Nov. 19, 2020 | Anna Topolska
The Warsaw City walls as part of the urbanscape captured the imagination of artists in the late 1930s. The walls became a favored theme for painters and photographers portraying the capital. Assimilated by the expanding architecture of the city in the 19th century, the historic stone fortifications of the Old Town disappeared from the collective conscience. They became invisible despite surviving inside the walls of the tenements on Podwale and Nowomiejska Streets.
Constructed gradually from the late 1200s spanning the reigns of successive Dukes of Masovia, and later King Sigismund I the Old and his son King Sigismund II Augustus, the walls originated as a single ring encircling the city that was joined by a second ring beginning in the mid-1400s. The fortifications stretched from the Royal Castle across today’s Zamkowy Square, or the square in front of the Castle; along the streets: Podwale, Mostowa, and Brzozowa; to return through Kanonia Street back to the Castle. The river-facing portion was the last to be raised, starting in 1379. By the mid-1400s the protection the city walls offered seemed insufficient, and so the construction of a second line of defense appeared between the Castle and Marszałkowska Tower, on the edge of the Vistula escarpment. The Barbican fronting the Nowomiejska Gate became the final piece of the fortification to be erected in 1548. By the time of the Polish-Swedish wars in the mid-1600s, military expertise and the character of warfare had advanced rapidly enough to render as obsolete the monumental semi-circular fortified defenses with four towers, as well as the entire Old Warsaw fortification. From then on, the city walls began to progressively deteriorate.
In the 1700s, accelerating urban expansion generated a shortage of available land causing the city to absorb the zwinger – the space between the two walls of the defensive circuit, and subsequently the moat surrounding the outer walls. To widen the thoroughfares, the city lost a few gates: the Nowomiejska and Poboczna Gates were demolished under Prussian rule (1796–1806), while Napoleonic Poland, or the Duchy of Warsaw (1806–1814), saw the loss of the Krakowska Gate.
In the 1800s, the severely impoverished and marginalized downtown district fell into oblivion. The Society for the Preservation of the Monuments of the Past, founded in 1906, appealed for the restoration of the district and its heritage status on the historical map of Warsaw. However, Poland had to first restore its independence, to allow for a systemic approach to restoring its heritage.
During Mayor Stefan Starzyński’s term between 1934 and 1939, city authorities initialized extensive works aimed at restoring Warsaw’s heritage to its former glory. Quite spectacularly, the city fortifications were unearthed, and later restored.
Between 1937 and 1938, Jan Zachwatowicz led the works in the former zwinger, from Nowomiejska to Wąski Dunaj Street. Preserving the original walls, the restoring team removed the newer layers and excavated the moat to expose the bridge by the Nowomiejska Gate. Quickly, the area became a popular destination for locals to visit, while prominent photographers like Henryk Poddębski and Zofia Chomętowska featured it in their works.
The Second World War took a heavy toll on the downtown district. The 1939-1944 war, massive bombings, and fierce fighting during the Warsaw Uprising resulted in the destruction of 90% of the area. The controversial decision of 1949 to comprehensively restore the downtown district back to its 1600s form also included various degrees of restoration of the double fortification circuit: from Zamkowy Square to Brzozowa Street, and partially on the river side. The intermittent works between 1950 and 1963 resulted in the reconstruction of a portion of the city walls with new bricks clearly differentiated from the original, a reconstruction of the Prochowa and Rycerska Towers, and part of the Barbican with a through-way to Freta Street. The final stage had an unexpected outcome in 1977. The archeological site in Zamkowy Square exposed a gothic bridge by the former Krakowska Gate. It opened to the public in 1983.
The restoration, as well as the general reconstruction of the city, captured the keen interest of photographers, who documented the works meticulously. So seamlessly did the restored city walls blend into the panorama, it was as if they had always been there. They are an indispensable element in the artist’s lens: a constantly recurring Warsaw theme.
Edward Hartwig photographed this part of the cityscape quite frequently, revealing not only how beautiful and natural, but also how powerfully expressive it is at different times of the year or shaped by varying light. Time and again, his perspective rendered the fortifications monumental, the application of his hallmark contrasting of black and white evoking great respect. Hartwig’s winterscapes spotlight the impregnability of the defensive walls, and display their indisputable charm at the same time. When shot in full springtime sun, they become an invitation to take a walk and admire the gorgeous scenery. The Mostowa Street area seems particularly appealing. Here the artist took to the crown of the walls to feature the magnificent panorama of the New Town across the moat. Still, it is the Mermaid of Warsaw that is most impressively “dominating” the Warsaw escarpment, seemingly floating above the walls of the former Marszałkowska Tower. This “wandering” symbol of the city, designed by Konstanty Hegel, has changed its location several times since 1855. Placed atop the defensive wall in 1972, it survived there until 1994 despite a number of devastations. After preservation work, it eventually returned to the Old Town Square in 1999. These days, the Square is home to a copy, while the original sculpture resides in the Museum of Warsaw. Looking through Hartwig’s eye, the prominent artist and master photographer, we see the silhouette of the Mermaid emerging from the dark with her sword raised. She appears relentlessly protective of the old, historical district of our city: making us realize this is where she belongs.
In his photo albums devoted to Warsaw, Hartwig places an entire gallery of shots of this urban landscape theme: the defensive walls and their surroundings. He highlights their picturesqueness, shows their vastness, emphasizes their size, and studies their texture, observing both the old town tenement houses emerging from behind the cover of old fortifications and the people there. This is the solarized image of a fragment of the walls, the Barbican, and tenement houses of Nowomiejska Street that the author included in his outstanding album Fotografika from 1958, a work that is considered a breakthrough for photography as a field of art.
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