ISSN 0024-5089
Copyright © 2008 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.

Volume 54, No 1 - Spring 2008
Editor of this issue: Violeta Kelertas

Vilnius on the Map of Sarmatia: II
[Continued from Vol 53:4, Winter 2007 issue]

Laimonas Briedis

Laimonas Briedis is a native of Vilnius, but was educated in Canada. PhD in Geography in 2005, University of British Columbia. Currently, postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto, History Department. His first book Vilnius: City of Strangers is due to be published in winter of 2008 by Baltos lankos, Vilnius. He lives between Vancouver and Vilnius.

In 1549, Sigismund von Herberstein, an ambassador from the court of Germany to Muscovy, mapped out Lithuania as a “long tract from the town of Circass on the Dnieper as far as Livonia.” 1 In several generations from the thirteen to sixteenth centuries, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania grew up through matrimonial and military expansions from a relatively small, isolated outpost of a centralized European pagan state into a polycultural empire. At the end of the Renaissance period, this vast expanse included the territories of (contemporary) Lithuania, Belarus, the Ukraine and western parts of Russia, and was one of the largest and most diverse political entities in Europe. In the north, the Grand Duchy neighbored strongholds of Lutheranism: Sweden, (East) Prussia and Livonia (contemporary Latvia and Estonia). In the east, the Dukedom’s frontier reached deep into the Russian Orthodox principalities of Novgorod and Smolensk, bordering the state of Moscow. In the south, it created a vast buffer zone with the Ottoman world through its changing borders with the Muslim-ruled Crimean Khanate and the Byzantine Orthodox dominated Moldavia. The country encompassed many European geographical divisions: it stretched from the woody and marshy lowlands of the Baltic Sea region to the virgin steppe plateau of the northern coast of the Black Sea. It also included the extremely fertile, black soil area of the Carpathian piedmont regions of Volhynia and Podolia and the heavily timbered territory of the Russian forest. 

In 1386, the marriage between Jogaila, a thirty-something Lithuanian (pagan) duke, and Jadvyga, a twelve-year-old Polish queen, created through monarchical union the united Kingdom of Poland and Grand Duchy of Lithuania. But only with the signing of the Lublin Union, in 1569, did the two states become permanently fused in the confederate structure of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Under the Lublin Union agreement, the Polish side of the Commonwealth acquired the Lithuanian part of the Ukraine, greatly reducing the territory and population size of the Grand Duchy. Despite this loss, Lithuania remained one of the largest states in Europe and retained its traditional linguistic, cultural and religious heterogeneity. 

By this time, the official state language of the Lithuanian Grand Duchy was Ruthenian, a Slavic language written in the Cyrillic alphabet, the precursor of modern day Byelorussian and Ukrainian. The early version of the Lithuanian State Statute of 1529 was written in this language (later it was translated into Latin). With the monarchical union with Poland, many local nobles had, most likely, mastered some form of Polish, which, in contrast to Old Slavonic based dialects, used the Latin alphabet. The introduction of the spoken and written Slavic languages into the public realm of the Grand Duchy was a direct cultural and political consequence of the territorial expansion of Lithuania. By the fifteenth century, except for the socially but not culturally domineering Lithuanian minority, a substantial part, if not a greater majority, of the country’s population consisted of Slavic (Ruthenian) speaking peoples. 

For the modern audience, trained to associate a nation and/or state with a specific language and culture, this Lithuanian linguistic layering might appear confusing. However, in most of Europe during the Renaissance and Baroque periods, there was a noticeable disparity between the languages of the state, the religious and/or ruling elite, and the vulgate of the masses. In this context, the Lithuanian acceptance of the majority’s language as an institutional lingua franca could be seen as a precursor to the gradual linguistic democratization of modern European nation-states. What made Lithuania different from the rest of Europe was the fact that several different vernaculars – Lithuanian, Ruthenian, Polish, Russian, Latvian, Latin, German, Hebrew, and to a limited extent, Yiddish and Turkish – started to develop their own written cultures in parallel. 

This literary multiplication was not possible without some form of cultural cross-pollination, which in Lithuania, in contrast to many other parts of Europe, was provoked by religious diversity. On a basic level, there were three major Christian communities in the Dukedom: Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Protestant. In 1596, a fourth element was added – the Uniate Church, which attempted to resolve the dogmatic and liturgical schism between the Greek and Latin churches.2 In addition, there was a persistent split among the Orthodox believers: while most of the church accepted the nominal religious supremacy of the patriarch in Ottoman-ruled Constantinople, there was a growing influence of the Moscow-oriented clergy. The Protestants too were divided into several communities, such as Lutherans, Calvinists, Arians, Anabaptists, Socinians, etc. This proliferation of Protestant thought illustrates the initial strength and diversity of the Reformation movement in Lithuania. Later, such religious fragmentation turned into a political weakness – divided and often bitterly opposing each other, the Lithuanian Protestants could not offset the spectacular but oppressive resurrection of the Catholic Church during the counter-Reformation decades in the late sixteenth century. By the first part of the seventeenth century, the centrifugal forces of the Christian faith that in the previous century had made Lithuania one of the most tolerant and diverse nations of Europe subsided. Yet despite the obvious Catholic victory, the important elements of the Christian fracturing survived. Vilnius, with its topographical inscriptions of various Christian faiths, remains the best monumental testimony of the historical religious diversity of Lithuania. 

