23 January 2018
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Lithuania, once Europe’s largest nation, has an amazing 700-year history as an international melting pot. This became especially evident after 1323, the year Grand Duke Gediminas founded Vilnius as Lithuania’s capital city and immediately decided to invite merchants, craftsmen, bankers, farmers, and soldiers from all Europe to come to the new capital; guaranteeing all freedom of beliefs and good working conditions. Vilnius became international, though with less of German or Scandinavian influence, as one could expect, rather influenced by Italy and Mediterranean ideas – greatly different from the other two Baltic capitals where Hanseatic influence became dominant.

VilNews will in some upcoming issues publish articles about impacts of foreign nations and cultures here. We also welcome you, dear readers, to share with us information you may have about ‘foreign footprints in Lithuania’.

Amazing Italian influence

on Lithuania since 1323

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The Royal Palace in Vilnius is now being rebuilt, more or less as one expects it to have looked like in the 1500s during the rule of Grand Duke Sigismund the Old (1467-1548), his wife, Italian Bona Sforza (1494-1557) and their son, Grand Duke Sigismund Augustus (1520-1572).

Text: Aage Myhre

While working with the restoration of Vilnius Old Town in the 1990s – as an architect – I often got to hear that this and that building was originally designed by Italian architects.  I tried to find out more, but the information I got was very fragmented, so in the early 2000s I started collecting the pieces myself, putting together my own historical survey of the Italian – Lithuanian relationship since 1323. I found that Vilnius by some was known as ‘The world’s most Italian city outside Italy’ and ‘Europe’s most Baroque city north of the Alps’. I also found the fascinating stories of how Vilnius was regarded one of the world’s leading Renaissance cities, competing with Milan and Florence. I even went to Italy myself to find traces, and was truly amazed, not least while learning about the princess of Milan and Bari who became Lithuania’s Grand Duchess. The exceptional relationship between Italy and Lithuania, which was especially evident for the period of 1300 – 1800, will never come back, but will always remain as a remarkable memory, and leave its unique hallmarks in and on Lithuania forever.

1300 – 1400:
Grand Duke Gediminas founds Vilnius and writes to the Pope,%20from%20Rome,%20Italy,%20ca.%20500%E2%80%93480%20BCE.jpg
It is a myth that Rome and Vilnius both were founded by wolves, but...

It is a myth that Rome and Vilnius both were founded by wolves. But it is no myth that the Italians have put an

indelible mark on Lithuania. When Gediminas, the Grand Duke of Lithuania, in 1323 decided to put down roots in what is now Vilnius city, a Franciscan monastery was already in place – at the foot of Castle Hill where the Cathedral today is located. Since then, for hundreds of years, the spirit of Rome and Italy played a main role in the development of Vilnius and to a certain degree also of Lithuania.

No wonder that Vilnius sometimes is referred to as “the world’s most Italian city outside Italy”.

* Italy was involved in and with Vilnius already from its very first days as a capital city. Even the name Vilnius was used for the first time when Grand Duke Gediminas in 1323 – the same year he founded the city – wrote to Pope John XXII asking for support in Christianizing the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, by then one of Europe’s leading nations.

Grand Duke Gediminas and Pope John XXII.



* Gediminas invited merchants, craftsmen, bankers, farmers, and soldiers to come to the new capital, guaranteeing all freedom of beliefs and good working conditions. Vilnius became thereafter truly international, though not with much of German or Scandinavian influence, as one could expect, rather influenced by Rome – greatly different from the other two Baltic capitals.

* Early examples of Italian influence within architecture, with at least some fragments of heavy, massive walls and other elements, typical for the early Gothic period, still do exist in some Vilnius churches, among them the Cathedral, the Church of Assumption (Traku 9) and the Church of Resurrection (Didzioji 17).

* And, there is one church you really should visit if you would like to smell the 700 years of Italian influence on Lithuanian history. That is the St. Nicholas Church (Sv. Mikalojaus 4). This tiny little church was originally erected around 1320, and remains the oldest Gothic building in town, though with several changes over the centuries. But a true beauty!



 St. Nicholas Church, Vilnius.


