The History of the Royal Palace
The beginnings of the residence of Poland’s rulers on Wawel hill hark back to an early Romanesque stone building from mid-11th century, called the palatium, whose remains are located in the northern wing of the present-day castle.
Over time the residence on the hill was expanded eastwards. Together with the cathedral, it comprised the Upper Castle, while the Lower Castle encompassed the houses of the courtiers and clergy, as well as several churches.
In the 14th century the castle was considerably expanded by King Ladislaus I the Short (r. 1306–1333) and his son Casimir III the Great (r. 1333–1370), who built an imposing Gothic residence consisting of several buildings grouped around an irregular courtyard in the eastern part of the hill. During the reign of Ladislaus II Jagiello (r. 1386–1434), at the turn of the 14th century, a Gothic pavilion, called the Danish Tower, was added to the castle. No further changes were made to the complex until the fire of 1499.
Around 1504, King Alexander I (r. 1501–1506) commissioned the German architect Eberhard Rosenberger of Koblenz and the Italian sculptor and architect Francesco Fiorentino to rebuild the residence in the Renaissance style. Alexander’s brother Sigismund I the Old (r. 1506–1548) continued this enterprise from 1507. By the time of his death in 1516, Master Francesco, the author of the decorative stone bay window in the western wing, had erected the eastern wing of the castle and had begun the construction of the arcaded galleries. The work was continued by Master Benedict and then by the celebrated Bartholomeo Berrecci (the builder of the Sigismund Chapel at Wawel Cathedral). Following Berrecci’s death in 1537, Niccolò Castiglione and Matteo the Italian continued the work of building the royal residence. The interior decorations were created by sculptors and wood carvers including Sebastian Tauerbach and Hans the Wood-Carver, who built the wooden ceilings, and painters, who decorated the walls with friezes and painted royal portraits. The castle’s halls and chambers became even more resplendent when Sigismund II Augustus (r. 1548–1572) acquired a collection of magnificent Flemish tapestries.
The Renaissance palace with its beautiful arcaded courtyard has survived to the present day. With its impressive monumental layout, spacious, brightly lit interiors, and magnificent use of architectural forms derived from ancient art, which were employed here for the first time in Poland, the building represented a breakthrough in the development of Polish architecture. In the 16th century the castle was the primary site of the sessions of both the sejm (lower house of parliament) and senate (upper house).
After the fire of 1595, a part of the castle’s northern wing was rebuilt in the early Baroque style by Sigismund III Vasa (1587–1632) who employed two Italian artists, the architect Giovanni Trevano and the painter Tommaso Dolabella. From the time the royal court permanently relocated to Warsaw in about 1610, the Polish monarchs resided at Wawel only occasionally, for lavish weddings, coronations, and funerals. In 1702, another destructive fire consumed part of the castle. Although it was later restored, the castle never again attained its original splendor.
At the end of the 18th century, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was partitioned by Austria, Prussia, and Russia, finally ceasing to exist as a state in 1796. The Austrians took over the castle and turned it into an army garrison. In the early 19th century, as part of the adaptation work, the arcaded galleries were bricked over. A lengthy restoration project was embarked upon after the Austrian army had quit the castle in 1911 and it had reverted to Polish control. The restoration lasted half a century and returned the castle nearly to its original condition. The restoration project was led by first the architect Zygmunt Hendel then by Adolf Szyszko-Bohusz, also an architect, who was in charge from 1916 until World War II. Resumed after the war, the restoration was overseen primarily by the architect and monuments conservator Alfred Majewski. The next major restoration project was carried out in the 1990s.
Wawel Royal Castle’s museum collection was initiated in 1882 with history painter Jan Matejko’s gift of his monumental canvas The Prussian Homage (now on deposit to the National Museum in Cracow). Over the years, the collection of the museum being developed in the castle chambers was cultivated through gifts, bequests, and purchases, as well as the restitution of looted works of art. The core collection – the Flemish tapestries of Sigismund II Augustus looted by Russia in the 18th century – was restituted after 1921 on the power of the Treaty of Riga. Shortly after the outbreak of World War II, the Poles succeeded in evacuating the most valuable objects, including the tapestries and the coronation sword “Szczerbiec,” to Canada from whence they returned in 1959–1961. With their return, four permanent exhibitions were installed and continue to be systematically enlarged through new acquisitions. In 1994, the Wawel museum received a significant collection of Italian Renaissance paintings from Karolina Lanckorońska.