The Wawel Castle, located in central Kraków, Poland, was ordered to be built by King Casimir III the Great. It is comprised of a number of structures constructed around an Italian styled main courtyard. The castle is one of the largest in Poland, and is representative of the European architectural styles of medieval, renaissance and baroque periods.
The Wawel Royal Castle and the Wawel Hill represent the most historically and culturally significant site in all of Poland. In 1978 it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site as part of the Historic Centre of Kraków.
For centuries the castle was residence of the kings of Poland and the symbol of Polish statehood. Today it is one of the country’s premier art museums. Established in 1930, the museum encompasses ten curatorial departments responsible for collections of paintings, including an important collection of Italian Renaissance paintings, prints, sculpture, textiles, goldsmith’s work, arms and armor, ceramics, Meissen porcelain, and period furniture. Among the significant textiles is the Sigismund II Augustus tapestry collection. The museum’s holdings in oriental art include the largest collection of Ottoman tents in Europe.
Wawel Hill, the site of the Castle, has been inhabited since the Paleolithic Age, fifty thousand years ago. The settlement was apparently bustling with trade, assorted crafts and local farming. When more people began to settle on the Wawel Hill and trade became more efficient, the rulers of Poland also took up residence on the Hill.
During the early 16th century King Sigismund I the Old and his wife brought in the best native and foreign artists including Italian architects, sculptors, and German decorators, to refurbish the castle into a splendid Renaissance palace. It soon became a paragon of stately residence in Central and Eastern Europe and served as a model for palaces throughout the region.
A fire in 1595 burned down the northeast part of the castle. King Sigismund III Vasa rebuilt it, but only the Senator Stairs and the fireplace in the Bird Room remain today from what was built.
In 1609 King Sigismund moved the capital to Warsaw, and tough times for Wawel began. Both the castle and other buildings were neglected despite the concerns of local governors. The Swedish invasions of 1655–1657 and 1702 contributed to the further deterioration of the castle. The Hill was occupied by the Prussian Army in 1794. As an important defensive point Wawel was mostly demolished in 1795. The remaining part was modernized by Austrians with defensive walls. The interior of the castle was changed and some of the buildings pulled down. In the second part of the 19th century the Austrians redesigned the defensive walls making them a part of a stronghold. In 1905 the emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria ordered Austrian troops to leave Wawel. Restoration works began soon after, and the Rotunda of Virgin Mary as well as other relics of the past were discovered.
After World War I, the authorities of the newly independent Polish Second Republic decided that Wawel Castle was to become a representative building of the Polish state and would be used by the Governor and later by the President himself. In 1921 the Polish Parliament passed a resolution which gave Wawel official status as the residence of the President of Poland. Following World War II the State National Council decreed Wawel Castle would become a national museum, a role it still serves as.
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