The ancient heroes on the facade of the Palazzina d’Oro

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Do you know what iconography is? According to the Dictionary of the Polish Language, it is a category that deals with the description and interpretation of works of art. Anyway, what does that mean? Imagine watching a Japanese movie without knowing any words in that language. You are interested in image and sound. You partly understand the plot because you observe people having fun at a party, shouting or saying goodbye at the station. You think it was an interesting movie, with good music and special camera movements. You liked the costumes, the hairstyles, the architecture … And now imagine that you are watching the same movie, but with subtitles.

It turns out that the party was a professional duty, the shouting was not fought, and the separation at the station was a relief for both of us. The subtitles made it easier to understand the film. This is what iconography is: to understand not only the aesthetic aspect and the execution technique. Thanks to the iconography, a work reaches even deeper. It often happens that it takes years or even centuries to decipher the symbols of a masterpiece. Such is the case with the Palazzina d’Oro in Gdansk, whose particularly rich sculptural decoration constitutes a learned feature referring to ancient Greece, republican Rome, the politics and Protestant morality of Italian Renaissance cities.

The Golden Palace, also known as Speymann’s House or Steffen’s House, is located on Długi Targ Square in Gdansk, near the famous Neptune Fountain and Arthur’s Court. The thin façade to the south stands out among the multicolored walls of the neighboring buildings by its pure white and golden elements of decoration. Despite being one of the most important holdings of the 17th century in Gdansk, no one has undertaken to analyze all the iconographic elements on the facade. However, this is not an oversight, but a sign of humility towards the study of such a complicated message. Researchers reflect on the internal order of the representation, which would allow decipherment of the whole message, but they also examine the criteria for the selection of presentation and correlations between the exposed elements.

The symbolic and allegorical elements that appear in the rich architectural decoration of so many representative buildings in Gdansk refer to antiquity interpreted in accordance with Protestant morality. Around 1600, art became a form of transmission of republican-stoic ideas by the patricians of Gdansk. For this purpose, the ancient texts of Ovid, Livio, Cicero, Valerio Massimo, and Plutarco served. In architectural ornaments, painting and sculpture, Gdansk was presented as a republic, a New Rome with its history and myths, which were used to glorify local history.

The inhabitants of Gdansk subsequently developed their own distinction, both cultural and political. The reference to the New Rome concerns the myth of the founding of the Eternal City, which in Gdansk was linked to Malbork’s triumphant siege and the defeat of the German Order. In culture, they referred as much to these events as to antiquity, linking ideas and drawing inspiration from Italian municipalities.

Palazzina d’Oro was built in 1609 on one of the most representative sites in Gdańsk: on Długi Targ 41. Johann Speymann commissioned Abraham van den Block to design a building with a Mannerist stone façade. The partial execution of sculptures is attributed to Hans Voigt of Rostock. The building was completed in 1618 and from that moment the building functioned in addition to its residential function also as a museum of original objects. Speymann collected a collection of sculptures, handicrafts, equipped the library with many books and created a small weapons depot with Milanese armor. He hired a caretaker who would show the interior to the guests once a week. After Speymann’s death, the building passed into the hands of the families and then the Krause family. Carl Gottlieb Steffens became the owner in 1768 and the building belonged to his family until 1918, when it became the property of the town. The collection was transferred to the Statens Naturvidenskabelige Museum and disappeared at the end of World War II. The building was mostly destroyed during the German air raids. It was later rebuilt according to Marian Bajdo’s design.

Palazzina d’Oro has a symmetrical and three-axis façade, divided by columns and surpassed by a terrace with railings, behind which there is an intangible triangular roof. In the central axis there is a portal with a semicircular frame and Tuscan side columns decorated with panoplies. On the upper floors, the columns are decorated with vegetable reliefs (bunches, fruit and pomegranate flowers) and with an Ionic capital. The facade is crowned by four statues, allegories of the ancient Platonic values, which Christianity later adapted to the cardinal virtues. Above the portal, on the other hand, the allegories of the theological virtues, subordinate to the cardinals, are presented. The accentuation of the virtues in the iconography of the facade is a message from Speymann, indicating his identification with the stoic ideal of the perfect sage.

