Royal Castle of Wawel



By Peter L. Zhou

Enduring a series of fires, the moving of the Polish capital to Warsaw, the three partitions of the Polish-Lithuanian Com­monwealth, the plunders by the Habsburg Empire, and the two World Wars, Wawel is living proof of the Polish identity.

Wawel is equivalent to Polish pride for many residents. In fact, Krakow, where the hill is located, was nominally the birthplace of the Pol­ish identity itself. Poland became a regional pow­er in the 10th century, and Krakow was controlled in 1003; by this time Wawel had been crowned with a small rotunda by the Czechs, possibly the oldest remaining stone structure in Poland. After then, however, Krakow remained not much more than a provincial capital in an unstable Polish state. It was only until Boleslaw Wstydliwy “the Bashful” that the southern regions of Poland, including Krakow, was united, and a “statehood” of Poland eventually was settled in the first de­cades of the 1300s with a triangle of Krakow, Poznan, and Warsaw. Krakow was set as the capital. Under Casimir the Great in the mid-14th century, Krakow started to prosper. A university was founded, and a new town just south of Wawel and Krakow was established, now the district of Kazimierz in modern Krakow. 

Southwest to the Stare Miasto (the Old Town of Krakow), the Wawel have been adorned with a handful of Catholic churches by the 13th century – only one of which has remained as the Wawel Cathedral today – and a ring of public buildings, on the site of the royal residences of Wawel we see today. The residences, or the castle, was in a Gothic fashion with its earlier, Romanesque roots. A fire in either 1499 or 1500 destroyed the Gothic complex; a new schedule for its re­habilitation coincided with the emergence of knowledge, trade, and travel, especially between the Polish kingdom and the Italians. Built in four phases over a span of around 30 years, the new castle under the supervision of King Sigismund the Elder was a collaboration between Polish ma­sons, such as Eberhard Rosemberger, and the Italian architectural masters, such as Francesco of Florence and, more notably, Bartolomeo Berrecci. The result is a beautiful Florentine courtyard sur­rounded with Renaissance arcades and loggias. The construction also paralleled with the consecra­tion of another quintessential Renaissance building on the hill, which is the Sigismund Chapel in Wawel Cathedral, also by Berrecci. 

A re-creation of the Wawel Royal Complex before the partitions and Habsburg interventions. The castle is at the rear-right side while the Wawel Cathedral is to its left. Source: “Reconstruction of Wawel Hill from the seventeenth century.” Medieval Heritage. Accessed Oct. 9th, 2019.

In the late 16th century Wawel would experience yet another series of modifications. After two fires King Sigismund III would restore the north and east wing of the Wawel Castle, but in a more Polish Baroque style. Krakow would soon yield its capital status to Warsaw some 10 years afterwards, in the region of Mazovia, and its importance would soon decline afterwards. It was raided by the Swedish army in the mid-17th century, and after the demise of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in 1795, Wawel was razed by the Prussians and later Austri­ans, its treasury razed and the residences repur­posed as the settlements of the Austrian troops. It was only in 1905 that under Polish requests that a heavily weakened Austrian state agreed to evacuate the army from Wawel.

Subsequently, the castle was carefully restored by architectural and archaeologi­cal methods. Wawel, however, would suffer a new wave of occupation and destruction of integrity by the Third Reich in World War II. Today the residen­tial castle is a museum storing valuable Polish col­lections befitting of its royal ambience. The cathe­dral, on the other hand, is still being actively used today as a church.

Source: Lily’s Channel – Outings & Travels. “WAWEL CASTLE – KRAKÓW. NEW HD video tour.” YouTube. Accessed Dec. 4th, 2019.

Poland and the World: A Fusion of Dialogues

By the sixteenth century, the Polish Commonwealth was the largest state in Europe, covering an area of around 100,000 square kilometers. Unlike the ethnic homogenity today, Renaissance Poland was a melting pot of races, languages, and denominations.

Poland and the World

In the sixteenth century, Poland’s population was around 10 million, comparable to that of Italy. Yet only 40% were ethnic Poles, concentrat­ed in 20% of the land within the boundaries. In urban areas the consti­tution of ethnicity was highly differential: Gdansk hosted huge German populations; Lwow had a fusion of Poles, Germans, Italians, and Arme­nians; while Krakow, the capital, had a sizable Hungarian and Italian minorities. All major towns had a presence of Jews. Six languages were recognized: Polish, Latin, Belarusian, Hebrew, German, and Armenian. 

Source: “Poland and Lithuania in 1526.” Wikimedia Commons. Accessed Oct. 10th, 2019.