1400 – 1500:
Gothic Style, symbolized by the world famous St. Anne Church 

* Young Prince Casimir (1458 – 1484) was supposed to be a Grand Duke, and also to ascend the throne of Hungary, but chose a spiritual life instead. He died of tuberculosis at an age of 25, and his remains (today resting in the Vilnius Cathedral) quickly won fame for miracles. Already in 1521, Casimir was elevated to sainthood, and canonized by Pope Leo X. He is considered the patron saint of Lithuania and Poland, and the cult of St. Casimir has left a deep mark in the history and art of Lithuania. And, of course, one of Casimir’s main teachers was Italian, the humanist Callimachus Buonacorsi, who described Casimir as a “holy youth”, and also wrote; “He should either never have been born or should have abided with us forever”.


* This was also the century when, according to the Polish historian Jan Dlugos, the legends about Lithuanian’s similarities with the ancient Romans arose – also stating that the name Lithuania derived from “l’Italia.”


* By the end of the 14th Century, the fusion of Italian and Northern European art had lead to the development of an International Gothic Style (the first Gothic style originated already around 1150, at the fall of the Roman Empire). Leading architects and artists travelled all over Europe, and also Lithuania got its part of this new Gothic wave by the end of the 15th Century, today first of all symbolized by the probably most famous structure in Vilnius, the Church of St. Anne (below) – a masterpiece nearly unsurpassed in the world - and the connected Church of St. Francis and St. Bernadine – built by Bernadine monks who arrived in Vilnius by the middle of the century.


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St. Anne Church, Vilnius. 

1500 – 1600:
Vilnius becomes a Renaissance capital, competing with Milan and Florence

* Throughout the Renaissance, when Italy was a trading centre and a melting pot for the world’s greatest civilisations, Vilnius also became a Renaissance centre, competing with Florence and Milan. The two great nations merged when Grand Duke Sigismund the Old (1467-1548) married the Princess of the Italian cities Bari and Milan, Bona Sforza (1494-1557), and returned to reign in and from Vilnius as the capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. They created an Italian community within the court and, under the influence of the Grand Duchess, Italian culture became the preoccupation of the city’s elite; macheroni, skryliai, and even the confection marcipanus became staples among the cogniscenti; and life at court became a series of cultural events, with rich noblemen competing for extravagance.


* During the rule of Sigismund the Old The Royal Palace in Vilnius was greatly expanded, to meet the new needs of the Grand Duke – a new wing was added, as well as a third floor; the gardens were also extended. The palace reconstruction plan was probably prepared by Italian architect Bartolomeo Berrecci d Pontassieve, who also designed several projects in the Kingdom of Poland.

It was in his Vilnius palace that Sigismund the Old welcomed an emissary from the Holy Roman Empire, who came to introduce Sigismund to Bona Sforza, his second wife, in 1517.

* The education of the royal couple’s son, the later Grand Duke Sigismund August (1520-1572), was the responsibility of a Sicilian, Jonas Silvijus Amatas, between 1529 and 1537. Sigismund Augustus further developed Lithuania’s first library that his mother brought from Italy, and sent scholars and traders across Europe to assemble volumes of practical and historical value. Sigismund Augustus later took an Italian lover, Diana di Kordona. Dates are not available, but it is recorded that even at the age of 40, she had maintained her beauty and charm.


* In 1532, the Vilnius Cathedral Orchestra was performing with the Grand Duchess, Bona Sforza, singing alto!


* Sigismund II Augustus was crowned Grand Duke of Lithuania in the Royal Palace. He carried on with palace development and lived there with his first wife Elisabeth of Austria, daughter of the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. She was buried in Vilnius Cathedral. Sigismund Augustus’ second wife, Barbara Radvilaite, also lived in the palace. According to contemporary accounts of the Holy See emissary, the Royal Palace at that time contained more treasures than the Vatican. Sigismund Augustus also assembled one of the largest collection of books in Europe. This collection became an important part of the library that opened in Vilnius in 1570, since 1579 known as Vilnius University Library.



 The Royal Palace, Vilnius.



* Sigismund Augustus rebuilt the Lower Castle and furnished it in a very luxurious, Renaissance style. It was in fact turned into a centre of Renaissance culture, boasting an excellent library, a theatre, a choir, a picture gallery, and a collection of tapestries. The castle, as well as other venues of the city, was open for masquerades and competitions, scholarly disputes and feasts. In Vilnius, the ruler kept horse-stables with two thousand horses and even something like a zoo – five bears, a lion and ten camels. The plan was prepared by several Italian architects, including Giovanni Cini da Siena, Bernardino de Gianotis Zanobi, and others. The palace was once visited by Ippolito Aldobrandini, who later became Pope Clement VIII.  