Among the innumerable ornaments, the ancient heroes make up the largest group. The representations of Solon and Themistocles are, in a sense, ideologically condescending to the entire iconographic program. Solon, as an Athenian legislator and Coryphaeus, believed that the welfare of the city (in Greek polis) depended on the morals and inner peace of the people. In 594 BC. he introduced reforms that would improve the political and partly social situation of Athens. In Danzig he was a role model for bourgeois virtues. Its representation is located above the capital of the column on the third floor and next to it, together with the portrait of Cato located on the opposite side, a battle scene of Themistocles, represented as a relief in the rectangular field. In relation to the political situation in Gdansk, Themistokles becomes an example of an intelligent and cunning leader. In the fifth century, Themistocles, an extraordinary politician, created a navy that would become a maritime power. For Athens, this meant the government of the archipelago and the Aegean coasts, which had their center in Delos. They allowed Themistocles to carry out his plan, which was partly unfair but favorable to Athens. Is it therefore necessary to connect the relief from the Battle of Themistocles directly with the history of Danzig, who at that time, due to his commercial interests, was opposed to the Polish-Swedish war and consequently the building of the Royal Navy? Researchers say there is no evidence to say that Speymann disagreed with the city council regarding this construction. In the decoration of the building, researchers therefore indicate an action plan that is favorable to the city and that allows control and facilitates the development of trade, politics and culture, although this will require sacrifices. In the case of the patrician class to which Speymann belonged, the interest of the city was always in the forefront. This is further emphasized thanks to the representations of Roman heroes and their history. By rereading the iconography of the illustrations of what happened in Republican Rome, it is worth paying attention to the question of Gdansk’s freedom and the admonition to the Republic of Poland about its efforts to limit the city’s privileges. . Among the Roman heroes there are first and foremost Lucrezia and Lucio Giunio Bruto. The relief, which represents a scene between Lucrezia and Brutus, is located in the rectangular field between the second and third floors. It is flanked by the representations of Marco Porcio Catone Uticense, a Stoic famous for his honesty and a preacher of the Republican idea, and by Otto III of Saxony, an emperor called “nobility”, a supporter of the renewal of the Roman Empire. Lucrezia, an almost mythical character of the decline of the royal age in Rome, and her relative, Lucio Giunio Bruto, are linked to the beginning of Republican Rome. In 509 BC. Lucretia, raped by Prince Sesto Tarquinio, preferred to commit suicide rather than live in shame. This event made her a model for women’s virtues, and Valerio Massimo described her in the first chapter of Factorum et dictorum memorabilium libri IX. His death became the beginning of the revolt and overthrow of the monarchy. Lucio Giunio Bruto, guardian of Lucrezia, played an important role in the beginning of the republic because, as leader of the revolt against Tarquinio, it led to the expulsion of the king and the transfer of power to the senate. He also became the first consul.

It is not possible to list all the historical, biblical, allegorical and mythical figures whose representations are located on the facade of the building. Each of them motivates the activity of the Gdansk authorities, who, emphasizing their republican ideals, have used the categories of Roman virtues, the actions of the defenders of Athenian democracy, or biblical events to promote and justify their actions in favor of the city. Religion not covered by this article cannot be omitted. Although history and the Greco-Roman models dominate, the whole project is sponsored by God himself, and the references to the Bible and religion are just as numerous. In the 17th century, Gdansk’s interest was worth more than anything else. The city, which was already prosperous, continued to enrich itself, and the learned modality in the decoration of public and private buildings constituted a testimony of the knowledge, faith, education, and consciousness of the citizens.

Bibliography:

  • Jacek Bielak, Iconography Złotej Kamienicy na nuo odczytana, [w:] Mieszczaństwo gdańskyGdańsk 1997
  • Marcin Kaleciński, Mity Gdańska. Antyk w publicznej sztuce protestanckiej res publikiGdańsk 2011
  • Tadeusz Zieliński, Greek nipplesKatowice 1988

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More articles by Anna Cirocka, art history expert, can be found here.
The beauty of Polish and Italian architecture never ceases to amaze us. You can read about travel to Italy and Poland here.

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