The Renaissance Sukiennice (Cloth Hall, Drapers’ Hall) is one of the city’s most recognisable icons. It was once a major centre of international trade. Travelling merchants met there to discuss business and to barter. Listed as the UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1978, it is the central feature of the Main Square in the Krakow Old Town.
Similar cloth halls have existed in other Polish as well as other European cities but the one in Krakow is the best-known and best-preserved.
Sukiennice has hosted countless distinguished guests over the centuries and is still used to entertain monarchs and dignitaries. Britain’s Prince Charles and Emperor Akihito of Japan were welcomed here in 2002.
Aside from its grand history and great cultural value, Sukiennice still flourishes as a bustling centre of commerce, albeit offering items for sale that are radically different from those of previous centuries — mainly souvenirs for tourists.
During its golden age in the 15th century, Sukiennice was the source of a variety of exotic imports from the East – spices, silk, leather and wax – while Krakow itself exported textiles, lead and salt from the Wieliczka Salt Mine. Krakow was among the most magnificent cities in Europe already from the Middle Ages.
However, the city’s decline was hastened by wars and politics leading to the Partitions of Poland at the end of the 18th century. By the time of the architectural restoration proposed for Sukiennice in 1870 under Austro-Hungarian rule, much of the historic city centre was decrepit.
Nevertheless, a change in political fortunes for the Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria ushered in a local revival of sorts due to newly established Legislative Assembly or Sejm, and the successful renovation of Sukiennice was one of the proudest achievements of this period.
Housed on the upper floor of Sukiennice, the Gallery of 19th-Century Polish Art is a division of the National Museum in Krakow. The Gallery holds the largest permanent display of 19th-century Polish painting and sculpture, in four grand rooms. The majority of today’s collection comprises gifts from collectors, artists and their families.
The gallery’s arrangement resembles that of a 19th-century salon. The Enlightenment Room features 18th-century portraits and historical paintings by Polish and foreign classicists and pre-Romantics – Marcello Bacciarelli, Józef Pitschmann, Aleksander Orłowski and Kazimierz Wojniakowski.
The Piotr Michałowski Room includes his own paintings of “The Cardinal”, “Seńko”, portraits on horseback as well as battle scenes with the famed “Somosierra”.
The Room of The Prussian Homage features 19th-century Polish historical panoramas by Jan Matejko, paintings by Artur Grottger, Henryk Rodakowski, Henryk Siemiradzki, Jacek Malczewski and others.
The Chełmoński Room is devoted to 19th-century Impressionist and Symbolist painting by Józef Chełmoński, Józef Pankiewicz and Leon Wyczółkowski, including Władysław Podkowiński’s controversial “Ecstasy”.
Sculptures include Pius Weloński’s “Gladiator”, Walery Gadomski’s “Salome”, Piotr Wójtowicz’s “Perseus With the Head of Medusa”, Antoni Pleszowski’s “Sadness”, Piotr Michałowski’s “Napoleon on Horseback” and Stanisław Lewandowski’s “A Slav Breaking Chains”.
Among the collection of portrait sculptures are Piotr Michałowski’s self-portraits, Antoni Kurzawa’s “Mickiewicz Awaking the Genius of Poetry”, Piotr Wójtowicz’s “After a Bath” and Antoni Madeyski’s “Greyhound”.