by Julie Skurdenis
EVER SINCE I FIRST VISITED VILNIUS MORE THAN 30 years ago, one of the first places I go to, once I have set my suitcase down in my hotel room, is the University in Old Town. I love to meander through the complex of courtyards comprising the university watching people hurry through the busier courtyards, and to explore the nooks and crannies of the more isolated courtyards where I am usually almost totally alone.
There are thirteen courtyards that make up Vilnius University located at the edge of Vilnius’ Senamiestis or Old Town. They are just five minutes from the Cathedral and the Royal Palace under reconstruction. Although I have strolled through the courtyards more times than I can count, admiring the architectural mix of four centuries of Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, and Classical styles, I knew little of the university’s history and nothing at all about each of the courtyards – not even their names.
I decided to remedy this on my most recent trip in 2007, determined to learn about what I had been enjoying over the course of eight trips since 1976.
The history of Vilnius University is a long and complicated one. Although it is possible to enjoy seeing and admiring the courtyards and their buildings without knowing a bit of history, a little history greatly adds to the enjoyment of a visit.
In 1570, the then Bishop of Vilnius, Valerijonas Protasevi- čius, invited the Jesuits to found a college in the city. Nine years later, in 1579, Stephen Bathory who was both Grand Duke of Lithuania and King of Poland established Vilnius Academy. Later that same year, Pope Gregory XIII proclaimed the academy a university and Piotr Skarga, a Polish Jesuit, was appointed the new university’s first rector.
The 16th century was an age of intellectual growth in much of Europe, including Lithuania. Lithuanians traveled abroad. Foreign scholars came to Lithuania. There was also a strong Italian influence at the Lithuanian court with Queen Bona Sforza, wife of Sigismund the Old (1506-1548), bringing Renaissance ideas and styles with her from her native Milan. These Renaissance ideas influenced not only the court but the new university as well.
The 17th century was a turbulent time of wars, plagues, and unrest, all of which affected the university. In the following century, the Jesuit order was banned in one European country after another – in Portugal in 1759, in France in 1764, in Spain in 1768 – finally being dissolved altogether in 1773. Vilnius University became a secular institution.
In 1795, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was partitioned with Lithuania falling to Russia. Nonetheless the university grew, enjoying a “golden age” in the decade between 1814 and 1824 as well as an increase in student population to more than 1300 students, making it one of the largest universities in Europe.
With the growth in the number of students came a renewed interest in nationalism and patriotism and the appearance of secret societies. These were seen as a threat to Russia, so Czar Nicholas I closed the university in 1832 after the November uprising of 1830- 1831 which witnessed armed rebellion against Russia in both Lithuania and Poland. Lithuanians then went abroad to study, especially to Moscow and St. Petersburg and to universities in Eastern Europe.
It was only after World War I when Lithuania became independent that the university reopened. But Vilnius had been annexed by Poland and the university renamed Stephen Bathory University. Kaunas now became Lithuania’s temporary capital, and the University of Lithuania opened there in 1922, which was renamed Vytautas the Great University in 1930. For 20 years, Vilnius University remained under Polish control.
The Soviets occupied Lithuania in 1940, and proceeded to “russify” the university’s curriculum, professors, and students. They renamed it Vilniaus Universitetas. When the Germans occupied Vilnius, they closed the university in 1943, but the reoccupying Russians reopened it in 1944. In 1955 they renamed it Vincas Kapsukas State University. Vilnius University remained under the Russian thumb for 46 years until Lithuania declared its independence in 1990 and was officially recognized the following year. At the time of my most recent visit, I was told that there were about 25,000 students attending classes here in the Old Town campus and on various other campuses scattered throughout Vilnius.
This is a very basic capsule history of Vilnius University but one that gives an idea, I hope, of the university’s cycles of growth and decline over the past 429 years.
Now let us stroll through the university courtyards. The logical place to begin is in the Library Courtyard on Universiteto gatvė. It’s called a courtyard, although there are only three sides. The fourth side was torn down 200 years ago when Universiteto was widened.
The Library Courtyard takes its name from the library founded in 1570, nine years before the university officially came into existence. On the east side of the courtyard is a magnificent bronze door commemorating the 450th anniversary of the printing of the first book in Lithuanian in 1547. But if you want to visit the splendid library with its painting by Pranciškus Smuglevičius (1745- 1807), you will have to enter through the doorway on the south side of the courtyard. The building on this southern side of Library Courtyard is one of the oldest in the university dating from the late 16th century. In the loggia is a statue of the 18th century poet, Kristijonas Donelaitis.
