Kraków - Historic City Complex, Kraków
Narodowy Instytut Dziedzictwa pl

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The famous 17th-century engraver Matthäus Merian accompanied his copperplate engraving showing a panorama of Cracow with the caption Cracovia totius Poloniae urbs celeberrima atque amplissima, regia atque Academia insignis [Cracow, the most celebrated and splendid city in Poland, famed for its Royal Academy]. Thus, he ceonveyed the deeply held convictions of both residents and visitors to the city. The historic urban and architectural centre of Cracow, which has evolved over a period of almost 1000 years, constitutes one of the most superb artistic and cultural complexes in Europe (and was among the first sites inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List).

By the 8th century Cracow was already the political centre of the duchy of the Vistulans. The original settlement was located on Wawel Hill, the earliest recorded mention of the name ‘Cracow’ dating from ad 965. The 10th century saw the construction of Wawel’s first pre-Romanesque stone buildings: those associated with the ducal court, and the cathedral founded around the year 1000, clearly influenced by Ottonian art (including the Rotunda of the Virgin Mary). In 1076 the coronation of Boleslaus the Bold took place. Wawel’s frist cathedral was remodelled in Romanesque style prior to 1142 (St Leonard’s crypt survives intact representing this period). At the same time other settlements were burgeoning at the foot of Wawel Hill, and monumental buildings were being raised, such as the Church of St Andrew (late 11th century) with two octagonal towers. Cracow’s development was halted by the Tartar invasion of 1241. In 1257 Duke Bolesław the Bashful granted the town a new charter. The streets were laid out in a regular grid with a large market square at the centre.

In 1320 Cracow became the capital of Poland. A circuit of town walls, the first stretches of which had been built in the late 13th century, was completed in the 14th century. By the end of the 15th century the town had been encircled with a series of modern fortifications (extant components: the Barbican, St Florian’s Gate, and the Joiners’ and Haberdashers’ Towers). Gothic Cracow experienced a period of turbulent development in the 14th and early 15th centuries. It was then that the city’s most important buildings were raised, primarily in and around the market square. Notable medieval buildings in the square include St Adalbert’s Church (11th/12th century), the Town Hall tower, St Mary’s Basilica and the Cloth Hall - the most famous of medieval trade halls, built in 1380-1400 by connecting and remodelling a series of textile traders’ stalls. The brick-built Dominican (after 1222) and Franciscan (2nd quarter of the 13th century) churches were raised nearby. The Cracow school of Gothic architecture is represented by St Mary’s Basilica (the chancel dating from around the mid-14th century, and the nave from 1392-1397) with its remarkable altarpiece by Veit Stoss (1477-1489), acclaimed throughout Europe. In 1364 Casimir the Great founded the Cracow Academy. When the Academy was re-established in 1400 numerous university buildings came into being, foremost among them the Gothic Collegium Maius.

The city flourished during the Renaissance and early Baroque periods, in the 16th and first half of the 17th century, experiencing both architectural and artistic development. The gravestone of Ladislaus the Elbow-High (after 1333) was the first of a series of royal tombs to be housed in Wawel Cathedral; subsequent ones - those of Casimir the Great (after 1370), Ladislaus Jagiełło (c. 1420) and Casimir the Jagiellonian (1492) - represent outstanding achievements in European stonemasonry. Sigismund’s Chapel (B. Berrecci, 1517-1533) is the earliest of a number of domed funerary chapels representing an innovative Polish contribution to the art of the 16th and 17th centuries. The sepulchre of Sigismund the Old inside the chapel is the first in Poland to feature a recumbent effigy of the type inspired by Sansovino and frequently copied. Sigismund Augustus enhanced Wawel’s interior furnishings with an impressive set of Flemish tapestries, mistakenly referred to as arrases. The king, a great art connoisseur and collector, began acquiring them in c. 1553, and in 1571 bequeathed them to the nation. He commissioned them from the most highly skilled weavers in Brussels.

Transferring the royal seat to Warsaw in 1596 (formally in 1611) did not arrest the city’s development. The Baroque style made an early appearance when the Church of SS Peter and Paul (1596) was built. Cracow began to decline after the destruction and pillaging of the Swedish Deluge; however, despite its stagnation, impressive Baroque buildings continued to be raised (e.g. St Anne’s Church).

In 1335 Casimir the Great granted a town charter to Kazimierz, located south of Cracow, thus laying the foundations of the medieval ‘agglomeration’. Its focal point is the hill known as Skałka - a magical place to which kings came in pilgrimage. Each year a pilgrimage to venerate Stanislaus of Szczepanów sets off from this location, because it was here - according to legend - that he was martyred. A Jewish quarter was created in the 15th century at the northern end of Kazimierz, with a separate market square, numerous synagogues and a cemetery. The centre of the Oppidum Iudaeourum was today’s Szeroka Street. A number of historical monuments of Jewish culture survive, including the Old Synagogue - the earliest synagogue in Europe - and the Renaissance Remu’h Cemetery.

Following the Kościuszko Uprising (1794), which was instigated in Cracow, economic revival took place during the time of the formally independent Republic of Cracow (1815-1846). After the city was annexed by Austria, Cracow Fortress was built, along with numerous forts, earthworks and batteries. After having burned down in 1850, the rebuilding and expansion of the fortress marked a period of prosperity. In the final quarter of the 19th century Neo-Gothic architecture began to appear in Cracow. Many new public buildings were raised in Historicist style, superseded at the turn of the 19th century by Art Nouveau. During the Partitions of Poland, the city was the most important centre of Polishness, and the work of Stanisław Wyspiański, Jacek Malczewski and Jan Matejko immortalised this period. In 1914 Józef Piłsudski’s First Cadre Company set off from Cracow to fight for the country’s independence. After the war, the communist authorities sought to restrict the role of this conservative city. In 1949 construction work on the steel mill of Nowa Huta began, but this measure did not bring about the results anticipated by the authorities.

General information

  • Type: urban layout
  • Chronology: poł. XIII - XIX w.
  • Form of protection: history monument
  • Address: Kraków
  • Location: Voivodeship małopolskie, district Kraków, commune Kraków
  • Source: National Heritage Board of Poland

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