* In 1562, Georges Blandrata, a physician from the University of Bologna, was installed as antitrinitoriu teoretiku (roughly, master of theoretical information) at the royal court in Vilnius.


* In 1562, Lithuania got an extremely important, firm transport link to Western Europe and Italy, when the post-route Vilnius-Krakow-Vienna-Venice opened.


* In 1569, the bishop established Vilnius College and School Theatre. A year later, its first performance was a comedy, “Hercule”, by Italian S. Tucci.


* Also in 1569, the first four Jesuits arrived, and in 1570 they founded the Jesuit College of Vilnius. It became Vilnius University in 1579, by decrees of Pope Gregory XIII and Grand Duke Stephen Bathory.


* In 1571, an Italian goldsmith, Petra Petina, was accepted as a designer of coins and medals by the Lithuanian Royal Mint, and his coins and medals produced during the reign of Stephen Bathory are considered the most significant of ancient Lithuanian coins.


* In 1584, Simonas Simonijus, a physician from Padua, conducted the first autopsy and two years later, in 1586, he published the first medical text in Lithuania.


* On the 29th of October 1579, Pope Gregory XII issued a bull acknowledging the Vilnius University, which soon became the major intellectual centre of Lithuania and North-East Europe. It is regarded as one of the oldest and most respectable universities in Eastern and Central Europe, including its extensive collection of Latin literature. The University includes twelve courtyards, whereof the Great Courtyard is the most valuable in the historical and artistic respect. It reminds an Italian Renaissance square, though it combines elements of three styles – Renaissance Mannerism, Baroque and Classicism (see below picture).

 Vilnius University and the Church of Sts. Johns’
(the church’s freestanding bell tower to the right)


1600 – 1700:
Vilnius silhouette turns Baroque

* During the 17th Century, Vilnius turned more and more Baroque, in fact becoming the largest Baroque city north of the Alps, as well as the one farthest to the east.


* During this period, excellent monuments of Baroque were built, such as the Church of St. Casimir (1604-1618) – designed along the line of the famous Il Gesu Church in Rome, and St. Theresa Church (1633-50) – where the façade was designed by the Italian architect Constantino Tencalla in accordance with the models of Roman architecture. Other outstanding monuments of the Baroque period are the churches of St. Ignatius and All Saints.


The Church of St. Casimir in the centre of Vilnius.

* And do not forget to visit the Chapel of St. Casimir in the Vilnius Cathedral - one of the most artistic Baroque Mausoleums in all of Europe!


* The most exquisite Baroque monument in Vilnius, however, is the unique Church of St. Peter and St. Paul (1668-1704). Its interior décor, consisting of 2000 stucco statues, is unique in Europe. The Italian sculptors Pietro Perti, Giovanni Maria Gallia and others did the decoration works during a period of 33 years. The church was renovated in 1801-04 by Giovanni Beretti and Nicolas Piano, both from Milan.


* Around 1600, Giovanni Battista became conductor of a castle orchestra and author of many masses and motets still played.


* Along the way, scholars were going south for education, and fashions, fabrics, and music from Italy were shaping the culture of Lithuania.


* It is also really worthwhile going to Kaunas to see one of the most prominent examples of Baroque architecture in Lithuania. Go to the peninsula of the Kauno Marios Water Reservoir. The Pazaislis Church and Monastery (picture below) was started built in 1667, by Italian Camalduli monks, who were invited to Kaunas by the Chancellor of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Kristupas Pacas. The most striking part of the ensemble is a hexagonal dome, and two protruding towers, looking like helmets. Several generations of Lithuanian and Italian masters worked at this impressive complex until it was completed by the middle of the 18th century, but the first, and main master, was the Italian architect Lodovico Fredo.




1700 – 1800:
The Italian sculptures on the Vilnius Cathedral 

* Classicism was introduced to Lithuania from Rome, where some of the most famous Lithuanian artists, architects and other performers of the fine arts were studying during this century. The famous painter Pranciskus Smuglevicius studied for example at the St. Lucas Academy for a number of years, and the architect Laurynas Gucevicius was in Rome for studies during the period of 1776-1777.


* The first appearance of Neo-Classicism came also from Rome, when the architect Carlo Spampani in 1773 came here to design the portal in the White Hall of the Vilnius University’s Observatory of Astronomy.


