Vilnius Historic Centre

Vilnius, the political and cultural centre of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania from the 13th to the 18th century, is an outstanding example of a Central European city where the cultures of Eastern and Western Europe meet. Vilnius Historic Centre envolved organically over a period of five centuries and is regarded as one of the largest preserved historic centres in Europe covering an area of 359.5 hectares. With its 112 quarters the old town presents an authentic medieval network of streets, urban structure and impressive historical buildings of Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and Classicism styles. Its current silhouette complements its historically multicultural urban context. For centuries Vilnius has been home for people of Lithuanian, Jewish, Polish, Russian, German, Belarus, Karaime and Tatar communities.

Vilnius Old Townwas inscribed into the UNESCO World Heritage List in December 1994 in co mpliance with the second and fourth criteria of uniqueness established for the properties of the World Heritage List:

- Between 13th and 18th centuries, Vilnius, as the capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, played an important role in the development of architecture and arts in the whole region (Lithuania, the present Belarus, Ukraine and Poland);

- Vilnius is the most easterly city of the Central Europe, subject to a strong influence of both Eastern and Western European cultures. The Old Town offers a typical example of medieval street patterns with valuable monuments of Gothic, Renaissance, Classical and Baroque architecture.

With its surviving essential features of urbanistic development, the Old Town is the most valuable part of the historic, urbanistic and architectural heritage of Vilnius, and the most important historic and cultural entity in the State of Lithuania. In their entirety, its cultural values symbolise both the rich history of the country and the rebirth of its independent statehood.

The Old Town of Vilnius occupies tha area of 359.5 hectares and includes:

- Vilnius Vastles State Cultural Reserve – the historic heart of the Lithuanian capital, the centre of the history and spiritual culture of the State;

- Central part of Vilnius Old Town within the boundaries of the former defensive wall;

- Historic suburbs of Vilnius that formed before the end of the 18th century, in the period of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

From all its sides, Vilnius Old Town is surrounded by the other historical territories of the town or protected natural areas. In 1998, by the Resolution of the Government, Vilnius was awarded the status of a cultural monument.

The city grew up at the confluence of the Neris and Vilnia rivers, in the hilly morainic landscape that formed in the course of two glacial periods and was divided by the Neris river, which deeply entrenched itself into the valley creating and impressive display of terraces. With its rapidly flowing canals, the Vilna provided a defensive facility for the town and served as an energy source for its first industrial enerprises.

Situated amidst picturesque nature, Vilnius since long ago has enchanted travellers, artists and photographers. The Old Town boasts numerous panoramic view spots, such as on the Upper Castle, the hill of Three Crosses and Bekešo hill.

The historic nucleus of the Lithuanian capital – Vilnius Old Town – started developing in the first century A.D. From 5th to 9 the centuries, a large settlement spread on the western slope of the Castle Hill – on the confluence between the Vilna and Neris rivers. Since long ago, this territory (the Vilnius Castles Cultural Reserve) has been the focus of attention of historians, archaeologists, representatives of other sciences, and the society at large as a significant centre of the Baltic culture and the place where the State of Lithuania was born. It was there that the rulers of the newly founded Lithuanian State established their seat, there was the defence, economic and spiritual centre of the country, and it was also there that the shrine of the last heathen State was still standing where the Holly Flame was still burning and pagan ceremonies were held.

Vilnius is one of the most typical examples of cities with a radial street plan found in the region. The initial element of its development – the Castle Hill, with its history dating from prehistoric times – was not only a well-located place for the purposes of defence; it also offered a convenient post for exercising control over trade and war routes. With the construction of a castle on the hill in the early 2nd century, a settlement started growing at the bottom of the hill too and, thanks to its location at the main roads, soon became a centre of trade with craftsmen and merchants settling to live there.

Vilnius Old Town is an example of a medieval town; its urban development reflects the period in history when Vilnius was the capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania – a powerful State which was able to protect against Tartars and unite not only Lithuanian but Belarusian, Ukrainian, and part of Russian and Latvian lands as well.

In 1387 Lithuania finally accepted Christianity, and Vilnius was granted the Magdeburg Rights, which created the legal basis for the establishment of the class of urban dwellers.

