Kings and Tourists
The Palace and Castle Complex of the Radziwills in Nesvizh welcomes guests in its restored splendor
The Palace and Castle Complex of the Radziwills in Nesvizh
welcomes guests in its restored splendor
Nesvizh is the town the Radziwills designed, built and polished for several centuries to make it a decent European-style residence, a showcase of the talents and the spirit of their countrymen.
Nesvizh is the town the Radziwills simply loved; they remained loyal to it even after their death. Nowhere else in Europe will you find a family burial vault larger than the one in the crypt of the Corpus Christi Cathedral in Nesvizh, which
Sometimes historical justice triumphs, like it did in case with the old Belarusian town of nesvizh. today on every road leading to it you will see signs indicating that you are heading for the residence of the radziwills. indeed, nesvizh is primarily known for its affiliation with the distinguished family of the radziwills whose members were among the most prominent political figures of the era, which made the family hugely influential in the Grand duchy of lithuania and Rzeczpospolita (aka Polish-lithuanian Commonwealth).
is the burial place for almost every Radziwill family member.
Magical Pull of History
Nesvizh is very special for the Belarusian tourism and hospitality industry, and not just because of its association with the Radziwills; not even because of the medieval architecture that has miraculously survived the ups and downs of history (some artifacts are still on display at the local history and culture museum). The affiliation with the Radziwills and the surviving medieval architecture have secured the Palace and Castle Complex in Nesvizh a place on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
But there is so much more to this town. Designed and built with surgical precision, its streets a paragon of rectangular meticulousness, this town is steeped in legends and mystery. Without all these things (as any decent guide will tell you) any excursion
is no more than a dull and boring lecture.
But let us start with the name of the town, which has two legends and one more or less scientific toponymic explanation. The legends are downright suspicious. According to them, the name Nesvizh comes from the word nesvezhy meaning something like “no longer fresh,” or “long past its best-before date.” You know, there was a killed bear which corpse was to be retrieved but was allegedly forgotten, which made the bear no longer fresh in terms of its culinary value. The toponymic theory does not sound any more sensible, either. It claims the name of the town comes from the name of the location, the thickets along the swampy banks of the Usha River. What kind of swamp are they talking about, for God’s sake if all you have got is ponds framed by forests?
Things are not much clearer with the date of founding of Nesvizh, either. Until recently, the founding date was considered the date of the well-known battle between the Russians and the Tatar Horde on the Kalka River. It was that year (1223) that was proudly put on display on a road sign as you moved into the town; there was another road sign indicating the exact place where a messenger reportedly imparted the sad news of the death of Prince Yuri of Nesvizh in the battle. There indeed was a prince by that name, but as historians came to learn later on, that prince had nothing to do with Nesvizh. The road signs were removed.
The first written evidence of the town suggests it was founded in the 15th century. As for the Radziwill connection, it emerged in 1513 when Anna Kishka gave Nesvizh to her husband, Jan Radziwill, as dowry. Two generations later, the little family estate was given the right of primogeniture, with the estate passing on to the eldest son who had no right either to divide it or sell.
The thing with the Radziwills is not completely clear, either. For some reason, nearly every tourist is dying to know the ethnicity of the owners of Nesvizh. If asked today, the Radziwills themselves would simply say they are the Radziwills. Family chronicles are full of legends: the Radziwills considered themselves descendants of the mythical tribe of the Sarmatians and, at the same time, offsprings of some ancient pagan priest. As for the family name, it reportedly derives from an ancestor who advised the Grand
Duke of Gediminas to found Vilnia after a prophetical dream.
However, it is hardly appropriate to mention ethnicities when the family name itself was a synonym of power, wealth, and gravitas. It was for a reason that the Radziwills were called the uncrowned kings. There were top military people, top political figures, church hierarchs among them. And one of the members of the family, Barbara Radziwill, was lucky enough to become a Polish Queen once. Not for long, though. That beautiful Lithuanian lady was allegedly poisoned by the mother of her regal husband and died in agony five months into her coronation.
And although she never lived in Nesvizh Castle, nor did she ever come to visit her cousins here, it was in Nesvizh where the Black Lady legend was born. As the legend goes, five centuries already a shade of the young queen in her mourning dress has been walking silently along the dark enfilades of the palace, shedding tears for her lost love…
Legends are not reliable information, of course. But I hope you will agree, a castle without secrets, ghost stories, treasure hidden somewhere in the stone basement is like spring without flowers. Even if the castle is a little more than a museum now.
Going back to the talk about historical justice, its logical continuation should be a monument to Nicholas Christopher Radziwill, aka Sirotka or “the Orphan.” Certainly there were other people of prominence connected with Nesvizh. Semyon Budny, a wellknown figure of the Belarusian Reformation, taught and printed his books here. Lew Sapiega, the author of the Statute of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, used to go to the local Jesuit school. The famous Belarusian poet Yakub Kolas was a student at the Nesvizh Teachers Seminary.
