The Golden Age was the time when Krakow entered the arena of European history as one of the leading centres of the central part of the continent. It was in the late Middle Ages and early modern period that Krakow gained everything that defines it to this day: a world-class heritage.
In Polish historiography, it’s customary to use the term ‘Golden Age’ when referring to the period of the reign of the last rulers of the Jagiellonian dynasty: Sigismund the Old and Sigismund Augustus, i.e., the 16th century in which the Renaissance brought Krakow amazingly close to Italy. However, it can be said that the most auspicious, metropolitan period in Krakow’s history began much earlier, namely with its location under Magdeburg (German) law and the demarcation of the Main Market Square in 1257.
A BAD BEGINNING MAKING A GOOD ENDING
It all started with… a catastrophe. In 1241, another Mongol invasion completely devastated the city. Most of the original wooden buildings were put to the torch, and the brutality with which the aggressors treated the inhabitants lives to this day in legends and customs: the trumpet call, i.e., the melody played from the tower of St Mary’s Church, which was allegedly broken off by a Tartar arrow aimed at the trumpeter’s throat, or the Lajkonik , a masquerader in Tartar costume who goes around the city to commemorate the final expulsion of the invaders from the East.
ON THE CHESSBOARD OF HISTORY
In 1257, a new city was founded on the ruins of old Krakow by Duke Bolesław V the Chaste. It was centred around a 200 x 200 m square, from which 11 streets were led out. Thanks to its location under the Magdeburg (German) law, Krakow gained not only the Main Market Square – the largest medieval market square in Europe – but also a regular, perpendicular network of streets, which in the 13th century was as astonishing a novelty as the images of the dynamically expanding New York at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries.
The medieval city soon began to attract settlers from all parts of the continent, who gave it the name Krakow in the form shaped by their own languages: Cracovia, Krakau, Krakkó, Kroke, while the city rooted itself deep in their consciousness. The strongest and most powerful group in the Middle Ages were the German settlers, to whom Krakow owes the name ‘Nuremberg of the East’; however, the history of the city was also strongly marked by the communities of Italians, Scots, and Armenians as well as the active and constantly growing Jewish community.
POWER, CULTURE, AND TRADE
In the Middle Ages, Krakow flourished in two ways: as the southernmost trading post of the Hanseatic League, a powerful German-speaking merchant organisation, and as the main urban centre of the united Polish state from 1320 onwards. The last king of the native Piast dynasty, Casimir I the Great, made a special contribution to the city’s development. The plague epidemic raging in Europe largely bypassed the country, the absence of war favoured settlement, and the city benefited enormously from the exploitation of the huge rock salt deposits in Bochnia and Wieliczka as well as its location at the intersection of two trade routes: from today’s Germany to Ruthenia and from Hungary to the Baltic Sea.
It was Casimir’s initiative to found a town, named after him, which is now Krakow’s Kazimierz district; competitor of the Krakow of the day, Kazimierz stimulated development on both sides of the now-vanished Vistula floodplain. This period is memorialised by, among others, the monumental Gothic Church of Corpus Christi and Church of St Catherine, creatively developing the most important architectural patterns of the time.
Yet another of the king’s everlasting achievements was the foundation of Krakow Academy in 1364, which was renewed by Queen Jadwiga, a successor monarch, which still functions today as Jagiellonian University. It is the second university to be founded beyond the ancient borders of the Roman Empire the first being Charles University in Prague) and the place of study for such scholars as Nicolaus Copernicus and the eminent anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski. The establishment of the university and the delimitation in later years of the university quarter in the western part of the Old Town, with the original Gothic building of the Collegium Maius, forever changed the character of Krakow and central Europe. The university has produced the local elite of lawyers, politicians, academics and cultural figures. The collection of books, including the manuscript of the ground-breaking work On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres by Nicolaus Copernicus, gave rise to the Jagiellonian Library.
GATEWAY OF CULTURES
The work of the last Piasts was continued by the Jagiellonian dynasty, which offered Central Europe a second unification concept after the Hanseatic League. The powerful state united Poland and Lithuania under one sceptre with vast territories in the east and, thanks to favourable dynastic connections, periodically also Bohemia and Hungary. This Commonwealth was particularly concerned with the development of its capital.