From the fifteenth century onwards, there was a large and growing Jewish community based in the Grand Duchy. Almost all of Lithuanian Jewry was Ashkenazi and came from Western Europe (mostly from Germany via Poland) under the personal protection of the Lithuanian rulers. A smaller but, at least initially, politically and economically more important group consisted of the Karaites who were brought to Lithuania by the grand dukes in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries from their Crimean homeland on the Black Sea. The Karaites are thought to be descendants of the Khazars, a seminomadic people who accepted Judaism in the ninth century. The Ashkenazi Jews practised the rabbinical form of Judaism, wrote Hebrew and in most cases spoke vernacular Yiddish; the Karaites followed the Babylonian version of the same religion, used the Arabic alphabet for Hebrew Scriptures and spoke a Turkic language.3 While there was no violent animosity between the two Jewish peoples, they held a slightly suspicious attitude towards each other. The Karaites also had their “compatriots” – some parts of Lithuania, particularly around its capital city, were settled by Tartars from the Crimea. The Tartars, however, who also spoke a Turkic language, were Muslims. Still, the Tartars and Karaites, clustered in the compact territory surrounding Vilnius and holding similar privileges from the grand dukes, retained a certain degree of communal familiarity and even personal intimacy, often sharing the same kosher/halal butcher, ritual sites and burial grounds. 

The capital of the Grand Duchy – Vilnius – although situated at the northern edge of this vast country, encapsulated most of the geographical and cultural diversity of the region. Herberstein described the city as a large town surrounded by a wall with “many temples and houses built of stone” with the Russian (Orthodox) churches being “much more numerous than those which have been built for the observance of the Roman ritual.” 4 The first known map of Vilnius, published in Cologne in 1581 by G. van Bruynen in his Orbium praecipuarum totius mundi (Atlas of World Cities), pictures the city as a sprawling agglomeration of one – to-two storied, mostly wooden, buildings. There are very few churches or palaces visible on this pictorial map. The etchings from the early 1600s of the panoramic views of the city create a completely different impression: the town is full of magnificent church spires and well-built houses. Perhaps this perceptual discrepancy resulted from two geographically, and hence, ideologically, different points of view. The atlas was created for a large European audience. Its creators probably never visited Vilnius, so the image of the city was based on narratives and descriptions collected from various foreign travellers and cartographers, whose knowledge was at best limited. The panoramic engravings, on the other hand, were commissioned by the illustrious Radvila (Radziwiłł) family and were certainly meant to celebrate and promote Vilnius as their splendid residential seat.5 Hence, in both cases, narrative exaggeration – deliberate or unintentional – was a significant part of the artistic process. 

Most likely, seventeenth century Vilnius looked more like a fusion of the two lithographs: the city’s center was surrounded by a defensive wall – the current Old Town area – and contained a growing number of brick palaces, churches, monasteries, civic buildings and merchant houses of various styles from Gothic to Renaissance; outside this protective perimeter was a sea of wooden structures of various quality, from a few elegant manorial homes to countless hovels. These extensive suburbs were equal in size to the city, giving the impression of a predominance of the countryside over urban affairs. Historical records show that in 1645 Vilnius, excluding its suburbs, had about 300 brick buildings and 200 wooden houses, indicating that, at least inside the city walls, western European construction practices prevailed.6 

While there are no solid statistical records concerning the number of residents in Vilnius before the eighteenth century, it is possible to give a rough estimate because the number of buildings and other urban demographical variations are known. The population number changed depending on a variety of factors, from a more or less regularized flow of natural and social seasons to the unpredictable influence of wars, epidemics and other calamities. In general, family size in Lithuania was large, but even if one were to include servants and serfs in noble households, members of various monastic orders, students and soldiers, the population of Vilnius probably reached just over the fifty thousand mark. By European standards this was a medium-sized town. Although it is difficult to give a reliable linguistic breakdown of the city’s population, the ethnic composition of the ruling urban elite (that is, the city’s elected municipal officials) of the late part of the seventeenth century (1662-1702) reveals a certain pattern of ethnic fragmentation, with Poles comprising roughly fifty per cent, Ruthenians thirty percent, Germans eight per cent, Italians four per cent plus some minorities of Lithuanian or Hungarian origin. Of course, the general population was even more diverse, since Jews, Tartars, lower class Lithuanians, and foreigners could not participate in the municipal government. Members of religious orders or noble households were also excluded from the ranks of urban citizens. 

