N 5, 2005
In the Shade of Walnut
For Belarus and Lithuania Wankowicz Walenty (1799-1842) is a celebrity standing next to the Russia´s genius of Repin, Spanish Goya and Polish Jan Mateiko. He left heritage in the centre of Minsk.
The painter received a classical education: first he studied at Polotsk Jesuitical college, then graduated from Vilnya University (renowned Jan Rustem and Jan Damel were among his teachers), followed by Emperor´s Arts Academy in St. Petersburg. In Vilnya he met Adam Mickiewicz, in St. Petersburg - Alexander Pushkin. "Mickiewicz on the Cliff of Yudah", one of Wankowicz´s paintings, is a manifesto of Romanticism in the Belarusian-Lithuanian art.
The artist´s destiny is grievous and magnificent. Having being struck by the failure of January uprising in 1830-1831, he fell ill. In 1839 he decided to emigrate. He knocked about the museums in Strasbourg, Munich and Dresden, but the Eastern European was reserved a role of a copyist of foreign masterpieces. He found a refuge in the Paris flat of Mickiewicz, where he passed away. Wankowicz willed and Mickiewicz wrote it down that he wanted to leave his paintings with creditors as repayment of debts and friends. His cremated body rests on Montmartre de St. Denis in the French capital. An austere obelisk is one of the few Belarusian places of interests in Paris. Museums of Vilnius, St. Petersburg, Warsaw, Krakow and Paris house the heritage of the master.
There are two family estates of the painter in Minsk. The main mansion is situated in Slepyanka District (then it was a suburb of the city). Wankowicz Walenty lived there since 1828. Another one was located on Golden Hill where today´s office of The Evening Minsk newspaper stands now. Most of his ancestors are buried near St. Roch Cathedral.
Tourists love taking snapshots near a green one-storey house with a triangular pediment that hides at the farthest end of the yard at the end of Internatsionalnaya Street. They are amazed at the fact that a real XIX-century house of Polish gentry times can be found in the downtown of the modern megapolis next to the monumental Palace of the Republic. This is a unique situation; we do not know any other architectural ensembles of the kind situated in the centre of any other Belarusian city or town. It is a typically rural building.
The interior decoration, the splendid walls with candelabra on the tables, portraits of Minsk magnates and famous figures and exquisite furniture catch the eye. It turned out that it is not so difficult to travel back in time - just have a look around the mansion-museum of the Wankowiczes. However, five years ago it was impossible to do. The renowned family name had been crossed out of the city history. The allegations that Wankowicz Walenty did visit the house of his cousin Edward in Volokskaya Street (now Internatsionalnaya Street) have not been proved. But not far away Ignacy Domeyko rented a flat and Stanislav Moniuszko resided at the beginning of this very street. Hardly can one find a better venue than Wankowicz´s mansion. Minsk intelligentsia would gather here staging soirees, while Maria Szimonowska and Karol Lipinski gave performances in this house and Walenty painted their portraits.
In the 1920s after the revolution, Wankowicz´s mansion was divided into one-room (communal) flats. The garden with walnut trees and gallant Lombardy poplar was there for a while. Walnut seeds were used to grow a whole alley in Minsk Botanical Garden. Stony gates led to the mansion. The sculptors of dogs are guarding the house.
By the time of restoration the building had rotten and was later fully reconstructed. Petr Rusov, an archaeologist, has established the year and the type of trees that the parts of the house were made from. The felling dated back to the late XVIII century.
Five years ago, music sounded here. Now, the sitting room is a regular meeting point for soirees as it used to be 150 years ago. The mansion is to be fully restored, as it consisted of the main building and two outhouses, which were destroyed in the 1970s, and stables (the last one remained intact).
"In a while, when the investment contest is finished and the investor is determined, the reconstruction will begin," said Dmitry Bubnovsky, head of Minskproject restoration and reconstruction department.
The detailed layout of this part of the historical centre will shape up in autumn, after the minute restoration plan of the old Minsk is submitted.
When everything is almost done, a monument to Wankowicz sculptured by Vladimir Slobodchikov will be unveiled in the yard. It has been moulded and is waiting to be erected, while we are waiting for the city authorities and architects to give the green light.