“If there was no Rome, then Kraków would be Rome.” Incredible relation of the Italian traveler from the 16th-century capital of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth

“If there was no Rome, then Kraków would be Rome.” Incredible relation of the Italian traveler from the 16th-century capital of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth

Cardinal Caetani was sent to Poland with a mission of extreme importance. This delegate of Pope Clement VIII was to persuade the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth to become involved in the activities of the Holy League against the Ottoman Empire. One of the members of the legation, the papal ceremonial master Giovanni Mucante, left a diary after this visit. Inside we can find a fantastic description of the 16th-century Kraków, so we can travel back in time to the capital of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1596.

The panorama of Kraków, done after Palatine Ottheinrich’s journey in the 1530s. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Enrico Caetani was burdened by the Pope with a challenging task. The Habsburg monarchy, which entered the war with Turkey in 1593, stood almost alone on the battlefield against the mighty army of the Sultan. It was clear to Clement VIII that the fall of Vienna would mean a further inevitable expansion of the Ottomans into the Christendom. To prevent this, the Pope attempted to construct a great anti-Turkish coalition. In the mind of Clement VIII, the powerful Polish-Lithuanian state was to be one of the most important joints linking the entire alliance.

“[Sigismund III] He is the lord of the greatest zeal and piety. Every day he performs prayers as if he was a priest, he listens to the mass read and then sings and sermons every day.”

– Giovanni Mucante

The cardinal’s destination was Kraków, the capital of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. He intended to meet King Sigismund III Vasa there, who, however, did not have a great love for the House of Habsburg, although it was an important subject of his foreign policy. After all, not yet a decade has passed since Sigismund defeated Archduke Maximilian III Habsburg during the free election. The latter, however, did not accept such a flow of events and decided to seize the crown by force. Austrian troops even besieged Kraków itself, but the Grand Crown Hetman, Jan Zamoyski, who was chasing them, beat them at Byczyna, and took the pretender to the Polish throne into captivity. Despite the signed agreements between the emperor and the Polish king, Archduke Maximilian in 1596, i.e. during Caetani’s visit, still used the Polish royal title!

The oldest panorama of Kraków, published in the Chronicle of the World by Hartmann Schedel in 1493. It is a view of the medieval city from the north-east. Source: Polona.pl

1596 is also an important turning point in the history of Kraków. King Sigismund III left the Wawel Castle and went to Warsaw, which began to gain importance as a residence city for the rulers of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The dusk of Kraków’s golden age, which lasted throughout the last century, was slowly approaching. In the 16th century, the capital city, thanks to its abundant trade, was extremely wealthy, and succeeding kings and the richest townspeople embellished the capital with art and architecture of the Renaissance. Many Italians came to Kraków, bringing with them knowledge and sensitivity from the Apennine Peninsula. Let the words of Mucante himself be the quintessence of Kraków’s golden age:

I do not understand that there was a second city as abundant in everything as Kraków, and the old proverb is truly fair: that if there was no Rome, then Kraków would be Rome.

Without further ado, let’s dive into the account of the papal master of ceremonies!

The famous Benedictine abbey in Tyniec

Cardinal Caetani’s retinue crossed the border between Silesia (then part of the Habsburg monarchy) near Byczyna, through which the old route to Poland ran. Near this town, the army of Hetman Zamoyski beat the supporters of Archduke Maximilian.

Benedictine Abbey in Tyniec – a fragment of the panorama of Kraków from 1493. Source: Polona.pl

On June 11, 1596, we left Silesia four miles behind Byczyna behind us and we entered the Kingdom of Poland. On Wednesday 12 the entire court of the cardinal-legate went straight to Kraków; the legate himself stopped at a Benedictine abbey a mile from Kraków, near the Vistula River; here the legate spent the night, the next day he attended an ordinary Corpus Christi Mass (…).

The legate himself, unlike the rest of his entourage, did not go straight to Kraków. First, he visited the famous Benedictine abbey in Tyniec, situated a mile from Kraków. The monastery, built on a hill at the foot of the Vistula River, had an extremely old lineage. Although the origins of the abbey are shrouded in a fog of uncertainty, most historians assume that it was the foundation of Prince Casimir the Restorer in 1044. The monks brought here were to support the ruler in his work of rebuilding the young state and continue the Christianization, which aroused resistance from peasants.

