Early modern period
Starting in the second half of the 16th century, Krakow gradually lost its political importance: Sigismund II Augustus left Wawel in 1559 and never returned there; the unification of the Crown of the Polish Kingdom with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania resulting from the Union of Lublin (1569) sealed the city’s marginalisation.
Although it was in Krakow that the idea of union with Lithuania was born, the new state organism and the challenges it faced also required a new capital: for practical reasons, it was much easier to organise sejms (assemblies) in Warsaw with its central location; the same applied to military campaigns to the north, which had its significance in the era of the Livonian Wars. However, moving Sigismund III Vasa’s court to Warsaw didn’t bring Krakow immediate and complete decline and deterioration: the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries was a time of development for the city as a capital on the periphery.
The period of Sigismund III’s reign was also, unfortunately, a moment of breaking with the Jagiellonian principle of religious tolerance: following the ultra-Catholic king’s approval, Protestant churches in Krakow were destroyed. The Evangelical church at St John’s Street in Krakow, known as the ‘hay barn because of its soaring roof, was opened in 1572, but as Calvinist chronicler Wojciech Węgierski wrote, it was like a salt in the eyes of the enemies of God’s saving truth and was ransacked and toppled during the riots two years later. Whatever trace of the building remained was completely destroyed in May 1591.
Fires kept ravaging the city. As late as in 1555, the Cloth Hall has to be rebuilt after burning down. Italian masters Giovanni Maria Padovano and Santi Gucci gave it a Renaissance touch, decorating it with columned lodges and an attic accented with gargoyles. In the early 17th century, the passage was cut across the Cloth Hall that’s still in existence today. However, the Baroque was already looming large.
The royal architect Giovanni Battista Trevano, a native of Lugano, was responsible for rebuilding Wawel Castle after the 1595 fire in the spirit of early Roman Baroque. Trevano designed, among other things, the representative Senators’ Staircase (also known as the Royal Staircase). He also directed the reconstruction of the Royal Palace in Łobzów, near Kraków, which thanks to him was given a Baroque shape. Perhaps his best-known project is the Church of Saint Apostles Peter and Paul at the Grodzka Street inspired by the Roman Il Gesù. Trevano designed its façade and dome as well as the church’s interior.
The most important church and state ceremonies continued to take place uninterruptedly in Krakow up to 1637, when the first wife of Ladislaus IV was crowned queen in Warsaw. As written by Professor Jacek Purchla: the role of the ruler and royal court, who abandoned Wawel, was taken over in the 17th century by the hosts of Wawel Cathedral. This resulted in a flourishing of Baroque sacred art, created by Gian Lorenzo Bernini and Francesco Borromini, the outstanding Italian artists of the Carlo Maderna school.
One of the lasting vestiges of the flowering of Italian art and architecture is the University Collegiate Church of St Anne, modelled by the architect Tylman of Gameren on the Basilica of St Andrew della Valle in Rome – its interior was designed by the great Balthasar Fontana. The collegiate church is a quintessential example of Roman Baroque architecture in Krakow; it quickly became an important centre of religious worship and was even referred to as the ‘second Rome’.
The time of relative prosperity lasted until the mid-17th century, when the city was occupied by the Swedish army after a three-week siege during which the suburbs were burnt down and the Kazimierz district was plundered. As historian Jan M. Małecki wrote, the occupation lasted two years and was very severe: the city was levied with an enormous tribute payment, while private houses, churches, treasuries and cathedral were plundered. After the end of the Swedish Deluge, the state of Krakow was miserable: entire districts were left in ruins, the water supply system that had been in operation since the Middle Ages was destroyed, and the city’s population fell significantly, numbering only around 10,000 residents at the beginning of the 18th century, i.e., two-thirds the size of what it had been a century earlier. In addition, from the mid-17th century on, Krakow was ravaged by recurring epidemics.
The symbolic nail in the city’s coffin was the coronation of Stanisław Leszczyński (1705), the first that took place outside Krakow since the 14th century. Reconstruction of Wawel Castle, destroyed during the Northern War, did not begin until 1731. Attempts to recover from the crisis were few. Two sacred buildings in the Kazimierz district are artistic traces of these times: the church of Sts Michelangelo and Stanislaus in Skałka, rebuilt in the Baroque style, and the nearby Church of the Brothers Hospitallers.
As a result of the first partition of Poland in 1772, Krakow became a border town. Its decline was exacerbated by the appearance of a rival urban centre, Podgórze, established by the Austrians on the right bank of the Vistula. There were, however, some unexpected upsides to the crisis: as explained by Professor Purchla: the interrupted development perpetuated the medieval shape of the city, which made Krakow retain its unique Gothic-Renaissance character. This situation continued during the 1768–1771 Russian occupation.
In the second half of the 18th century, Krakow reached the limits of its decline. The city remained within its medieval walls, while Kazimierz, plundered by wars, was haunting with its ruins for a long time. The Austrian invader decided to locate a rival city on the other bank of the river. Various options for this investment were considered – including the plan of the Austrian engineer, Karl de Hoefern, shown in the reproduction. The city in question – Podgórze – was eventually built a little further west compared to the vision presented here. Today, it’s one of Krakow’s districts with the most distinct history and identity.
The Enlightenment reforms of King Stanisław August Poniatowski, who visited Krakow only once during his reign, resonated here less than in other parts of the Kingdom; according to Professor Małecki, the only major change inspired by the new spirit was the reform of Krakow Academy carried out by Hugo Kołłątaj.
After the adoption of the 3rd May Constitution, the Russian army entered the city again, and the last Sejm (assembly) of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, sitting in Grodno (Hrodna), referred in its resolutions to Warsaw as the capital city. Krakow had formally lost its political significance, but unexpectedly, thanks to its border location, it became the cradle of the first independence uprising: it was on the Krakow’s Main Market Square, on 24 March 1794, that General Tadeusz Kościuszko declared the outbreak of an uprising and, as supreme head of the armed forces, took the oath of office for the entire Polish nation.