Vilnius Historic Centre
Vilnius Historic Centre
Cultural Lithuania Europe And North America City Of Vilnius

Vilnius is an outstanding example of a medieval foundation which exercised a profound influence on architectural and cultural developments in a wide area of Eastern Europe over several centuries. In the townscape and the rich diversity of buildings that it preserves, Vilnius is an exceptional illustration of a central European town that evolved organically over five centuries.

On a site that had been intermittently occupied from the Neolithic period, a wooden castle was built around AD 1000 to fortify Gedimino Hill, at the confluence of the Neris and Vilnia rivers. The settlement did not develop as a town until the 13th century, during the struggles of the Baltic peoples against their German invaders. By 1323, when the first written reference to Vilnia occurs, it was the capital of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania founded by Prince Gedymin, ancestor of the Galitzin family. At this time some brick structures had apparently been erected on a small island formed when the Vilnia changed its course.

Lithuania was the last great pagan state in Eastern Europe to be converted to Christianity, in 1387, when Grand Duke Jagaila was baptized. This opened Vilnius to the Western world, as in the same year it adopted the Magdeburg Statutes. However, it was not until 1410 when the Teutonic Order was destroyed at the battle of Tannenberg that it became safe from marauders and invaders.

The rapidly expanding town was struck by a disastrous fire in 1471, when the first religious establishments (cathedral, parish church of St John and Franciscan and Cistercian monasteries) were destroyed. The only surviving remains from the earliest period are therefore the walls, some sections of which survive beneath the defences built in 1503-22 against Tatar incursions. The town was partially reconstructed after another major fire in 1530, when an attempt to rationalize the medieval street pattern was largely unsuccessful. This was a period of commercial and cultural development. Close trading links were established with both Western and Eastern Europe, and these trading links led to the spread of Western culture into Byelorussia and the Ukraine.

A printing works was set up in 1522 and a university in 1579. Yet another fire in 1610 saw the destruction of the newly built Lower Castle and the new cathedral. The subsequent reconstruction included extensive church building: the churches of St Michael, St Stephen, St Casimir, All Saints, and St Theresa all date from this period. At the beginning of the war with Russia (1654-67) Vilnius had no fewer than 41 religious buildings, though many were lost during the conflict. Most of the older buildings in wood were lost in a series of fires (in 1715, 1737, 1748 and 1749), but it was the successive reconstructions that gave the town many of the buildings of special character, including the cathedral, town hall, arsenal, and the Tyzenhauzai, Rensai, Pacai and Masalskiai palaces. Many of the surviving earlier buildings were rebuilt or refurbished in Baroque style.

Annexation by Russia in 1795 led to the Lithuanian capital gradually losing some of its distinctive character. The fortified enceinte and Lower Castle were demolished in 1799;in 1837 Cathedral Square was laid out in strict academic style and St George Avenue was constructed cutting across the old town fabric. In the Second World War, over 80 old houses were destroyed, but reconstruction was put in hand with the end of hostilities. Major rehabilitation projects for the historic town centre were drawn up in 1956-58 and 1970-74.

The historic centre comprises the areas of the three castles (Upper, Lower and Curved) and the area that was encircled by a wall in the Middle Ages. The plan is basically circular, radiating out from the original castle site. The street pattern is typically medieval, with small streets dividing it into irregular blocks, but with large squares inserted in later periods.

The historic buildings are in Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and classical styles (with some later additions). Some 40% of them are adjudged to be of the highest category of architectural and historical importance. They constitute a townscape of great diversity and yet at the same time one in which there is an overarching harmony.