Model of Betrayal – The Plastic Panorama of Old Lwów (Lviv: The History Of One City #20)

Hidden from public view, stored in a museum vault in Wrocław, Poland is a scale model known as the Plastic Panorama of Old Lwów. The model’s title does not quite do it justice. For one thing, the panoramic model is not really plastic. Among the materials used to construct it included lead, sheet copper and fine pasteboard, not exactly what most fine works of art are made from. The model was also more than just a panorama. It was an intimately detailed reconstruction of the city of Lwów (Lviv, Ukraine today) as it looked in the mid-18th century just prior to the end of Polish rule and before the Austrian Habsburg takeover of the city. The three dimensional model was done with exacting historical accuracy, featuring the streets and buildings of Lwów with everything done to a scale of 200:1. The panorama in all its exquisite details was unprecedented. It was both an immaculate snapshot of Baroque Lwów and a reflection of the vision of its creator, Janusz Witwicki, an architect and art historian. Witwicki managed to continue work on the Panorama during some of the 20th century’s worst geopolitical upheavals, before he too was consumed by the maelstrom that ended Polish Lwów.

The Plastic Panorama of Old Lwów

The Plastic Panorama of Old Lwów (Credit: Andrzej Solnica)

A Baroque Vision – Witwicki Recreates Old Lwów
Janusz Witwicki was born in Austro-Hungarian Lemberg in 1903. His father, Wladyslaw was a highly acclaimed professor, known for his teachings and writings on psychology, philosophy, aesthetics and art history. Janusz also showed an affinity for art history as well as an obsessive fascination with Lwów’s architecture. He cultivated this interest at one of his first jobs, working in the office of Lwów’s conservator of monuments. He went on to follow his father into teaching, soon gaining an assistant professorship at Lwów’s prestigious technical university. In the late 1920’s Witwicki discovered his true calling when he was selected to design models for the Lwów pavilion at the Polish National Exhibition in Poznan. He constructed many fine replicas for display. They bore an astonishing resemblance to the architectural works of his hometown.

Just two years later, while in Paris, Witwicki was inspired with the idea to create a model of historical Lwów as it looked in the waning years of the Kingdom of Poland. His panorama would focus on Lwów during the Baroque period. This era appealed architecturally to Witwicki since it was the antithesis of the neo-classical and secessionist influences that had been the hallmark of Austrian imposed architectural modernity on Lwów. Fortunately for Witwicki, 80% of the Baroque era buildings of Lwów’s Old Town had survived Austrian rule. He would be able to perfect his model by closely studying many of these original buildings still extant from the cityscape he strived to recreate. Witwicki’s objective was not just to reconstruct the past, but also to showcase the enduring Polishness of the city. In this frontier city of the Second Republic of Poland, Witwicki would help promote nationalism by evoking the glorious Polish past of Lwów.

Janusz Witwicki

Janusz Witwicki – creator of the Plastic Panorama of Old Lwów (Credit: ©Witwicki Parsons Family Archives)

From the early 1930’s until the end of his life Witwicki was in the grip of an obsession. He spent hundreds of hours surveying and measuring buildings to ensure the precision of his models. Many days were spent digging into the city’s archival holdings where he would pour over maps, sketches and paintings that accurately represented mid-18th century Lwów. Witwicki was not alone in this pursuit. He put together a team of specialists, including architectural engineers and modelers who could help create the Panorama. He used his own financial resources to pay for much of the early work. As the project grew, so did Witwicki’s need to bring in greater financial backing.

In 1939 he was able to convince the city to pay one-third of the costs for the creation of the Panorama. It was a hard won success that would soon turn to disappointment. The city only paid a small portion of what they had promised. Perhaps there would have been more funding, but everything changed on September 1, 1939 when World War II broke out. Nazi Germany mercilessly attacked Poland, heavily bombing Lwów from the air on the first day. Less than three weeks later Soviet forces invaded Eastern Poland. Within a matter of weeks the Soviets had occupied Lwów. Work on the Panorama was temporarily frozen. Though models of the larger buildings had been completed, Witwicki’s grand project was now threatened, as would be his life.

