Stanisław Kostka Potocki (1755-1821) – politician, collector, Freemason. Born in Lublin in November 1755. The son of Eustachy Potocki (d. 1768), cup-bearer of the Crown and from 1759 general of the Lithuanian artillery, and Marianna née Kątska. Numerous siblings: sisters Cecylia, who married Hieronim Sanguszko, Laura, married off to Stanisław Tarnowski, and four brothers.
The older brother was Kajetan, who took over from his parents the Tłumackie jurydyka in Warsaw (the name comes from the starostwo of Tłumack, for years in the hands of this branch of the Potocki family), but was connected with the voivodeship of Lublin. The older brothers of Stanisław Kostka were Ignacy Potocki, in time the grand marshal of the Crown, outstanding activist, reformer and Freemason, Jerzy Michal Potocki, the starosta of Tłumack, and envoy in Sweden representing the Great Sejm. The youngest brother was Brigadier Jan Nepomucen Eryk, participant in wars waged against Russia in 1792 and a celebrated Freemason. The kind and solicitous parents soon died (both in 1768) and care of the orphaned siblings was assumed by Katarzyna Kossakowska née Potocka, the aunt of the young Potockis, sister of their father, wife of the castellan of Kamień, known for her brusque and quick repartees. The boys were educated at the Warsaw Piarist Collegium Nobilium, and in 1772 Stanisław continued his education at the famous military academy in Turin. He was not the wealthiest among the Potockis, but received a good education and appreciated the arts. The stay in Italy, enhanced with a trip to France and a cure in Switzerland, together with tours of the German states, developed in the sensitive young man, prone to depression, a predilection for art, especially classical. He made the acquaintance of numerous artists working at the time, and became a member of the Roman “Arcadia” literary-artistic academy. A student of the ancient authors, with an excellent knowledge of languages.
Upon his return, in 1775 Stanisław married the wealthy Aleksandra Lubomirska and thus became linked with the Family, similarly to his older brother Ignacy, who already in 1772 married Aleksandra’s sister, Elżbieta. The two brothers shared a mother-in-law - the capricious, prosperous and demanding Elżbieta (Izabela) Lubomirska née Czartoryska. Since she leased the landed estates and despotically ruled over her daughters, the two brothers were sometimes compelled to seek Elżbieta’s financial assistance and convince her to support their political plans and voyages abroad.
The marriage proved to be a success. The young Potockis lived in Olesin near Puławy; the name of Olesin was chosen to honour their son, Aleksander (Oleś), born in 1776. In 1778, Stanisław Kostka began, together with the architect Piotr Aigner, redesigning the residence, a task continued for many years.
With the support of his older brother, Ignacy, Stanisław debuted at the Sejm in 1778 as a deputy of the voivodeship of Lublin. During that parliamentary session he was appointed member of a commission, which assessed the activity of the Permanent Council, and after the completion of the commission’s work was entrusted with presenting a report in the Chamber of Deputies. After this political debut Stanisław left, together with his wife and her sister, Elżbieta, the wife of Ignacy Potocki. At an audience with Pope Pius VI they were accompanied by the poet Tomasz Kajetan Węgierski, and on 7 April 1780 Stanisław Kostka introduced his travel companions to the “Arcadians”. He managed to establish close acquaintanceships with Italian artists and persuaded Vincenzo Brenna to come to Poland; already in 1777-1778 he commissioned Brenna to make drawings of the Roman villa of Pliny the Younger (Laurentinum). True, while in Poland, Brenna worked chiefly in Bażantarnia for August Czartoryski, and in Łańcut and Mokotów for Izabela Lubomirska, but thanks to the initiative of Stanisław Kostka Potocki he decorated, under the supervision of Dominik Merlini, the ground-floor halls of the Army Department and the Marshal’s Department at the Palace of the Commonwealth (the Krasiński Palace) in Warsaw. In Naples, the outstanding painter Jacques-Louis David began to execute an equestrian portrait of Potocki (on show in Paris in 1781). From Italy, the whole party went to Switzerland, and then returned home. On 25 May 1781, Potocki was appointed the podstoli of the Crown (he resigned in 1784) and received two Polish orders: of St. Stanisław (25 May) and the White Eagle (26 May). Most probably, at the same time he became a member of the “Bouclier du Nord” Freemason lodge.
