The spectacular renaissance palace that we admire today atop Wawel Hill is the result of the refurbishment of the Gothic Royal Castle in the first half of the 16th century according to the wishes of Sigismund I the Old (Zygmunt Stary). It was the abode of Polish kings and their closest family, while the stately halls provided a backdrop for courtly and political life.
The impressive space of the arcaded courtyard is where you enter the individual exhibitions: the State Rooms, Royal Private Apartments, Crown Treasury and Armoury, and Oriental Art. Those interested in the history of the castle and the hill in the early medieval times are welcome to visit the Lost Wawel exhibition.
Visiting the castle interiors provides a great opportunity to imagine details of the lives of bygone kings. The first-floor chambers (Royal Private Apartments) are designed to portray their former character and furnishing. Here you will find royal quarters, chambers of the royal courtiers, quarters for the guests, and the premises where monarchs yielded to their passions. The special interests of the kings of Poland in the 16th century were connected with arcane knowledge and alchemy. Sigismund (Zygmunt) III Vasa had a laboratory set up in one of the towers, where he conducted experiments with the participation of an eminent alchemist, Michał Sędziwój. Earlier, the semi-legendary master Twardowski allegedly operated in the castle. They say that King Sigismund II Augustus (Zygmunt August) had him summon the spirit of his beloved though prematurely deceased wife, Barbara Radziwiłłówna. The collection of tapestries from the unique collection of Sigismund II Augustus, made in Brussels in the mid-16th century, are the most valuable of all the works of art displayed here. It is the largest collection of tapestries in the world to be made to the commission of just one ruler. Displayed in the Private Apartments are primarily the examples with landscapes and animals, that is the verdures.
Visiting the second floor (the State Rooms), you enter the space of official events of state significance that took place during the Golden Age of Polish culture. Worth special attention are the assembly halls of the two houses of the Sejm: the Polish Parliament. The first took counsel in the Senators’ Hall. The largest in the castle, this chamber doubled as the place where other important state and court events and ceremonies were held: balls, plays, musical performances, and even royal weddings. On the walls of the Senators’ Hall, covered in cordovan (Cuir de Cordoue), that is dyed and lavishly decorated leather, we can admire successive majestic tapestries from the collection of Sigismund II Augustus, this time with biblical themes. The lower house of the Sejm held sessions in the Audience Hall, also known as Under the Heads, from its most characteristic element, that is sculpted renaissance heads set in the coffers of the ceiling. It was also here that the King would receive envoys and issue judgements. There is a legend connected to one of the decorative heads presenting a woman with a ribbon covering her mouth. When Sigismund Augustus was about to issue a verdict in a difficult case, the head spoke out from the ceiling: Rex Auguste iudica iuste (“King Augustus, judge justly”). Her words were followed, yet from that time on the mouth of the woman has been gagged with a band, so that she would never again intervene with royal decisions.
When the Sejm was in session, the royal tribunal moved to another stately chamber, known as the Chamber under the Eagle. Today we can admire on its walls not only the cordovan but also royal portraits and historical scenes from the 17th century. Maintained in a similar baroque style is the Chamber under the Birds with a marble fireplace designed by Giovanni Trevano and portals with the coats of arms of the Vasa dynasty. This was the favourite chamber of Sigismund III. Adjacent to it is a little chapel richly decorated with stuccowork, where the king used to hear mass. A bonus for aficionados of all things military and knightly are the Military Review Chamber with a frieze portraying a military parade before the king and the Tournament Hall, with a knightly tournament depicted on the frieze. The paintings, works of Antoni of Wrocław and Hans Dürer (brother of the famous Albrecht) originated in the first half of the 16th century.
Trophies can also be admired at the exhibition of Oriental Art, which is a collection of objects obtained through military and commercial contacts with the countries of the Middle East, and of Chinese ceramics. Works of artists, craftsmen and artisans from Turkey, Crimea, Caucasus, and Iran made their way to Poland over the centuries, and in the 17th century the local custom among the nobility and court ceremonial acquired slightly oriental – Sarmatian – features.