Hanseatic Town of Visby
Hanseatic Town Of Visby
Cultural Sweden Europe And North America Island Region Of Gotland

Visby is an outstanding example of a north European medieval walled trading town which preserves with remarkable completeness a townscape and assemblage of high-quality ancient buildings that illustrate graphically the form and function of this type of significant human settlement. The urban fabric and overall townscape of Visby is its most important quality.

By virtue of its position, Gotland has played a dominant role in Baltic trade for many centuries between Western Europe (Schleswig, Frisia, England) and Russia. Excavations have indicated that there was a trading settlement in the early Viking Age on the site of Visby. These trading settlements banded together for the protection of their chains of trading posts and to assert their interests vis-à-vis the rulers of the territories through which they passed (and also against their rivals) into a federation or Hansa. By the 12th century Visby dominated this trade: all the commercial routes of the Baltic were channelled through the town. German merchants began to expand their sphere of interest into the Baltic and to settle in Visby, henceforward the main centre of the Hanseatic League in the Baltic. The Germans were followed by Russian and Danish traders;guild houses and churches were built in the town, and stone warehouses were constructed along the harbour. The earlier small wooden buildings were replaced during the 13th century by large stone houses, built in parallel rows eastwards from the harbour. Pressure on the original centre was such that the surrounding land was used for housing, as well as the erection of churches and guild houses. Visby changed from a simple Gotland village to an impressive international town, enclosed by a strong defensive wall, and increasingly divorced from its rural hinterland. The 14th century saw Visby losing its leading position in the Hanseatic League, following a series of disasters: the Black Death struck in 1350, the occupation by the Danish army in 1361, the pirates known as the 'Vitalian Brothers' in 1396, driven out two years later by the Teutonic Knights, who occupied the island in their turn. The end of Visby's greatness came in 1525, when it was stormed by an army from Lübeck which burned the northern parts of the town.

The area is enclosed by the medieval City Wall built in the 13th century and substantially modified in the 14th century. From the town gates in the north, east, and south roads (possibly prehistoric in origin) lead from the cliff to the harbour, giving Visby its characteristic townscape. Dating in its present form mainly from the 13th century, the streets are irregularly laid out, suddenly becoming broad or narrow in places. A similar street pattern existed in the heart of the later city in Viking times and can still be traced from the plan.

Medieval Visby had more churches than any other town in Sweden - fifteen within the walls and two outside, which served various functions: parish churches, guild churches, monastic churches, and hospital church. Also there are over 200 secular buildings with substantial medieval elements surviving. They are all relatively similar in shape and size: rectangular in plan, with gables end-on to the street, and of between five and seven storeys. The top storeys are often vaulted in stone, as a fire-protection measure. Decoration is used sparingly, generally restricted to quoins, stepped gables, and door surrounds: the main constructional material is limestone, with decorative elements in brick and tiled roofs. The best preserved and most complete of these medieval warehouses is the 'Old Pharmacy' on Strandgatan, with vaulted rooms on the ground and top floors, a latrine cellar, a medieval well, and original surrounds on doors, windows, and apertures. Other notable buildings are von Lingen's House on St Hansgatan and a number of houses in the narrow streets running down to the harbour. The 'Old Residence' and the Burmeister House on Strandgatan, both from the mid-17th century, have lavishly painted interiors.

In the eastern part of the town, within the walls and below the cliff, the medieval vegetable plots were built over in the 1740s with small wooden houses of horizontal plank construction, which survive intact, as do the late 18th century houses in Swedish vernacular style built on the site of Visborg castle, blown up by the Danes when they left the island in the late 17th century. New buildings in stone were added in the 19th century: schools, a hospital, a prison and the growth of a small shopping area on one of the main streets.