Miodowa Street (Warsaw)

The historical part of Warsaw’s Old Town (Stare Miasto) dates back to the thirteenth century. Most of it was destroyed during the Second World War but later painstakingly reconstructed. Miodowa Street is located in the Old Town and links Feta Street with Krasiński Square. Miodowa literally means honey. In the sixteenth century the street was famous for its ginger bread shops – hence its name. The street has a rather tasty cultural history too.

Bernardo Bellotto was a Venetian urban landscape painter or vedutista, famous for his views of European cities such as Dresden, Vienna, or Turin. He was the pupil and nephew of Canaletto and sometimes used the latter’s name, signing himself as Bernardo Canaletto. Like many fellow artists, he was a well-travelled man. In 1764, he accepted an invitation from Poland’s newly elected king, Stanisław August Poniatowski, to become his court painter in Warsaw. Here he remained for the rest of his life, producing numerous delightful urban views. With meticulous detail he depicted the streets and architecture of the capital. In 1777, he painted a view Miodowa Street with the hustle and bustle of the traffic and the architectural splendour of its Rococo palaces, mansions and churches. One of the buildings (the roof at least) which the artist included on the painting is the late seventeenth century church of the Capuchins, founded by King Jan III Sobieski. The church was built by Tylman van Gameren, an architect and engineer who was born in Utrecht. At the age of twenty-eight he settled in Poland where he was employed by Maria Kazimiera, wife of King Jan III. Tylman was responsible for a number of buildings that are regarded as gems of Baroque architecture. In Poland, he is known as Tylman Gamerski.

How did such a talented Dutch artist end up in Poland? In a time that the notion of nationhood was not a matter of concern, Holland was effectively made up of cities. This city-culture created a society that did not nurture the leading role of an aristocracy as was the case elsewhere in Europe. Socio-economic life was dominated by well-to-do ‘burghers’ who lived and worked in the cities. Equality of opportunity in Dutch economic life gave society a competitive edge that was unrivalled. The Dutch ‘Golden Age’ was an era of extraordinary vitality, be it in economic, scientific or artistic terms. With the growing prosperity of the Republic, the demand for works of art increased. Intense competition made art cheap. It meant that painters needed to supplement their income in order to keep their families afloat. Jan Steen ran a public house, Jan van de Capelle was a textile merchant, Willem Kalf an antique dealer, Jacob van Ruysdael was a surgeon, and most cruelly of all: Meindert Hobbema stopped painting altogether after marriage. He found a more lucrative job in an Amsterdam tax office. The seventeenth century produced too many artists and not enough clients. The market was too small for such an overwhelming presence of talent. To young artists, the presence of so many painters proved inhibiting. For many there was but one solution: move – move elsewhere, anywhere. And move they did during the Golden Age. They moved in droves. They headed for England, Italy, Sweden, Germany, even for Russia. It is interesting to note that foreign ambassadors in the Netherlands functioned as ‘scouts’ who encouraged artists to move abroad with the promise of employment or commissions. William Temple for instance was known to persuade artists to cross the Channel and settle in England. The situation for a talented young architect was similar to that of other artists. Tylman was trained by Jacob van Campen whilst the latter was busy building the famous Amsterdam Stadhuis on the Dam. In 1650, Tylman left for Italy, the dream and ambition of any seventeenth century artist. While in Venice, he earned the reputation as a skilled painter of battle scenes. In 1660, he was working in Leiden. There he met Prince Jerzy Sebastian Lubomirski, and accepted the tempting invitation to come to Poland as his architect and military engineer (to design fortifications). From 1670 onwards, he won fame as a court architect of palaces, gardens, country houses, monasteries and churches in and around Warsaw. In 1685 he was formally acknowledged as a Polish nobleman. Van Gameren left behind more than seventy grand buildings and a collection of architectural some 1,000 drawings.

The most famous person to hang around Miodowa Street was young Chopin. Thanks to his extensive correspondence, much can be learned about the composer’s favourite places in Warsaw. One of them was the area on and around Miodowa Street where the entire social life of the Polish capital was concentrated. The street had a number of bookshops. One of the shops which sold books about musical composition was owned by Antoni Brzezina who, between 1822 and 1832, ran a firm that published mainly small piano compositions of Polish composers: Chopin, Elsner, Kurpiński, and Ogiński. After 1832 Sennewald took over the publishing house. Young Chopin was a regular customer at Brzezina’s shop. The surrounding area had numerous cafés where students and intellectuals debated for hours about art and politics. Apparently, Chopin could be found here almost every day. It was in this area that the composer’s early career took off. In January 1821 a new music society was established under the aegis of the Warsaw Merchant Club, located at that time at Miodowa Street. The merchants of the city were keen to promote art, culture and entertainment for the benefit of the educated classes in town and in support of various altruistic causes. The first confirmed Chopin performance at the club took place on 19 December 1829. Krasiński Square was the former home to the Polish National Theatre. It was the site where Chopin premiered his first piano concerto in March of 1830. Six months later he played his farewell concert there before leaving the country forever.