Rynok Square is the touristic heart of Lviv. In the spring, summer and fall it is packed with thousands of visitors. Most arrive by walking up from Katedralna Square, approaching the southwestern side of Ploscha Rynok. Visitors are magnetically attracted to the towering presence of the Ratusha (Town Hall). From there they begin strolling around the western and southern side of the square, but a much better place to start a walking tour is at Rynok Square’s northeastern corner, with a walk down the eastern side. Here can be found four magnificent palaces, the iconic Black House and history covering a wide swath of Lviv’s glorious Renaissance, imperial and nationalist pasts. When the 16th century German traveler Martin Gruneweg referred to Lviv as “a summer-house in the middle of paradise” he may well have had the Eastern side of Rynok Square in mind.
The Black House – Appearance of Deception
Looking at the buildings on the eastern side for the first time, there is a noticeable aesthetic symmetry, despite their differences in color, size and shape, as though the structures were meant to be a cohesive whole. Much of this has to do with the Renaissance architectural style that is common among them. The most eye catching structure stands at Rynok 4, the iconic Black House. After many centuries of exposure to the wind and rain, the building’s sandstone brick façade has turned a grayish, charcoal black. This gives it an ominous appearance, as though there might be a medieval torture chamber inside. Historically it was a much happier place, at one time home to Lviv’s first pharmacy. The facade also displays a sculptural composition of St. Martin sharing his cloak with a beggar. Who would have thought that the Black House correlates with the ideals of charity and benevolence? A sublime and revealing benevolence. While the exterior facade is distinct, within its interior the Black House has much in common with several other buildings on the eastern side of the square. The Black House is home to a branch of the Lviv History Museum. Uniquely, the museum’s exhibits are located in several buildings centered around the square, including five on the eastern side.
The Korniakt Palace/Royal Townhouse – The Past Comes To Life
The most famous branch of the museum can be found within the Korniakt Palace/Royal Townhouse at Rynok 6. The structure itself contains examples of nearly every building style found in Lviv prior to the 20th century. From the Gothic vaulted ceiling of the cellar to Baroque elements in the attic, the Renaissance and Empire styles on the façade and the grand splendor of the reconstructed neo-Renaissance Italian Courtyard, the palace is a veritable house of architectural history. Its human history is no less fascinating. This was once the home of Lviv’s richest man, the Greek trader Konstanty Korniakt, who moved to the city and made a fortune dealing in wine, cloth and fur. He had the palace constructed upon the foundations of two buildings, this accounts for the fact that there are six windows on each level of the structure, rather than the usual three to be found on most of the townhouses surrounding the square.
The palace was a place fit for royalty, quite literally as it came into the ownership of Jakub Sobieski, father of famed Polish King John III Sobieski whose military prowess helped defeat the Turks at the siege of Vienna in 1683. King John III inherited the palace and spent many days in the maze like rooms sprawling across all three floors. These recall the era of Polish royalty with palatial furnishings in the King’s and Queen’s rooms. The refined and stately decoration of the Audience Hall was where the controversial Eternal Peace Treaty of 1686 was signed between Russia and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. In return for Russia agreeing to join the anti-Ottoman Turk alliance, Poland ceded left bank Ukraine (east of the Dneiper River) along with the city of Kiev to Russia. Poland kept control of right bank Ukraine (west of the Dnieper River). Today, over three hundred years later, echoes of this division still resound, in the vast political and cultural differences between eastern and western Ukraine. Within the walls of the Audience Hall history becomes present and palpable.
Former Archbishop’s Palace – A Poisoned Situation
Of the nine buildings that line the east side of Rynok Square, four are now residential, including the former Archbishop’s Palace at Rynok 9. With 68 rooms it is easy to see why the palace is now used as residences. Though the building was constructed during the Renaissance, its façade is covered with a rather bland neoclassical décor, a product of a mid-19th century reconstruction. Like the Korniakt Palace, the Archbishop’s Palace was also built on the foundations of two buildings, thus it also has six windows on each of its upper levels. While the architecture is interesting, the human stories that took place at the palace are nothing short of fascinating. This is a place where the past and present intersect in everyday life. Imagine what it must be like for those who make Rynok 9 their home today. An individual or family goes to bed each night in the same place where Polish Kings Sigismund III Vasa and Wladislaw IV once slept. Residences also inhabit the area where King Michael I was poisoned to death in 1673. This well planned conspiracy was carried out by his erstwhile supporters. It led to fatal food poisoning. After he died, King Michael’s remains were parceled out to places near and far with his heart buried in Warsaw, his body in Krakow’s Wawel Cathedral and his bowels within the walls of the nearby Latin Cathedral, a few hundred meters from where he had expired. What other tales, past and present, lurk within the walls of the former Archbishop’s Palace that might serve to stimulate the imagination.
Lubomirski Palace – The Art of Possibility
The final building along the eastern side of Rynok Square is most certainly a product of the imagination. The Lubomirski Palace was where successive owners imagined and reimagined the palace for their own imperial, national or provincial needs. The palace’s namesake was a powerful Polish noble, Stanislaw Lubomirski. He commissioned a two decade long overhaul of the existing structure during the mid-18th century that recreated it as a Baroque magnate’s palace. The partition of Poland in 1772 changed the buildings history. For the next fifty years the palace served as a residence for the Austrian governors of Galicia. In 1868 the Prosvita society was founded in Lviv to promote Ukrainian language and culture. Soon thereafter the Society purchased the palace where efforts were undertaken to raise Ukrainian national consciousness. Prosvita was a key player in the slow, fitful progression of Ukraine’s movement toward statehood. The movement reached a false summit on June 30, 1941 when at the former palace Yaroslav Stetsko proclaimed a Ukrainian state. It would soon be shut down by the Nazis. A new era of tyrannical totalitarianism would take hold. This was just the start as the Soviet would eventually occupy the city and attempt to transform its history, but Rynok Square’s architectural wonders would outlive another empire.
Bringing It Back To Life – Rynok Square
Ukrainians would have to wait until 1991 for an independent Ukraine. The nation is now home to the heritage symbolized and memorialized by the remarkable buildings that line the eastern side of Rynok Square. Renaissance, Baroque and Neo-Classical architecture is alive in these structures, as are the stories of the multiple cultures that have infused Rynok Square with so much of its beauty and history.