In 1782 Potocki was entrusted with a delicate mission of assessing the situation of Kajetan Sołtyk, the bishop of Cracow, who, due to certain symptoms of a mental illness, was detained by the Cracow chapter. The anti-royalist opposition, actively battling against Stanisław Augustus and including the Potocki family, wished to make sure that the royal camp, together with the Permanent Council, which supported the Cracow chapter, had not violated the law. The account made by Stanisław Kostka was balanced, although he clearly sympathised with the imprisoned bishop and was probably dispatched with a mission of presenting the stand of the opposition to Vienna, where Pope Pius VI was staying in 1782. From here, Potocki managed to make his way to Rome, where he could turn to art and indulge in his penchant for collecting works of art.
Potocki planned to abandon politics and settle down in the countryside, but upon his return he once again became involved in public activity and acted as a deputy for the voivodeship of Lublin at the Sejm of 1782. Wished to become speaker of the house (marshal of the Sejm), but King Stanisław Augustus rendered this impossible due to Potocki’s strong involvement in the Sołtyk affair. Nonetheless, Stanisław Kostka became a councillor of the Permanent Council and in the latter’s name presented a report at the Sejm sitting in Grodno in 1784. His career in the Freemasonry followed a parallel course: he joined the “Temple of Isis” lodge and in April 1784 became the Great Speaker of the Great Orient, i.e. the leader of the Polish Freemasons. Purchased the “Rozkosz” Palace near Warsaw, later known as Ursynów, and eagerly embarked upon outfitting it while enjoying the designing and sketching of the palace premises. The whole venture, however, was supervised by Master Aigner.
Potocki was successfully persuaded by his brother-in-law and other members of the Family to take part in the celebrated although rather primitive intrigue known as the Dogrumowa affair, which took place in 1784 and 1785. This was an attempt to compromise the king and people close to him, and in particular General Jan Komarzewski, accused of an attempt at poisoning the General of Podolia Adam Kazimierz Czartoryski, the brother of Isabella Lubomirska. Stanisław Kostka Potocki appeared as a witness of the conspiracy, and thus as a prime participant, and probably did not feel comfortable in this role, since later, in an anonymous text he tried to justify his part in the whole affair. Furthermore, he admitted that the court trial was tendentious and unjust. Afterwards, he preferred to take a rest and left for Karlsbad, and then, without great enthusiasm, accompanied his mother-in-law to Italy. There, he became an ardent art collector, starting with ancient vases, personally conducted archaeological excavations and became renowned as an expert on Etruscan vases. Potocki made numerous purchases, but owing to his modest revenues he often bought copies. He also gathered collections of minerals, especially fragments of lava from Vesuvius, and even intended to write an outline history of ancient art. Returned to the Commonwealth in 1786, and once again was a candidate in elections of deputies. At the Sejm of 1786 chosen to the Crown courts of law.
Potocki could develop his love for architecture while redesigning the palace on Lesson in Warsaw and the residence in Olsen, where he built houses for his nearest relatives in the palace garden maintained in the English style. Personally sketched a project of the palace and English park in Kurów, and together with Aigner designed the façade of the Bernardine church (St. Anne) in Warsaw (1788). In 1787, received from his mother-in-law permission to reside in the Bażantarnia Palace (later: Natolin) and enthusiastically commenced its redesigning. Similarly to his brother, Ignacy, was fond of literary pastimes and wrote poems although he was well aware of his insufficient poetic talent. Witty and scathing poems, small and large, reflected Potosí’s libertine views; he exchanged writings and corresponded with Wojciech Turski, Wojciech Mier, Stanisław Trembecki and Tomasz Kajetan Węgierski; later on, he befriended Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz. Scorned bigotry and opposed the view propounded by Christianity about the exclusion of other believers from salvation. ”It is splendid to watch god in paradise/ to live eternally in a Turkish saray/… but for me beautiful Chloe opens the heaven here on Earth/ grants me my spirit and takes it away”. During the 1780s the Potocki palace in Warsaw attracted men of letters, in particular authors connected with the Puławy circle, with the host playing the role of a patron of literary tournaments and actively participating in them. A collector of French erotic belles letters.
