If you ever visit Poland, the country in Central Europe which is a really great idea you should see royal palaces and mansions and learn a history that is hidden behind their walls. You can be surprised how breathtaking it can be. Now I shall tell you a story about Wilanów Royal Palace, a historical site that is located in nowadays vivid district of Warsaw, my home town. I love travelling abroad to experience different cultures and people, interesting stories, beautiful landscapes and places of interest but I must say my country offers you no less compelling attractions and great stories about ancient times. Are you ready to read about Wilanów Palace? Shall we start our historic journey?
Once upon a time behind seven valleys and seven hills there lived a King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania John III Sobieski. The fairy tale introduction will make sense if I tell you my country was once called “a land of milk and honey” which meant the Poles lived with their butter mountains and wine lakes.
John III Sobieski and Marysieńka
John III Sobieski was a very important European ruler and a great man in history. His military skills, demonstrated in wars against the Ottoman Empire, contributed to his prowess as a King of Poland. His 22-year reign marked a period of the Commonwealth’s stabilization, much needed after the turmoil of the Deluge (Potop Szwedzki) and the Khmelnytsky Uprising (Powstanie Chmielnickiego). He was an able military commander, most famous for his victory over the Turks at the 1683 Battle of Vienna. After his victories over them, the Ottomans called him the “Lion of Lechistan” (Lechistan being an ancient name of Poland) and the Pope Urban VIII called him the savior of Christendom.
John III Sobieski had a beautiful wife whom he loved very much and it was her for whom the palace was built. It was located in Wilanów, previously named Milanów as the baroque villa, a suburban and country residence. Wilanów is in fact all about love story and history of Poland.
The story of John III Sobieski and his wife Marysieńka is what modern cinema needs. Loyalty and disloyalty, war and idyll, politics and scandals. And big love which was ahead of an era.
Marie Casimire Louise de la Grange d’Arquien, our Marysieńka as most Polish people address the Queen by the very diminutive form of her first name (she is widely remembered and referred to in Poland that way) was a French girl who came to Poland as a lady in waiting Marie Louise Gonzaga, the French-born Queen of Poland from 1645 to 1672, wife and consort to two Polish kings — Władysław IV Vasa and later his brother who succeeded him John II Casimir Vasa. Marysieńka was four when she moved to Poland and fourteen when she met John Sobieski, one of the richest Polish magnates. They liked each other very much and Marysieńka felt that John – as we used to call it nowadays – had her under his skin. It would be too simple if they were allowed to celebrate their love as young people, got married and lived happily ever after. They had to wait for marriage and life together a little bit longer. Meanwhile Marysieńka was given in marriage to John “Sobiepan” Zamoyski, Polish nobleman, magnate and crown butler who went down in history as the one who closed Zamość city gate in Swedish invaders` face. They had no “they lived happily ever after” kind of marriage. He was unfaithful, had lots of lovers and suffered venereal disease which caused death of their three daughters in infancy. That`s why he usually kept his wife off and young Lady Marysieńka was bored and neglected. They lived in Zamość, a beautiful city in Eastern Poland and John Sobieski stayed in country residence nearby. Their feeling came alive. They were keeping secret correspondence and letter by letter becoming closer to each other and deeper in love. He called her “the queen of heart”, she called him Celadon the Shepherd (a fictional character in a pastoral novel “L’Astrée” written by Honoré d’Urfé). Celadon was deeply in love with Astrée, Marysieńka`s secret nickname. It must have ended this way – they got secretly married in capitol church of Carmelitas. Today we could call it a bigamy but luckily this singular ceremony was both lovers` top secret.
Getting married or shooting himself
The husband of Marysieńka John “Sobiepan” Zamoyski was defeated by disease and died in 1665 leaving a 24-year old widow childless and extremely rich. And suddenly John Sobieski instead of feeling free to be eventually with Marysieńka got a strange attitude. When all obstacles vanished he started avoiding her. She disliked it very much but she wouldn`t have been a woman if she had had no tricks. Marysieńka and the queen set a trap for him. Marie Casimir was supposed to avoid John for a week showing him how deeply he hurt her feelings. And she had done the job very efficiently. The week passed and John was madly in love with her. Eventually young widow agreed to meet. She appointed date and venue of their rendezvous. They met in the queen`s chamber. When John met her he couldn`t resist himself. He was all about Marysieńka and while he was kissing her passionately the queen walked in. The moment was more awkward since the queen told him to marry Marysieńka right away, at night, no excuse accepted. He had one choice only: he would marry “disgraced widow” or head shoot himself. He chose the former, of course, leaving the latter to the others. They got married in secret hoping that no one would know this. In 17th century there were not mass media nor online media but news could spread like wildfire. There was rather a big scandal. When Marie Casimire arrived to Zamość she found closed door. When she asked the guards if they knew who she was, they answered: “Yes, we do. Mrs Sobieska”. She was punished for what she had done and had to settle for 450 thousands zloties instead of 800 thousands. But in fact it was a huge fortune and her husband was one of the richest magnates in Poland.
