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.

A City Created By Flames Of Fire (Lviv: The Story of a City In Ukraine #1)

Fire has brought more cities to an end, than to a beginning. The opposite is true for the western Ukrainian city of Lviv. Fire brought the Lviv into historical existence. Yet multiple times fire threatened to extinguish the city forever, only for Lviv to rise from the ashes, created anew.

No one can say with certainty when the area that would become Lviv had enough population to be called a settlement or village. Archaeologists have found traces of human habitation in the boggy valley of the Poltva River going all the way back to the 5th century AD. Excavations have yielded a vague outline of early settlement in the area, but they only offer fragments of evidence rather than a clear picture. It would not be until the late Middle Ages, in the middle of the 13th century, that the city known today as Lviv was formally created. As the story goes, King Danylo Romanovych (Daniel of Galicia) founded the city and then bequeathed it as a gift to his son Lev (Lev I of Galicia), from which the name Lviv comes, meaning belonging to Lev. While this story is often repeated as the beginning of Lviv it was not what confirms the historical existence of the city. Instead, the actual historical beginning of Lviv starts in 1256 with a fire seen in the distance. This is ironic considering that on numerous occasions fires brought the city to ruin.

A flame of pure fire

A flame of pure fire – creator, destroyer, illuminator & Transformer of Historic Lviv

Coming Into History – The Emergence of Lviv
Lviv surfaces into history not through deeds but words, specifically written words. The Galician-Volhynian Chronicle mentions that a major fire was seen “from Lviv” in 1256. This must have been quite a fire to be seen from afar. Witnesses of this conflagration may well have been standing on the High Castle or Lysa Gora areas, a couple of prominent hills which rise on a ridge that can be found to the east-northeast of today’s Rynok Square. Wherever the blaze was spied from, it would be the first of innumerable occasions in which residents of Lviv would witness major fires. Unfortunately, these fires were found in the city itself, with often disastrous consequences. Almost all the structures in Medieval Lviv were constructed out of wood. The threat of an all-consuming fire was a constant danger. Several safeguards were put into place to mitigate the possibility of a raging inferno.

Watchmen walked the city streets throughout the night to make sure that the citizenry did not leave a single light on in their homes. Obeying these watchmen was a matter of both structural and self-preservation. If someone was found guilty of causing a fire that resulted in deaths, they could end up having their arm severed. Even worse, some accidental arsonists were tossed into the flames and burned alive, in a bit of retaliatory justice. Such cruelty seems excessive, but in light of the calamitous destruction that could result from a fire the city needed the strongest deterrent possible. Stopping people from causing fires was one thing, but nature also threatened fiery destruction. In 1510, three bolts of lightning struck the city in succession. This led to many houses burning down in residential areas.

Lviv in the 17th century

Lviv in the 17th century – a product of reconstruction

All Consuming Fires – Destructions & Reconstructions
The famously destructive fire of 1527 illustrates how a conflagration could lead to both utter ruin and paradoxically the re-creation of Lviv. Following an inordinately, dry spring season the city was a virtual tinderbox. A hot, windy day in early June set the stage for what would become the worst fire in Lviv’s history. The blaze began in of all places, a small brewery situated in the heart of the walled city on Virmenska Street (Armenian Street). Soon the flames spread out in every direction. Nearly every wooden structure in the city burned to the ground. Only two buildings were left intact, the City Hall and a house in an outlying suburb. Church bells and artillery pieces were melted by the extreme heat. Even stone buildings were destroyed. Lviv was left a smoldering ruin. Interestingly, this turned out to be a watershed moment in the architectural history of the city. Gothic Lviv was forever gone.

New buildings were raised in the Renaissance style and made mostly of stone. In 1540 wooden construction was banned. And yet the fires still continued. In 1556 another conflagration burned parts of the city. A mere fifteen years later, the entire Jewish district of the city was totally destroyed by a fire. It was not until the mid-19th century after the city was firmly under Austrian rule that a professional firefighting squad was created. Modernization brought the development of city fire departments. Eventually fires became rarer, just as building materials had become less flammable and more permanent. If not for such changes Lviv would be devoid of the stunning architecture which garnered the old city center protection as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Conversely, if not for fire the Lviv of today would not exist.

Putting Out Flames - The Fire Department in Lviv

Putting Out Flames – The Fire Department in Lviv

A Fire In The Distance
The city’s unique Renaissance and Baroque, architectural styles rose from the ashes of many different Lvivs that existed and were subsequently extinguished. Fire reshaped Lviv in ways that would have been impossible to imagine when the city was first conceived. Fire also brought Lviv into the historical conscious. A fire in the distance brought the city that was rising from the valley of the Poltva into the pages of history. Lviv and its history started, but never ended with fire. Instead it was to be consumed, transformed and illuminated by fire.

