By Viktar Korbut
The walls are over 400 years old, built by Mikolaj Radziwill Sierotka — a famous traveller and devoted Christian who made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and then returned to Nesvizh (a town south-west of Minsk). He invited Italian architects to construct a castle, town hall, Catholic church, monasteries and towers — all stand today and are on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
In Belarusian and Polish, ‘kamenitsa’ is a building constructed from stone. Since most buildings in Belarus were built from timber four hundred years ago, the appearance of a stone residence in Nesvizh — the Kamenitsa at the Castle — was an extraordinary event. It recently reopened, welcoming visitors, as Sergey Klimov, Director of the Nesvizh National Historical and Cultural Museum-Reserve, says. He leads me through its restored halls and we climb a staircase to the second floor. Immediately, we find ourselves in a restaurant. In the times of the Radziwills, these were living rooms. Recently, restorers uncovered an 18th century fresco on the walls, in Chinese style. It seems that artists were actually brought from China to undertake the work.
The White Ballroom is situated opposite the restaurant, its walls decorated with tapestries and sculptural compositions. Many details remain from the times of the Radziwills — almost untouched. Meanwhile, 200 people can simultaneously sit in the Chimney or Main Dining Hall — the hosting hall of the castle. Sadly, few items of furniture or interior adornment remain from the days of the Radziwills, although some appear occasionally at auction or from private collections.
Mr. Klimov explains why the treasures have been lost, “The last of the Nesvizh Radziwills — Duke Dominik — joined Napoleon and perished in 1813. The castle was then confiscated by the Russian Empire and given to Dominik’s adopted daughter, Stefania, who married a Russian nobleman called Wittgenstein. They paid little attention to the property, so it was only in the late 19th century that things were brought into order — by Maria Dorotea de Castellane, wife of Prussian General Anthony Radziwill. The family moved from Berlin to Nesvizh, making it their permanent home, and began to restore the estate.” Full restoration of the unique site only began this century, following an order by the President of Belarus.
Mr. Klimov shows me other halls where restorers are still at work, and tells me about future exhibitions. “My colleagues and I have compiled a list of what should be purchased to decorate the halls,” notes Mr. Klimov. “We need tapestries, vases and clocks, costing around $1m. Many exhibits have already been bought — currently kept in storerooms. Soon, items from the collection of Duke Maciej Radziwill will appear in the castle, donated temporarily from his own collection in Warsaw. Slutsk sashes, minerals, coins and medals once belonging to the Radziwills will be on display. The website www.radziwill.by has further details and has been operating for two years already, run by those who are passionate about Belarusian history.”
Nesvizh recently hosted its second musical festival, featuring the National Academic Bolshoi Opera and Ballet Theatre: Nights of the Bolshoi Theatre at Radziwill Castle. The venue was perfect, since it acquired a court theatre in the mid-18th century, organised by Franciska Ursula Radziwill. She staged her own plays at Nesvizh in the Polish language, as well as comedies and tragedies by French playwrights. Radziwill Castle has been a major centre of culture in Belarus for four centuries, being ‘an outpost of European culture among forests and marshes’, as noted by Mr. Klimov.
More regular theatrical performances are planned once restoration of the Theatrical Hall is complete; it was especially built in the 18th century, over one of the residential buildings, to welcome Polish King Stanislaw August Poniatowski. Now, anyone, regardless of title or rank, can enter the grand reception room.