Vilnius Through the Eyes of Newcomers

Opinions of Vilnius in Western and Central Europe in the 17th and 18th century

Impressions from Vilnius: architectural beauty and gang wars

Königsberg citizen and learned man Ludwig Reinhold von Werner, who went to Vilnius in 1750, left his impressions in his memoirs. This traveller, who was 25 years old at the time, visited the sessions of the Supreme Tribunal, the Vilnius Cathedral, which he thought was beautiful. He liked the St. Casimir Chapel most of all. According to him, Jagiellon Castle was in disrepair. He mentioned the prison tower of nobles, where prisoners had the right to receive guests while still being in the prison grounds. He wrote that there were bookstores that sold religious and legal literature in the city. He was able to purchase some valuable books inexpensively. Later he saw a lottery organised by thieves that took place in a large wooden house. He also tried Hungarian wine at a winery, and it appeared to be of high quality.

Another traveller who wrote about the GDL capital was future king Stanisław August Poniatowski. In his memoirs when talking about the events of 1755, he mentioned that despite the drop in trade, lack of police and frequent fires, the city had the traces of the grand dukes and kings that came from the Jagiellon dynasty. Poniatowski said that the St. Casimir Chapel was a wonderful work of art. He noted that there was already a bridge over the Neris in Vilnius. The image of the Lithuanian Supreme Tribunal left a bad impression on him: the fight of various groups was too open. He brought attention to the fact that society did not like the Radziwiłł for their harsh methods of rule. People called the gang of young people that were the inner circle of Vilnius Voivode Michał Kazimierz Radziwiłł Rybeńko and other members of his family as haidomaks (a name given to Cossacks that were noted for their plundering and brutality within the territory of Ukraine). These young people walked around armed and terrified the inhabitants of Vilnius.

At night one could hear the shooting of pistols as groups of bandits fought.

However, as Poniatowski noted, at the time the members of these groups were not afraid of going out to have lunch, dinner, dance, talk and visit opponents in their homes where sometimes they were able to come to agreements peacefully on issues. Poniatowski saw the behaviour of Karol Stanisław Radziwiłł (later nicknamed Panie Kochanku, i.e. “My Dear Sir”) the marshal of the Supreme Tribunal who had just turned 18 years old, and who was the future Vilnius voivode. According to Poniatowski, Radziwiłł barely knew how to write. Karol Stanisław Radziwiłł and his supporters behaved horribly with the nobles. The future king left Vilnius despondent.

The companion of James Cook deemed Lithuanians alike to the savages of exotic lands

German scientist, botanist, geologist and geographer Georg Forster taught at the Principle School of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania in Vilnius in the second half of the 18th century. He wrote a number of letters from the GDL capital. This eccentric person carried out research on the geography of the Russian Empire in 1765. Between 1772 and 1775 he went on an expedition around the world together with James Cook, which he wrote about. Georg Forster arrived to Vilnius during a time of decline and reforms. He was open and critical in his letters. He was enamoured by the city: “on the slope of the valley, where it seems the entirety of the large city stretches out with its beautiful remaining towers, – Vilnius truly seems to be majestic and wonderful.” However, there were many things he did not like here. He called people there churls, half-civilized and half-savage, and compared them to the Tahitians he had gotten to know on his trip in the Pacific (“It would be better if they were entirely savage, as their friends in the other hemisphere!”). He said that he did not want to live without German servants and cooks. “Those here are good for nothing.” However, his friendship with Bishop Ignacy Jakub Massalski was admissible. He did have good words to say about some of the local professors, stating that though most were ex-Jesuits, they were devoted to their science.

It was not only men that wrote about their journeys to Vilnius, but also women. In 1786 Ludwika Byszewska, the wife of an official of King Stanisław August Poniatowski, came to Vilnius on business concerning her holdings and left fascinating memoirs. In Vilnius, she met important people (such as Georg Forster, who showed her his mineral collection, as well as Bishop Massalski). She visited prominent architectural sites: Vilnius Cathedral, St. John’s Church, St. Francis of Assissi’s Church, St. Peter and Paul’s Church as well as other churches, and was fascinated by them. She liked the good coffee in the district of town between Tyszkiewicz Palace, going along Trakai Street and Basanavičius Street toward Tauras Hill. The coffee cost nine gold ducats (which would have cost 27 gold ducats in Warsaw). However, the city’s bread prices seemed high to her. She wrote negatively of the chamber of the Supreme Tribunal, saying that the general order there was worse than in a tavern.

Thus, the foreigners that lived in Vilnius and travellers to the Commonwealth saw the beauty of the GDL capital and its problems. Despite hardships and the passage of time, the beauty of Vilnius’ architecture continues to amaze newcomers.

Domininkas Burba