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K. Kuźnicki, The Authenticity of the Reconstructed Old Town of Warsaw: A Reflection, e-conservation Journal 1, 2013, pp. 24-33
Available online 22 November 2013
doi: 10.18236/econs1.201306

The Authenticity of the Reconstructed Old Town of Warsaw: a Reflection

Kacper Kuznicki


This paper examines the changes that notions of authenticity of historical sites have undergone in the 20th century. The reconstructed Old Town of Warsaw, now enlisted as a UNESCO World Heritage Monument, serves as a case study. The history of Warsaw, its destruction during World War II and the post-war reconstruction of the Old Town are here discussed. The reconstruction is examined in the light of new notions of authenticity arising from the Nara document. Finally, a new view on Warsaw's reconstructed Old Town authenticity is proposed.

1. Introduction

Since the publication of The International Charter for the Conservation and Restoration of Monuments and Sites (later referred to as The Venice Charter) in 1964, our understanding and the definition of authenticity has significantly changed. Authenticity, traditionally understood in clear and well defined scientific categories, grew and expanded into a much more nebulous concept that embraces a whole variety of aspects and properties attached to it. Art historians, culture scholars and conservators have become aware of the impossibility of judging object's authenticity on strictly material basis and grew to appreciate and include in their assessment intangible properties and factors rendering an object, a monument or an entire site authentic. This view seems to correspond more closely to much more intuitive understanding of what  authenticity is.

This paper discusses the fascinating issue of reconstruction of historical monuments and sites which is a focus of a long and ongoing debate. Article 15 of The Venice Charter rejected any attempts of reconstruction a priori allowing only accurate anastylosis, that is “reassembling of existing but dismembered parts” [1]. The Riga Charter on Authenticity and Historical Reconstruction in Relationship to Cultural Heritage from 2000 allow historical reconstruction provided that the reconstruction meets certain conditions and is historically justified [2]. I would like to analyse the changing face of authenticity over the last half of a century by examining the case of the reconstructed Old Town of Warsaw. It was the first ever reconstruction on such a vast scale to enter the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1980 establishing a precedent for similar cases in the future, despite initial objections of the UNESCO committee [3, p. 20]. The nomination and the enlistment of this site were not without controversy and elicited a heated debate.

2. The Historic Warsaw

A ford lying on the Vistula, a river crossing of a trade route that had already been marked on Ptolemy's map [4, p. 209] and the earliest human settlements around the area of what nowadays is Warsaw, can be traced back as far as 12,000 to 10,000 years BCE [5, p. 11]. It was not till the turn of 13th and 14th centuries when one of the settlements called Jazdów gained a stronghold and became a seat of the dukes of Mazovia for over 250 years [6, p. 7]. In the early 14th century, Warsaw acquired its typical medieval plan with a chess street pattern extending around the central market square with a cathedral and the duke's castle in vicinity [5, p. 109].

The advantageous location of Warsaw, lying half-way between Cracow and Vilnius, the political centres of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, resulted in the gradual increase of the town’s political significance. In 1569, Warsaw became the seat of the Commonwealth Parliament and in 1573 it also became the site of elections. Finally, in 1596 king Sigismund III Vasa decided to establish Warsaw as the capital [6, p. 10]. Over the years Warsaw had become the centre of cultural life in the Kingdom of Poland. The Royal court attracted a number of local and foreign scholars, artists and architects who enriched the capital with numerous works of art and monuments. At the end of 18th century, during the reign of Stanislaus Augustus, the last Polish king, Warsaw could pride itself with an array of impressive architecture, so often portrayed by Bernardo Belotto, known as Canaletto. Domenico Merlini, the Royal Architect was responsible for refurbishment of the Royal Castle and the construction of Lazienki palace [13, p. 11]. Even after the partition of Poland and fall of the state in 1795, throughout the 19th century Warsaw, which found itself in the Russian Empire, continued to grow gaining a number of magnificent works of architecture such as Staszic Palace or Grand Theatre by Antonio Corazzi [6, p. 11].

