Tourists visiting the Royal Łazienki in Warsaw could never imagine what dramatic event is behind the monumental statue of Frederic Chopin standing there.
The Royal Łazienki, a palace and gardens currently located in the heart of Warsaw, was founded by Stanisław II August Poniatowski. It was established as a private summer royal residence where the king could devote himself to his passions, admire the collection of art and listen to concerts. There are classicist monuments in the park, including the famous Palace on the Island designed by Dutch architect Tylman of Gameren, as well as several historic gardens. Already after the king’s abdication in 1795 and during the period of partitions, the building was modernized and expanded.
In 1876, members of the Warsaw Music Society came out with an idea to commemorate the outstanding Polish composer and pianist Frederic Chopin. Since Warsaw was then within the Russian partition, and was subjected to forceful Russification, the idea did not have much chance of success. The situation changed only at the beginning of the 20th century, when the Polish opera singer Adelaide Bolska obtained the tsar’s consent to build the statue. A public fundraiser was started and in 1908 a design competition was launched.
From several dozen submitted works, a sculpture by Wacław Szymanowski and an architectural design by Franciszek Mączyński were selected. Again, however, the Russian authorities did not grant legal permission, thus the construction of the statue was doubtful. Later, some aesthetic corrections were also applied. When finally Tsar Nicholas II gave his consent again, the First World War broke out and the French company that was supposed to do the casting went bankrupt.
After Poland regained independence, the idea of Chopin’s statue was reconsidered. It was cast in bronze by the Paris company Barbedienne and was finally presented in 1926. It depicts a composer sitting under a willow. An important element of the architectural vision is the pedestal and water pool made of red sandstone, designed by the well-known art conservator Oskar Sosnowski. The green plants in the background were an interesting addition to it and all in all made a nice impression. The statue is an example of the Art Nouveau.
After the outbreak of the Second World War, the German occupiers began to destroy the Polish culture. One of the victims of the policy of the Third Reich was the Chopin statue. The General Governor of occupied Poland, Hans Frank, ordered on 31 May 1940 to blow it up. Its elements were cut into small parts, and then, after melting, used as a raw material in German industry. A total of several tons of metal was obtained. The main goal of the occupier, however, was not to obtain material for the war, but to destroy Polish culture and its most important symbols. Its location additionally motivated the Germans to destroy the statue. It was located near the Belvedere Palace, which Hans Frank chose for one of his residences. The German officer despised Chopin’s music and reportedly did not want to see his image from the windows.
Chopin’s music accompanied Poles during the partitions, constituting an important element of maintaining national identity. It was a point of reference in particularly important historical moments. After the war, the statue was rebuilt and since 1958 it has been again decorating the Royal Łazienki.
After the Second World War, Polish social activists began to look for a copy of the statue in order to reconstruct it. In October 1946, it was declared to reconstruct it. The only surviving replica was found only in the rubble of a Warsaw house that once belonged to Wacław Szymanowski. The designers also reached the preserved photographs, on the basis of which it was possible to restore it. The statue was presented on 11 May 1958. In 1994 in a twin city of Warsaw Hamamatsu in Shizuoka Prefecture in Japan, a 1: 1 copy of the statue was also made. There are also plans to make another copy in Chopin Park in Chicago.
The Frederic Chopin statue in the Royal Łazienki has become one of the symbols of Warsaw after the war. Currently, in the summer season, from May to September, every Sunday there are piano concerts held there, which are very popular among the city’s residents and tourists.
To this day, on the pedestal, one can read a quote from the poem Konrad Wallenrod by Adam Mickiewicz:
The flame devoureth story’s pictured words,
And thieves with steel wide scatter treasured hoards
But scatheless is the song…
(transl. by Miss Maude Ashurst Biggs, London 1882)
Author: Piotr Bejrowski
Translation: Alicja Rose & Jessica Sirotin