Szlachta: The Bond of State

According to historian Adam Zamoyski, while the Commonwealth was a collage of all walks of life, the statehood was relatively distinct, with the Szlachta (the aristocrats) being the bond of its actual existence. The Szlachta were polarized themselves in terms of status and wealth, yet they created a rather homogeneous outlook: They looked to a high culture, thus discovering ancient Roman fashions and linking it to its European aristocratic identity; they also tried to adopt a Sarmatist im­age to dintinguish themselves. The latter contributed to a competition of luxury for demonstration, and ceremonies consuming imports from Moldavia and Hungary to even California in the New World. The former, obviously, would lead to the Polish Renaissance.

Jan Tarnowski
Source: Bacciarelli, Marcello. “Portrait of Jan Amor Tarnowski.” 1781. Wikimedia Commons. Accessed Oct. 11th, 2019. PNG.

Prosperity of the Trade

The cultural aspects of the higher classes in Poland combined with economic trades. The discovery of the new world “flooded Europe with minerals and precious metals”, and Poland was a major beneficiary following growing demands for ships, timber, and agricultural produc­es. The wealthy nobles therefore became the biggest cash-holders in Europe. As a result, Polish aristocrats commenced sending students abroad for studies.

The Cloth Hall, Krakow in Painting
Source: Gryglewski, Aleksander. “Sukiennice krakowskie przed restauracją Tomasza Prylińskieg.” 1869. Wikimedia Commons. Accessed Oct. 10th, 2019.

Polish Noblemen and Italy

Italy was the ultimate choice for Polish international students: The Uni­versity of Padova, for example, had more than 25% of students from Poland, a phenomenon lasting for more than a century. The result was an upper-class tourism and intellectuality: Copernicus and Jan Zamoyski became leaders in science and politics, respectively. Zamoyski would eventually constructed the “Ideal City” in Zamosc in the Lublin district after his years in Padova. It was during this time that Prince Sigismund (later Sigismund I), in 1502, upon his trip back from Italy, brought an architect, Francesco of Florence, with him to Krakow to reconstruct the fire-stricken Wawel.

Palazzo Bo, University of Padua
Source: “Palazzo Bo, Padua.” Accessed Oct. 10th, 2019.

The Patrons

The transition of Wawel Castle from a Gothic structure to a Renais­sance masterpieces would not have advented had it not been for the patrons – the royal family, as well as their positions as patrons of the Renaissance art and architecture.

Sigismund I The Elder (Reign 1506 – 1548)

Sigismund I the Elder is considered the biggest patron of not just the Pol­ish Renaissance but the entire Polish art and architecture until the 18th century. Despite ushering the new era of Polish architecture using Italian masters, Sigismund I never actually visited Italy; instead, it was during his extended stays in Buda, between 1498 and 1505 as a prince under the invitation of Ladislas II, King of Hungary, that he developed a fond appre­ciation for the Quattrocenteo workmanship. Buda, before Krakow, had developed a name as a field of humanist experimentations by the Italians. Astonished by the works in Buda, he returned to Krakow with sketches of Italian palaces, as well as an architect and sculptor, Francisco della Lora, better known as Francesco of Florence, to remodel the castle of Wawel. 

Upon coronation, nevertheless, the new king was not as carefree anymore under the pressure of Moldavia, Russia, the Teutonic, the Tatars, and the Turks; yet he succeeded in creating alliances, maneuvering internal strife, and implementing reformations, while the relative unease did not stopped him from new projects and pursuits of high appreciations.

Sigismund I the Elder
Source: Bacciarelli, Marcello. “Portrait of Sigismund I the Old.” 1768-1771. Wikimedia Commons. Accessed Oct. 10th, 2019. Poland.PNG/.

Bona Sforza (1494 – 1557)

Bona Sforza’s marriage to King Sigismund I the Elder in 1518 was one of the notable moments of the Polish Renaissance. She travelled from Italy “with a retinue of 287 persons, followed by that of her adviser” with 58 more, suggesting something “of an Italian invasion of the Polish court.” This marriage propelled a new period for townsmen and churchmen as they began remodeling private residences and public buildings by the Ital­ian fashion, catering to the royal flavor. Bona had a taste complementing that of the King, interfering in decisions regarding the castle.

Bona Sforza
Source: “Bona Sforza.” Pinimg. Accessed Oct. 24th, 2019.

Sigismund II Augustus (Reign 1548 – 1572)

Bona Sforza’s interest in the humanist education of her son Sigismund Augustus led her to appoint several Italian scholars for his teaching. Un­der the efforts of Sigismund I and Augustus, the Renaissance movement in Poland would reach its zenith.

