Baroque colours in the Wilanów Palace
Museum of King Jan III’s Palace at Wilanów

Passage to knowledge

Museum of King Jan III’s Palace at Wilanów

Baroque colours in the Wilanów Palace Paweł Jaskanis
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In the recent few years we have grown accustomed to the colour scheme of the Wilanów Palace. Perhaps, it has even become less controversial with time. Nevertheless, we still remember vivid reactions of visitors displayed in 2006, i.e. after the restoration of the elevation from the courtyard side had been completed. They were a mixture of surprise and confusion over the set of colours utterly different from the previous one. Although the colours provoke less astonishment today, they still constitute an interpretative challenge not only as a case study but also as a starting point in search for colour codes of baroque.

The newest chapter in the history of the Wilanów colours began in 2003 when the palace facades, above all their sculpted decorations, called for an immediate intervention. It was undertaken by the Wilanów Palace Museum in co-operation with Intercollegiate Institute of Art Conservation and Restoration composed of Warsaw- and Cracow-based Academies of Fine Arts. A complex research programme was created and all activities recorded. A large number of cross section wall probes and tests were made alongside chemical analyses of plasters and pigments. A specialized colour measuring device was used, more objective than the human eye. The palace elevations were examined with the use of scanning lasers, thermal imaging cameras and spectrophotometers. From the launch of the restoration activities, the palace facades have been continuously monitored, which helps to quickly discover the time and place of plaster degradation or colour alteration processes. The project is but one stage in the overall process of conservation that we keep recording for the sake of our successors.

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The research resulted in a number of interesting discoveries which helped to verify and update the earlier knowledge of, among others, the elevation colour scheme. It turned out that the colours we had grown accustomed to over the years had little in common with the original ones. Furthermore, some of the technical ad aesthetic solutions applied in the course of extensive conservation executed 50 years ago, such as the widespread use of cement, did not stand the test of time. The complexity and multiplicity of challenges faced by conservers is best reflected by the case of plasters and windows. The conducted research led to the discovery that circa 20% of the plaster surface originates from baroque; identical window openings in the front elevations are nonexistent today; figural low reliefs are almost entirely original. As many as eight coats of paint were detected in the front elevation of the northern wing. This proves that from the 1720s large-scale renovations were executed approximately every 35 years. The 1720s constitute a real turning point in the Wilanów history. At the time the palace was owned by Elżbieta Sieniawska who had purchased the property from Konstanty Sobieski in 1720. Sieniawska commissioned the construction of the side wings which were added to the main body of the palace in line with King Jan III Sobieski’s initial intention, never implemented in his lifetime. The side wings reflected not only the rhythm and architectural divisions of the old building but also its set of colours. It was clear already in the 1720s that colour constitutes one of the key factors determining the unique character of the Wilanów residence.

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Data base gathered so far makes it possible to hypothetically distinguish two phases in the colouring of the architectural tectonics executed in the time of Jan III, which correspond with successive expansions of the palace. The first phase fell on the first stage of the palace construction. In 1681–1688 the giant order on the white walls with a slight pink glazing was presumably in brick-pink of undefined intensity. Extant are fragmentary remains of the said colour in some of the tower pilasters. A few capitals, corbels and panoplies were painted in wet stucco plaster. In the 1690s the giant order as well as architectural elements such as window frames (including those made of sandstone) were painted yellow imitating ducat gold. In the two phases the sculpted decoration of at least some elements was red with a cherry tinge, as described by Jan III Sobieski himself in a postscript to his letter dated 31st October 1681, received from Augustyn Locci, the palace constructor. In my opinion cherry marble is better suited than multicoloured one; as for the upper balustrade, the Szydłowiec stone is more appropriate than marble, unlike for the lower part in the garden and in front of the gallery, Locci wrote to the king, to which the latter replied, Aprobatur the cherry marble. In their folds of the moulding, some of the sculptures in the alcoves of the front elevations of the garden gallery still reveal fragmentary remains of cherry with yellow colouring on top. There are corresponding red, value-diversified highlights of illusionist profiles in the portal of the entrance to Sobieski’s treasury situated in the southern tower.

