The Residential Castle of the Radziwill Family at Nesvizh, Belarus

The Architectural, Residential and Cultural Complex of the Radziwill Family at Nesvizh was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2005. The complex consists of the castle, surrounding landscaped parks and the Corpus Christi church-mausoleum. 

According to the World Heritage web-site, “the Architectural, Residential and Cultural Complex of the Radziwills at Nesvizh is located in the central part of Belarus. The Radziwill family, whose members built and preserved this ensemble from the 16th century to 1939, is known for many major figures in European history and culture. The complex includes the castle-residence, the Farny Church of the Most Holy Body of God and the surrounding buildings. The castle has ten interconnected buildings that form a single architectural ensemble around a hexagonal courtyard. The buildings of this castle and the church became prototypes that influenced the development of architecture in this part of Europe and Russia”.

Over the centuries the Radziwills financially supported various fields of science and culture and invited architects, artists, and artisans to Nesvizh, their concepts were based on the synthesis of various cultural traditions, which led to the creation of a new Central European architectural school.

The foundation of this architectural ensemble can be dated to the end of the 16th century when the first efforts were made to fortify the city, and a large stone castle was built near the wooden princely estate, surrounded by a water moat.

The construction of the castle began in 1582, right after the end of the Livonian War, but the inscription on the plaque above the entrance says: “Nikolay Christopher Radziwill, prince of Olyk and Nesvizh, count of Szydlowiec, Mir and Krozhah, prince of the Holy Roman Empire, Knight of Jerusalem, after the enormous work that he did for the state under the kings Sigismund Augustus, Henry and Stephen, in peacetime and war, to testify his love for his home, during the pilgrimage to the Holy Land, made in accordance with his vow and resulting in his personal absence, laid the first foundations of this castle in the year 1583 from the Savior’s birth, on May 7th”. This date is considered the starting point in the construction of the Nesvizh castle.

Along with the construction of the castle, Prince Nikolay Christopher “the Orphan” Radziwill changed the principles of conduct for townspeople and aristocracy in the privately-owned city. He initiated the process by which the city received the right of the Magdeburg Law. The townspeople were responsible for upholding the law and keeping order as well as maintaining fire safety, sanitary conditions, and the city defenses, they elected their representatives to the city government and had tax and customs privileges in business and trade.

The best artists, scientists, and craftsmen were invited to the city by the Radziwills and they defined its multi-ethnic nature and contributed to the spread of skills and the emergence of a creative approach for solving problems, including those in education. A Jesuit сollegium, a cadet corps, and a bombardier school established a presence in Nesvizh. It is here, in this small town in the south-west of the Minsk region, where the archival work of Belarus began: the most important state documents have been kept in the castle since the 16th century, and the library has been constantly expanded with book novelties from all over Europe.

The grand tours that replaced the religious pilgrimage were obligatory for the young aristocrats of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and significantly contributed to the spread of cultures. The city of Nesvizh was where the European cultural traditions first took root on Belarusian soil: the masquerade balls and theatrical performances by Frantiska Urshuli Radziwill were accompanied by fireworks, and the support to gardening arts created a love for the promenade. The fading interest of European nobles in knightly tournaments was reflected in the appearance of a hippodrome for horse carousels and races and also contributed to the appearance of the shooting competition “King of the trigger” among the townspeople for the princely prizes. Due to the development of firearms, in particular artillery, the castle ceased to perform its defensive function and was rebuilt by the Radziwills into a palace ensemble that magnified the glory and dignity of their family.

An important part of the architectural ensemble is the Church of Corpus Christi with the crypt-burial vault of the Radziwill family in its undergrounds. The main building of the Nesvizh Church of Corpus Christi is a cross-domed basilica. Its layout is based on a Latin cross inscribed in a rectangle. The church is richly decorated with frescoes, the first mention of which dates back to 1616–1617 with most of them being from the 18th century. This is the first baroque church built in Eastern Europe. What is special about this church is that it has been operating continuously for several centuries. The church stayed open even during the Soviet period of Belarus.

The entrance to the tomb is in the north transept of the church, next to the gravestone of the founder. The family tomb contains the sarcophagi of the members of the Radziwill princely house of the 16th – 20th centuries. Today it is a unique burial complex, the largest ancestral crypt in Eastern Europe. The special relationship of magnates to death formed the original funeral culture of the Commonwealth and the funeral ceremony of the Radziwill court. Farewell ceremonies with representatives of the political elite were held very solemnly, which was affected by the general theatricalization of social and family life typical for the Baroque era. The funeral ceremony of the Radziwills is presented on a temporary exhibition in the Nesvizh Palace in 2020 along with objects, discovered in the sarcophagi of the crypt in the Church of Corpus Christi.

Today the museum-reserve Nesvizh is one of the most visited tourist places in the country. The tremendous work on the revalorization of the area and the museumification of the architectural ensemble was facilitated by the reaching of a mutual understanding with the Radziwills princes. The project of creating the museum included the arrangement of 30 exhibition halls and funds, storing more than twenty thousand items. The Architectural, Residential, and Cultural Complex of the Radziwill Family at Nesvizh has been attracting about 400 thousand tourists annually since 2012.

The museum-reserve continues to develop as a national multicultural center. Development goes in the promotion of the image of the museum, organization of exhibitions, cooperation with Embassies of different countries in Belarus and with the Embassies of the Republic of Belarus abroad, cultural and educational activities, ongoing search of new programs to attract tourists, and etc. The tourist infrastructure is also developing. Every year the museum-reserve opens new sites in the area, including some of the most advanced museum exhibits in the country. The information and ticket office, equipped with an automatic ticket system, a booking office, three shops, a children’s educational center and cafe, a palace cafe, an ecotourism facility with the accommodation and active recreation services are working here. There is also a privately operated restaurant and hotel on the museum grounds.

Natalia ZherkoFirst Deputy Director of the National Historical and Cultural Museum-Reserve “Nyasvizh”