Potocki set off abroad once again in 1787 in the company of Niemcewicz; they stayed in Paris in the palace of Izabela Lubomirska, where her nephew, Adam Jerzy Czartoryski, was already residing. During this period, Potocki became acquainted with alert observers of the life of the French capital - Nicolas Restive de la Bretonne, author of Le Pornographe and Le Paysan perverti, who at the time was writing his Les Nuits de Paris, and Louis Sebastien Mercier, author of Le Tableau de Paris. He did not, however, become an admirer of French art, seen at the Louvre (Lettre d`un étranger sur le salon de 1787), and praised above all classical and Italian works. In May 1787, together with his mother-in-law and her favourite, Henryk Lubomirska, Potocki travelled to Great Britiian, where for two months he meticulously scrutinized the organisation of social and political life and toured assorted residences, libraries and schools of higher learning. In July, returned to Paris and from there - to Poland. The anti-royal conspiracy set up in Paris granted Stanislaw Potocki, i.a. the role of an intermediary in the clashes between the camp of the Family and Szczęsny Potocki, his relative. Elected deputy for Lublin at the Four Years Sejm, and together with his brothers, especially Ignacy, became one of the most active members of the patriotic party, which initially was fiercely anti-royal but in time joined in strivings to reform the country. Contributed to the abolition of the Department of the Army, and then the whole Permanent Council. Famous orator, recognised as the author of parliamentary speeches given during the Sejm debates upon more than 300 occasions, author of Mowy i utwory polemiczne. During the Sejm sessions (26 January 1790) Potocki became major general of the horse artillery; belonged to a group of men preparing the Government Law in secret and played an essential part in its enactment on 3 May 1791. Travelled to Dresden (Saxony) and Berlin (Prussia) with royal letters explaining the new poetical system; already in January 1792 left for Jassy where at the request of the king tried to convince Szczęsny Potocki to return home and come to terms with the patriots. In March of that year, Potocki was appointed general of the Crown artillery, replacing Szczęsny. Took part in the war against Russia and the Targowica Confederation in defence of the Third May Constitution, but had no military experience and did not tackle the situation successfully. After the king joined the Targowica Confederation, Potocki emigrated together with his brother Ignacy; the co-author of O ustanowieniu i upadku Konstytucji 3 maja, written by the émigré milieu. Banished from Dresden, in July 1794 imprisoned by the Austrian police; set free in 1795 and left for Italy.
Potocki returned home in 1797, when his mother-in-law proposed that he take over Wilanów. Having settled a number of financial affairs, also in the name of his brothers, he decided to accept Prussian citizenship (Warsaw and, i.a. Wilanów remained under Prussian rule), while his wife became an Austrian citizen. Potocki sold the palace on Leszno and started the restoration of Wilanów Palace, devastated in 1794, turning it into a monument honouring Jan III Sobieski and an art museum open to the public. The Wilanów residence was expanded to display collections of classical vases, drawings, paintings and sculptures, a task carried out with the cooperation of Aigner. The purchases included, i.a. souvenirs pertaining to Sobieski. The residential part, the economic buildings and the park were thoroughly redesigned. Modernisation was conducted also in other Potocki residences. The activists who gathered around the Potockis, composed of the former patriotic party, came up with the idea of establishing a Warsaw Society of Friends of Sciences (TPN, 1800), with Stanisław Kostka as one of its members-founders. He became involved in the critical and historical sections and took part in work on language and the history of art. At the TPN sessions Potocki presented pertinent important studies: O sztuce u dawnych (1803) and Rozprawa o medalach, mianowicie narodowych, w względzie ich użyteczności i sztuki (1806). He is also the author of a comic opera entitled Umarły żyjący czyli diabeł włoski (1803).
Most probably under the impact of Józef Wybicki, Potocki supported the French orientation, already in December 1806 established contact with the entourage of Napoleon Bonaparte and on 14 January 1807 became a member of the Government Commission; together with Prince Józef Poniatowski he was dispatched to Napoleon to secure financial assistance for the Polish Army. On 14 February Potocki was appointed chairman of the Educational Chamber. Endeavours to obtain funds were continued in 1808 in France (Paris, Bayonne). While still holding the office of chairman of the Educational Chamber of the Duchy of Warsaw, on 25 March 1809 Potocki was nominated chairman of the Council of State and the Council of Ministers, and held this post until 1813. As a supporter of centralism he dealt with the pressure exerted by the French resident Gian Carlo Serry and the so-called Jacobin opposition. In the wake of the campaign of 1809, the Council of State, headed by Potocki, governed also over Galicia. Striving to subjugate Cracow University to central educational authorities, Potocki caused a conflict with the academy and, for all practical purposes, contributed to deteriorating its situation.
