The Renaissance at Rynok Square– Italian Masters Recreate Lviv (Lviv: The History of One City Part 33)

The most noticeable aspect of the twelve buildings that line the southern side of Rynok Square can be found above the portal of Rynok 14, where a small sculpture of a winged lion holds a book with the date 1600. This is the Lion of Saint Mark the Evangelist, the Republic of Venice’s Coat of Arms. The building on which the sculpture stands is still known today as the “Venetian House” because it was once the residence of Antonio Massari, a Venetian ambassador to Lviv. The winged lion is symbolic of the Italian influence on the architecture of the city. Italian master craftsmen came to the city throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, fashioning much of Rynok Square and the surrounding walled city’s architectural style. Though many of the buildings on the Square still retain the names of such wealthy ambassadors and merchants as Massari, Roberto Baldinelli and Urbano Ubaldini, the Italian architects who designed so many of these structures are barely known, if at all. The names of these architects are forgotten today, but together they created far Eastern Europe’s greatest Renaissance cityscape. This legacy recreated Lviv, linking it with one of western Europe’s greatest artistic cultures.
The Lion of St. Mark sculpture above the portal to the Venetian House at 14 Rynok Square

The Lion of St. Mark sculpture above the portal to the Venetian House at 14 Rynok Square (Credit: Aeou)

Masters of the Architectural Universe
In almost every respect western Ukraine and Italy are different from one another. They may be on the same continent, but politically, economically and culturally they have little in common. This has not always been true, as can be seen by the Renaissance architecture prominent in Rynok Square and the surrounding streets of the Old Town. The fact that the Renaissance made it this far abroad, to a city on the fringes of Europe shows the power of this artistic and cultural movement. For Italian masters who made their way here, travel would have been unimaginably arduous by modern standards. At the very least, it would have taken several weeks to make the trip to Lviv. What made the Italians want to work in this far off land? The answers were popularity and opportunity. The movement that brought Italian architecture and culture to the farther reaches of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth began in earnest when Bona Sforza, a member of the powerful ruling family of the Duchy of Milan, married King Sigismund I the Old in 1518. Italian and Italian-Swiss architects were soon invited to recreate, rebuild or fortify towns throughout the Commonwealth.

For Lviv this Italian connection happened at a fortuitous moment. In 1527 the city was largely ruined by a cataclysmic fire. With its Gothic architecture reduced to ashes, Lviv would have to be rebuilt. Fortunately, plenty of Italians were willing to offer their services. In return they were given citizenship. One of the first Renaissance style buildings constructed by an Italian master architect, Peter of Lugano, was the Dormition Church. Completed in 1559, it was unfortunately destroyed by a fire 12 years later.  This turned out to be a minor setback as Italian architects went about constructing new townhouses, sacral edifices and redesigning fortifications. In 1589, the same year that the house at 14 Rynok was being completed, the Italian military engineer Bernardo Mornado consulted with the city on improvements to its existing fortifications, including the bastion systems. By this time, the Italians were firmly ensconced in the city’s professional life. They set up guilds and trade associations which protected their rights. Much of their work came from projects commissioned by wealthy private citizens, especially in Rynok Square.

Massari Mansion at 24 Rynok Square

Massari Mansion at 24 Rynok Square in Lviv (Credit: Aeou)

Renaissance Men – Italian Masters Recreate the Cityscape
The two most important Italian architects in Lviv’s reconstruction were Peter Barbon and Paulo Romano. Barbon was the elder in this relationship with Romano acting as his younger colleague. Barbon’s greatest work, the Korniakt Tower, has been called the best Renaissance tower in all of the Polish lands. Romano led the construction of the adjacent Dormition Church, where he integrated Renaissance elements with traditional Ukrainian Orthodox sacral architecture. Romano also designed the Church of St. Andrew (Bernadine Church) and went on to do consulting work on the city’s fortifications. Both men excelled in creating Renaissance style private residences, several of which are among the most famous buildings in Rynok Square today. These include the Korniakt Palace at Rynok 6 designed by Barbon and a second house for Antonio Massari designed by Romano at Rynok 24.

Another palace worthy of mention can be found just a few doors down from the Venetian House. This is the former Gutteter Palace at Rynok 18. Many of the palace’s Renaissance elements were lost in an 18th century reconstruction, but before then it displayed such magnificence that the Polish King waived it from the usual hospitality tax. This in spite of the fact, that Gutteter was one of several German burghers who could easily afford it.  Such wealthy merchants and tradesmen in Lviv provided the patronage that made such works architecturally possible. The upshot was a Rynok Square, totally recreated in a Renaissance fashion that still predominates today.