The first Romanesque temple and priory buildings were erected on Monastery Hill. Over time, the abbey was enclosed by a defensive wall: the location near the state border and at the important Vistula crossing meant that the Benedictines were exposed to attacks. In the 15th century, the entire complex gained a gothic character. In the 16th century, Tyniec, thanks to numerous land grants, was one of the richest abbeys in the entire kingdom. During the cardinal’s visit, the abbot in Tyniec was Mikołaj Mielecki, whose term of office is at the height of the monastery’s splendor.

After a short visit to Tyniec, the Caetani legate headed north, to Balice village.

Balice: Renaissance gate on the way to Kraków

The wooden knight’s residence in Balice (the village was first mentioned in 1229) was built in the Middle Ages. During the cardinal’s visit to Balice, there was a Renaissance palace, built several dozen years earlier at the initiative of Jan Boner. In 1596 it was in the hands of the Grand Treasurer of the Crown Jan Firlej. His half-brother was Henryk Firlej, who returned to his homeland in the legate’s entourage because for several years he had been climbing the ranks of his Church career in Rome; he held the honorary office of the papal valet.

After lunch, he went to Balice, the estate of Jan Firlej, the voivode of Kraków, brother of the monsignor of the same name. The manor in those goods, beautiful and spacious, but wooden, has a delightful garden, full of fruits, even those rare in our own country, such as grapes, figs, peaches, apricots, etc. For three days the cardinal stayed in this pleasant place, with prelates and his court, and all this time he was undertaken at the expense of the voivode. Cardinal Radziwiłł visited him twice and once brought him a letter from the king.

The description of the unusual fruit grown in the area is consistent with reality. It was thanks to one of the previous owners of the property, Seweryn Boner (1486-1549), the royal banker. He made Balice his suburban seat and built a larch manor here. The vineyard founded by Boner has survived to our times in the name of the hill between Balice and Aleksandrowice, which is called Winna Góra (Vineyard Mountain). This beautiful residence with its garden, orchards, and a pleasant Renaissance palace was the last stop for many important visitors on their way to the capital before entering the city. The mighty of this world used to be here: Henry of France, on his way to his new kingdom, Jadwiga, daughter of King Sigismund the Old, or the future queen of Poland, Archduchess Catherine of Austria. The end of the splendor of this Arcadian court near Kraków came in the 17th century and devastating wars.

Entrance to the city and the most important temples

St. Mary’s Church – a fragment of the panorama of Kraków from the 1530s. Source: Wikimedia Commons

After spending a few days in idyllic Balice, the cardinal went on his way to Kraków itself, to join the rest of his entourage there and start diplomatic negotiations.

So we drove into town with the roar of cannons, the sound of trumpets, drums, and flutes. In my opinion, the cardinal should not have dismounted in front of another church, but in front of the cathedral, however, he dismounted in front of the large and beautiful church of the Virgin Mary. After praying, the cardinal went to Castle Hill, to the church of St. Stanislaus, where, upon entering, he was given holy water, incense, etc. After singing Te Deum laudamus, the legate entered the carriage of Cardinal Radziwiłł and was taken to the Bishop’s Palace, near the church of the Franciscans.

It must have been a great spectacle! Caetani rode into the capital impressively, greeted with splendor and great pomp. The cardinal did not go to the castle right away but devoted a moment to admire one of the most important temples in Kraków – St. Mary’s Basilica. This beautiful Gothic temple was built at the end of the 13th century on the site of an older Romanesque church. In the following centuries, the basilica was refurbished and enlarged with new chapels. In the fifteenth century, the north tower was raised. Caetani could admire the beautiful Gothic helmet from 1478, the work of the master Mathias Heringek: the spire surrounded by a wreath of turrets is one of the most characteristic elements of the Kraków landscape to this day. Inside the church, the legate had to pay attention to the famous main altar, i.e. the work of the Nuremberg master, Wit Stwosz. There was a walled cemetery around the basilica, which was the standard for churches in Europe until the 19th century.

The papal legate was greeted by Jerzy Radziwiłł. This influential cardinal, after converting from Calvinism to Catholicism, became a staunch advocate of his new faith and post-Tridentine reforms in the spirit of the Counter-Reformation. In addition, Radziwiłł was a member of the party supporting the Habsburgs, which was related to the interests of the pope. Observed by crowds of townspeople and noblemen, the retinue of newcomers from Italy went to the Wawel Cathedral, i.e. to the Church of St. Stanislaus and St. Wenceslas.