At the time of the Duchy of Warsaw Potocki linked public and scientific activity: he took part in the work conducted by the TPN and since 1808 was chairman of the Society’s Literary Department. Presented and published dissertations, mainly dealing with linguistic issues (Rozprawa o potrzebie ćwiczenia się w ojczystej mowie /1811/, Rozprawa o języku polskim /1812/, Rozprawa o sztuce pisania czyli o stylu /1813 TPN/). In 1808-1814 was the commander of the Cadet Corps, and since 1812 the Grand Master of the Great National Orient.
Potocki was known as a sincere and dedicated person; in time, his stand grew increasingly conservative. He supported Napoleon also during the retreat from Russia in 1812 and 1813; left together with the government to Cracow and then to Dresden and Leipzig. After the defeat of the Napoleonic army Potocki was arrested in Leipzig by the Russians, but in 1814 returned to WiIanów. In the Kingdom of Poland he once again supervised the educational authorities as head of the Department of National Education (1815) and then as Minister of the Commission of Religion and Public Education; from 1818 acted as the chairman of the Senate. Published O sztuce u dawnych czyli Winkelman polski (Warsaw 1815), which he was busy writing for many years, and a successive, four-volume work on the language: O wymowie i stylu (Warsaw 1815-1816). Successfully organised the school system in the Duchy of Warsaw and the Kingdom of Poland, and consistently expanded a network of schools at all levels, intending to provide elementary education for children of both sexes and all creeds, and aiming at the assimilation of the Jewish population. Co-operated with the tireless organiser Stanisław Staszic. The Potocki era witnessed the opening of Warsaw University and the establishment of numerous vocational schools, including mining, agricultural and artistic, an institute for the deaf and dumb, and 1 200 elementary schools. Museums, libraries and an observatory were opened. Potocki supported representatives of numerous creative milieus and continued writing scientific studies, satires and especially feuilletons entitled Wister krytyczny, published in “Pamiętnik Warszawski” in 1816-1818, theatrical reviews, laudations and special occasion speeches.
Upon the threshold of the 1820s the legalistic and conservative attitude represented by Potocki and his conflicts with the opposition deputies at the Sejm of 1818 and the democratic branch of the Freemasonry contributed to a decline of his popularity and impact. Potocki also did not enjoy the support of the Church hierarchy - he consistently aimed at limiting its impact, i.a. by speaking in favour of the liquidation of monasteries not engaged in education (1818). He sharply criticised the clergy and persistently adhered to his libertine inclinations. The satirical novel Podróż do Ciemnogrodu, published in 1820, came as a blow to the Episcopate, whose members appealed to Tsar Alexander I; consequently, on 9 December 1820 Potocki was discharged from the office of minister of religion and education. Soon after, he resigned from the function of the Grand Master of the Freemasonry, a decision brought about by a controversy concerning the Constitutional Law of the Polish Masons, which Potocki signed in May 1820 and which produced a split among the Freemasons. The Constitution was perceived as a restriction of liberties and a reflection of centralisation intentions. Potocki spent the last years of his life in Wilanów, where he died on 14 September 1821 and where he was ceremoniously buried. A mausoleum was built upon the initiative of his wife, and in 1822 friends planted a grove in nearby Gucci commemorating the two most outstanding Potocki brothers: Ignacy and Stanisław Kostka. Left behind one son: Aleksander Stanisław (1776-1845).
An aesthete, a lover of the arts, especially Greek, a researcher and collector, Potocki even intended to organise a production of vases modelled on Etruscan antiquities. He was a connoisseur of medals and coins, a collector of paintings and graphic art, a student of the history of literature and an author of an outline history of Polish literature: O wymowie i stylu. His patriotism and engagement in public activity were appreciated, as was his consistence in popularising education and rendering the Wilanów collections available to the public in 1805. Considered a representative of Classicism, soon at odds with the developing current of Romanticism, while his satirical works were seen as slightly anachronic. Nonetheless, Potocki’s concern for the progress of society and struggle against obscurantism and backwardness must have been apt since they produced such a strong reaction. The very term Ciemnogród - perceived as an image of Old Polish society, its civilisational and educational backwardness, clericalism, predilections for the Orient, superstitions and ignorance – has become part of a permanent resource of concepts.