The legacy of the Gothic style that thrived in architecture for two hundred years starting the second part of the 14th century is seen in the planned city structure typical to medieval towns and a number of buildings of brick architecture that still adorn the city of today. The town went developing southwards, with the centre of the town moving away from the castle; a second market place was formed (now the Town Hall Square) while the size of the first market square took the dominant position in the city plan, thus emphasising the radial structure of the city even stronger. If you take a stroll along the narrow winding streets of the Old Town of today, you can still feel their medieval spirit and “read” the centuries-long story of the development of the town that unfolds before your eyes.

The rapidly expanding town was devastated by the fire of 1471, which destroyed a great number of ecclesiastic buildings. Nevetherless, the network of the medieval streets and the triangular market square in front of the Town Hall has survived until our days. The central axis of the city – Pilies Street and its extension Didžioji Street – linked the Castle within the Town Hall and ran further towards the Medininkai Gate. From 1503 to 1522, the most densely inhabited part of Vilnius was surrounded by a defensive stonewall, which was built with an intension to protect the city against possible attacks of the Tartars.

The 15th century saw a rapid growth of brick Gothic Buildings, such as the ensembles of the Franciscan and Bernardine monasteries, the Town Hall, the new buildings of the Merchant Guild, and a whole of range Orthodox churches of typically Lithuanian Gothic architecture. If the structures built in the period of the rise of Gothic (early Gothic) – between the late 14th and early 15th centuries – were bulky buildings of typically moderate heavily proportionate forms, then later, during the period of the prosperity of Gothic (mature Gothic), the buildings acquired a more complicated composition, the proportions became more graceful and elaborate, and the constructions turned to be more rational.

The Cultural capital of the region

The 16th century was the period when Vilnius became a prominent centre of culture, science and religion that influenced the cultural and scientific development of the whole region. This was the Golden Age of Vilnius – the era of intensive construction and prosperity of culture. Trade relations were established with both Eastern and Western countries, which provided for the spread of Western traditions both in Belarus and the Ukraine.

The Renaissance architecture came to Vilnius in the first quarter of the 16th century to prosper there as long as till the middle of the 17th century. One of the most typical features of the Vilnius Renaissance is the blend of the general traditions and forms of this style with the elements of the Gothic and Baroque styles.

A characteristic example of this style is the only surviving gate of the defensive wall – the Medininkai Gate – with its attic typical to the Vilnius Renaissance. Some distinctive features of this style can also be seen in the dwelling house at No. 4 Pilies Street.

Despite its significant impact on the cultural development of Vilnius, the Renaissance could be called the “lost epoch”. Just fragments of the most valuable buildings of the Vilnius renaissance (the Grand Duke’s palace in the Lower Castle with its art gallery, library and theatre, the Radvilos palace to the west of the Lower Palace, Jonušas Radvila’s palace on the corner of Vilnius and Liejyklos streets, and a number of other buildings) have managed to survive until our days. Vilnius Lower Palace – the most prominent complex of buildings – was the political, administrative and cultural centre of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania for several centuries. The Palace housed a library collected by Sigismund Augustus and famous all over Europe. There were also collections of pictures, a huge collection of valuables, with which, according to the testimony of contemporaries, not even the treasures of the Pope could compete. In 1636, the first opera in Lithuania was staged in this Palace, there also performed the first musical theatre.

The traces of Baroque in the architecture of the city are far more distinct. This is mostly due to the University founded by the Jesuits in 1579, which promoted and established Baroque in the lands of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and determined a further prosperity of Vilnius as the major cultural centre.

The Lower Palace and the new Cathedral were devastated by the fire of 1610. The reconstructions that followed included rigorous expansion of the estate of the church and erection of new Baroque churches. The construction of early Baroque (1600-1650) style buildings was directly influenced by Rome. A perfect example there is the Church of St. Theresa – the first church in the region of the Baltic Sea built following the architectural decision of the II Gesu church in Rome.

Apart from the Italian impact, the period of mature Baroque also evidenced the appearance of the influence of the Central European architecture. The buildings of the city restored after the early 18th century wars and fires were already in late Baroque (1730-1790) style, the evolution of architectural forms of which was mostly affected by the north-western part of Italy, especially the lands of the Habsburgs – Bohemia, Austria, central and southern Germany. However, individual features characteristic to the style of this region also started emerging there – the so-called Vilnius Baroque School was formed, the influence of which was felt in the architectural forms of the neighbouring countries as well. But what brought the greatest fame to the architecture of Vilnius, were the restored facades, towers and domes of churches boasting fake marble altars expressed in fantastic forms. That was the last flare of the late European Baroque. The panorama of the city was enriched by slim church and bell towers with a variety of wrought metal forms (the churches of Holy Mary the Soother, Missionaries, Bazilians, St. Catherine).