In the northeast corner of Library Courtyard is a ticket office where visitors pay the small admission charge admitting them to the other courtyards. Visiting hours are: March to October – Monday to Saturday 9 to 6; November to February – Monday to Saturday 10 to 5:30. Be sure to request the booklet that includes an excellent plan of the university complex.
Enter through the arched passageway into Sarbievijus Courtyard named in honor of Motiejus Kazimieras Sarbievijus (1595-1640), a graduate of and professor at the university who wrote the Lyricorum Libri Tres (Three Books of Lyrics) published in Germany in 1625. The 1632 edition of his poems was illustrated by Peter Paul Rubens.
The building on the southern side of the courtyard, to your right as you enter, also dates from the earliest days of the university but it is the eastern range of buildings opposite the entrance, with the double-tiered arches and the sturdy buttresses, that is the most visually interesting of the buildings surrounding this courtyard. Between the buttresses is located the bookshop “Littera,” in a low vaulted room with ceiling frescoes painted by Antanas Kmieliauskas in 1978. This is one of my favorite places in Vilnius to buy postcards, calendars and travel books about Lithuania written in English.
Next to “Littera,” under the double arches, is the entrance to the Center of Lithuanian Studies. Don’t miss climbing to the second floor to see the frescoes “The Seasons” painted in 1976-1985 by Petras Repšys.
On the southern side of Sarbievijus Courtyard are stairs beneath a long arcade leading to the grandest of the courtyards in the university, appropriately called the Grand Courtyard. Arcaded buildings in Renaissance style line three sides of this courtyard and, beneath these arcades, plaques with names of famous people associated with the university line the walls.
The glory of this courtyard is the Church of Sts. Johns and its detached bell tower. Sts. Johns’ began as a small Gothic church built in 1387, two centuries before the founding of the university. The Jesuits enlarged it in 1571 and, in the mid-18th century, Jonas Kristupas Glaubicas (Glaubitz) reconstructed the church in late Baroque style. Inside, ten Baroque altars fan out in a semi-circle at the east end of the church, each adorned with statues and paintings. (Yes, the name is Sts. Johns’, not St. John’s. It is dedicated to several saints named John.)
In the Grand Courtyard concerts are often held in good weather. In bad weather they are moved inside Sts. Johns’. It is a highlight of a visit to Vilnius to sit outside in this magnificent courtyard under the stars on a balmy summer night.
Opposite Sts. Johns’ is a passageway beneath the arcade leading into Observatory Courtyard. To the right of this passage on the north side of the courtyard is a Baroque building of the old observatory, one of the oldest such observatories in Europe. Tomas Žebrauskas added the observatory in 1753. An 18th century wooden telescope, donated to the university by Duke Mykolas Jeronimas Radvila, is also one of the oldest surviving telescopes in Europe. At the top of the two cylindrical towers are the signs of the zodiac.
On the west side of the Observatory Courtyard is the oldest building of the university dating back to the time of Bishop Protasevičius. Its other facade faces Universiteto gatvė close to where you entered the university complex from Library Courtyard. The Observatory Courtyard was closed to the public for reconstruction when I visited in the summer of 2007 making it impossible to visit the adjacent Printing House Courtyard just beyond. This small courtyard is named for the printing house given to the university in 1575 by Duke Mikalojus Kristupas Radvila, another member of the powerful noble Radvila family. This printing house printed some of the earliest books written in Lithuanian.
Now you need to backtrack through the Grand Courtyard walking past the left side of Sts. Johns’ to enter Sirvydas Courtyard named for Konstantinas Sirvydas (1578-1631), a Jesuit priest who wrote the first grammar of the Lithuanian language and compiled a tri-lingual dictionary in Latin, Lithuanian, and Polish. This courtyard hardly seems like a courtyard because it is so open and grassy. Directly ahead is an unusual little shop housed on the staircase of the building on the north side of Sirvydas Courtyard. I have never missed the opportunity of stopping here to buy a souvenir – perhaps a small picture depicting Vilnius’ skyline with its many churches, or greeting cards to be sent at Christmastime.
