Wrocław - Historic City Centre, Wrocław
Narodowy Instytut Dziedzictwa pl

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Wrocław’s recorded history begins in the year 1000, when Boleslaus I the Brave founded a bishopric which remained under the jurisdiction of the Metropolitan Archdiocese of Gniezno until 1821. An earlier mid-9th-century settlement located on an island in the River Oder (site of the present-day Ostrów Tumski), was associated with the Ślężanie tribe. After Boleslaus’ death Wrocław became the capital of Silesia. The town was chosen as the seat of the Duchy of Silesia by Henry I the Bearded in 1201. Earth-and-timber ramparts divided the settlement on the island known as Ostrów Tumski into a stronghold, an adjacent enclosure, and a cathedral settlement purported to be the site of the first masonry cathedral. The current Gothic Cathedral of St John the Baptist incorporates the relict remains of a church built before the year 1000, the cathedral founded by Boleslaus I and a Romanesque building dating from the latter half of the 12th century. At that time the island’s ensemble of ecclesiastical and ducal buildings was the largest Romanesque architectural complex in Poland.

Construction of the Gothic cathedral commenced in c. 1244; the chancel with ambulatory and towers had been added by 1272, and the main body of the basilica with its twin-towered façade was completed by the mid-14th century. The east side of the chancel is flanked by two Baroque chapels. The earlier, St Elizabeth’s Chapel, was built in 1680-1682 to a design by G. Scianzi and furnished with sculptures by E. Ferrata and D. Guidi; it is regarded by many as the most beautiful Baroque chapel in this part of Europe. The later Corpus Christi Chapel - also known as the Electoral Chapel - founded by Cardinal Franz Ludwig von Pfalz-Neuburg, and designed by the Viennese architect Johann Fischer von Erlach, features statues of Aaron and Moses by Maximilian Brokoff. After a fire in 1945 the cathedral was rebuilt in Gothic form. By the late 13th century work had begun on the construction of the Church of the Holy Cross (completed in 1350) - one of the most prized gems of Gothic architecture in Poland. It was founded in 1288 by Duke Henry IV Probus, who is immortalised, along with his wife Matilda, in the carved decoration of the church’s portal. Construction work continued until c. 1400, when a new south entrance porch was built. The church is split over two levels, its main body comprising a three-aisled hall with five bays on the lower level and two bays on the upper. It also features a transept and a three-bay chancel with a polygonal apse. Standing in front of the church is a statue of St John Nepomuk, made in 1732 by Johann Georg Urbańsky and Johann Albrecht Siegwitz. The course of Cathedral Street has remained unchanged since the Middle Ages. At number 11 stands the Neo-Classical palace of the suffragan bishops - the work of K. Geissler in 1791-1797 (with architectural details dating from the 12th century), and currently the residence of the Archbishop of Wrocław. The Neo-Classical edifice at number 15 is a former episcopal palace. Neighbouring buildings include canonical residences and a presbytery.

In the mid-12th century the Silesian noble Piotr Włostowic founded Benedictine and Augustinian priories on Sand Island (Wyspa Piaskowa). The construction of the present-day Augustinian church on the island began in the mid-14th century. It was consecrated in 1369, though the vaults were not raised until 1395. Above the entrance to the sacristy is a tympanum from the Romanesque church, depicting the Virgin and Child Enthroned accompanied by the donors who commissioned this work. Adjoining the church is a Baroque monastery building, which has housed part of the University Library collections since 1811.

The earliest feature of the town chartered under the Magdeburg law was probably its market square (today’s New Market Square - Nowy Targ) founded by Henry the Bearded. In 1224 the Dominican Order was transferred from Cracow to Wrocław, establishing its seat next to St Adalbert’s Church. In 1226 the first city church - that of St Mary Magdalene - was founded. In 1241 Wrocław was invaded and pillaged by the Tartars, prompting a new direction in the city’s urban development. A market square and a network of streets were laid out, most of them extant to this day. The only remnants of the original town plan are the New MarketSquare and a number of irregularities in the course of streets around the churches of St Adalbert and St Vincent. Wrocław’s market square measures 175 x 212 m. The pride of the city was its Town Hall, built in the latter half of the 13th century and comprehensively remodelled in 1471-1504. This late Gothic building is distinctive for its sophisticated sculptural detail; its splendid east façade features an astronomical clock (1580) and a gable embellished with ceramic tiles, whilst the south façade shows signs of Renaissance influences. It thoroughly deserves its reputation as a jewel of late Gothic European architecture.

The city walls were first built in the mid-13th century, and in 1261 Henry III the White, granted Wrocław a new charter. The burgeoning city was a centre of trade, guild-regulated production and culture. It maintained contacts with Flanders, France, Italy and even Ireland, conducting trade with Ruthenia, Byzantium and towns along the Rhine. In the early 15th century the city was encircled by a second ring of defences, featuring 50 towers. During the Thirty Years’ War a new system of bastion fortifications was designed in 1634, and later enlarged in the 18th century under Frederick the Great. North of the market square, at the very edge of the River Oder, stands the imposing bulk of the formerly Jesuit college - a substantial Baroque building (1728-1740) with an astronomy tower. The façade overlooking the river measures 171 m. The grounds of the old castle provided the site for a building erected in 1811 by the Jesuits, which now houses the present-day university (the dissolved University of Frankfurt was transferred here). The college building is but a single part of the complex they intended to raise. The scale of the envisioned project is reflected in the Aula Leopoldina auditorium, decorated by J.A. Siegwitz, F.J. Mangoldt and J.K. Handke. This most beautiful of secular Baroque interiors in Poland, is adorned with sculptures, stuccowork and trompe l’œil paintings. The university church of the Holy Name of Jesus, its modest form concealing a dazzling Baroque interior produced by Christoph Tausch and Johann Rottmayer in 1722-1724, makes a spectacular impression.

The fortifications limiting the city’s expansion began to be dismantled in 1807, allowing the centre to be linked to the suburbs and promenades to be created in place of the former defences, which to this day mark the boundary of the Old Town. In the 19th century the city’s growth was accompanied by industrial development. In the 1930s Wrocław had a population of approximately 630,000 and was the eighth largest city in Germany. The seven-month-long siege of Wrocław in 1945, which came to an end on 7 May with the capitulation of Festung Breslau, wreaked terrible damage on the historic city centre. The rebuilding programme undertaken after the war recreated the urban layout of the main market square, the Salt Square (plac Solny) and (to a lesser degree) individual streets within the Old Town. However, all of the city’s churches and most of its major buildings were reconstructed.

General information

  • Type: urban layout
  • Chronology: koniec X - XVIII w.
  • Form of protection: Historical Monument
  • Address: Wrocław
  • Location: Voivodeship dolnośląskie, district Wrocław, commune Wrocław
  • Source: National Heritage Board of Poland

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