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Heritage and Historic Buildings

MEDIEVAL CITY

As with many old cities, Vilnius’ great attraction is its Old Town, which is one of the most extensive in eastern and middle Europe. The well-preserved network of mediaeval streets and the numerous buildings retaining a mediaeval character bear witness to the city’s rich history.
 
The Old Town of Vilnius began to form at the junction of the Vilnia and Neris rivers, a spot that had already been inhabited by Balts since the 5th–6th centuries. By the 13th century there was a fortress on Gediminas’ Hill, surrounded by the makings of a city, including some stone/brick buildings. What remains of the castle on Gediminas’ Hill today is the tower of the western section, the foundations of a tower in the southern section and part of the palace that stood adjacent to the fortress. At the beginning of the 14th century, Šv. Mikalojaus (Saint Michael’s) church was constructed, the oldest remaining church in Vilnius and all of Lithuania. As the town developed, in the 14th century the Town Hall Square appeared (it was formerly a marketplace). This was the central square of the city and it clarified the radial structure of the city (streets radiating out in various directions from a central point).
 
In the 15th and 16th centuries some Gothic buildings were erected in Vilnius. These included the Franciscan, Dominican and Bernardine monasteries, the new Merchants’ Guild buildings, and Gothic style Russian churches. However, in 1471 fire destroyed much of the budding Gothic city and many sacred buildings were lost. From 1503 to 1522 construction took place of a defensive wall around the most densely inhabited part of the city (about 90 ha). The construction was started on the orders of Grand Duke Aleksandras, in order to protect the city from the attacks of Tartars and other enemies of Lithuania at that time. The walls had nine gates, the only one of which remains to this day is Aušros Vartai (the Dawn or Eastern Gate). Some sections of the wall are still standing. In Šv. Dvasios (Holy Spirit) Street there is still a section of the wall with narrow archers’ windows, and at the end of that street stands a defensive fortification known as Bastėja (‘the Bastille’). At Pylimo Street, No. 30 there is a small section of wall with narrow archers’ windows, and at Rūdininkų Street, No. 13 there is a restored section of the wall.
 
Not only in these places do you feel a mediaeval spirit. The observant open-minded traveller will feel the spirit around in the curves of every Old Town street, in its courtyards and in its unexpected little side streets.

BAROQUE PERL

Like no other Eastern European city, Vilnius has earned the title of Baroque Capital. This title is strengthened by the fact that Vilnius represents the northernmost limit of the Baroque style, which is considered to be a ‘southern’ style. The Baroque fashion (the name comes from the Italian word barocco, meaning ‘unusual’ or ‘ornate’) began in Italy at the end of the 16th century and dominated new construction in Europe from the beginning of the 17th century to the end of the 18th century. Some characteristic of this architectural style are grandiosity, luxury, dynamism, balancing of the refined and the coarse, of abstract symbolism and naturalistic elements. The Baroque period coincided with the main era of construction of Vilnius’ sacred buildings (churches, Russian churches, convents, monasteries). Distinct local nuances of the Baroque style developed the “Vilnius school”, which is considered to be the last flash of late Baroque in Europe.
 
The city skyline was enriched by the graceful, dynamic silhouettes of many churches and bell towers, adorned with metalwork details. A special feature of Vilnius Baroque is the style of church façades with graceful twin spires (Šv. Kotrynos (St Catherine’s), Misionierių (Missionaries’), Šv. Rapolo (St Raphael’s). Two outstanding examples of Vilnius Baroque are Saint Casimir’s church (construction commenced 1604), which stands out from others for its rather ungainly lower part and its cupola with a crown (it is believed that this church is the earliest example of the twin-spire Vilnius Baroque style), and the Church of the Saints John (Šv. Jonų bažnyčia), built in the second quarter of the 18th century. The architecture of this church and its bell tower blend harmoniously with the other buildings of Vilnius University, of which the church building forms a part.
 
The story of Vilnius Baroque is intertwined with historical reality: the city’s geopolitical situation, the fires and wars that assailed it. At the beginning of the 18th century, Vilnius was still often afflicted by fires, not a wealthy city, unable to afford to indulge in the very latest European fashions, forced to rely on its own resources. This is what stimulated the development of a distinct local style and its authenticity.
 
Vilnius’ reputation as a Baroque city is reinforced by the attention Vilnius pays to Baroque music. There are several chamber music ensembles in Vilnius that play Baroque music. In the spring, there is the old music festival “Sugrįžimai” (“Returns”), and in the autumn, there is “Banchetto musicale”. Baroque music regularly features in the programmes of larger festivals.