Wawel Cathedral – a fragment of the panorama of Kraków from 1618. Source: Polona.pl

The cathedral was the most important temple of the Kingdom. Polish rulers were crowned here, starting with Ladislaus the Short in 1320. Polish rulers were also buried in the church, first directly under the floor, and later in specially prepared crypts. Before the Gothic church was built, there were two previous Romanesque churches in its place. Their relics were partially incorporated into the new, gothic construction, initiated by Bishop Nanker in the first half of the 14th century. Successive rulers embellished and expanded the cathedral.

In 1531, the construction of the chapel was completed, funded by King Sigismund I the Old, who wanted to provide himself and his relatives with a decent burial place. This is how the Sigismund Chapel was created, i.e. one of the most important monuments of Renaissance architecture in Poland and the first completely built in this style in the entire Kingdom. The chapel was topped with a characteristic dome, which differed from the rest of the Wawel towers, visible on old vedutas and drawings of Kraków. During the legate’s visit, the tombstone of Sigismund I the Old and Sigismund Augustus was already located in the chapel, which in itself was an example of a beautiful Renaissance sculpture, which was an inspiration for other artists and founders in the whole Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Sigismund Chapel – a fragment of the panorama of Krakow from the 1530s. Source: Wikimedia Commons

After the prayers, Enrico Caetani was escorted to the Bishop’s Palace (Cardinal Radziwiłł also held the office of the Bishop of Kraków), which remained his residence during his stay in the city.

“The city of Kraków is almost round” …

After the chronicler’s duty to record the entry of his principal, Giovanni Mucante devotes more space to the city itself. It made a great impression on Italian, and thanks to his relation, we can travel in time to the old Polish capital, which was still in its most wonderful period, with streets filled with merchants, communicating with each other in dozens of different languages.

The city of Kraków is not very big, its form is almost round, you can walk around it in an hour. It is surrounded by walls and towers, and the circular moats, if necessary, can be filled with water. There are nine gates, not very far from one another. The houses inside are all stone or brick, but mostly shingled; there are many beautiful churches in Kraków, that we will talk about later.

Let’s start with the population. At the end of the 16th century, the Old Town in Kraków was inhabited by about 20,000 citizens, which at that time was a relatively small number of people. However, it must be remembered that in the middle of the century the city was decimated by an epidemic; other thousands inhabited the surrounding villages, Krakóww suburbs, and nearby cities, two of which were the most famous: Kazimierz and Kleparz. However, the Kraków metropolis was still far from the great Italian cities at that time (numbers are approximate):

Naples350 000
Rome150 000
Venice120 000
Milan100 000
Florence70 000
Genoa70 000

For comparison, the largest city of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was Gdańsk, which at that time flourished with 55,000 townspeople.

From the end of the 13th century, the magistrate began to surround the entire city with a ring of defensive walls. In addition, the safety of the townspeople was increased by a moat and eight defensive gates, woven into the system of city fortifications. The oldest was the Butcher’s Gate, walled up in the 16th century, the relics of which have survived to this day. The only fully preserved gate in Kraków is the Florian Gate. The city walls were pulled down in the first half of the 19th century, although some fragments have been maintained as a historical monument. In the place of the former line of walls and the moat, the famous Planty, i.e. a popular city park, was established.

Moat and defensive walls – a fragment of the panorama of Krakow from the 1530s. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The Kraków Main Square is like a Roman piazza

The Italian guest in his description could not miss the heart of Krakow, i.e. the famous Main Market Square. This regular, rectangular, 200-meter square was one of the largest medieval markets in Europe. The delimitation of the Market Square is a consequence of Kraków being located under the Magdeburg Law in 1257. Older buildings in the form of two churches were woven into the new design. The market was bustling with life; here, craftsmen and merchants sold their goods. Space was filled with stalls and shacks:

In the middle of the city itself is an immense square market; this one, had it been freed from the collapsing cubicles, would have turned out to be larger than Piazza Navona. There are prisons and shacks with various goods sold by cloth merchants, drapers, furriers, etc. There is also the Church of St. Adalbert, where they sometimes sermon in German. Almost the entire square is filled with benches and wooden stalls, where you can find various crafts iron, cheap products, glass, fruit, legumes, vegetables, and other things to eat.

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