Grey autumn has come but Nesvizh Castle, with its long history and powerful legacy, stands magnificent. You can’t help but feel yourself slip into fantasies of past times; the atmosphere is so romantic. It’s said that ‘Nesvizh is like Paris’ but, of course, the Radziwills’ castle — opened in July after restoration — hardly rivals the Louvre or Versailles in its collections. Nevertheless, its treasures are among the most valuable in Belarus
T he ancient relics of Nesvizh Castle are not just exhibits; rather, they help recreate an authentic atmosphere in the former dukes’ residence. Many of the pictures originally decorated the walls until 1939, when the Radziwills still owned the mansion. Now, surviving items are being returned to their former home.
$55m has been spent on restoring the facades and interior decoration of the magnificent building. President Alexander Lukashenko was among the first to see the restored castle, alongside our Belarus magazine correspondent. Director Sergey Klimov, and his deputy, Natalia Zherko, gave us an interesting tour of the halls from which, in the 16th-18th century, the Grand Duchy of Lithuania was ruled by the powerful Radziwills. To some extent, those decisions influenced the history of the whole of Europe.
The entrance gates of the Castle have towers on each side, in which artefacts are displayed. Six halls are open to the public, including ‘History of Construction and Reconstruction of Nesvizh Castle’ and ‘Interiors of the Castle from the Late 19th-20th Century’.
Its library has been restored, featuring the same bookcases as a hundred years ago — as you can see from photos on show. Files occupy the same places on shelves as in the times of the dukes’ ownership. Some originals were discovered at the National History Museum and were painstakingly reproduced. A carved 19th century table can be seen, brought from the National History Museum and also once owned by the Radziwills, while books bearing stamps of Nesvizh ordination from the 1930s are also on show — bought at a Polish second hand bookshop. The stone floor has been partially restored, featuring its black and white tiles. No doubt, every authentic detail of the Castle is valuable.
Under the patronage of Athena and Nika
The courtyard is well decorated with iron mouldings, befitting the Radziwills’ oldest family home, built in the 16th century. The East Gallery and the Arsenal are situated to the left, being the major buildings of mansion, each with three floors. Moving from one room to another, you can learn about the past of all Belarus (rather than merely of the famous magnate family).Before entering, I study a stone plaque on the faзade which reads, in Latin, that the Castle was founded by the Radziwills in the 16th century. Each letter has been gilded by modern restorers.
A letter from the king
The Duke’s Hall, where guests were welcomed features enfilades on either side, leading to the rooms of the Duke and his wife. The interior has been reconstructed in Renaissance style, featuring copies of certificates of Polish kings and grand dukes of Lithuania (presented to the Radziwills). Meanwhile, a large staircase leads to upper floors.
Who lives above?
The staircase was constructed in the 16th century, and features late-18th century frescoes of battle goddesses, partially restored: the goddess of war, wisdom, arts and crafts, Athena (Minerva); and the goddess of victory, Nika (Victoria). An original casting remains on the staircase.
The high ceiling is decorated by a portrait of Leda, whose tragic history mirrors that of the Castle. Ten years ago, on the night of December 24th-25th, 2002, Nesvizh Castle caught fire. Flames reached the very top and, although fire-fighters succeeded in quickly extinguishing them, the water damaged ‘Leda’, leaving her picture hanging above the staircase, held on only by its frame. Sometime later, the damaged section was closed for restoration, with ‘Leda’ taken to Minsk.
The Ancient Greek myth tells us that Leda, the wife of a Spartan king, was the object of Zeus’ desire. His ravishment, transformed as a swan, led to the birth of Helen, over whom the Trojan War was fought. The Radziwills were Catholics but, like all 18th century educated people, admired antiquity. Unsurprisingly, the picture depicting Leda was placed on the stairwell of the Castle’s main building.
Many thought that ‘Leda’ was a fresco but, after the fire, it became clear that the masterpiece was painted onto linen canvas, glued to the ceiling. Several years ago, I watched her restoration on the floor of Minskrestavratsiya workshop. It took over two years for Vladimir Nikitin and Alexander Tarasik to reclaim her beauty on the 36sq.m canvas. According to Mr. Tarasik, it is unique countrywide, since nowhere else has canvases decorating the ceiling. The scale of the painting is also magnificent. The masters cleaned ‘Leda’ of dust and lacquer and mended holes, allowing her once more to soar above the stairwell, which leads to the second floor and its most beautiful Golden Hall.
Memory of knights’ fame
The Golden Hall was once called the Hall of Knights and Hunting. It has been restored in mid-18th century late Baroque style. From the late 16th century, it housed the dining hall, decorated with portraits of the Radziwills and other officials of the Rzecz Pospolita. In the late18th century, its ceiling was raised one metre and, owing to the great number of gilded elements on its ceiling and walls, was renamed Golden.