Still, the merits of Nicholas Christopher Radziwill “the Orphan” are exceptional. Historians and researchers are unanimous about his outstanding contribution to the wellbeing of Nesvizh. It was under him, the eldest son of Nicholas Christopher Radziwill “the Black,” who studied at the best European universities, who traveled to many countries as far as Egypt and Palestine, that Nesvizh became a modern town with stone buildings replacing obsolete wooden constructions.
Nicholas Christopher Radziwill the Orphan invited a talented Italian architect from the Order of the Jesuits, Giovanni Bernardoni, to Nesvizh to spruce up the architecture a bit. The Italian worked hand in hand with the local masters. Within a short time monasteries with temples rose in Nesvizh, the town hall in the central square, stone buildings lined in precise symmetry. The first cross cupola cathedral in Eastern Europe, Corpus Christi Cathedral, was built in Nesvizh at the time. The palace and the castle were also rebuilt and refitted in accordance with the latest European traditions of the epoch.
If you want to see how Nesvizh looked like in the late 16th – early 17th centuries, take a look at the map created by the famous etcher Tomas Makowski, which was “copied” onto the wall of an old house. Tourists easily read this map (the street layout has not changed much), recognizing some of the buildings and even the 400-yearold Bernardines monastery, the town hall and the market square, the Slutsk Gates, the Cathedral, the castle framed by the ponds and divided by the long bridge.
Certainly, much has been lost, and not everything has survived to this day in its original form. Most of the changes made to the town took place in the 18th century and are associated with the rule of Duke Michal Kazimierz Radziwill (1702-1762). It was under his rule that two floors were added to the main building of the palace, as well as two galleries were added to it, and the palace itself got the traits of the Baroque style. Duke Michal Kazimierz Radziwill initiated the rebuilding of the interior and the addition of the unique paintings inside the Corpus Christi Cathedral. That work was managed by the father and son Gesskiys. People used to say about the refurbished cathedral, “Go all over the world, and nowhere will you see such beauty!”
It was under Duke Michal Kazimierz Radziwill that the first professional theater was established (the plays were written and staged by his first wife). In various parts of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, and he owned about one-fifth of the country, there opened manufactures which products decorated Nesvizh Castle, Mir Castle and other residences of the magnates. Many of the things used by the magnates back then (like glasses, places, girdles, tapestries) have later on become precious articles and unfortunately are now in collections outside Belarus.
Many of the changes to the palace complex were initiated by Marie de Castellane, the wife of the 14th magnate of Nesvizh, Antoni Wilhelm Radziwill. That beautiful French lady turned the palace from a decrepit old structure with holes in the roof and scrapped walls into decent living quarters. Together with her husband they built five parks (strangely enough, there had been no greenery around the palace before at all). After her husband had died, Marie worked hard to return to Nesvizh the documents, rarities
and valuables that used to belong to the Radziwills at one time or another.
But who could think at the beginning of the 20th century that it would take more than a century to make this dream come true? Who could imagine that the castle would be expropriated in 1939, that it would house a Wehrmacht hospital during WWII and after the war a sanatorium?...
In 1953 the palace ensemble was declared an architectural monument. And it was not until after 50 years had passed that the architectural and cultural complex of the Radziwills was included on the UNESCO World Heritage List, and restorers, builders and other specialists began reviving the palace and the castle, bringing them to their original state.
However, the words “original state” can hardly be applied to the restored palace and park complex. It was for a reason, after all, that the daughter of one of the last magnates of Nesvizh, Miss Elzbieta Radziwill, said that the restored family nest did not look very much like what she remembered it 30 years before that, back in the 19th century…
The restored palace looked very much like it was during the time of Duke Michal Kazimierz Radziwill, the middle of the 18th century, baroque, gilded facades, wealth, etc. Historians may argue about the accuracy of the restoration and reconstruction, but as a whole, one should admit that specialists and builders have managed to accomplish the main thing, which is to create an atmosphere of splendor and grandeur for visitors. From the very first step you take into the palace inner yard, you have a distinct feeling that it was the residence of kings, if only uncrowned kings.
To make this feeling last is what tour guides are there for.
To make it last is not easy by any means, believe me. Three groups of specialists were brainstorming ideas for the inner design of the museum, – says the director of the Nesvizh History and Culture Museum, Sergei Klimov. – Initially, it was planned that the entire exposition would be dedicated to the history of the family. But the attempt to make this idea a reality did not come off at first, I think. The
exposition was too static, too heavy and quite dull.
The third group, which featured Olga Bazhenova, among other specialists (and she is considered one of the finest experts on the Radziwills), came up with a different concept. The main theme of the central exposition was the history of the country with which the history of the family was intertwined closely. Why is that so? Because it is virtually impossible to fill the museum with original artifacts, Radziwill collections, etc. “These things are scattered all over the world. Some say they saw a picture gallery in Brazil featuring paintings from Nesvizh Castle, although this is hard to verify…”
Also, an idea is to assign the palace and castle complex the role it used to play under the Radziwills. Of course, the emphasis will remain on guided tours here, but the castle itself will combine the functions of a museum and a multicultural complex. The National Academic Bolshoi Opera and Ballet Theater is already organizing evening shows here, and the house is packed. There is a high-class hotel here, a restaurant, a cafe. The Getman Hall in the main building can be easily transformed into a conference hall.