Against All Odds & Two Ideologies
Between 1939 and 1944 Lwów suffered three tyrannical occupations in succession. Witwicki suffered almost as badly as the city did and was lucky to escape with his life. He was arrested on three separate occasions. At one point he was forced to bribe the Nazis in order to regain his freedom. Incredibly, he continued to work on the Panorama. He audaciously petitioned the Nazi German city administration for access to archival resources so he could continue his work. At the same time, several of the twenty specialists he employed on the project were members of the Polish underground. The occupation authorities did allow his request to go forward. It seems that Witwicki’s perseverance had paid off. By the time Soviet rule over the city was established in 1944, none other than Nikita Khrushchev, now in charge of the Ukraine, paid a visit to Witwicki’s studio. He was highly impressed with the Panorama, even offering words of support, but Khrushchev also acknowledged that politically the Panorama did not fit with Soviet plans for the city. The Polish community was starting to be hollowed out.

This process would force over one hundred thousand of Lwów’s Poles to move west into what had been eastern Germany. The city’s future was to be Soviet, with an overwhelming ethnic majority of Ukrainians. Witwicki had been able to dodge the worst excesses of the war, but its aftermath was turned into an entirely different matter. He was an ethnic Pole recreating a marvelous Polish historical model of the city. The Soviets did not completely oppose his work. Instead they suggested that it be altered with a greater Ukrainian influence. A Ukrainian director was installed as head of the project. There was little doubt that Witwicki was losing control over his beloved Panorama. With Poles being forced to leave the city by the thousands, he knew that it was just a matter of time before the Panorama was confiscated. This was what exactly happened in April of 1946.

The Plastic Panorama of Old Lwów

Up close and personal with the past – The Plastic Panorama of Old Lwów

Rather than wait for the situation to worsen, Witwicki directly petitioned Khrushchev and Stalin to allow him to leave for Poland with the Panorama. Strangely enough his request was granted. Soviet authorities in the city had other ideas though. They opposed the Panorama being taken out of the city. In Stalin’s Soviet Union a local or regional official would hardly ever chance overriding an order from Khrushchev or Stalin. To do so was a virtual death sentence. What happened next, while not surprising, is perplexing. On July 16th, only three days before Witwicki was due to leave for Poland three men from Moscow met with him. They claimed to be newspaper correspondents, but most likely they were NKVD (precursor to the KGB) agents. Witwicki was murdered by these men. His wife, Irena was not allowed to view his body.

The whole sordid episode had the hallmarks of a Soviet conspiracy, leaving questions that could never be answered. Who exactly ordered Witwicki’s murder has never been discovered? Was it local officials acting out of malice? Had Khrushchev and Stalin played a cynical game with Witwicki? Were they really going to allow him to leave for Poland with the Panorama? Strangely enough the answer may be yes. Not long after the murder, the widowed Irena was given permission to leave for Poland and take the Panorama with her. It ended up at the Polish National Museum in Warsaw before being taken to Wrocław where the majority of Lwów’s Polish community had been resettled. It would stay in storage until the Iron Curtain fell.

The Panorama of Old Lwów on display in Wrocław

The Panorama of Old Lwów on display in Wrocław

The Light Of Display – A Model City Vanishes
In the early 1990’s Janusz Witwicki’s unfinished masterpiece, the Plastic Panorama of Old Lwów was put back on display at the Museum of Architecture in Wrocław. For the first time in decades, the public was able to marvel at its exquisite re-creation of a Lwów that had been lost to history and then recreated through an obsessive study of history. Only through sheer will, force of personality and single mindedness had Witwicki managed to bring old Lwów back to life. If only for a moment Witwicki had managed to defeat time and accurately represent a past that had all but vanished. Then the moment passed. In 2003 the Panorama was once again placed in storage. Fortunately, it has come to light in more recent times. Following a very extensive conservation process in September 2015 the model went on permanent exhibit at the Hala Stulecia in Wroclaw.

* Special thanks to Eve Chrzanowska Parsons (Grand-daughter of Janusz and Irena Witwicki) for her invaluable assistance with this article.