As the most eastern Western European city and subject to strong influences of both Eastern and Western cultures, the capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania developed its own traditions related with the decoration and stonework of buildings, which are still clearly evident in the uncovered polychromes or fragments of old wall plaster. The unique principles expressed in the synthesis of arts typical to the architecture of the time had a huge impact on the development of both the architecture and arts of the whole region (Lithuania, Belarus, the Ukraine and Poland).

The last decades of the 18th century enriched the stylistic palette of the city with Classical architecture buildings (Archcathedral Basilica, Town Hall), the stylistic maturity of which earned in the name of Vilnius Classical School.

In the wake of the Third Partition of the Lithuanian-Polish Commonwealth in 1795, Lithuania was incorporated into Russia, and Vilnius became the centre of a province ruled by the Governor-General. After the closure of Vilnius University in 1832, the influence of Petersburg architecture was gradually becoming more pronounced. The tsarist administration ordered demolition of such buildings – symbols of the Lithuanian statehood – as the Lower Castle, the defensive wall with gates that had almost fully encircled the city (only the Medininkai Gate has survived), a great number of Catholic churches, and monasteries – into army barracks and prisons.

The end of the 19th century saw a revival in the construction avtivity as a railway line, being built in order to connect St. Petersburg with the Western Europe, reached Vilnius in 1860.

The greatest boom in the expansion and construction of the city experienced by Vilnius in the last decades of the 19th and early 20th centuries also affected the Old Town. The long-existing and having its own hierarchy district of residencies, monastery ensembles, dwelling houses, craftsmen’s workshops and educational institutions started undergoing change, though no aggressively high buildings were ever built in the Old Town that could disrupt its spatial structure and dominate over its most expressive landmarks – churches, bell towers or the panoramic views.

 The Old Vilnius, devastated by numerous fires and wars, subjected to continuous rebuilding and renovations, like a Fenix always managed to rise from the ashes. Gothic was replaced by Renaissance, Mannerism, and then prospered a version of the Lithuanian Baroque followed by the time of Classicism, Eclectics and Secession. Vilnius merged the northen reserve of local masters with the refined tastes of Italian masters and the Catholic culture of the Western Europe with the Oriental Orthodox culture. The residences of Lithuanian and Polish nobility, houses of German merchants, colourful little Jewish shops, the walls of monasteries, towers and the silhouettes of Catholic and Orthodox churches – all this wove a unique canvas of the city. Vilnius inhabitants of the same nationality or of the same confession tended to settle in their relevant parts of the city. In the 15th century, there sprawled the so-called “Russian Town” between Pilies Street and the Vilna River where Russian merchants and craftsmen were building their houses next to its numerous Orthodox churches; the region of the present Vokiečių (German) Street was inhabited by the Lutheran community famous for its skilful craftsmen; Jews were settling on the eastern side of this street; and to the southwest from the castle was the region inhabited by Tartars.

In the early 20th century, the city became the centre of the Lithuanian national revival – it was there that on 16 February 1918, the Independent State of Lithuania was proclaimed.

The occupation of Vilnius by Poland in 1920 to 1939 deprived the city of its importance as an administrative centre. Hardly any new buildings were erected during that period. However, it is important to note that many significant architectural monuments were then researched, conserved and restored, while the Old Town of Vilnius was granted protection as a historic monument. Those traditions of legal protection of monuments were continued by the Republic of Lithuania after it regained Vilnius in the autumn of 1939.

A particularly great damage was done to Vilnius in the years of the Second World War and in the post-war period (1944-1948). About 40 per sent of the buildings in the Old Town were destroyed and almost a quarter of them were never restored – squares and plazas were formed in their place. Though the monument protection during the Soviet times was more for show, nevertheless, due to the effort of professional researchers, the work of scientific investigation and restoration was carried on and restoration traditions were being formed.

In 1990 Lithuania restored its statehood and Vilnius again became the capital of an independent State, with its historic heart – the old Town – becoming the hub of the intensive spiritual and cultural life of the city.