As the inventory of 1816 states, the Hall had a gypsum ceiling, with a curtain track. Two gilded coats of arms with crowns were depicted on the ceiling, while the walls featured white panels covered with gold. The floor was parquet and two fireplaces, featuring the Radziwills’ coat of arms, provided warmth. All have been restored and the Golden Hall is housing a wonderful exhibition from London’s Victoria and Albert Museum entitled Royal Treasures: European Masterpieces from 1600-1800 (open since mid-August).
Accessories of nobility
On turning back to the grand stairs and opening the doors of the Golden Hall (leading to the left), you enter two collection rooms of Slutsk Sashes. Ms. Zherko tells me that silk and silk-made items produced by Slutsk are on show there. In the 18th century, they made the most delicate fabrics — including sashes for the nobility. Influenced by the East, these accessories were the height of fashion and, being so intricate, were costly to produce, making them a sign of status and wealth. Until the mid-18th century, woollen and silk sashes were brought to Belarus from Turkey and Iran but Michał Kazimierz Radziwiłł Rybeńko founded a workshop to make such sashes in Slutsk and at Nesvizh’s Alba. Over the course of time, they gained European recognition.
A large collection was always kept at Nesvizh Castle: according to the 1939 inventory, 32 sashes of great artistic value (now on show in the Golden Hall).
Following a special order from abroad
On opening the door on the right hand side of the Golden Hall, you enter the ‘Minerals’ collection room, founded by Michael Kazimierz Radziwiłł Rybeńko in the early 18th century. Often replenished by presents and special orders from abroad, from the mid-17th century, it had been used as the Duchess’ room, then as the Duke’s main sitting room, then as a ward for the sick and, later, as a family sitting room.
The 1767 inventory describes some details of the interior, stating that the room featured a white tiled fireplace (with a mirror in a carved frame), gilded oak walls, a large mirror between the walls, a lamp and war-themed pictures above the doors. The room has been restored in 1880s Neo-Classic style.
Obverse looks at reverse
The room in which coins are kept is situated close to the room of minerals. Its walls are decorated with portraits from the Radziwills’ collection, including those of kings and popes. The room has ancient furniture and, according to Ms. Zherko, it retains its original parquet.
All generations of the Radziwills contributed to the numismatic and phaleristics collections, housed by a room reconstructed in 1886 Neo-Classic style. All the coins are placed in a special mirrored showcase while the bookshelf holds rare 19th century editions presented by the National Library of Belarus.
Angels hide in the tower
The Duchess’ former apartments are situated one floor below the collection rooms. Their wooden decoration and stoves have preserved well since the Radziwills’ times. The halls feature purchased antique furniture and early 20th century pictures depicting the Radziwills.
A small chapel in a local tower deserves special attention, as its interior decoration is well-preserved, with walls decorated in bas-reliefs featuring angels and Christian symbols. All survived the war years and the use of the Radziwills’ residence as a sanatorium in the years afterwards, although luxurious items reminding of the dukes tended to be destroyed or removed to Minsk. Ms. Zherko reveals the chapel’s secrets, saying, “When the sanatorium was operational, the chapel housed all the ‘unnecessary things’ from the castle.”
In the late 17th century, a Radziwills’ portrait gallery, comprising paintings and early 20th century photos, was found in the Duchess’ hallway. Photos have been used to restore its appearance to late 19th century Neo-Classic style and it leads to the East Wing.
Let’s now look at another part, which neighbours the South Wing.
Eagles bearing horns look down from the stove
An identical tower to that housing the chapel is situated on the other side of the Castle, with entry from the first floor, after passing through the Golden Hall by the grand stairs. The route to the tower also passes through the Star Hall and the Duke’s room and bedroom.
In the second half of the 17th century, the Star Hall was known as ‘the lower dining room’ but, in the mid-18th century, it was transformed into the Duchess’ room. Its decorated ceiling led to its celestial name and, in the late 19th century, the ceiling was gilded and a new stove installed, featuring the Radziwills’ coat of arms covered in gold: an eagle with three hunting horns on its chest. The Star Hall remains in its initial state and was named in the 1930s.
The Duke’s room is situated behind and was first mentioned in the late 17th century inventory as a reception room. Later, it housed the Duchess’ room and a sick ward. In the late 19th century, the room was occupied by the estate managers for Duke Anthony Radziwill’s lands. As Elżbieta Radziwiłł-Tomaszewska recollects, in the 1930s, this was a salon for her father, Duke Albrecht. The room was furnished with a desk, which has been positioned just as Elżbieta — the oldest living Radziwill — remembers.
