A Crash Course of the Old Town
Vilnius’ Old Town, the historical core of the capital of Lithuania, was formed in the 5th-6th centuries on the confluence of Vilnia and Neris rivers. Today we take a closer look at the unique architecture that defines the Old Town.
Vilnius’ growth and wealth took off in the early Middle Ages, becoming the pride of Lithuania. In the 12th century, the city was surrounded by a citadel on Gediminas Hill and an impressive city wall.
Vilnius evolved into a center of trade and commerce, and during the Renaissance was considerably larger than most other European cities. In 1471, a fire swept through the rapidly growing city, burning down many sacred buildings. The Medieval street plan of the city and the triangular market square next to the Town Hall have fortunately survived to the present day.
Rapid changes contributed to the mixture of architectural styles in Vilnius. The city has always adapted to the latest European trends, and each architectural style influenced the other.
Vilnius’ historic buildings are in Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and Classicism styles and have a distinct appearance, spatial composition, and elements of internal and external finishes. They create a townscape of great diversity and yet at the same time coexist in overarching harmony.
Gothic Architecture in Vilnius
The Gothic style formed in France and spread across other European countries. It flourished in Vilnius from the second half of the 14th century until the end of the 16th century. Monuments in this style include St. Anne’s Church, The Church of St. Nicolas, Church of St. Johns, Sanctuary of the Divine Mercy, Kazys Varnelis House- Museum, Bernardine church and other buildings.
The most significant buildings of Vilnius are Churches of St. Anne and the Bernardine ensemble. The Church of St. Anne is one of the most impressive buildings, not only in Vilnius but also throughout Lithuania. None of the Gothic buildings resembles its gravity and the richness of the details of the ornament. Meanwhile, the Bernardine Church and monastery are among the largest ensembles of gothic sacral buildings in Lithuania.
In the first quarter of the 16th century, Renaissance architecture began to appear, which flourished until the middle of the 17th century. The Renaissance reached Lithuania directly from Italia, when the Grand Duke of Lithuania and King of Poland, Žygimantas, and his wife Queen Bona Sforza, invited Italian artists to the court. These artists were responsible for the most important buildings of this era.
In early Renaissance buildings, architects combined gothic structures with Renaissance décor. As a result, many buildings have both lavish baroque and delicate gothic elements. During this period, education became more important and prominent, with the establishment of several universities and printing houses of note, including Vilnius University (1579), Vilnius Aluminate (1582), and Vilnius Jesuit Novice (1602).
Baroque Architecture in Vilnius
Baroque reached Vilnius at the turn of the 16th-17th century, giving rise to the status of Vilnius as the capital of “Eastern European Baroque.” Baroque-style churches and houses in Vilnius reached a previously unseen variety and glamor in Lithuania. The rich architecture served as a dramatic backdrop to liturgical rituals. In the wake of Counterreformation, the wealth of Catholic churches were a stark contradiction to Protestant prayer house restraint.
Early Baroque churches were designed and built according to the Church of the Gesù. Jesuits carried out constructions in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania that were controlled by the Ordinance Center in Poland. Church projects had to be approved in Rome. The most vivid example of Baroque in Vilnius is Sts Peter’s and Paul’s Church, which is unique for its interior decoration, statues, and ornamentation.
Other distinctive examples of the baroque are the façades of the graceful towers at the Church of St Catherine, Church of the Ascension of the Lord, and Church of St Raphael the Archan. There is also the Church of St. Casimir, distinguishable by a little wieldy lower part and a dome with a crown, and the Church of St Johns with its bell tower, harmoniously integrated into the architectural ensemble of Vilnius University.
Classicism Architecture in Vilnius
The Classicism school spread to Vilnius in the middle of the 17th to the 19th century. Architect Laurynas Gucevičius, who studied in Rome and Paris, designed the most important buildings of Vilnius Classicism – Vilnius Cathedral, Vilnius Town Hall, and some of the Verkiai Palace ensemble buildings.
Overall, Vilnius’ Old Town feels inviting and charming. As one of the largest old towns in Europe, the Town has many distinct churches and a harmonious landscape that plays nicely with nature, urbanism and architecture.
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