Magnificently Conflicted – Olesko Castle: From The Top Down (On The Trail of the Golden Horseshoe Part Three)

The birth of a great king calls for the setting of a memorable scene. I have scarcely found a more dramatic introduction to a life or a castle than the following excerpt from Janusz Wolinski, “a severe thunderstorm was approaching the lofty Olesko Castle; bloody blazes of conflagration kindled by a prowling unit of armed Tatars turned red the massive walls of the aristocratic residence. Amid the torrential rain, the cold flashes of lightning, the whole area was reverberating with moans of people murdered or driven into Turkish captivity, occasionally disrupted by throaty shouts of Tatars from the camp, routed by Polish companies galloping in a violent chase. In the raging elements and the turmoil of war, the future King of Poland Jan Sobieski was born in a quiet, secluded corner of one of the castle rooms sometime between 2 and 3 o’clock in the afternoon.”

Whether this actually happened or not is beside the point, great lives lead to great legends. John III Sobieski is considered by historians to be one of the greatest Polish kings. It makes sense that the beginning of his life would be shrouded in legend, a legend that manages to live up to the life of a man who saved Poland and most memorably Vienna from the Ottoman Turks. This legendary life of John III Sobieski began at Olesko Castle. The castle is a place that does not look legendary, but its present day appearance hides a remarkable past.

Olesko Castle

Olesko Castle -commands a formidable height on the Voroniaky ridge  (Credit: Igor Kosovych)

A Commanding Position – Coming Into The Country
The tour bus pulled up to the curb below Olesko Castle. The early morning chill had just about burned off, yet autumn hung in the thick, heavy air. I joined the rest of the tour group in peering up at the castle. From a distance, the 50 meter high hill on which the castle stood had not looked so steep, up close it was a much different matter. Even today, with the aid of a smoothly surfaced entrance road, the walk up left people panting as each successive step became increasingly difficult. This gave me a healthy respect for what besieging armies had to overcome. During the bus ride across the Busk lowland, my view had been horizontal, now it was vertical. I immediately discerned that the castle had been built here because of the hill’s commanding defensive position. The castle stood at the beginning of the Voroniaky ridge, a formidable strategic point.

Seven hundred years ago this made up part of the border between the principalities of Galicia and Volhynia. Right from the start, Olesko Castle was placed in the path of history. As such, it bore scars from the past. From the look of its current condition, the suffering was still ongoing. The exterior walls of the castle were chipped, with whole sections of the plastered siding missing. The castle looked as though it was slowly turning into a ruin. In this case, appearances were deceptive. Olesko Castle was in its best shape since the late 18th century. It had been restored largely due to the fact that its glorious and important past could hardly be ignored.

Courtyard at Olesko Castle

Courtyard at Olesko Castle (Credit: Igor Kosovych)

A castle says a lot about what a region has been through. The further eastward in Europe one travels, the more likely that the façade will have hundreds of cracks, be missing a tower or entire wing and the interior rooms will be barren or completely reconstructed. The chateaux style Olesko castle that stands today is a far cry from the original fortification which saw its share of battles long before John III Sobieski was born there.  A tumultuous early history where Poles, Lithuanians, Hungarians and Tatars fought for this border fortress – possession of which meant they would also control the region – reduced the fortification to ruin.

The golden age of Olesko Castle began in 1590 when it underwent a massive overhaul. The restoration also brought a host of famous figures to the area, the likes of which have never been seen before or since in this rural and remote land. When the powerful Danilowicz family of Polish nobles took ownership of the castle in 1605, they employed the father of Bohdan Khmelnysty. The son, who would gain fame as creator of a Ukrainian Cossack state, spent several of his formative years in the shadow of Olesko Castle. Jan Sobieski was not the only Polish King who was born within the walls of the castle. The future Polish ruler Micheal I (Michal Korybut Wisnowiecki) was also born there. How many out of the way, long since forgotten castles can claim two kings and the creator of the first Ukrainian state?