3. The World War II Destruction

Tragic events of the Second World War resulted in horrible casualties, damage and often utter destruction of a huge number of towns and cities across the world and Europe in particular. Villages of Northern France, ancient Italian towns, and metropoles of the entire continent were left in ruin. Some cities were destroyed as the result of deliberate wide scale attacks aimed at industrial sites which levelled entire residential areas and historical districts. Dresden, for instance, is just one of many towns that suffered similar fate. Other towns, like Cassino, in Italy, suffered fierce frontline combat where weeks of artillery shelling and bombing enemy positions wiped them off the face of the Earth. Savage street combat turned Stalingrad into a labyrinth of deserted burned out buildings. However, the destruction of Warsaw stands out on this morbid list. It finds its precedent in the ancient history with the destruction of Carthage by Scipio Aemilanus as the result of the Third Punic War. Already in 1939, during the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany, Warsaw was announced a “fortress” by the German military command which allowed artillery and air force to attack objects of no military significance [7, p. 11]. Amongst many other buildings, the Royal Castle was partly destroyed (Figure 1). The approach of Nazi governments towards Polish culture became obvious as early as in November 1939 when the newly elected governor of occupied Polish territories announced that the Royal Castle should be destroyed and forbade repairing any of the buildings damaged during combat claiming that “Warsaw should never be rebuilt” [5, p. 15]. During the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943, SS units employed flame-throwers to set buildings on fire during the fight against Jewish freedom fighters (Figure 2). After the uprising had been crushed, each of the remaining buildings of former ghetto was blown up destroying the entire district (Figure 3) [7, p. 13].

From left to right:
Figure 1. Zygmunt’s Column and the burned-out Royal Castle in 1941.

Figure 2. Destruction of a housing block during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising 1943.
Figure 3. View of the destroyed Ghetto in 1945.

However, it was not until the end of 1944 when, in the aftermath of the lost Warsaw Uprising, the city was completely destroyed. Fierce two month long street fighting had already turned the city into (Figure 4). After the uprising, it was Hitler's wish to remove Warsaw from maps once and for all. In November 1944 about a 100,000 surviving Varsovians were exiled and “Special Destruction Detachments” were formed in Warsaw. Under supervision of engineers, architects and German art historians, they proceeded to destroy anything that was left of the city [7, p.17]. A list of the most significant Polish national monuments to be destroyed first was made. They were followed by palaces, manors, tenements and regular houses. Each building was firstly set on fire and the remains were blown up with explosives (Figure 5). The January offensive of 1945 interrupted the destruction, however little survived. Of 25,489 buildings that existed in Warsaw before the war, only 1,223 remained. The former city centre was covered with 20 million cubic metres of rubble that in certain places reached the height of three storeys. Only roughly 5% of Warsaw's architecture survived (Figures 6-8) [4, p. 212].

From left to right:
Figure 4. Ju-87 bombing the Old Town during the uprising in 1944.
Figure 5. A German soldier setting a house on fire in September 1944. 
Figure 6. Ruins of the Royal Castle in 1945.

Figure 7. North side of the destroyed Old Town market square in 1945.
Figure 8. View of the destroyed Old Town with the market square visible in the centre in January 1945.

4. Warsaw Rebuilt

The decision to rebuild Warsaw was announced on January 3, 1945 by the National People's Council of Poland (representing Soviet-controlled communist government) [8, p. 6]. The reconstruction of Old Town of Warsaw was planned between 1949 and 1953 although the works were only completed in 1956 (Figure 9) [9, p. 28]. Before works started, a number of surviving original architectural elements was discovered in the ruins of Old Town. Securing those and gathering maximum amount of archival and iconographic material became imperative before attempting the reconstruction. Gomulicki [7, p. 8] claims that each building was rebuilt “brick after brick” according to a very  extensive records including drawings and photographs of both, interiors and façades. However, it is difficult to image that exact records of exteriors and interiors of each of the buildings would survive. According to Bieganski, this was not the case and an inquisitive study had to be made in order to attempt reconstruction [9, p. 21]. A number of decisions were made in order to integrate the Old Town into a modern city that was being built around it. During the removal of debris from the Old Town complex, it turned out that a number of medieval elements survived including the original chessboard street pattern, several of the house goblet walls, building facades, and high Gothic cellars, among many other elements. It was decided that the spatially logical medieval plan would be the most convenient way of incorporating the Old Town into the rest of the city. With that in mind, conservators refrained from reconstructing 19th century houses that were built in courtyards of the medieval buildings allowing thus much more public space in the district [9, p. 28].