The Duke’s room features a huge bed covered with a baldachin canopy. The bed was purchased from a private collector. In the mid-17th century, it was known as the ‘lower room’ — or the Duke’s room. It had a ladder leading upstairs to an exit on the embankment and a corridor to the Duchess’ bedroom. The library was also situated in the tower, its ceiling decorated with frescoes. The 1816 inventory names the hall as the Duchess’ room, with a cabinet and a pharmacy; the latter has been restored.
The Star Hall leads to one of the most beautiful and authentic halls: the Fireplace, or Large Dining Room, situated in the South Wing.
The room is decorated with wooden panels, which were removed from the walls for restoration. As the panels were cleaned, beneath a layer of lacquer, it was found that each panel had been originally decorated with veneer incrustation, by Italian masters. Each is unique. The fireplace is also decorated with the coat of arms of the Radziwill family.
The room was created in the mid-17th century, used as a dining area and gallery. A mid-17th century inventory states that it held 12 pictures (mostly landscapes), in addition to 16 metal sculptures (on painted gilded pedestals). In the mid-18th century, Michał Kazimierz Radziwiłł Rybeńko hung Ksawery Heske’s pictures and its most modern interior dates from the late 19th century. Some portraits have returned after being removed in 1939 and taken to Minsk museums.
Union to love
The second floor of the South Wing is occupied by the Hetman Hall; in the late 18th century, it was used to celebrate the wedding of Michał Kazimierz Radziwiłł Rybeńko and FrantiЁka Ursula (of the Vishnevetsky family). Of course, Ursula later made her mark in creating her own theatre at the castle.
The Hetman Hall featured two portrait galleries, with canvases drawn under the guidance of Ksawery Heske. In 1791, the ceiling was painted, with 24 portraits decorating its walls. By the mid-1880s, a library had been set up and, in the early 20th century, the Hunting Hall was established, after repairs were made. In the late 19th-early 20th century, it featured 17 portraits of Radziwill family members.
Ms. Zherko reveals, “Modern restorers discovered that, initially, the room was half as tall again, with the space used for an attic. We’ve now returned the ceiling to its original height.”
Alexander Alexeev and Oleg Lukashevich, from the National State TV and Radio Company, took photos of Radziwill portraits hanging in Warsaw’s National Museum. It had received them from the Belarusian Government in the 1950s, as a gift to Poland. The photos were then reproduced on canvas, to return copies of the paintings to their original home in the Hetman Hall of Nesvizh Castle.
The Kamenitsa (the neighbouring tower) and the Arsenal (situated on the opposite side of the courtyard) are the oldest parts of the Castle, built in the late 16th century. The second floor of the Kamenitsa now houses a luxury hotel exclusively for VIPs, with only the first floor open to the public. Before restoration began, part of the floor was designed to house a restaurant. Chinese style frescoes were then discovered, creating a dining area where guests can truly enjoy a unique Eastern environment. Clearly, the Radziwills appreciated foreign cultures. Mr. Klimov invites us all to come for a meal, enjoying local cuisine and soaking up the atmosphere.
Tea with the Radziwills
The Fireplace, or Large Dining Hall, of the South Wing leads to the Drawing Room where the family would have taken tea. An 18th century tea set is set out there today. In the 16th-18th century, it was used as a living room for guests, as well as a more casual dining room. In the second half of the 18th century, it underwent some repair, becoming the Grand, or Mosaic, Hall (being decorated with mosaics). From 1939 to the 1980s, it was used as a dining room.
Wonderful view from windows
A door leads from the Drawing Room to the Ballroom, which housed living rooms for guests in the 16th-17th century. In the mid-18th century, it became a stateroom and, from 1829-1832, its mosaics and mouldings were restored — led by Jan Jelski, from Vilno. Further repairs in the 1870-80s brought traces of Neo-Classicism to the room.
As Elżbieta Radziwiłł-Tomaszewska recollects, from the 1920-30s, the room was called the Ballroom. It is one of the rooms of the Castle which enjoys a view and its walls are decorated with fabric. Most unusually, it was found that the columns connecting the floor with the ceiling are made from modest straw beneath their alabaster. Many details have remained unchanged since the days of the Radziwills and the National Art Museum has returned stone busts of Anthony Wilhelm Radziwill and his wife Maria. These occupied niches in the Museum but Sergey Drushchits, who has headed the restoration works, has proven that they initially sat beside the fireplaces. These have been restored, with the busts nearby and mirrors placed to reflect them. These mirrors also brighten the room, catching rays of autumn sun from the large windows. The room opens out onto a terrace with wonderful views across the ponds surrounding the Castle.
