The Wawel Castle, built at the behest of Casimir III the Great (1310-1370), consists of a number of structures situated around the central courtyard with arcaded galleries. Both the interior and exterior bear Renaissance, Baroque and partially neoclassic marks. Having served as the main royal residence for many centuries, the Wawel Castle has played an important part in Polish history.
The Wawel Castle includes the Crown Treasury, situated in the historic Gothic rooms which were used from the 15th century on for storing the Polish coronation insignia and Crown Jewels. Nowadays, the Crown Treasury is open to the public and holds objects that survived plunder, including memorabilia of Polish monarchs and eminent personages, like the hat and sword given to John III Sobieski by the pope after the Battle of Vienna. Szczerbiec, the sword used in coronation ceremonies, is exhibited today in the Jadwiga and Jogaila Chamber.
Over the centuries, the castle was expanded and renovated several times. Numerous fires, lootings and marches of foreign troops, combined with the destruction of the residence, resulted in the castle being repeatedly rebuilt in new architectural styles, with repaired and transformed exterior appearance, as well as the interior design.
A large number of brick building dating back as early as the 11th century were found on the site of today’s castle during archaeological excavations. The larger fortified castle was built at the turn of the 11th century in the north-east corner of the Wawel Hill. This was due to the transfer of the Polish capital to Krakow.
In the 14th century, during the reign of Władysław Łokietek (Władysław I the Elbow-high), the castle has been extended to the so-called Łokietek’s Tower and other smaller buildings. Apart from these, wooden buildings formed the majority of the castle. However, this changed at the time of Casimir (Kazimierz) III the Great, who extended the royal residences to allocate them to the state apparatus, greatly magnified by him. His goal in the refurbishment was to follow European styles that spread among other rulers of the continent. The castle retained the form it had acquired under Casimir III until 1499, when a fire destroyed it.
During the early 16th century King Sigismund I the Old and his wife Bona Sforza brought in the best native and foreign artists, including Italian architects and sculptors and German decorators, to refurbish the castle into a splendid Renaissance palace. It soon became a paragon of stately residence in Central and Eastern Europe and served widely as a model throughout the region.
In the fire of 1595, the north-east part of the castle burned down. King Sigismund III Vasa rebuilt it, although of his efforts only the Senator Stairs and the fireplace in the Bird Room remain today. In 1596 King Sigismund moved the capital to Warsaw, and tough times for Wawel began. Both the castle and other buildings were neglected despite the concerns of local governors. The Swedish invasions of 1655-1657 and 1702 contributed to the further deterioration of the castle.
Deprived of care, the castle fell into disrepair. The initiator of the arrangement of the interior and setting up a new roof was the bishop of Krakow Constantine Felicjan Szaniawski. Modernization took place in the years 1726-1730. Further safety work was carried out before the coronation of King Augustus III of Saxony in 1733. During the Bar Confederation the building was devastated. The maintenance was carried out before the arrival of King Stanisław August Poniatowski in 1787, according to plans in the fashionable classical style by the royal architect – Dominik Merlini.
After Poland lost its independence, the partitioners’ troops entered the castle, destroying and pillaging the former royal seat. In the following years, Austrian troops built barracks and took residence on the Wawel Hill. Between 1854 and 1856 some restoration work was carried out. It gave the castle a neo-Gothic character, depriving it of some of its Renaissance and Baroque architectural elements. After the Austrian army left the castle in 1905, the barracks were removed.
After World War I, the authorities of the newly independent Polish Second Republic decided that the Wawel Castle was to become a representative building of the Polish state and would be used by the governor and later by the president himself. In 1921 the Polish Parliament passed a resolution which gave Wawel an official status as the residence of the President of Poland; however, only the third President, Ignacy Mościcki, resided there.
During the Nazi occupation (1940-1944) the Wawel Castle served as the residence of the Governor General Hans Frank. Following the ravages of World War II, by the decree of the State National Council, the Wawel Castle became a national museum. Major renovation works began. The Renaissance, Baroque and neo-classical look was restored and the castle was equipped with artworks, purchased or acquired from donors. In the last decade of the 20th century, the castle was refurbished and the name of the institution was changed to Wawel Royal Castle – State Art Collection.
Out of the eight permanent museum exhibitions, five are located in the castle, and the sixth, the youngest one (opened in 2005), is situated in the royal gardens. The displays in the castle include the Royal Representational Chambers and the Royal Private Apartments (formerly forming one exhibition), Crown Treasury, Armoury and Oriental Art.
In 1925, a column fragment of Wawel Castle has been incorporated into Chicago’s landmark Tribune Tower. Located in its own niche over the upper-left corner of the main entrance, it is a visual tribute to Chicago’s large Polish populace, the largest such presence outside the Republic of Poland.