Even after the Jesuit-led Counter-Reformation victory, the urban elite remained religiously divided: Catholics dominated urban politics, but only marginally, since they comprised about 60 percent of the elected officials; second were Uniates – about 30 percent; then Protestant and Orthodox, each comprising about 3 percent of the elite. (One should point out that after 1666, Protestants and Orthodox believers were banned from holding municipal office, significantly altering the demographic picture of the city’s elite.)7 In the immediate environs of the city, the diverse communities of Christians, Jews, Karaites and Muslims lived in close proximity to each other; and because of trade, political and religious networks, this interdenominational cityscape also became the meeting ground for a whole array of languages: Lithuanian, Slavic (Polish, Ruthenian, Russian, Old [Church] Slavonic), Latin, German, Yiddish, Hebrew and Turkic. The city’s linguistic, cultural and religious diversity did not go unnoticed by visiting foreigners, who were quick to find its biblical equivalent in the infamous city of Babylon. Such spatial allusion was a double-edged allegory, since it implied both a great fascination with and harsh condemnation of the local reality. In the eyes of many foreigners and some locals, especially those less tolerant Catholics, the city’s multiculturalism was perceived as a curse rather than a blessing. 

Under the agreement of the Lublin Union, the heterogeneous Lithuanian nobility, whose rights were previously circumvented by its feudal duties to the grand duke, acquired the same political and social privileges as its Polish counterpart. The Polish nobility was more ethnically homogeneous, and its members possessed many more political rights than their Lithuanian brethren. In contrast, the Lithuanian nobility were diverse. Among its members were families of the (formally pagan) Lithuanian knights, the Greek Orthodox Ruthenian boyars, some Russian patricians and a handful of Tartar khans. According to the constitution of the Commonwealth, the two branches of nobility established a fraternal relationship based on equality and mutual support. This union of two different nations – in reality, two historically and genealogically different types of nobility – existed with varying degrees of political success until the final dissolution of the Commonwealth in 1795. 

The steady collective and individual assimilation of the Polish-Lithuanian nobility coincided with the evolution of Sarmatism. The myth of Sarmatia annexed Lithuania by accommodating the country’s cultural, linguistic and religious diversities. Following the Union of Lublin, the Sarmatian identity 

was gradually altered to embrace the non-Polish nobility in the Commonwealth. Any nobleman of the Commonwealth, who defended the political liberties and privileges of his class, was considered a Sarmatian. Out of this myth, or point of view, arose a doctrine which, by the end of the sixteenth century, was an apologia for the political and social status quo “[...] Sarmatism became, in essence, the ‘historical’ documentation for the existence of the nobility and its political authority.8

Nominally speaking, there was no aristocracy in Poland and the law of the Commonwealth explicitly prohibited the royal granting of aristocratic titles: all nobles were meant to be equal. Despite this successful Sarmatian fusion of various local noble identities, some members of the Lithuanian nobility, especially its upper crust – a few dozen exceptionally wealthy and influential families – were determined to keep a separate (Lithuanian) identity, as a marker of their privileged distinction. Instead of tracing their ancestral roots to the nomadic wanderings of the Sarmatians, these Lithuanian nobles searched for a more settled and civilized historical terrain for their ancestry. In the sixteenth century, it became popular among certain Lithuanian families to trace their genealogical roots and social privileges from several mythological Roman figures, which had presumably migrated from their Mediterranean homeland to the north and settled on the banks of the Nemunas (Niemen or Memel) and Neris (Wilja or Vilia) rivers.9 Following the traditions of ascribing the origins of place names to legendary events and/or persons, the Lithuanian aristocracy charted their Roman genealogy by Latinizing their surnames and local toponymy. The story of a howling iron wolf, which became the main topos of the founding myth of the Lithuanian capital, was appropriated as the most definite marker of the city’s Roman inheritance. Soon, Vilnius was discovered to be situated on the seven hills that corresponded with the topographical features of Rome. The city also acquired its own Tusculanum estate, a northern relic of a magnificent ancient Roman villa mentioned in classical Latin literature and widely known as Cicero’s Villa. 

This Roman myth of Vilnius was advanced by the idea of linguistic affinity between the Latin/Italian and Lithuanian languages and the similarities between ancient Roman and pagan Lithuanian religions. Lituania, the Latin name for Lithuania, was traced from l’Italia and the name of Vilnius was derived from the name of a Roman warrior, Villus or Villa, who presumably led his clan from the Apennine Peninsula to the southeastern littoral of the Baltic Sea.10 This legend was probably initiated or first recorded by the influential fifteenth century Polish chronicler, Jan Długosz (1415-1480), who nonetheless interpreted it in a historically negative light. Długosz’s views made a lasting impact on the Polish views of Lithuania; and in subsequent centuries, Lithuanian chroniclers attempted to rectify the detrimental side of the Roman myth. One of the Lithuanian historical writers was Mykolas Lietuvis (Michalo Lituanus), who in his Latin language tractate, De moribus Tartarorum, Lituanorum et Moschorum [The customs of Tartary, Lithuania and Muscovy], first published in 1615 in the Swiss city of Basel, advocated a return of the Lithuanian nobility to their Roman origins. Mykolas Lietuvis, employed (again) by the Radvilas, described the Latin genesis of Lithuanian nobility as a genealogical counter-narrative to the increased cultural Polonization and linguistic Slavonization of Lithuania. Hence, he argued for the “restoration” of Latin language usage among the ruling elite of Lithuania as a reassertion of political autonomy.11 