Marysieńka turned to be an excellent wife, devoted herself to beloved husband. She gave him 13 children, four of them reached adulthood. John Sobieski was finally crowned a king May 21st 1674, not without her influence. As the Queen of Poland, Marie Casimire supported the proposed Polish–French alliance, while at the same time striving to gain privileges for her family from the French king Louis XIV.
The Wilanów Palace
The Wilanów Palace was built just for her. John III Sobieski had bought Milanów estate in 1677 and he oversaw construction personally. Located not so far away from Royal Castle in Old Town it allowed the King to have all state issues sorted. If you get to Warsaw one day you ought to drive The Royal Tract which is connecting both royal buildings.
The Wilanów Palace represents the characteristic type of baroque suburban residence built entre cour et jardin (between the entrance court and the garden). Its architecture is original, a merger of generally European art with distinctively Polish building traditions. Upon its elevations and in the palace interiors ancient symbols glorify the Sobieski family, especially the military triumphs of the king.
The Palace mirrors my country`s history. It survived Poland’s partitions and both World Wars, and so serves as a reminder of the culture of the Polish state as it was before the misfortunes of the 18th century.
It is one of Poland’s most important monuments. The Palace’s museum, established in 1805, is a repository of the country’s royal and artistic heritage. Both the palace and garden in Wilanów host many cultural events and concerts, including Summer Royal Concerts in the Rose Garden, the International Summer Early Music Academy and Royal Garden of Light. The latter is open till March 13th and really worth seeing.
The Golden Courtyard
When you walk in the Golden Courtyard which will be first on your map you will take a journey to the times of The Crown of the Kingdom of Poland (Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth). You must know that 445 years ago Poland was the biggest European country. Commonwealth made us as big as Germany is nowadays. But ad rem… When I was in the Courtyard I felt that it really happened. I went to the past, entered the baroque and any moment Marysieńka would go outside and welcome arriving king. But I checked myself and it was still me wearing my own current clothes.
Golden Courtyard itself is a light installation mounted at the heart of the Wilanów residence. My vision was correct as this is where King John III used to hold ceremonial parades, entering the Palace area in a richly decorated carriage. If you go there you will have an inimitable chance to go into an illuminated carriage yourself and feel like a crowned head. Just like that. One step only and you are in another era.
The path leading to the courtyard is worth noting. It is also unusual. Walking under a golden canopy and passing by an illuminated candelabra along the Promenade of Light, you will get straight to the royal suite.
The Garden of Imagination
You can take a few more steps and enter The Garden of Imagination. You will feel as if you were in Wonderland. The whole illumination here and there is fabulous. The Garden is an installation comprising 300,000 colourful lamps that brighten up the garden surrounding the Palace. They are arranged into Baroque shapes, which in the summer are formed by flowers and in the winter by thousands of diodes. The lights in the Garden of Imagination are harmoniously blended with music. It`s spectacular, spectacular! Individual exhibition elements illuminate to the theme of “Waltz of the Flowers” from “The Nutcracker” by Piotr Tchaikovsky, “Masquerade Waltz” by Aram Khachaturian and “Morning” by Edvard Grieg, delivering a truly breathtaking experience.
The King’s Magic Garden
If you carry on to another attraction you will find the King’s Magic Garden which is a light installation located in the garden, next to the Orangery. This extraordinary garden does not hibernate for the winter. Quite the contrary, this is when it is brightened up with a multitude of colours and astounding shapes. To break the autumn and winter monotony, let yourself be enchanted by the numerous lights and colours, and the diversity afforded by the King’s Magic Garden. While walking along the illuminated alleys, you will get the chance to admire a variety of plant and animal species that used to inhabit King John III’s garden over 300 years ago. The colourful plants and creatures seem so huge that even adult visitors might feel like children!
On some evenings, the façade of the Wilanów Palace changes beyond recognition… The characteristic yellowish colour of the Wilanów walls is replaced with myriad lights and shades blended with magic Baroque sounds. These are called mappings, 3D performances that combine lights, images and sounds. They are displayed on the façade of Wilanów Palace and use its architectural elements to create an illusion of a revived building. During the shows, you will see King John III with his wife Marysieńka, appearing at the Palace windows. When I was there in January it was freezing, temperature around -8ºC. But you must believe me I wasn`t cold. Now weather is much nicer and it will be getting warmer. You should take a chance and see mappings in Wilanów in person.
What can I say more to encourage you to go to Wilanów? The Palace, together with other elements of Warsaw Old Town, is one of Poland’s official national Historic Monuments (Pomnik historii), as designated September 16, 1994. Its listing is maintained by the National Heritage Board of Poland. Since 2006, the palace has been a member of the international association of European Royal Residences.
Previously suburban, Wilanów is now a very stylish Warsaw district. Middle and upper class live there. So if you ever visit Warsaw, Wilanów should be on your “must-see” list. See you there!
By Agata Szostkowska
Photos Agata Szostkowska: Wilanów, The Golden Courtyard,The Garden of Imagination, Mappings.