Large scale painting of King Jan III Sobieski leading troop at the Siege of Vienna in 1683

Interior room at Olesko Castle with large scale painting of King Jan III Sobieski leading troop at the Siege of Vienna in 1683 (Credit: Антон Супруненко)

In The Footsteps of a Great Man & The Medieval One Percent
As for the castle tour itself, a fuller view of the petit, middle aged female guide showed that she was dressed to impress or depress depending on one’s perspective. She wore black clothes and black shoes to go with her black hair and black eyes. She was more like a drill sergeant than a guide as she led the group to room after room filled with reliquaries and paintings connecting Polish nobility to the castle’s history. I wondered what these Ukrainians made of all this Polishness. They wandered about, snapping photos, listening indifferently and trying to stay warm in the chill draft rooms. In a sense, this was no more their history than it was mine. Their ancestors would have been working the fields, as would have the overriding majority of ethnic Poles living near Olesko.

The history featured at the castle was from the top down. Nonetheless, it was intriguing all the same, a window into a world of elitism, a sort of medieval one percent. There is something still to be said for standing in the footsteps of a great man. In this case the savior of Christian Europe, John III Sobieski. Not only had he been born here in 1629, but over a half-century later he would purchase the castle. Along with his wife Marysienka (Queen Maria Kazimiera), the couple oversaw a splendid revision of the castle and surrounding gardens, making it their preferred royal residence. For several years after his monumental victory at Vienna, Sobieski spent some of his finest days here. The furnishings, while not original, brought back the aura of royal refinement that once pervaded the castle.

Interior furnishings in Olesko Castle

Interior furnishings in Olesko Castle (Credit: Natalia Vlasenko)

The end of Sobieski’s reign began a centuries long, slow decline at Olesko. One badly reproduced, faded black and white photo told this sad story best. It showed the castle in the mid-1950’s close to ruin. I assumed that the World Wars had brought about this damage, I was wrong. Unlike so many castles in Ukraine and Poland, this decline had less to do with war and everything to do with nature. It turned out that the castle not only straddled geo-political fault lines, but also natural ones. In 1838 an earthquake shook the castle for 15 straight minutes, creating cracks in the walls that a person could walk through. Several fires badly damaged the castle. The worst of which was the last one in 1951. Another “severe thunderstorm was approaching the lofty Olesko Castle, bloody blazes of conflagration” were once again kindled. This time it was not from Tatars or the literary imagination of Janusz Wolinski, but by a blinding bolt of lightning that struck and seared the castle. The ensuing blaze came close to turning six centuries of history into ashes. A twenty-four year reconstruction resurrected Olesko Castle to its current status.

Staircase on the exterior of Olesko Castle

A magnificently conflicted approximation of the past – Olesko Castle (Credit: Nataliya Roy)

Recreating The Real Thing
Realizing what had been lost and then regained, made what stood before me that much more impressive. I did not need a guide or knowledge of the local language to realize that Olesko Castle, with its cracked cobblestone courtyard, badly fraying façade and smoothly worn statuary was still something of a miracle. It had stood the test of time, nature and humanity. What remained was an unforgettable impression of a hilltop chateaux castle battered by the past and restored to a rough approximation of its former grandeur. This impression was much more powerful than any legend, because Olesko Castle as it stands today is a reflection of this borderland’s past, magnificently conflicted.

A Summer House In the Middle Of Paradise – Rynok Square’s Eastern Side (Lviv: The History of One City Part 32)

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 - Rynok 04

The Black House – Rynok 04 (Credit: Юрій Кононенко)

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.

Korniakt Palace in Lviv

Korniakt Palace in Lviv (Credit: Maciej Szczepańczyk)

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.

Interior of former Archbishops Palace at Rynok 9

Living space – Interior of former Archbishops Palace at Rynok 9 (Credit: Aeou)

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 - Rynok 10

Lubomirski Palace – Rynok 10 (Credit: Kugel)

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.

Eastern Side of Rynok Square

Looking down from the Ratusha (City Hall) at Eastern Side of Rynok Square (Credit: Jan Mehlich)

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.