* In 1784, the bishop of Vilnius, I. Masalski, invited the famous Italian sculptor, Tommaso Righi, to come here for the creation of sculptures on the Vilnius Cathedral. His creations can today be seen on the western façade, in six niches where he gave life to the four evangelists, with Moses and Abraham on each of the sides.


Vilnius - Vilnius Cathedral

 Vilnius Cathedral.



* The Vilnius Cathedral Treasury does also contain several objects with Italian origin, worth a separate study. The treasures were so carefully hidden behind brickwork in one of the Cathedral’s niches just before the World War II, that they were discovered again only in 1985.


* Attention should also be paid to the gorgeously carved High Altar of the St. Francis and Error! Hyperlink reference not valid., created by the Italian Master Danielo Giotto by the end of the 18th century.


* Also gardens and parks were made according to Italian style. The most famous was probably the Gostauto Garden, which today mostly is covered by the Presidency Park. The original garden was made following the example of Northern Italian parks, and was said to have been one of the most beautiful, being laid out geometrically with straight radial paths, round square and regularly shaped lawns characteristic of the baroque age.


* Try also to find time for a weekend trip to southern Latvia to visit the Rundale Palace (1735-1768) near the town Bauska, 200 km north of Vilnius, supposed to be the most beautiful Baroque palace in the Baltic States, created by the author of the St. Petersburg’s Winter Palace, the Italian architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli.



 The Rundale Palace



* In 1795, Lithuania lost its sovereignty, and became a province of the Russian Empire. With this, also the extraordinary and long-lasting contact with Italy vanished. The 500 year golden period had come to an end.


1800 – 1900:
St. Peter and St. Paul Church gets its final Italian touch

* The direct Italian influence on and in Lithuania disappeared more or less in the 19th Century. But also the Russian Empire had its influence from neo-styles inherited from Italy, and some examples of these styles can be found in Lithuania.


* One example of direct influence from Italian masters, also in this century, is the renovation works on the St. Peter and St. Paul Church during the years 1801 - 1804 (see also above description for the period 1600 - 1700).



File:Lithuania Vilnius St.Peter+St.Paul church inside 1.jpg
St. Peter and St. Paul Church interior. 

* And, do by no means miss the chance to visit Traku Voké to see the magnificent Estate of Count Tiskevicius, built in 1876 - 80 by the Italian architect L. Marconi.


Traku Voke
The Traku Voké estate of Count Tiskevicius.

1900 – 2011:
Italian pizza, technology and fashion invades Lithuania  

* More than 200 years have passed since the golden period of the Italian-Lithuanian relationship ended. Today, the relationship is being re-built, and Italy is once again well represented in Vilnius, with Embassy, Cultural Centre, a Chamber of Commerce and many different companies.


* And, as in the rest of the modern world, the streets of the Lithuanian cities and villages have in the latest years been “invaded” by Italian pizzerias, fashion boutiques and furniture stores.


* The latest 20 years has also brought a good number of Alfa Romeos, Fiats, Lancias, and even a few Ferraris, Maseratis and Lamborghinis to Lithuania. 


* The Italian influence on the Lithuanian architecture is no longer very important. But there has been one exception from that; the new Italian embassy building in the district of Zverynas in Vilnius. The former Italian Ambassador to Lithuania, Giulio Prigioni, did a fantastic job during the years 2004 – 2006 in leading the renovation of a 100 year old Palladian villa into a modern building that today is Italy’s very representative headquarter in Lithuania. The renovation project was done by the Italian architect Nunzio Rimmaudo.  


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 Former Italian Ambassador Giulio Prigioni did a tremendous job to remake
this 100-year old Paladian villa into what today is the representative
Italian Embassy complex in Lithuania.  

* Lithuania’s Armed Forces spent in 2006 - 2008 €75 million to buy three units of the Italian transport aircraft C-27J. The selection was made within a bid for the renewal of the old fleet of Soviet-made twin-engine An-26s in service with the Lithuanian Air Force. The Italian-Lithuanian relationship is again flying high…

LEFT: The Italian transport aircraft C-27J, now used by the Lithuanian Armed Forces.
RIGHT: A Maserati Quattroporte recently spotted in Vilnius. 

Category : Featured black / The world in Lithuania

VilNews e-magazine is published in Vilnius, Lithuania. Editor-in-Chief: Mr. Aage Myhre. Inquires to the
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