My husband and I picked up a print we liked at the Erie Book Store around 2006, framed it, and it’s been hanging in our bedroom ever since. It’s a late-eighteenth-century street scene featuring the Church of the Holy Cross in Krakow. Here it is hanging on my wall in its fancy thrift store frame. (I apologize, gentle reader, that I am not one of those bloggers who also has fabulous photography skills.)
I recently learned more about the artist, Bernardo Bellotto (1721-1780), an Italian urban landscape painter. In 1764, while en route to St. Petersburg to look for a job as court painter to Catherine the Great, the newly elected King Stanislaus Augustus Poniatowski of Poland snagged him instead. (I can’t omit mentioning that Poniatowski had been one of Catherine’s lovers before she became empress. She had a hand in installing him on the Polish throne in 1764.)
Bellotto never did make it to St. Petersburg, but remained in Poland for the rest of his life as official court painter to Poniatowski. He painted dozens of Warsaw street scenes for the Royal Castle and the King positively ate them up. Here’s an image showing an early study for his painting of the Church of the Holy Cross.
Now here’s where it gets even more interesting. Recently I was catching up on old episodes of my new favorite podcast, 99% Invisible (if you’re not a listener, check them out!). I learned that Bellotto was not entirely faithful to his architectural subjects. He would embellish the structures he painted with features not present in real life, even adding storeys to buildings in order to better please his painterly eye. (You can see some examples of this, and listen to the podcast episode on Bellotto, here.)
In the aftermath of World War II, the Soviets rebuilt many Polish cities, including Warsaw and Krakow, from the ground up. The architects who designed the reconstructed buildings often referred to Bellotto’s paintings, but his works were not always true to life. So today, many of the buildings in the Old Town districts of Warsaw and Krakow don’t reflect the historical reality, but rather the personal taste of an eighteenth-century Italian as imagined by twentieth-century Communists.