The Gutteter House at 18 Rynok Square

The Gutteter House at 18 Rynok Square in Lviv (Credit: Aeou)

A European & World Heritage
According to the Center for Urban History of East Central Europe, 33 of the 44 buildings in Rynok Square are done all or partly in Renaissance style (9 of 12 on the square’s southern side). This compared with 12 of 44 with Baroque stylistic elements and 5 of 44 featuring Neo-Classical traits. All of this adds up to the fact that Rynok Square is today the eastern most example of Italian Renaissance residential architecture in Europe. Little wonder that Lviv’s Old Town has attained UNESCO World Heritage Site status. The work of Italian Renaissance Masters, whether unknown or largely forgotten lives on in the most unlikely of places, western Ukraine.


Found In Translation – Baltia-Druk’s Touring Lviv Guidebook (A Trip Around My Bookshelf # 5)

Any traveler to a country where they are unable to speak the language and have little knowledge of the culture is largely at the mercy of a guidebook. Whether that guidebook is from Lonely Planet, Rough Guide, Wikitravel or any of the other innumerable offerings available in either print or digital form these guidebooks pretty much tell a tourist where they are going to go and what they are going to do. This was been doubly true for me the first time I visited Ukraine. I cannot speak the language and have only a rudimentary understanding of the Cyrillic alphabet. The first time I set foot in Ukraine was four years ago when I rolled into Lviv, a stunning city in the far western reaches of the country.  My lone touristic resource when I first arrived was the Lviv chapter of a Lonely Planet guidebook to Ukraine. I had ordered and download this online. The chapter was rather helpful in the discovery of the many must-sees found in the Lviv Ensemble of the Historic Center which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but going any further afield or gaining a more in-depth understanding of the city was beyond the scope of that chapter.

Baltia-Druk's Touring Lviv Guidebook - A Rare & Lucky Find

Baltia-Druk’s Touring Lviv Guidebook – A Rare & Lucky Find

An Indispensable Travel Companion
Getting to really know Lviv was going to take a guidebook dedicated solely to the city. Of course, I could have hired an English language guide, but I am a literal learner and wanted something to read as I ventured into a world I knew little about. I found a bookstore just off the Prospekt Svobody (the heart of the city) where I managed to communicate my needs to a sales lady who spoke some broken English. She led me to a small shelf laden with touristic literature. There she pulled a guidebook that came in multiple languages, Polish (the majority of foreign visitors to Lviv), German and most impressively English. This guidebook was called quite simply Touring Lviv Guidebook by a publishing firm known as Baltia-Druk. Within minutes of the purchase, this guidebook became my number one resource not only for the rest of that first trip, but also two ensuing visits back to the city. It was not just informative, but also a good read. I have even found myself back home, thousands of kilometers from Ukraine, being warmed by the guidebooks engaging narrative style on many a cold winter night. I find myself referring to it again and again.

Why is this? Mainly because it dispenses with in just twenty pages the usual reams of information on hotels, restaurants, transport and all other essential, but seemingly endless details that clutter up almost all travel guides and travelers itineraries. This information is located where it should be in every travel guide, at the very end of the book. The publishers get right to the meat of the matter in the guidebooks first section “History In Facts And Figures”. The section title was something of a misnomer – and thank goodness for that!  There were of course facts, less figures (statistical figures), but an astonishing narrative, filled with stories, personages and legends that covered the high and low points during seven hundred memorable years of multicultural and multifaceted history in Lviv, Leopolis, Lwow, Lemberik, Lemberg and Lvov – the multiple personalities symbolized by the many names it acquired through the ages.

Statuary on a grave at Lychakiv Cemetery

Lviv is filled with sites of sublime beauty such as Lychakiv Cemetery

Fantastical & Non-Fictional – A Spectacular Past
The publishers of the guidebook understand what it takes to make history come alive, by using a story to transform a detail from merely interesting to highly fascinating. Take for instance how they introduce the fact that the Poltva River runs beneath the center of Lviv. “Much water has flowed under the bridges since the city’s foundation. And it is the water that poses the most fascinating of the town’s mysteries. Partly, it is attributed to the fact that the only river in Lviv, the Poltva, like the mythical Styx, flows in the darkness of underground crypts under the city’s main street. People say that when it rains, one can find a mysterious house somewhere by the railway station. The water that drips from the right side of its roof runs into the Baltic Sea, and from the left side – into the Black Sea. The legend could be explained by the fact that the city is situated right in the middle of the main watershed in Europe. The city’s very geographical position destined it to be the meeting place for the East and West, North and South.” Not only is that a well told tale, it also sets a scene, with “the darkness of underground crypts” and a “mysterious house”. At the same time it manages to convey crucial facts concerning the intrigue and importance of location in the history of Lviv.

