediately. In 1572 construction started on the tower (also referred to as a belfry). About the same time, work on a magnificent palace for Korniakt on Rynok Square also commenced. The tower was designed and built by Italian masters Pietro Barbone and Paolo Romanus. Today visitors rightfully marvel at its beauty without realizing that the tower was built as much for protection as for spiritual devotion. In wartime it would act as a strongpoint when the city was under siege. The initial version of the tower built entirely in Renaissance style took six years to complete. It had three stories and a tent shaped roof that also consisted of three stages. It was grievously damaged in the Tatar siege of Lviv in 1695. This led to a restoration where Baroque elements such as a helmet and four pyramids surrounding a lantern now crowned the top of the tower. With these additions Baroque and Renaissance were now connected in a symbiotic structural continuity. Later the tower was attached to a second version of the Dormition Church, completing a harmonious architectural ensemble. A Renaissance masterpiece in its own right, especially its elaborately covered façade, unfortunately the Church often gets overlooked – as do other buildings in the immediate area – due to the towering presence of the Korniakt Tower.

The Korniakt Tower

Above all others – The Korniakt Tower soars above its surroundings (Credit: Богдан Репетило)

Living Proof – Korniakt’s Afterlife
It is interesting to consider the legacy of Konstanty Korniakt. For all of his fabulous wealth, scarcely anyone would remember him today if not for the tower that bears his name. He used some of his wealth to create, an object of reverence, a towering symbol not of money, but of devotion. The Korniakt name is spoken thousands of time daily by Lvivians and visitors alike. This is the only way anyone remember this man or his money. No one cares that he was once the richest man in Lviv, because there was and always will be another richest man in Lviv. Wealth and power are ephemeral, but great art and architecture are timeless, the one true thing that can defeat time and live on forever. The old cliché states that when it comes to money, you can’t take it with you. That is true. Yet a man can leave something behind. The Korniakt Tower is living proof.

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