From left to right:
Figure 9. Aerial view of the reconstructed Old Town in 1960.

Figure 10. Zygmunt’s Column and the Royal Castle in 2013.

As rubble was being removed it also became apparent that just like other European cities with rich history, Warsaw consisted of a number of historical layers. Burghers, gradually gaining more wealth modernised their houses to the latest fashion and with the urban and economic development of the 17th and 18th centuries, the Old Town became a mixture of Gothic, Baroque and Neoclassicist styles (Figures 10-12). It was necessary to restore these styles to preserve the spirit of historical eclecticism of the city [9, p. 24]. According to the master plan of Warsaw, the Old Town was supposed to be a residential area with a strong tourist potential. Several adaptations had to be made. These included introduction of modern technical facilities such as central heating which, although not being historical, made the district a live and habitable part of town that continued to serve the housing purpose it had been serving for a couple of centuries before. The spirit in which the reconstruction was kept can be summarized in the following passage from Bieganski [9, p. 30]: “the experiences of many years have demonstrated that the Old Town complex was organised in a correct way, that it ensures good living conditions for its inhabitants and that this districts performs all the functions allocated to it”.
From left to right:

Figure 11. North side of the Old Town market square in 2013 (currently under renovation).
Figure 12.Houses by the Castle Square in 2013.

5. The Old Town Enlisted

On September 2, 1980 the historic centre of Warsaw was included on the list of the Monuments of the World Heritage [9, p. 31]. As described in the Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention of 1977, it is necessary for any historic site or a monument to pass the test of authenticity. The Warsaw nomination posed a challenge as doubts were raised over the authenticity of the reconstruction [3, p. 19-21]. In the light of strong emphasis that two important documents, Athens Charter [10] and Venice Charter [11], put on respect for the originality of form and material, the reconstruction  of Old Town could be hardly argued as a case of precise anastylosis. Due to lack of iconographic record of numerous destroyed buildings, the reconstruction was more of a well informed historical approximation rather than reassembling a well known monument. Installing modern plumbing and heating systems could not have contributed to the “originality” of the materials used. Despite that, International Council for Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) supported the case for Warsaw keeping the debate alive. In their recommendation, the Council stated that “the documentation is excellent and the centre of Warsaw is exceptional example of reconstruction and has been made into a symbol by the patriotic feeling of Polish people” [3, p. 20-21]. The reconstruction was reaffirmed once again in 1980 and eventually has been enlisted as World Heritage Monument a year later. The case of Warsaw suggests that the notion of authenticity based strictly on material continuity of the object throughout time is only one of the many criteria we may apply to a monument is not always the critical one. Stovel suggested that the authenticity does not have to and often is not present in all of the aspects of the property nominated to enter World Heritage list [12, p. 10].

6. The Nara Document

In 1994 scholars and conservators gathered in Nara, Japan to reshape the traditional notions of authenticity. It became apparent that traditional materialist approach was insufficient to describe the complexity of problems associated with authenticity of cultural artefacts [12, p. 9-10]. As an outcome of this meeting, an important document revising the notions of authenticity and, in particular, of its material aspect was released [13]. The undisputed significance of material authenticity has been diminished. It ceased to be the most critical factor, the ultimate value due to which properties could be enlisted as World Heritage Monuments. It became necessary for monuments to meet the claim of "outstanding universal value" [12, p. 10]. The origins of Nara document can be linked to very prosaic reasons. Ancient Japanese shrines and temples, such as the   complex of Nikko existing in Tochigi [14], are made of wood which deteriorates and decays over time. Through centuries a number of architectural elements have been replaced, and it is conceivable that over an extended period, the entire structure might have been replaced this way. Japan intended to secure the important position the ancient temples should occupy in the cultural world   heritage [15, p. 4].