Sigismund II Augustus
Source: Simmler, Jozef. “Death of Barbara Radziwiłł.” 1860. Wikimedia Commons. Accessed Oct. 11th, 2019. Radziwiłł.jpg.

The Workshop

The royal construction emsemble was more than individual Ital­ian architectural masters. Besides two chief Italian architects, the workshop consists of a series of collaborations between Italians, Polish, and Germans.

Bartolomeo Berrecci

Bartolomeo di Luca Berrecci was an architect and sculptor born in Pan­tassieve near Florence but not much is known before he arrived in Kra­kow. After Francesco’s death, instead of having Berrecci take over the project, Sigismund I appointed Berrecci to design a new chapel of the Wawel Cathedral. The result, the Sigismund Chapel, between 1517 and 1527, was today hailed as “the pearl of the Italian renaissance beyond the Alps” by historians. In 1524, Polish architect Benedict of Sandomi­erz continued the palace in Francesco’s vision, but as soon as Berrecci handed over the interior of the chapel to his collaborators he was com­missioned to take charge. The fire in 1536 marked the end of the third phase of Renaissance Wawel Castle, yet Berrecci was quick enough to restore the losses and commenced more work before he was murdered by a fellow Italian the same year (or the next year).

Francesco Fiorentino

Few details are known about Francisco della Lora, or Francesco Fioren­tino, literally Francesco of Florence, before the Italian accepted the plead of Prince Sigismund in Hungary to relocate to Krakow. Initially signing a contract of only one year in 1501, he stayed in Krakow till his death in 1516. Starting with smaller projects before, Francesco Fiorentino started to remodel to the fashion of Gothic Krakow with a breathtaking Italian style, commencing with Wawel Castle, which was in dire needs of repara­tions. The whole section of the palace facing the city had been finished by the time of Francesco’s passing, and the rehabilitation was paused until several years afrerwards.

Benedict of Sandomierz

Benedict of Sandomierz was a Pol­ish architect appointed in 1524 to aid the then 42-year-old Berrecci regarding the massive construction of Wawel Castle.

Nicola Castiglione

Nicola Castiglione took over the construction of the Wawel Castle after the death of Berrecci. This lasted until the death of Sigismund I the elder in 1548; this marked the end of the development of Renais­sance Wawel.

Renaissance Wawel: The Four Stages

On the Friday before Palm Sunday, 1500, Ottoman envoys awaiting an au­dience “were eyewitnesses” as the Hen’s Foot tower, the “lovelier part of the castle” burned down. Occurring simultaneously with the returning prince of Sigismund, a new crew of Italian master architects, essential re­pairs were carried out almost with no delay, possibly just to have the tower back to functionality, but this would mark the start of Renaissance Wawel.

Source: LetsSketchUp. “Wawel Rekonstrukcja 3D, Krótka historia Wawelu w stylu Gry o Tron.” YouTube. Accessed Dec. 7th, 2019.

Background: Poland from Gothic to Renaissance

Prior to plans of reconstruction, the Wawel Castle was a Gothic-styled complex. Despite the stereotype that Renaissance in Poland came with the ascension of King Sigismund I the Elder, Renaissance and humanism had taken root much earlier. Gregory of Sanok, lecturer at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, and later Archbishop of Lwow, is consid­ered the frontrunner humanist in Poland with his lecture in 1428 determined as first of its kind in Poland. Later on, consequent of the intensive study abroad programs of Poland students, Filippo Callimachus Buonaccorsi, sponsored by Gregory of Sanok, was the first Italian humanist to have spent a considerable period of time in Poland, staying in Krakow for 26 years till 1496. He was implied as a possible tutor for Prince Sigismund, who would become the major patron of Renaissance.

A fire in 1500 (or 1499) would lead to a rebranding of the entire royal residential palace. “Wawel Castle floor plan, Gothic Period.” Fischinger, Andrzej, and Fabiański, Marcin. The Renaissance Wawel: Building the Royal Residence. Cracow: Wawel Royal Castle, 2013.

The First Stage

According to Fischinger, researcher of Wawel, this stage of the Renaissance castle lasted between 1504 and 1508, evident by the account ledgers by procurator Andrzej Koscielecki. This building is identified as thewestern part of the residential complex. It is notewor­thy that the building commenced during King Alexander rule, but ended in Sigismund I’s time. The workshop utilized underlaying Romanesque structures and the Gothic remnants to round up the construction; howev­er, the second floor were designed in the authentic Renaissance fashion.

“King Alexander’s Palace and Gatehouse.” Fischinger, Andrzej, and Fabiański, Marcin. The Renaissance Wawel: Building the Royal Residence. Cracow: Wawel Royal Castle, 2013.
“King Alexander’s Palace, West Elevation.” Fischinger, Andrzej, and Fabiański, Marcin. The Renaissance Wawel: Building the Royal Residence. Cracow: Wawel Royal Castle, 2013.