Connections made in the text between factual information and seemingly unrelated subject matter showcase the stylistic powers of the authors. For instance, in a paragraph on St. John’s Church, whose genesis dates back to the 13th century, the reader learns of much more recent history pertinent to the religion and tourism in Lviv during the Soviet era (1944 – 1991). “In the soviet days, if a rare foreign tourist happened to come to the “closed” city of Lviv (under the Soviet rule some cities were closed for tourists for safety purposes; one could visit them only if he had permission issued by military authorities), it was commended he saw, among few other sacral edifices in town, the church of St. John.
The text also makes apt and telling comparisons that link past with present, such as when we learn that “Salt-mine ownership could be compared to owning an oil well nowadays” This statement is made in a sub-section expressing the wealth and power of the gentry during the 14th century. In another paragraph we are introduced to “Northern Rome” the “Eastern Gate” and “the Golden Book.” These terms evoke thoughts of fairy tales and the fantastical, yet they are actually historical. All part of the city’s spectacular past.

Fedorov Statue and Korniakt Tower

A good book can be the best guide – Fedorov Statue and Korniakt Tower

Everything & Everyone – Voices Heard On The Street
And there is more, so much more. The historical multiculturalism of the city is succinctly expressed in just a couple of sentences as, “A Lviv saying goes that when a Greek merchant was trading, two Jewish vendors were crying, but when an Armenian merchant came to the market Greeks would burst into tears. It was the fierce competition and national diversity that formed Lviv’s unique character.” Later we learn how the Ukrainians, who today make up approximately 90% of Lviv’s population, but were treated as second class citizens or worse in the city for centuries on end, made themselves heard in a unique way during the 16th century. “The Ukrainians made their presence in town known by means of the “Cyril” bell, placed on an elegant Renaissance belfry that had been erected by the Greek architect Cyril Korniakt. It was the loudest bell in town and the monks of the Dominican order often complained to the City Rada that the chime impeded them while conducting their services.

The class system was a notable and noticeable trait that affected everyone and everything in Lviv throughout its often fraught history. The following tale, from the time of Austrian rule, illustrates this. “Anyone fluent in German was sure to make a brilliant career and make a handsome fortune even in the poorest province of the Empire. Legend goes that it was then when the following funny story occurred. A local noble lady, accompanied by her friend, an Austrian official was approached by two beggars. One was local, the other – German. The first tramp got a copper, the latter – a silver coin. As she it explained it to her astonished friend, “tomorrow the German beggar might become a high official” and she wanted to make sure he remembered her.” Such stories say more than any number of demographic statistics or heavily footnoted monographs ever could.

As seen in Lviv - this is what the Touring Lviv Guidebook by Baltia-Druk does to visitors

As seen in Lviv – this is what the Touring Lviv Guidebook by Baltia-Druk does for visitors

Born Again – Lviv Into Life
Each time I arrive at the final paragraph of the “History In Facts And Figures” section entitled “Modern Lviv” I feel as though I have been taken on a rousing and illuminating ride, a tragic and triumphant introduction to the city. All done in just twenty short pages, interspersed with color photographs and a timeline adding substance, style and context. I am now primed to walk the cobbled alleyways, wide boulevards and photosynthetic parks, to experience for myself the intermingling of past and present, in one of Europe’s greatest cities. Yes this is Europe, make no mistake about it. As the authors remind us in the section’s final paragraph, “The rash statements made by some Ukrainian politicians, that Europe is a distant land evoke nothing but ironic smirks from Lviv inhabitants. Lviv has always been part of Europe, regardless of all the borders. It is only in Lviv a beggar will address you in several languages.” The high and the low, the possible and the improbable, all of it was, is and – let us hope – always will be a part of Lviv. Baltia-Druk’s splendid Touring Lviv Guidebook brings the city to life, both past and ever present.