The Roman ancestry of the Lithuanian elite was recalled for very specific geo-cultural motivations. Since initially most of the Lithuanian nobility had no strong religious or historical affiliations with Western Europe, it was often dismissed by its Polish brethren as being less culturally refined, loyal or militarily disciplined. In addition, during the Lithuanian pagan conversion to Christianity, many Lithuanian noble families were nominally adopted – that is, given a coat of arms – by several Polish noble clans. By tracing their ancestry to mythological Latin figures or by attributing Roman origins to their possessions, the Lithuanian nobles were able to emancipate themselves from this domestic genealogical hierarchy. Latin origins of the Lithuanian nobility were tied to a single Roman family clan, thus creating a mythical genealogy that established a sense of historical unity and national purity among the diverse local nobility. More importantly, by allying themselves with a concrete historical and geographical site – Rome – rather than to the abstract and elusive land of Sarmatia, the Lithuanian upper nobility appeared to embody the best military and cultural traditions of Europe. In a sense, by evoking Rome, the Lithuanian magnates Europeanized their social identity, and as much as Sarmatism was an expression of an early form of (Polish) nationalism, Romanism was one of the first expressions of a (territorial) Lithuanian patriotism. 

The calculated rediscovery of forgotten Roman ancestors was perpetuated mostly in Latin language literature, such as poetry and socio-historical treatises, and anticipated the aesthetic arrival of Roman Baroque to Vilnius. During the seventeenth century, Baroque came to Lithuania in three cultural forms.12 The influential Calvinist and Reformist families followed the artistic trends of Protestant countries – the Netherlands, England, Sweden and Prussia. The Protestant Baroque emphasized artistic sobriety and moral superiority. It displayed financial wealth and social power in an exhibitionistic manner: a Protestant Lithuanian magnate’s palace had a large library and a cabinet of curiosities (Kunstkammer), containing quantities of books, maps, globes, Western European pictures, Chinese silk prints, Persian miniatures, and an occasional Russian icon. The Protestant families also supported large-scale publishing activities. (The first Polish language Bible, for instance, was printed in the Lithuanian town of Brest, in 1563; it later became a vernacular standard for the Polish Catholic Bible.) 

This northern European Baroque was soon augmented with more spectacular forms. Polish-Lithuanian king Jan Sobieski (ruled from 1674-1696), the liberator of Vienna from the Ottomans, started to orient his court towards French aristocratic culture. French influences were gradually increased by intermarriage between the absolutist royal families of France and the elected monarchical families of Poland-Lithuania: Louis XV’s wife was Maria Leszczynska, daughter of the deposed Polish king, Stanislaw Leszczynski (1704-1710), who later settled in Lorraine. And Louis XV’s son, Louis-Ferdinand married Marie-Joseph de Saxe, daughter of the Polish king, Augustus III (1733-1764). With the ascendancy of the Paris-influenced royal court in Warsaw, French Baroque and Rococo trends also became more prominent among the Lithuanian elite, who often followed the fashions and manners dictated by the capital of the Commonwealth. 

Most Lithuanian nobles tended to oppose the monarchical culture and, instead of following the aesthetic trends of Versailles or Dresden, the Catholic magnates chose Rome as the center of their aesthetic milieu. At the time of the ideological victory of the Counter-Reformation – by the middle of the seventeenth century, the Protestant and Greek Orthodox nobles lost most of their political privileges and social power – Italian Baroque, or at least its local interpretations, became an aesthetic dogma in Lithuania. As a result, Vilnius became one of the most striking examples of the reverberating geographical spread of Baroque, especially its Roman Catholic version. The localized Roman mythology added a certain genealogical twist to the understanding and experience of Baroque. The Lithuanian magnates keenly endorsed Baroque aesthetics as commemorative proof of their heraldic relationship with Rome. 

Initially, the Baroque style was spread through Lithuania by the Jesuit Order, which in 1569 was invited by the Polish-Lithuanian monarch to establish an outpost in Vilnius in order to counterbalance the rapid devaluation of the Catholic and papal influence in the region. Throughout the sixteenth century, Protestantism, especially its more radical streams, grouped together under the banner of Arians (Antitrinitarians, Unitarianism, Anabaptists, Theists, etc.), flourished in Lithuania.13 At the time, there was a phenomenal religious fluidity in Lithuania, as urban residents and noble families constantly changed their denominational allegiance, with the serf-peasants – the majority of the population – more or less following the theological lead of their masters. Local Catholic and Greek Orthodox churches were definitely under threat, but religious tolerance, proclaimed by the Sejm (Parliament) and backed by the elected rulers of the Commonwealth, persisted for most of the sixteenth century. Vilnius became, if not a theological, then certainly a political and social center of the extremely diverse Lithuanian Protestant community that was protected and supported by the most powerful noble families of the region. This religious tolerance extended to the linguistic and cultural pluralism of the city: in 1553, Sigismund Augustus, the grand duke of Lithuania and king of Poland, ordered all municipal decrees to be publicly proclaimed in three languages – Polish, Ruthenian and Lithuanian. The growing Jewish community of Vilnius also benefited from the general religious liberalism of the era. In 1552, the Jews received various trade privileges from the grand duke and in 1573 a (new) Great Synagogue of Vilna was built. 

