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Vydas Dolinskas: we want to refute the myths that no one really wanted this palace

The early history of the Vilnius castles is inseparable from the establishment of the city, and the city of Vilnius itself was of course already mentioned in Gediminas’ letters as the ruler’s residence – the capital of the state. From as early as the 14th century, the Vilnius castles had been the political, diplomatic and cultural centre of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, a state stretching from the Baltic to the Black seas. 

The National Museum – Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania, wishing to remind the public of historic events, is opening the doors to a new exhibition, Between Presence and Memory. Historic Images of the Vilnius Castles. Director General of the Museum and the author of the idea for this exhibition, Dr Vydas Dolinskas, presented its main concept: “We wanted to assemble and show the public original images, maps and other historical material relating to the Vilnius castles. The time has come. Especially when there are still some who doubt whether there was sufficient iconography from which to reconstruct the Palace of the Grand Dukes. Some of these original images, which have been very significant in the reconstruction of the palace, have not been in Vilnius for two hundred years. Such an example is Marcin Knackfus’ (Knackfuss) work, which was transferred to the Czartoryski family’s art collection at the beginning of the 19th century. The work had not been seen by many people, despite it being one of the most important and precise sources used to reconstruct the facade of the Palace of the Grand Dukes”.

Images of the Vilnius castles gathered from four states 

Heated discussions were underway in Lithuania a decade ago – some explained that there were no images of the palace, thus, it could not be rebuilt. Others asserted that everyone had already forgotten about the demolished palace, and that we needed to think about new state symbols. The exhibition’s curators Marijus Uzorka and Rita Lelekauskaitė-Karlienė offer visitors the opportunity to compare iconographic images that have survived from those days when the palace still existed, as well as the visions that were being created when the palace had already been demolished, and today’s picture reconstructed in reality. 

Uzorka says: “This exhibition might not be so impressive in terms of the size of the exhibits or their calculable value. Visitors are usually drawn in by luxury and splendour, but in this case, this is an exceptionally valuable collection, a true historical source. It is Our exhibition – in the literal sense of the word”.

The authentic exhibits are on loan for the exhibition from 16 institutions and private collections, while another 12 institutions loaned iconographic images. “Certain exhibits could not be included because of the very poor state they’re in, transporting them would have been too risky. Their facsimiles are on display, however”, says Uzorka. The exhibits have been gathered from four different states.   

An exhibition refuting myths

“One of the ideas behind this exhibition was to refute the myths that no one really wanted or needed this palace. But it was needed. And especially when it no longer stood in its place. It is all too human that we truly appreciate something when it is already gone”, states Dolinskas as he looks at the exhibition set out over two levels. “This exhibition has several dozen images from the 19th and early 20th centuries. This was a time when the palace no longer existed in reality, but it was imparted with a sacred meaning, coming to be called the Jagiellon castle. This shows that the nation most missed the residence of the Lithuanian grand dukes when it had already been lost”.

The most devastated residence of the Lithuanian Grand Dukes

Unlike other royal residences, the Vilnius castles complex suffered significantly more attacks and devastation at the hand of enemies. They began from the mid-17th century, with the infamous Muscovite invasion. “Later, we were similarly unlucky, compared to neighbouring Poland or Ukraine”, says Dolinskas. “By the end of the 18th century, almost the whole territory of Lithuania had come under the control of one of the most backward states of the day – the Russian Empire”.

In this exhibition, visitors will see how, facing such losses, the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania started being viewed as an important attribute of state identity and historical memory. During the Romantic period, a number of visions of the no-longer existing Vilnius castles ensemble and its separate buildings were created and publicised in various ways, which testified to the symbolic meaning and significance of the historic objects making up the centre of the Lithuanian state. Research began of the Vilnius castles and its separate structures in the 20th century, leading to reconstruction projects and nurturing the hope that one day, the Palace of the Grand Dukes could be rebuilt. 

Scientific, cultural and educational programme events accompanying the exhibition will invite the public to engage in discussions

The programme’s author Dr Ramunė Šmigelskytė-Stukienė details what to expect: “Visitors will be invited to learn about how the castle architecture changed, we’ll talk about how the layout of the territory changed. Prof. Valdas Rakutis will present how the Upper and Lower castle territories were converted into Russia’s military fortress. Architecture researchers and art researchers will discuss how important the preservation of memories of the castle was to the state and its people, as a site, and also about the idea of reconstructing the state’s centre. We will also invite the public to a concert where you’ll be able to listen to music from the Baroque era by Lithuanian composer Feliksas Janevičius – these works could have been heard at the Lithuanian ruler’s residence as well”. 

Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė: “This is an exceptional opportunity to once again appreciate our roots, which shape and protect us”

As Vilnius celebrates its 700th anniversary, it is the Vilnius castles territory and its palace that have become the main symbol of recognition. The Vilnius castles complex with the ruler’s residence and other attributes are testimony of Vilnius as the eternal capital of Lithuania. After looking around the exhibition, its patron Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė said: “As someone who was born and raised in the eternal state capital of Vilnius, I am sincerely pleased that the commemoration of the city’s 700th anniversary is a prime opportunity to deeply reflect on and talk about our state’s identity, its cultural heritage, symbols, aspirations and future. This anniversary is also a wonderful chance to once again appreciate our roots that form and protect us, from which, as we sing in our National Anthem, we derive our strength”.  


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Published:: 2023-10-13 10:11 Modified: 2023-10-18 10:15
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