Buried Beneath – Lviv’s Underground River: The Poltva

The old city center of Lviv seems to have it all. Medieval  and Baroque architectural wonders, a magnificent Neo- Renaissance opera house, cobblestone streets, fashionable coffee houses and eye popping, colorful buildings. This ensemble was deemed worthy of UNESCO World Heritage Site status. The cliché that you have to see it to believe it holds true for this marvelous city. The beauty, romance and delicious architecture also serves as a distraction. It keeps visitors from noticing the one thing that is actually missing in Lviv, flowing water. Search all over Lviv, but a river or a creek will not be found. This is quite strange, since the landscape surrounding the city is lush. A climb up Zamkova Hora (High Castle Hill), the city’s highest point offers a commanding view over the city, but no water source can be spied from this prominence. Where is the stream which quenches the city and the surrounding landscapes thirst?

The Poltva River - buried beneath Lviv

The Poltva River – buried beneath Lviv

The River That Gave Life To Lviv
A surface glance demonstrates that Lviv is an outlier among central and western Ukrainian cities when it comes to waterways. Kiev, Dnipropretrovsk and Zaporizhia were built up along the Dnieper River. Smaller cities like Chernivtsi and Ivano-Frankivsk are set on banks of the Prut and Bystrytsia Rivers. It is fascinating to imagine how Lviv could have grown to such size and stature without being on or near a river. Such a leap of imagination is not required, because Lviv is set on a river, one that is now buried just beneath the city. The Poltva River can neither be seen nor heard along the streets and squares of Lviv’s old town. There is no trace of its existence. This is deceptive because the river is still an important part of the city today, just as it has been since Lviv’s founding in the 13th century.

Medieval Lviv grew up along the banks of the Poltva, a short yet important river in western Ukraine. While the Poltva is a mere 60 kilometers in length, it drains over 200 creeks and streams before entering the western Bug River. It is hard to imagine the modern urban environment of Lviv once had a river flowing through the middle of it. The river was a lifeline for security, commerce and trade. The Poltva delineated the northern boundary of the city, its waters creating a natural moat. Ships would ply the river while bringing loads of goods from as far away as the Baltic Sea. Mills once lined the river banks. Conversely, the Poltva brought many natural, but undesirable things to the city in the form of disease. Its murky waters were a breeding ground for pestilence. Swarms of mosquitoes and flies were often accompanied by an unbearable stench. The fetid waters caused mildew and rot.

Vault of the Poltva River on Mickiewicz Square

Vault of the Poltva River on Mickiewicz Square (Credit: Lviv Historical Museum)

The Lifeblood Of A City Goes Underground – Burying The Poltva
By the 19th century Lviv was a fast growing hub city for the eastern fringes of the Habsburg Empire. As the city began to modernize, officials decided that something needed to be done with the Poltva. It had long caused public health problems, such as outbreaks of malaria. It was thus decided to encase and cover over the Poltva, routing the river through the city sewer system. By 1870, fifteen kilometers of the river flowing through the main part of the city had been covered. Despite World War, revolution and the city falling under the rule of multiple empires and nations, work on covering the Poltva proceeded apace. Just before the turn of the 20th century designs were vetted for a grand opera house in Lviv. Due to space concerns in the inner city it seemed all but impossible to locate the building in that area. The buildings designer, Zygmunt Gorgolewski, struck upon a novel idea. In his proposal, the Opera House would be located where the Poltva flowed, but the river would be covered over. The building would have a concrete rather than earthen foundation, which would allow the necessary stability.

Gorgolewski’s idea was a stunning success. In 1900 the magnificent new Grand Theater (known today as the Lviv Theatre of Opera And Ballet) was opened. There were reports that the building sunk in the years that followed its opening, but finally stabilized. Local legend says that the Poltva can be heard flowing from the orchestra pit of the opera house. The covering of the river throughout the greater Lviv area continued in the decades that followed. By the outbreak of the Second World War, 150 kilometers of the Poltva had been covered. Famously, the Poltva tunnels became a hiding place for a handful of Jews who had escaped the Nazis during the war. They survived by hiding in these tunnels and through the efforts of two Polish sewer maintenance workers Leopold Socha and Szczepek Wróblewski. The 2011 award winning film, In Darkness, by the Polish director Agnieska Holland was an award winning recreation about this story of survival in Lviv’s sewers. After the war ended work on covering the Poltva was renewed. By the end of the 20th century the river was completely covered throughout nearly all of the Lviv area.

The Poltva River outside of Lviv as it looks today

The Poltva River outside of Lviv as it looks today (Credit: Mykola Stepaniv)

An Invisible Presence
The Poltva River is now underground, an invisible presence in the life of the city. Modernity demanded that the river be subdued. Technology and the minds of man completed the process. What once gave life to Lviv has been reduced to a collection point for rainwater and sewage flowing through a labyrinth of tunnels. The river still exists, only now it is out of sight and out of mind. Imperceptible in the consciousness of the city it helped create.