The Jesuits were not content with this religious laxity and theological fluidity. Their arrival into the capital of Lithuania signalled a gradual but conclusive change in the religious life of the city. The Jesuit Order saw itself as a missionary organization with political objectives. Its messianic goal was the salvation of non-Christians, dissidents and apostates; its geopolitical objective to expand and strengthen Catholic control over the peripheries of the civilized world. Hence, the Jesuits were most active in the frontier regions, such as religiously contested territories, European overseas colonies and distant foreign domains. 

In Lithuania, the Jesuits confronted three main spiritual oppositions: Protestantism, Greek Orthodoxy and paganism, which persisted among the rural Lithuanian population. In general, the adherence of the local (Lithuanian) population to Catholicism was weak. When, in 1579, the pope sent a delegation to Samogitia, a region in western Lithuania, to investigate local religious matters, it was discovered that a large section of the Samogitians had never seen a Catholic priest, never attended church and could neither recall what constitutes the Holy Trinity, nor remember the name of the Lord. Instead, according to the report of a papal nuncio, the local populace still worshiped snakes and various pagan deities.14 The sexual practices, family life and social discipline of the population were also deemed to be incompatible with the Christian faith. Faced with the theological ignorance and sexual laxity of the Lithuanians, the Jesuits immediately established a three-tier campaign. Firstly, a complete eradication of local heathen practices, secondly, a weakening of the social and political power of the Protestants, and thirdly, the attachment of Greek Orthodox Church followers to the sphere of interests of the Roman papacy. 

The largely medieval cityscape of Vilnius was turned into an ideological battlefield where architectural and theatrical spectacles were used as effective and sometimes violent weapons for Catholic proselytizing. The Jesuits opened their Collegium in 1570, and soon reformed it into an Academy, creating the foundation of the University of Vilnius. In 1581, Jesuits organized the first public Protestant book burning in the churchyard of the Academy. In 1591, a mob, inspired by sermons delivered by students of the Jesuit Academy, set ablaze the church, school and hospital run by the Evangelical-Reformists (Lithuanian Calvinists). The burning was followed by the desecration of the Protestant cemetery. Dead bodies were dug out and profanely displayed – the corpses of fathers were placed in copulating positions together with the bodies of their daughters.15 The next year, the residents of the city smashed up the Great Synagogue. In 1610, the Jesuits initiated the destruction of the printing house of the Holy Spirit Brotherhood, a monastic order of the Orthodox Church; all its publications were burned. The following year, Catholic pilgrims led by the Jesuits set the Protestant synod, library and residences of ministers on fire. From then on, as the Jesuits gained the support of the ruling Vasa dynasty and the main Lithuanian magnate families, religious violence in the city escalated. The Jesuits finally triumphed in 1640 when, during a Catholic riot, the Calvinist church and college were torn down, never again to reopen in Vilnius. A new Calvinist church and two Protestant cemeteries were set up outside the city walls. 

One of the most transformative outcomes of Jesuit influence was the formation of a new theological canon that directly addressed the divided religious loyalties of the Lithuanian nobility. The Uniate Church, established at the religious Union of Brest in 1604, explicitly fused Greek Orthodox liturgy with the Catholic dogma. It was officially known as “Greek-Catholic Confession of the Slavonic Rite” with Vilnius being one of its key spiritual and administrative centers.16 Byzantium and Old Slavonic liturgy were the geographical and textual reference points for the Uniates, but their contemporary doctrinal orientation depended on the edicts and bulls issued by Catholic popes in Rome. Baroque became the accepted architectural expression of the Uniate Church, in part, because the expressive artistic fusion of different “national” styles and theatrical rituals perfectly captured the amalgamated theological nature of this newly established religious community. Furthermore, through the Uniate Church, and hence through Vilnius, Mohylew, Kiev and other ecclesiastical hubs of the Uniates, Baroque sensibilities seeped into the aesthetic traditions of the Russian Orthodox Church of Muscovy. 