It was during this time that the monumental St Mary’s altarpiece was sculpted by the Nuremberg master, Wit Stwosz. St Mary’s Basilica, a parish church that had been under development since the end of the 13th century and was one of the symbols of the glory of Krakow’s bourgeoisie, was thus enriched by a world-class work of art. Virtuously carved in linden wood, the expressive figures in the altarpiece depict both biblical figures and well-known residents of Krakow at the time.
During the long reign of Casimir IV Jagiellon, Krakow’s Jews gained the right to settle the north-eastern part of the town of Kazimierz, transforming it over time into one of the most remarkable Jewish cities in Europe. It was there, centred around the Renaissance Old Synagogue, that religious, social and commercial life flourished; the 16th century Kazimierz was also the place of life and work of Moshe ben Isserles, an extremely respected commentator on religious law, who is also buried in the cemetery at the synagogue named after him. To this day, Jews from all over the world make pilgrimages to this place, leaving pebbles on the rabbi’s tombstone.
‘PEARL OF THE RENAISSANCE NORTH OF THE ALPS’
Cracovia totius Poloniae urbs celeberrima – ‘Krakow, the most famous city of the entire Poland’, says an early 17th century engraving from the end of the Jagiellonian era. The said era was later marked above all by the Renaissance and its ideas which were most fully inculcated on the northern side of the Alps during the reign of Sigismund the Old and his Italian wife Bona Sforza. Memory and nostalgia for the Renaissance era: from such mundane things as the spread of tomatoes and the introduction of citrus, to the stately cloisters of the Royal Castle’s arcaded courtyard or the elegant suburban villa of the king’s secretary, Justus Decjusz, is one of the key motifs for understanding the spirit of Krakow.
Krakow at the time had a population of 30,000 – the same as the seat of the emperors, Prague. Trade and crafts were expanding; numerous workshops and printing studios were established. The 11-tonne Sigismund Bell, used for centuries to celebrate the most important events in Polish history, was then hung on the largest tower of the Wawel Royal Castle. On the initiative of the last Jagiellon, Sigismund Augustus, a collection of tapestries called ‘arrases’ – impressive wall fabrics woven with painstaking mastery by Flemish artists – was installed at Wawel Castle; luckily, it survived the violent turmoil of the 20th century.
ETERNAL CITY OF POLAND
As written by Professor Jacek Purchla, a renowned researcher of Krakow’s history and the founder of the Krakow-based International Cultural Centre: if the Central European complex consists of constantly proving its Europeanness, then Krakow does not need to prove its Europeanness at all: it has always been the Polish chapter of European heritage. When the brilliant Polish artist of the Art Nouveau era, Stanisław Wyspiański, was developing his bold vision of transforming the neglected Wawel Royal Castle into a modern agora and meeting place for the people of Poland at the turn of the 20th century, he called his project simply Akropolis.
The might of the heritage accumulated in Krakow between the 13th and 16th centuries can be seen both as a strength and as a deadweight. It gave successive generations of artists, urban planners, writers and cultural figures, but also governments, a foothold but also a contribution of and counterpoint to their own artistic explorations. When, after the World War II, the communist Polish authorities, obsessed with the vision of building a “new world”, erected near Krakow the supposedly perfect workers’ city of Nowa Huta, the attics of some buildings or the ‘Doge’s Palace’ at the entrance to the steelworks complex were decorated with motifs known from… the Renaissance ornaments of the Cloth Hall in the Krakow’s Main Market Square. The systematic struggle against the bourgeoisie proved weaker than the overwhelming inspiration of its heritage.
The specific combination of conditions eventuated centuries later in Krakow not developing a typical midtown to counterbalance the city centre. The city streets continue to persistently and inevitably draw residents to the Main Market Square: designated in the 13th century and still serving the role of the epicentre of urban life. The living memory of Krakow’s golden age as a European metropolis is unassailable proof of the historical continuity and generational transmission that has continued right into the 21st century.
See further: Modernity