This case is a perfect real-life application of the ancient philosophical paradox known as the 'Ship of Theseus'. This is a philosophical experiment that examines the identity of a material object of which all the existing parts have been replaced over time. The original paradox, as first mentioned by Plutarch, deals with exactly the same case: of a wooden object that in order to remain preserved requires frequent replacing of its planks [16]. Although it could be argued that Japanese shrines that have undergone replacements of various elements are actually different objects, this position does not seem plausible. Although it would probably require a separate article in order to deal with the question of identity of materials object, the author would like to express his belief that in regards to inanimate objects, such as cultural artifacts identity is not inherent but external and as such can be agreed upon. However, it can be safely suggested that the authenticity of Japanese shrines consists not of their material continuity, but of the accumulated layers of tradition and history surrounding those objects. It is the authenticity of the established tradition of use and function of the site that remained unchanged throughout the ages. Its integrity with the Japanese culture creates the spirit of the place and renders the site authentic. Another interesting development in the ideas surrounding authenticity is the status of change. Everything undergoes change: sites, monuments as well as cultures looking after them [1, p. 34]. Change should not be and is not seen as a negative factor that utterly undermines authenticity, it is natural and at time it can actually contribute to the authenticity of a given object. The nature of heritage is dynamic, not static. Many resources, just like Japanese temples and Warsaw's historic city centre, are in constant use. They change by necessity – hence all the necessary technical adjustments of old burghers' houses and slightly modified plan of the district. In that case, only due to this change the site remains alive. Therefore, the process of change can add to the value of the site [1, p. 34]. The Vienna Memorandum [18] focuses on the change which, according to the document can be an integral component of the significance of the place. Change cannot be separated from identity of the site, and the identity is the broader category on basis of which authenticity can be judged. Cultural relativity of any judgements concerning authenticity is another relevant theme touched upon by the Nara Document. Articles 11 to 13 link authenticity to a whole variety of information and sources available in cultural contexts and calls for deep understanding and use of that information before making authenticity-related judgements [13].

7. Warsaw - authenticity revised

How can one look at the case of Warsaw's historic centre in this light? A rebuilt centre is not a case of anastylosis. However, one could adapt a more holistic approach arguing for the continuation of identity of the entire district supporting the case with the Theseus paradox. Although this could be an interesting argument, in case of Warsaw more relevant and practical approach is required. An entirely different set of factors accounts for the authenticity of Warsaw's Old Town. The reconstruction has managed to successfully revive the spirit of Warsaw's history, with eclecticism of all historical layers and styles present in the city. Due to several technical changes introduced into the urban plan of the district, the entire Old Town remains an integral part of the living organism of the city. As a residential area, it serves the same traditional purpose it has served over many years. The Old Town remains true to its function and nature. All of these characteristics contribute to the authenticity of the Old Town. However, another crucial point needs to be made. It is the reconstruction itself that has the “outstanding universal value” and is authentic itself. Criteria (ii) and (iv) that justify enlistment of the district mentions the unprecedented vast scale of the reconstruction and mark ethical values associated with it [19]. Time is not malicious, war is. The act of conservation and preservation of destroyed heritage is an ethical necessity [19, p. 7]. The destruction of Warsaw was an act of deliberate, planned attempt to completely wipe out marks of a material culture of Poland. Rebuilding the  capital was, of course, a social and political necessity. However, reconstruction of everything that was deemed as inferior and eventually destroyed by the Nazi regime is an ethical act. The Italian town of Cassino has been moved few hundred metres away from the old site after the war. The remains of the old town were left as a monument of war and a warning [20, p. 463]. The reconstructed Warsaw, however, is a monument to resilience of human spirit and culture. Paradoxically it is a monument to the reconstruction and the idea of the reconstruction itself. As the reconstruction was one of the events in the causal chain, a part of the historical process it would be nonsensical to call it unauthentic. Identity and, thus, authenticity of the objects flows from values we attach to the given object.