The Russian Baroque of the late seventeenth century resulted from the antagonistic political relationship between the Commonwealth and the state of Moscow. Polish-Lithuanian armies plundered Moscow in 1610 and again in 1618: they brought back many Orthodox Church relics and icons. Conversely, four decades later, Muscovite forces occupied and ransacked Vilnius. And while it is not clear how the Russian military and civilian occupation of Vilnius influenced the cultural mindset of the Orthodox church, it is well-established that Baroque came to Russia through the “scene of constant wars and international diplomatic maneuvering, and of massive, virulent conflict between Orthodoxy and Catholicism, these frontiers were also, far more than anywhere else, the very corridors through which the new influences of the Western world flooded into Russia.”17 Vilnius, being the epicenter of this religious and political conflict, served as the key Baroque gateway into Russia.18 

In general, Baroque cities expanded horizontally by creating new urban expanses and vistas. Spectacular Baroque space was meant to last, to impress and rewrite the relationship between the celestial and earthly powers: 

In the history of European cities, the year 1600 is something of an artificial cut-off point: the city being a perpetual ‘palimpsest’, the general history of urbanism always runs up against the challenge of the particular and the long duration […] Moreover, two of the most specific components of the sixteenth century: the invention of the regular, ordered square surrounding the statue of the sovereign – of which Michaelangelo’s Piazza del Campidoglio is the prototype – and the multiplication of establishments of new regular orders of the Counter-Reformation which came to disrupt the urban landscapes of Catholic Europe.19 

Vilnius Baroque was different. Never a planned phenomenon, it functioned as a reconstructive or cosmetic gesture to camouflage the decay of the city. The old, medieval Vilnius became Baroque because it was devastated by fires: 

...on July 1st 1610 the castle, the Cathedral, seventeen Catholic and three Evangelical churches, the university and almost 5,000 houses were destroyed by fire. True, in the end this proved to be an advantage for the city: excellent monuments of early Baroque, such as the Churches of St. Casimir and St. Theresa, were built, the Church of St. Michael was completed, and a chapel in the Cathedral holding the remains of the Lithuanian patron saint St. Casimir was set up after the fire. The Vilnius silhouette turned Baroque with vibrant domes and towers.20 

This urban glory did not last long. A truce was signed with Russia in 1667, but war and destruction never truly left Lithuania. In 1702, a Swedish army looted Vilnius; in 1705, a Russian army led by Peter I occupied the town – it was soon followed by a Saxon force. In 1710, plague killed about thirty-five thousand inhabitants of the town (certainly more than half of the population) and in 1720, a violent rebellion of the lower classes swept through the city. Devastating fires occurred regularly: in 1715, 1737 (three-quarters of the city was affected by the fire), 1741, 1748, and 1749.21 Economically and politically, the city could never fully recover from this march of social and natural disasters. While most cities in northern Europe grew up in the first part of the eighteenth century, Vilnius was rapidly shrinking in terms of its population, economic wealth, and regional influence. 

Despite these cataclysmic events, or perhaps because of them, Baroque survived in Vilnius longer than possibly anywhere else in Europe. In most parts of Europe, especially its metropolitan intellectual capitals – Paris, London, Vienna and Saint Petersburg – Baroque went out of fashion with the rapid spread of Enlightenment rationality:

The year 1750 … corresponds to a more dividing line ... If the urbanism of the Enlightenment continued to play with the alignments of streets, regular public squares and the poetics of the façade, the rethinking of the classical antiquity’s urbanism, the new role played by public opinion, and the differentiation of public buildings all clearly mark the advent of a new phase.”22 

In provincial Vilnius, aesthetic traditionalism only gained strength and by the 1770s, the “architects in Lithuania developed their own original forms, that can also be regarded as an extraordinary extension of the baroque or rococo traditions.”23 This was a period when the so-called Vilnius Baroque matured, and more splendid churches than ever were commissioned and built in the city by rich Lithuanian magnates who drew their wealth from vast rural estates. As a result of this architectural proliferation, at the end of the eighteenth century, in a city of no more than forty thousand inhabitants, there were thirty-two Catholic churches with fifteen monasteries, five Uniate churches with three monasteries, and one (Russian) Orthodox, one Lutheran and one Calvinist church.24 

Vilnius Baroque, so to speak, reversed the clock of European urban evolution, and rather than moving the townscape towards the Neo-Classical sense of spatial order, it seems to reorder the city back to its medieval origins. Hence, there are no straight axes, symmetrical squares or framed street vistas– characteristic of Baroque cities – in Vilnius. In other cities, Baroque space expands horizontally, in Vilnius it shoots vertically, like smoke from a sacrificial fire that tries to appease rather than compete with the heavens. Of course, the local persistence of Baroque was also an illusion, because Vilnius, along with the rest of Poland-Lithuania, was not immune from the intellectual, aesthetic and political changes of the time. The splendid autumn of Vilnius’s Baroque was a short-lived elegant gesture of the city’s delayed aesthetic development, a gracious farewell to its phantom golden age. 