On the northeast side of Sirvydas Courtyard is Stanevičius Courtyard, which also hardly seems like a courtyard because of its small size, named for Simonas Stanevičius (1799-1848), once a student at the university, and the author of fables and the compiler of Lithuanian folk songs. He was also involved in the Lithuanian nationalist movement of the 19th century.
To reach the next courtyard, number eight on our courtyard stroll, visitors will need to return to Sarbievijus Courtyard and walk through the passage on the north side into Daukantas Courtyard. The courtyard is named for Simonas Daukantas (1793-1864) who was also a student here and who wrote the first history of Lithuania in Lithuanian. He was also active in the 19th century Lithuanian nationalist movement. This large quiet courtyard is dominated by an oak tree traditionally supposed to have originally come from Daukantas’ birthplace in Kalviai. On the courtyard’s north side wall is a sculpture of Daukantas as if he were sitting on an invisible chair. If you walk through the passage under this statue, you will be in tiny Arcade Courtyard.
Return to Daukantas Courtyard to reach Mickevičius Courtyard, believed to be where Adomas Mickevičius (1798-1855) lived when he was a student at the university from 1815 to 1819. Mickevičius is revered as a great poet by both Lithuania and Poland (his name in Polish is Adam Mickiewicz) and there are statues of him in many Lithuanian and Polish cities, including the monumental contemplative one in the small park next to St. Anne’s and the Bernardine churches just a ten minute walk from this courtyard.
Mickevičius became involved with a secret student organization called the Philomats while he was a student at the university and was arrested in 1823, imprisoned, and eventually deported to Russia. Later released, he lived in many European cities but never returned to Lithuania. His great epic poem, Pan Tadeusz (1834), was written in Polish but begins, “Oh Lithuania, my Fatherland.”
One wonders what Mickevičius would have thought of the beer garden now occupying his courtyard; he would probably have approved of it! Next to the Mickevičius Courtyard is the Stuoka-Gucevičius Courtyard named for yet another famous student of the university, Laurynas Stuoka-Gucevičius (1753-1798) who became a professor of architecture and engineering at the university in 1794. Gucevičius reconstructed the Cathedral and Vilnius’ Town Hall, and created many other architectural projects, including palaces for many of Lithuania’s noble families.
To visit the final two courtyards of the university, return to Sarbievijus Courtyard. Leave through the passageway on its western side where you first entered. To your right, enter Daukša Courtyard surrounded by classical style buildings. This courtyard is named for Mikalojus Daukša (1527-1613) who translated Kathechismas into Lithuanian in 1595 from a Polish translation of a catechism by the Spanish Jesuit theologian, Jacob Ledesma. This was the first Lithuanian language book to be published in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. In 1599 he published his translation of Jakub Wujek’s Postilla Catholica, one of the most important books in the Lithuanian language.
Beyond Daukša Courtyard lies the starkly modern Bursų Courtyard, possibly the site of a former student hostel.
Return once again to Library Courtyard having completed the circuit of all 13 of the university’s courtyards. You might want to consider finding your way back to the outdoor café in Mickevičius Courtyard for a pint of Švyturys beer or a cappuccino. There’s also an atmospheric café in the Grand Courtyard to the right of Sts. Johns’ (not always open). Of course, Pilies gatvė with its many cafés and restaurants is just five minutes away via picturesque, high-walled Skapo gatvė (right, then right again from Library Courtyard.)
IF YOU GO…
Allow at least an hour to an hour and a half to explore all the courtyards. Double the time if you linger in “Littera” bookstore or the little staircase shop near Sts Johns’, or if you stop for a refreshment break.
We stayed once again (our 4th time) at our favorite hotel in Vilnius, the Shakespeare Hotel, on Bernardinų gatvė, ideally situated in Old Town and only a ten minute stroll to Library Courtyard and the beginning of this walk.
The Shakespeare is a boutique hotel where the rooms – no two alike – are named for authors. Our favorites are the Mark Twain, Hemingway, and Trollope rooms – and, of course, the Shakespeare room with its partial view of St. Anne’s. There’s an excellent restaurant, “Sonnets,” and an equally wonderful pub where breakfast is served. Try the English breakfast and you’ll swear you’re in London. Try the blynai with caviar and you’ll swear you’re in heaven. Rates start at 174 euros (about $253) per night, including breakfast.