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Originating from the so-called yellow (i.e. later) phase are traces of a painted shadow, easily detectable near some volutes of capitals and near front portals of the garden galleries. Revealed on the side of the base near the southern portal was a carved sketch of a Baroque initial containing visible letters R[ex] J[oannes] T[ercius]. The grooves were carved in the oldest plaster layer and filled with yellow paint. The base is placed against the wall and supports a semi-column that was rounded off to enhance the plasticity of the original shaft. It seems that during the 2nd and 3rd phases of the palace expansion (in the 1680s–1690s) red tinges were used to highlight the most meaningful artistic decorations and elements of  architectural tectonics by their incorporation into yellow tinges of the remaining elevation components. Admittedly, the well-established tradition of “the Wilanów yellow” is quite surprising. The neo-renaissance northern elevation of the northern wing (1847–1848), designed by Franciszek Maria Lanci on the order of August and Aleksandra Potocki, well corresponds with King Sobieski’s colour code. Medallions representing busts of the previous residence owners and even, paradoxically enough, the choice of forms typical for the Italian renaissance (meant to invoke antique ideals also adhered to by Sobieski) prove that the key intention of the then-owners was to carry on the original conceptual and artistic programme. Visibly, the colour scheme was part of the said programme.

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Yellow was replaced on the entire wall surface with beige in as late as around 1900, reflecting contemporary conservation doctrines, until recently enrooted also in more common reception of, and approach to, monuments. The majority of our society, or at least all those who visit monuments, study or restore them professionally, have acquired colour-related preferences reflecting the classical canon through upbringing, education and contact with the surrounding architecture. Formed in this way, our taste has been unquestionably influenced from the mid-18th century by the so-called classics and with time also by art conservers. Passing over the problem of the genesis of one’s views and their alterations, it is right to state that in the conservation of historic buildings until recently there has been a predominant liking for a neutral or toned-down white and, in case of baroque, for a homogeneous, delicate yellow. These two colours have been considered obvious means of rendering the historic character of monuments “more legible”, even when the original colour of a given elevation was know. However, this tendency is changing now, admittedly with a considerable impact of the restoration of the Wilanów Palace elevation. Lately, we have even been able to observe a certain “re-baroquing” trend in conservation. It seems than the change in the scientific doctrine should be followed by a change in the public’s perception of colour.

Before the conservation works, the colour of the Wilanów elevations was so neutral and soiled that it was hard to define by a specialized term and also by means of common associations. Consequently, the colour in question was not perceived as an element of decorum of the Wilanów residence, one of the most beautiful palaces in Poland and a telling example of baroque architecture. Meanwhile, it is not only the colours themselves but also their tinges and intensity that matter and should constitute (and in fact, do constitute) an integral element of the palace and a significant component of genius loci of the baroque residence. We are invited to put forward various interpretations. We may look at the palace symbolically and perceive it as a white, marble building wrapped with a golden lace of Corinthian tectonics, containing porphyry applied ornaments with key scenes glorifying King Jan III and Queen Marie Casimire. A different direction of scientific search is determined by the colours themselves. Yellow and red are primary colours whose significance for the period art was being discussed in L'Académie Française. Let us complement them with sky blue or the resembling verdigris turquoise on copper metal sheet.

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Correlation of the outcome of analyses of changes that occurred in the solid wall and its colour scheme may serve as a point of departure for ideological reconstruction of references to architectural patterns that may have been used when determining the architectural programme of the building. To define these references most generally, one may claim that in the 1680s Jan Sobieski’s residence was modelled after an Italian villa and in the 1690s it was adapted to the French style of stately architecture of Louis XIV. Such interpretations are abundant in scientific literature.

A thorough examination of the front elevations is incomplete without the dual courtyard. Its curves, while corresponding with compositional axis of the entire palace-and-garden landscaping, used to highlight the beautiful architecture and helped to interpret the messages it conveyed. Restoration (lowering) of the original level of the courtyard surface will make it possible to reclaim up to 4% of the elevation height. This will be an important step in regaining the original architectural proportions. New possibilities for interpretation will definitely follow.

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