The longevity of local Baroque did not amuse those visitors to Vilnius whose ideas about the world and art were already framed by modern methods of scientific observation and the enlightenment values of a secular judgment. When the term “Baroque” was first introduced in the middle of the eighteenth century in France, it carried extremely negative, if not derogatory, meanings. The Dictionare de l’Académie française (1740) defined Baroque as something “irregular, bizarre, [and] uneven” which implied a lack of separation between real and imagined spheres.25 The rationalized thought of the Enlightenment era, in contrast, “made it possible to separate what in the Baroque had been perceived as united: art, society, morality, mores, in brief, the baroque assumption of the conjunction of reality and appearance. The enlightened mind penetrated appearances to reveal the fiction of baroque society, and so drew distinctions between art and luxury, taste and fashion, morality and aesthetics, subject and object. [As a] society built on the concept of art gave way to one constructed on concepts derived from natural sciences,” Baroque aesthetic desires of transforming reality into phantasmagoria were devalued as frivolous alchemical experimentations.26 

Proponents of the Enlightenment associated the architectural escalation of Vilnius Baroque with the conservative and provincial ideals of phantom Sarmatism. In this light, the belated Baroque of Vilnius could only appear as a symptom of a historical regression, an architectural manifestation of the social and political failure of the Sarmatian order. 

Sarmatia’s belated death at the turn of the nineteenth century paralleled the swift erasure of Rococo ideals and sensualities from the aesthetic maps of Europe. The country simply expired as a style or manner. Because of its association with the anarchical, declining Polish-Lithuanian state, Sarmatia denoted detrimental values. Indeed, Sarmatia became a self-explanatory caricature that illustrated the anachronistic condition of the region. Voltaire, for one, permanently condemned Poland to the historically absurd stage of a nonsensical “Gothico - Slavonico - Romano - Sarmatian government.”27 The solution to this comical condition was found in a simple geographical coup d’état – anomalous Sarmatia had to be dismembered or detached from other logical European entities. In other words, Sarmatia ought to leave the enlightened province of Europe and return to its mythological obscurity. In some ways, the triple partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth between Russia, Prussia and Austria (1772, 1793 and 1795) was not only justified as a geopolitical necessity, but also as an ethical, even philosophical step: the partitions were seen as the final erasure of the embarrassing Sarmatian legacy from the Enlightened map of Europe. 

Still, Sarmatia was not an easy province to forget. In Vilnius, the oratorical Baroque gestures of Sarmatism were rather successfully assimilated into the new geopolitical and ideological realities of post-Enlightenment Europe. In 1805, ten years after the partition of Poland-Lithuania, Paulus Tarenghi, a Catholic priest and professor of Latin literature at the Imperiali Vilnensis Lycaeo (University of Vilnius), glorified the Russian imperial patronage of the city and its university by invoking the ghost of Casimir Sarbievii, the most celebrated local and Roman Baroque poet and literary theoretician, who, in the first part of the sixteenth century, had received the title of poet laureate from the pope. 

In his short poem, Tarenghi commemorates the nationally subdued and politically expired Sarmatian spirit as a welcoming geopolitical change. However, the poet-orator does not renounce Sarmatism – on the contrary, he praises its most glorious son, poet Sarbievii. As a result of this ghostly evocation, Tarenghi establishes a positive link between the phantom, shadowy, unreal and immaterial existence of Sarmatia and the solid and effective Russian imperial rule of Lithuania. Alexander, the emperor of Russia, does not salvage the physical integrity of Sarmatia; instead, he upholds the intellectual honour of Vilnius. The old Sarmatia is dead, but from its cultural relics emerges a newly enlightened spirit of the imperial order.28 

It is not known how the emperor responded to this rather flimsy poetic geo-cultural inversion. One of the closest personal and political confidants of the young tsar, Polish aristocrat Adam Jerzy Czartoryski, who also served as the imperial curator of the newly reorganized University of Vilnius/Wilno, clearly disliked the poetic resurrection of the Sarmatian ideology. In a letter to the rector of the University, Bishop Hieronim Stroynowski, he expressed his displeasure about the Latin lyrics of the Italian poet: “Fr Tarenghi’s sonnet, composed for the Emperor, I have forwarded to His Excellency the Minister of Education. In this connection, however, I am prompted to think that our professors who possess varying aptitudes for creative literature might well turn their pens to an activity other than writing odes and sonnets, especially since in these latest writings Fr Tarenghi displays little in the way of talent and good taste.”29 So in the end, as Sarmatia became an archaic concept in the post-enlightened milieu, even its metaphorical, ghostly presence within the imperial courts of Europe was considered to be a sign of outmoded provincial taste. 

1. Herberstein, 1963, 82
2. Jovaiša, 2002, 64-92.
3. For more on the ethno-religious diversity of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, see Potašenko, 2002.
4. Herberstein, 1963, 87.
5. For the history of the cartography and iconography of Vilnius, see Drėma, 1991, 28-80.
6. More specifically, there were 233 brick and 163 wooden houses owned by citizens, 53 owned by nobles and 49 (brick and wooden) Jewish houses. Miškinis and Jurkštas, 1985, 9.
7. Ragauskas, 2002, 448.
8. Dembkowski, 1982, 210-211.
9. Vasiliauskas, 2001, 13-31.
10. Ročka, 1988, 74-76.
11. Kuolys, 1992.
12. For more on the beginnings of the Baroque style in Lithuania, see Vaišvilaitė, 1995.
13. Lukšaitė, 1999.
14.Jovaiša and Tumelis, 1998.
15. While local Protestants often openly and publicly insulted Catholic sacraments and iconography, no Catholic church or its interior was damaged during the Reformation movement in Vilnius.
16. D Davies, 1982, 174.
17. Titunik, 1985, 40.
18. S Svirida, 1999, 7-10.
19. M Mignot, 1999, 315-317.
20. Venclova, 2001, 33.
21. Kłos, 1937, 25.
22. M Mignot, 1999, 317.
23. Kaufmann, 1995, 421.
24. Jurginis, Merkys and Tautavičius, 1968, 190.
25. Villari, 1995, 2.
26. S Saisselin, 1992, 6.
27. Quoted in Wolff, 263.
28. Tarenghi, 2001, 441-443.
29. Czartoryski, 1999, 105-107.