The Second Stage

The second phase occurred between 1509 and 1517. Fischinger argues that this stage was of “paramount impor­tance”, finally conceiving the idea of transforming the existing Medieval castle into four wings surrounding a courtyard. During the earlier years, the first wing had its interior completed while the second palace was enlarged “to encompass the entire north wing,” extending all the way to the Hen’s Foot tower. Later on, both wings had their arcade galleries constructed, and the royal kitchen was added as well. The northern wall of the Medieval north palace was incorporated while the south was torn down completely. eIt nevertheless suffered fires as well as Habsburg-initiated damages, and was altered and renovated. Francesco Fiorentine, chief architect, died during this time and Berrecci replaced him.

The North Wing and the Courtyard of Wawel
Source: Sweet C. “Touring Krakow – Wawel Castle and Cathedral.” Sweet C’s Design. Accessed Sept. 16th, 2019.

The Third Stage and the Fourth Stage

The third stage lasted for the longest period. Initi­ating in 1519, it focused on the east wing of the residential palace, yet in 1536, a fire partially damaged the just-finished works. The east wing was majorly built from 1519 to 1529; the Hen’s Foot, the Danish Tower, and a defensive Jordanka Tower, all existing Gothic-styled structures, were altered to complete the transformations between the east and north wings. It was after 1530 that Berrecci filled in for his Polish counterpart, Benedict, and his biggest commission was the outdoor galleries, includ­ing one on the south side of the courtyard. Berrecci himself would be murdered in 1537 (or 1536).

The fourth stage, coinciding with the last years of the reign of Sigismund I, generally dealt with the effects and damages caused by the fire. 

Third Palace, East Elevation Source: “Third Palace, East Elevation.” Fischinger, Andrzej, and Fabiański, Marcin. The Renaissance Wawel: Building the Royal Residence. Cracow: Wawel Royal Castle, 2013.

Renaissance Wawel: The Details

Both from the interior and from the exterior, Wawel Castle offers a lot of details. Some indicates the transition of architectural styles from the ear­lier times to the Renaissance and even beyond, while some are even more meticulous, as they imply the transitions of workshops, head architects, and building phases.

Juxtaposition: Vaults, Arches

Ceilings: Beams, Coffered

Opticality: Framing the View

Typologies: Doors and Windows

Door and Window Types of the North Wing’s Facade

Conclusion: The Vitality of Wawel

Wawel is almost without a doubt the best witness of the Polish Renaissance, synonymous with the Polish Golden Age in terms of architectural advances.

Wawel is almost without a doubt the best witness of the Polish Renaissance, synonymous with the Polish Golden Age in terms of architectural advances. It is a complex consisting of multiple build­ing styles: since its establishment it has encompassed the Romanesque, the Gothic, the Renaissance, and the Baroque. The Renaissance Wawel, however, was one of the most pronounced and it coincided with the Gold­en Age of Poland. It is important the recoignize the complexity of Wawel, especially the Wawel Royal Residences; the thesis has scratched the sur­face of how history has served as an underlay of Renaissance Wawel as a result of the multiple building stages, both over the course of the timeline of Wawel and through the Polish Renaissance ages, as seen in its intricate, meticulous architectural details. This thesis emphasizes mostly on the resi­dential complex; The Wawel Cathedral, especially the Sigismund Chapel, is masterfully parallel with the movement of the castle. 

More than one town in Poland, nevertheless, fourished in the Polish Renaissance. Tarnow, Zamosc, Kasimierz Dolny all had their own interpretations of the Renaissance. This is persuasive that Krakow and the Wawel are not a singular movement, but part of the fluid progres­sion of architecture, science, and art. The richness of Wawel, however, still make the locus stand out as the center of intelligence and power during the Polish Renaissance age.


1.- Fischinger, Andrzej, and Fabiański, Marcin. The Renaissance Wawel: Building the Royal Residence. Cracow: Wawel Royal Castle, 2013.
2.- Knox, Brian. The Architecture of Poland. New York: Praeger, 1971.
3.- Lewalski, Kenneth F. “Sigismund I of Poland: Renaissance King and Patron.” Studies in the Renaissance 14 (1967), 49-72.
4.- Majewski, Alfred. The Wawel, Its History and Conservation. Warsaw: Centre for the Preservation of Historic Landscape, 1997.
5.- Ostrowski, Jan K. Wawel: Castle and Cathedral. Cracow: Karpaty, 1996.
6.- Zamoyski, Adam. 2012. Poland: A History. New York: Hippocrene Books.

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