The National Museum – Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania was founded in 2009 to collect, preserve, conserve, restore, research, interpret, and display in the restored historical residence of Vilnius Lower Castle the history and cultural heritage of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and its rulers, especially the rich and important collections of archaeological artifacts and European decorative and fine arts. We aim to do this through our scholarship and publications, innovative educational programs and tours, performances, as well as permanent and temporary exhibitions. The Palace will be an important venue for state ceremonial events and the dissemination of tourist information about Lithuania and its historic sites.
The restoration of Palace of the Grand Dukes in 2009 is one of the most important projects dedicated to Lithuania’s one-thousandth anniversary. Lithuania was first mentioned in a German manuscript, The Quedlinburg Chronicle, in AD 1009. The restoration also commemorates Vilnius as the European Capital of Culture in 2009. The reconstructed Palace of the Grand Dukes shall once again become a symbol of national pride and be a powerful reminder of Lithuania’s strong traditions as a state. The palace shall also be an educational center meant to promote a greater understanding of the country’s history while providing a venue for presenting cultural heritage.
The Grand Dukes of Lithuania had their residences at both the Lower and Upper Castles in the capital city of Vilnius. Until the turn of the sixteenth century, the primary residence of the grand dukes was in the Upper Castle, where even today the ruins of this Gothic Palace can still be found. The Vilnius castle was meant to stress Lithuania’s status as a medieval state that stretched from the Baltic to the Black Seas. In fact, Grand Duke Vytautas (1392–1430) had planned his royal coronation at Vilnius’s Upper Castle. Toward the end of the fifteenth century, it is believed that the Grand Duke Alexander Jagiellon (1492–1506) moved his residence from the Upper to the Lower Castle.
Renaissance reconstruction of the palace was finished before the fire of 1530 during the reign of Sigismund the Old (1506–1548). Afterwards, Sigismund’s wife, Bona Sforza undoubtedly had a tremendous influence on the building’s further development. She succeeded in changing the palace into a modern European residence. It is believed that both the Italian architect, Bartolomeo Berrecci da Pontassieve, and the Polish architect, Benedykt Sandomierzanin, could have designed projects for the reconstruction of the palace. However, it is well known that the Italian artist, Bernardino Zanobi de Gianotis, worked on the palace.
As the last of the Lithuanian Jagiellon dynasty, Sigismund Augustus (1548–1572) began to exercise control of Lithuania in 1544. During this time, he began new initiatives to expand the palace. A “New Palace” was attached to the earlier residence. Giovanni Cini, an Italian architect and sculptor from Siena, Giovanni Maria Mosca Padovano, Filippo Bartolomeo da Fiesole, as well as other well-known masters from Central European lands assisted with the new construction.
The rulers of Lithuania and Poland during the Swedish Vasa dynasty were very concerned with the appearance of the Vilnius residence as they attempted to compete with the growing powers of Sweden and Moscow. After a fire in 1610, the palace was rebuilt in Northern Mannerist style. Peter Nonhart and William Pohl saw to the repairs. In the 1620s, the building acquired an early Italian Baroque features. At that same time, Saint Casimir’s Chapel was built next to the cathedral.
Efforts were led by the Italian architect,
Constate Tencalla. He had worked before with the famous architect Carlo Maderno.
The sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries can be referred to as a “golden period” for the palace. Emissaries from across Europe and even the Near East were received at the palace. Many historic events took place at the palace: Vassals of the duchies of Prussia and Courland would swear allegiance to the grand duke, policies of grand dukes were executed here, privileges were granted and treaties signed, Council of Nobles and Parliament convened, Lithuanian statutes were amended, Lithuanian Metrica and treasury were under guard,
Money was minted.
By the time of Sigismund Augustus, the palace already could boast a large library, impressive tapestries, weapons, armor, paintings, as well as hunting trophies. The papal legate, Bernardino Buongiovanni, is even noted to have observed the palace’s treasure and jewels.
The palace’s golden age came to an end in 1655, when the Russian army occupied Lithuania’s capital. For six whole years the army took residence in the palace, devestating and looting its premises. The palace again suffered in 1661, when efforts were made to rid the palace of its troops. As a result of the treasury’s mournful state, reconstruction of the palace was impossible afterwards. After the final partion of the Commonwealth of Poland and Lithuania in 1795, the Russian Empire enforced a policy to destroy all signs of the Lithuanian state. From 1799 to 1801, the Russian administration initated the demolition of the remaining walls of the palace. In 1831, when Lithuanians rebelled against the Russian government, tsarist officials took additional steps to destroy the ruins of the palace and even attempted to demolish the foundation of the palace. Authorities agreed to establish on the hill, where the castle was situated, a fort and to dig a trench around it.
Full-scale archeological research of the palace grounds started only in 1987. Since this time they have excavated over 300,000 different types of objects. In 2000-2001, the Lithuanian Parliament and the National Government agreed that the Palace of the Grand Dukes of Lithuania would be restored. Restoration efforts were considered to be of foremost importance – both culturally and historically, since it represents a return of a significant symbol of the Lithuania’s sovereignce and the restoration of the country’s historical rights. At the historical residence of the grand dukes, there will be a multi-functional cultural center.