Czartoryski, Adam Jerzy. Letters to Vilna, trans. and ed. Richard Sokoloski. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1999. 

Davies, Norman. God’s Playground: A Hostory of Poland, vol. 1. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982. 

–––––. Heart of Europe: The Past in Poland’s Present. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. 

Dembkowski, Harry E. The Union of Lublin: Polish Federalism in the Golden Age. Boulder: East European Monographs, 1982. 

Drėma, Vladas. Dingęs Vilnius. Vilnius: Vaga, 1991. 

Herberstein, Sigismund von. Notes upon Russia. London: Hakluyt Society, 1963 (reprint of 1851 ed.) 

Jovaiša, Liudas. “The Age of Church Reform”. Christianity in Lithuania, ed. Darius Baronas et al. Vilnius: Aidai, 2002. 

_____ and Tumelis J., eds. Visitatio dioceses Samogitiae (A. D. 1579)/ Žemaičių vyskupijos vizitacija. Vilnius: Mokslas, 1998. 

Jurkštas, Jonas. Vilniaus vietovardžiai. Vilnius: Mokslas, 1985. 

Jurginis, J. Merkys, V. and Tautavičius A. Vilniaus miesto istorija: nuo seniausių laikų iki Spalio revoliucijos. Vilnius: Mintis, 1968. 

Kaufmann, Thomas Da Costa. Court, Cloister and City: The Art and Culture of Central Europe, 1450-1800. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995. 

Kłos, Juljusz. Wilno: przewodnik krajoznawczy. Wilno: Wydawnictwo Wileńskiego Oddzialu Polskiego Towarzystwa Turystyczno-Krajoznawczego, 1937. 

Kuolys, Darius. Asmuo, tauta, valstybė Lietuvos Didžiosios Kunigaikštystės istorinėje literatūroje: renesansas ir barokas. Vilnius: Mokslo ir enciklopedijų leidykla, 1992. 

Lukšaitė, Ingė. Reformacija Lietuvos Didžiojoje Kunigaištystėje ir Mažojoje Lietuvoje: XVI a. trečias dešimtmetis –XVII a. pirmas dešimtmetis. Vilnius: Baltos lankos, 1999. 

Mignot, Claude. “Urban Transformations” The Triumph of Baroque: Architecture in Europe, 1600-1750, ed. Henry A. Millon. New York: Rizzoli, 1999. 

Miškinis, Algimants and Jurkštas, Vytautas. Vilniaus architektūra. Vilnius: Mintis, 1985. 50 

Potašenko, Grigorijus. The Peoples of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Vilnius: Aidai, 2002. 

Ragauskas, Aivas. Vilniaus miesto valdantysis elitas: XVII a. antrojoje pusėje. Vilnius: Diemedžio leidykla, 2002. 

Ročka, Marcelinas. Mykolas Lietuvis. Vilnius: Mokslas, 1988. 

Saisselin, Remy G. The Enlightenment against Baroque: Economics and Aesthetics of the Eighteenth Century. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992. 

Ségur, Louis-Phillipe comte de. Mémoires, souvenirs, et anecdotes, par le comte de Ségur, vol.1, as quoted in Wolff, Larry, Inventing Eastern Europe: the map of civilization on the mind of the Enlightenment. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994. 

Svirida, I. I. Mezhdu Peterburgom, Varshavoi i Vilno: khudozhnik v kulturnom prostranstve XVIII-seredina XIX vv. Moskva: O.G.I, 1999. 

Tarenghi, Paul. “Libri Odarum.” Gratulatio Vilnae, ed. Eugenija Ulčinaitė. Vilnius: Lietuvių literatūros ir tautosakos institutas, 2001. 

Titunik, I. R. “Baroque,” Handbook of Russian Literature, Victor Terras, ed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985. 

Vaišvilaitė, Irena. Baroko pradžia Lietuvoje. Vilnius: Valstybinė Dailės Akademija, 1995. 

Vasiliauskas, Artūras. “Antika ir Sarmatizmas.” Lietuvos Didžiosios Kunigaikštystės: tyrinėjimai ir vaizdai, ed. Ališauskas et al. Vilnius: Aidai, 2001. 

Venclova, Tomas. Vilnius: City Guide. Vilnius: R. Paknio leidykla, 2001. 

Villari, Rosario. “Introduction.” Baroque Personae, ed. Rosario Villari.Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.