Revived from ruins
Part of the castle remains in ruin, having been destroyed to be constructed anew a few years ago. Sadly, its weak foundations — from Radziwill times — have cracked.
Wineglasses of Naliboki’s gentry
The first floor of the East Wing is occupied by a room housing private collections from across Belarus. Some will probably be later purchased by the Nesvizh National Historical-Cultural Museum-Reserve. Many are worthy of admiration: delicate wineglasses produced in Naliboki in the 18th century (decorated with noble families’ coat of arms), French tapestries and silverware. In the early 18th century, the room was used by King Radziwiłł Panie Kochanku.
The second floor of the East Wing is now called the Hunting Hall. Its billiard table (made by American Brunswick in 1896) is its most valuable exhibit, belonging to the Radziwills until 1939. Legend says that, in 1926, the Head of Poland — Jуzef Klemens Piłsudski — played with Leon Radziwill and, in 1939, Soviet writer Valentin Kataev called billiards ‘the silent witness of the rise and fall of the age’.
Initially, the Hunting Hall led to the chapel, of which I’ll talk later. The chapel is situated behind the next doors, in the Arsenal.
In the late 18th century, the second floor of the East Wing housed a gallery of portraits of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania hetmans. It’s now filled with hunting trophies: the horns of elks, stuffed bears and wood grouse. There’s a case of original hunting rifles from the early 20th century — made in Austria and France, while the walls are decorated with photos of scenes from Radziwill hunting campaigns.
Secret of 16th century chest
Nesvizh Castle’s Arsenal was initially a one storey building but, later, two more floors were added, as well as an additional block. As a result, it became a huge building, neighbouring the East Wing. In the 17th century, its ground floor held 30 large guns — most of them cast in the late 16th century (in the times of Mikołaj Krzysztof Radziwiłł Sierotka). None remain although two were found in St. Petersburg and used to make copies.
The most interesting exhibits of weaponry are two 16th century chests: one is closed and the other open. Ms. Zherko explains, “Both have extremely complicated locking mechanisms so, after our staff accidentally closed one, it couldn’t be opened again. It may keep its secrets forever.”
FrantiЁka Ursula invites us for a performance
On the second floor of the Arsenal, the closed doors of the Theatre are opened by Lyudmila Komisarova, using an ancient key. Over 200 years ago, King Radziwiłł Panie Kochanku welcomed the last King of the Rzecz Pospolita, Stanisław August Poniatowski, to this room — also known as the Royal Hall.
The Theatre has been revamped in Classic style, with Rococo elements. Restorers have decorated its walls with frescoes featuring scenes from performances by FrantiЁka Ursula Radziwill — copied from 18th century engravings. She wrote several plays, one of which — The Abduction of Europe — is being staged at Minsk’s Yanka Kupala Theatre. Not long ago, it saw success in London.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit
The chapel occupies half of the Arsenal, which neighbours the East Wing and covers three floors. You can reach it from the Hunting Hall, walking through a gallery which encircles the chapel. Its ground floor altar is surrounded by frescoes on the walls and many large and small candlesticks are on floor — all taken from the Roman Catholic Church of God’s Body. Like many other treasures now exhibited in the Arsenal, these had been stored in the town’s church cellars. An exhibition of 16th-early 20th century artefacts is on show, including Roman Catholic clergy vestments, ceremonial articles (including huge pincers to bake obleys), sculptures of saints and ancient books (one bears the signature of famous local organist Edvard Girdo).
As in Paris
My tour of Nesvizh Castle is over. If you pay a visit, you should allow at least four hours and will need to buy a ticket from the information desk near the Roman Catholic Church of God’s Body. You can also find information on Nesvizh and its sights, with Internet access provided. Souvenirs are sold nearby, made by local craftsmen.
You can even stay for a night in the Castle’s former stables, which have been converted into bedrooms. Only VIP guests may stay in the Castle itself. Booking should be made a week in advance.
Local Straunya restaurant offers good cuisine and the Hetman Hall and Theatre can be hired for international scientific conferences, business meetings and weddings, at a cost of over 200 Euros per hour.
The grounds are now to receive attention, with works planned for Zamkovy Castle, and Japanese, Marysinsky and English gardens to be recreated. The Radziwills’ residence is a work of art — ‘a Belarusian Versailles’. A proverb even exists which compares Nesvizh with Paris.
By Viktar Korbut
Nesvizh Castlereveals its secrets
[b]Grey autumn has come but Nesvizh Castle, with its long history and powerful legacy, stands magnificent. You can’t help but feel yourself slip into fantasies of past times; the atmosphere is so romantic. It’s said that ‘Nesvizh is like Paris’ but, of course, the Radziwills’ castle — opened in July after restoration — hardly rivals the Louvre or Versailles in its collections...[/b]