Kraków in the 16th century – the golden times

After a turbulent beginning, Kraków started flourishing under the reign of Kazimierz Wielki, went smoothly through the Angevin times, and slowly started climbing the steep road of importance to become one of the most influential European capitals. Already at the beginning of the 15th century, the Kraków Academy, rebuilt and enlarged by the added Theological Faculty, declassed engaged in severe ethnic and religious conflicts, and intellectually emasculated Charles University in Prague. Economically, being the crucial point on the trading route of copper and other coloured metals from northern Hungary, the city continued to prosper. It was given the name of the Hanseatic “Kupferhaus, in other words “The Copper House.”

In the times of Kazimierz Jagiellończyk, Kraków was not only an important Middle Eastern European city, but also de jure and de facto the capital of the Jagiellonian empire as well as the centre of the Jagiellonian dynastic policy embracing Lithuania, Poland, Bohemia and Hungary. The situation strongly influenced 16th century Kraków and its attractiveness for people of culture and science from abroad. The Polish nobility was outdoing one another in building magnificent residences, trying to surpass or, at least, match the exquisiteness of the royal residence at Wawel Hill.

Thanks to its contacts with Italy, facilitated by Bona Sforza d'Aragona, the wife of Zygmunt I, Kraków evolved into an Italian Renaissance culture island in this part of Europe. It attracted artists and scientists from all over Europe, and historians speak of the real explosion of modern cultural and intellectual trends. Kraków became an artistic oasis for Italian masters such as Bartolommeo Berrecci and Jan Maria Padovano, and an asylum for religious dissidents such as nontrinitarian, Faust Socyn.

However, the newcomers from distant Italy consisted of only a small portion of the Kraków international melting pot, from which the city’s wealth and freedom originated. Germans, Jews and Armenians found their new home in Kraków, and contributed not only culturally, but also economically to the splendour of the city. The journey through the decades of the 16th century is the journey through Renaissance palaces and houses, through pages of excellent literature and poetry, and scientific, philological, and philosophical treatises. This is why we decide to consider the 16th century as the golden times in the city’s history.

Kraków in the times of communism

On January 18, 1945 Kraków was taken by the Red Army. Poles had no illusions: instead of freedom, the Soviet Army brought them another form of occupation. Kraków was one of the few cities whose buildings avoided the war destruction. For those not living in Kraków (and there was a considerable number of them, ranging from the survivors of the Warsaw Uprising to the displaced persons from the eastern parts of Poland), the city gave the impression of a place untouched by the war. “Along the pavements houses with their glittering windows, in houses gates […]. Here and there scudding people, normal, in decent coats with fur collars.” Life was slowly coming back to normal. Schools, academies and universities, cinemas and theatres were reopened, newspapers and magazines published. Art works stolen by the Nazis were returned to Kraków, among them Wit Stwosz’s Altar, Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Lady with an Ermine,” and the Balthasar Behem Codex.

Yet, the new authorities did not want the revival of Kraków as the cultural and educational capital of Poland. A brutal political fight against the Kraków intelligentsia was started. The city itself, after the 1946 referendum in which its citizens had voted against the communist regime, was considered to be the bastion of the old order. The Voivodship Office of Public Security was established there, the secret police of the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKWD) was operating, and Home Army members were arrested and sentenced in show trials. The Soviet marshal, Konstanty Rokossowski, (Konstantin Rokossovsky), was appointed Marshal of Poland. The Theological Faculty at Jagielloński University and the Polish Academy of Learning (Polska Akademia Umiejętności) were closed down.

The Polish Catholic Church was also attacked. After the death of Cardinal Adam Stefan Sapieha, and the dismissal of Archbishop Eugeniusz Baziak, the Church was in the hands of the patriotically-oriented priests. In 1953 “Universal Weekly” (Tygodnik Powszechny), a Roman-Catholic weekly magazine dealing with social and cultural issues, was closed after having refused to print Stalin’s obituary. Yet, the new authorities were afraid that their activities were not strong enough to guarantee the new communist order in Kraków. That is why the decision to build a new city, Nowa Huta, in the immediate vicinity of Kraków, was made. It was to be a satellite industrial city attracting peasants and the working class, the first city without a church. Its inhabitants were to be easily manipulated, their life organized and led according to the new values, their chances of promotion high. That is why the history of Kraków at that time, and especially the history of the Nowa Huta settlement, is considered to represent the darkest time in Kraków’s history. 


Author: Anita Stinia