A home theater for 110 people has been arranged in the palace. They plan to open it by putting on the play “The Kidnapping of Europe” penned by the talented wife of Duke Michal Kazimierz Radziwill, which will be performed by the company of the Yanka Kupala Academic Drama Theater.
Following the agreement with Metropolitan Tadeusz Kondrusiewicz, the family chapel will be consecrated again, and divine services are planned to be held there on holidays. “In the near future we plan to open a special exposition with unique religious exhibits saved by priest Kolosowski in his time. Now lawyers are discussing the details of the arrangement, after which we will borrow 63 articles connected with the castle, Nesvizh and its cathedral for a longterm deposit,” Sergei Klimov says.
“Until the end of the year we plan to open 27 halls for visitors,” he continues. Tourists will enter the palace using the original stair-
case decorated with coats of arms and painting work. On the second floor they will see the genealogy of the Radziwills with the ties that connected the family with the royal dynasties of various states, copies of documents, including the documents entitling their owners to be granted the titles of the dukes of the Holy Roman Empire.
After that tourists will ascend to the third floor and proceed to the Golden Hall, one of the most beautiful and richly-decorated rooms in the palace, with the main theme being knighthood, chivalry and services to the motherland. In addition to the portraits of the Radziwills in their knight armor (over 40 paintings from Belarusian museums will be lent to the castle for display), the museum administration is now negotiating the purchase of a hetman mace.
“Also we would like very much to see a replica of the armor of Nicholas Christopher Radziwill here, which is currently in Vienna,” says Sergei Klimov.
There are several rooms with collections near the Golden Hall. The Radziwills used to collect a lot of things in an attempt to show how highly educated they were. Tourists will have a chance to see the collections of coins and minerals and Slutsk belts (a hefty sum of money was allocated for the purchase of these belts).
In the Hetman Hall there are portraits of all hetmans of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and Rzeczpospolita. It is in this hall that a UNESCO international conference will be held in December 2011.
Opposite to the Hetman Hall there lies the Hunter’s Hall with game trophies which used to be well-known far beyond the borders of Lithuania… Over time, the administration plans to open new tours in addition to those available, namely a tour of the secret rampart passages and underground passages. There are ideas to open a cinema theater under the main building where there are huge vaults.
“I think that a museum is an ever growing stream of information,” says Sergei Klimov. “The most important thing for me now is to reassign to the castle and the palace their original functions, and to bring the entire complex into the context of the historical landscape. The town hall with the museum, the Slutsk Gates, the Craftsman’s House, the parks and the palace and castle complex should be used in joint museum projects.
“We have increased the staff of the museum due to the inauguration of the second phase of the palace. We employ young specialists with interesting ideas. We are creating our own marketing service to promote our own tourist product. The castle should be able to earn money not only though admission tickets and tours. For the record, last year 178,000 tourists visited Nesvizh; this year we expect around 260,000.
“In ideal, the entire museum together with the palace should become Nesvizh’s main moneymaking project, creating new jobs. For this, there is a need to create better infrastructure to be able to accommodate guests, including affordable hotels, campings, cafes,” the director says.
The director has been looking at the former estate of Zaushye near Nesvizh, where there is an old mill, other buildings and a 19th-century park, with an idea to create an openair museum and a hotel compound. “We have already got lots of people interested in fortnight tours, entertainment programs, etc. But there are some necessary arrangements that need to be made for this. Also, I would like to design an event calendar for Nesvizh to make sure travel agencies know, for example, that in February we are having szlachta balls, in June opera evenings so that they could include those events into their tours,” Sergei Klimov says.
Do you plan to involve any Radziwill heirs into your projects? – I asked Sergei Klimov. “People often ask me this question. You know, my first trip in the capacity of the head of Nesvizh Museum was to Warsaw where I met Maciej and Nicholas Radziwill. We drafted something like a protocol of intentions, and Maciej has already prepared a part of his collection for sending to the castle for a long-term lease.
Of course, nobody of the Radziwills will ever come back to live in the castle. But, I think you will agree, there ought to be a special place set aside for them in Nesvizh. We intend to assign a special room in the president-class hotel for them with three rooms and honor them with a symbolic key to the castle which used to be home for the Radziwills…”
The three halls of the stone building with the original frescos now house a restaurant
During a guided tour of the complex, tourists may take a look at the original Radziwilltime fireplaces
Guided tours of the complex begin at the original stairs built during the time of the first magnate of Nesvizh, Nicholas
Christopher Radziwill the Orphan
The Radziwills’ family nest was designed as a strong fortress
The director of the Nesvizh National History and Culture Museum, Sergei Klimov
The main palace facade decorated with the coats of arms of the Radziwills and the Vishenevetskis is a wonderful specimen of the late Baroque
The dancing hall of the palace as it looked in the 18th century