8. Conclusions

The case of the reconstructed Old Town of Warsaw shows that authenticity of cultural monument can be a very complex notion. Although the material aspect of authenticity is of great significance, there are a number of intangible properties that authenticity encapsulates. Among others, one can name continuity of traditions associated with the given monument, continuity of purpose or social significance it has for local community. In case of Warsaw, the significance of intangible aspects outweighs that of the material authenticity of the Old Town. On one hand, the Old Town can be thought of as authenthic in regards to the role it plays on cultural as well as social and economical levels. On the other hand, the reconstruction can be considered an authentic testimony to the  destruction of the city and as a monument to rejection of violence and cruel   destruction of war.

9. References

[1] G. F. Araoz, World-Heritage Historic Urban Landscapes: Defining and Protecting Authenticity, Bulletin of the Association for Preservation Technology 39 (2/3), 2008, pp. 9-17

[2] The Riga Charter on Authenticity and Historical Reconstruction in Relationship to Cultural Heritage (accessed 11 September 2012)

[3] C. Cameron, From Warsaw to Mostar: The World Heritage Committee and Authenticity, Bulletin of the Association for Preservation Technology 39 (2/3), 2008, pp. 19-24

[4] S. Dziewulski, S. Jankowski, The Reconstruction of Warsaw, The Town Planning Review 28(3), October 1957, pp. 209-221

[5] W. Glebocki, K. Mórawski, Warszawo, Ty moja Warszawo, Alfa, Warsaw, 1994

[6] J. Zachwatowicz, The Old Town and the Royal Castle, in: B. Wierzbicka and M. Lotyszowa (ed.), The Old Town and the Royal Castle in Warsaw, Arkady, Warsaw, 1988, pp. 7-19

[7] A. Ciborowski, S. Jankowski, Warsaw Rebuilt, Polonia Publishing House, Warsaw, 1963

[8] J. W. Gomulicki, Warsaw, Arkady, Warsaw, 1967

[9] P. Bieganski, The Reconstruction of Old Town, in: B. Wierzbicka and M. Lotyszowa (ed.), The Old Town and the Royal Castle in Warsaw, Arkady, Warsaw, 1988, pp. 20-30

[11] The International Charter for the Conservation and Restoration of Monuments and Sites (The Venice Charter) (accessed 11 September 2012)

[12] H. Stovel, Origins and Influence of the Nara Document on Authenticity, Bulletin of the Association for Preservation Technology 39 (2/3), 2008, pp. 9-17

[13] The Nara Document on Authenticity (accessed 11 September 2012)

[14] Shrines and Temples of Nikko, UNESCO World Heritage Centre, (accessed 11 September 2012)

[15] P. Jerome, An Introduction to Authenticity in Preservation, Bulletin of the Association for   Preservation Technology 39 (2/3), 2008, pp. 3-7

[16] Plutarch, Theseus, The Internet Classics Archive, (accessed 11 September 2012)

[17] Vienna Memorandum on World Heritage and Contemporary Architecture - Managing the Historic Urban Landscape (accessed 11 September 2012)

[18] Historic Centre of Warsaw, UNESCO World Heritage Centre, (accessed 11 September 2012)

[19] J. Jokilehto, Authenticity in Restoration, Principles and Practices, Bulletin of the Association for Preservation Technology 17(3/4), 1985, pp. 5-11

[20] L. Grebler, Continuity in the Rebuilding of Bombed Cities in Western Europe, The American Journal of Sociology 61(5), 1956, pp. 463-469

Kacper Kuźnicki
Art historian
University of Glasgow
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Kacper obtained his undergraduate degree in Art History in 2010 at the University of Glasgow. He is currently undertaking a postgraduate course in Technical Art History at the same institution. His interests include notions of materiality and authenticity of works of art, history of artists' pigments and European art of 16th and 17th centuries. The author is working on his master's thesis concerning vivianite – a natural blue pigment.



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