Ukrainian Dream of Da Vinci

  • Ukrainian Dream of Da Vinci
  • Ukrainian Dream of Da Vinci
Issue 55, March 2013.

With its spacious central square, streets decorated with Italian arches, sizeable churches and a dominant palazzo, the little town of Zhovkva – with 13,000 inhabitants – is as close as one will get in Ukraine to seeing what da Vinci dreamed of as his “ideal city.”
The concept appeared in 1488 when the plague was ravaging Europe, and in Milan, the city where the artist lived, a third of its population had already died. Observing the sad aftermath of the Black Death, da Vinci came to the conclusion that a better-designed city could ward off illness and mortality. Many European cities in da Vinci’s era were densely populated and where the garbage was routinely deposited into narrow and dark streets with no sanitation norms, germs and diseases spread very quickly.
Da Vinci thought of a city that would be more spacious and was split into two levels: lower level would be used by carts and animals, while upper level, which had wider streets, would be used for foot traffic. Canals were dedicated to commercial purposes, as well as a sewage system. On his style of urban planning, da Vinci simply said “only let that which is good looking be seen on the surface of the city.”
Because the ideal city was so grand in scale and required entire cities to be rebuilt, it never came to life the way da Vinci (with his profound knowledge in architecture, engineering and invention) envisioned it. However he introduced a concept that became appealing to European urban planners, including those who inhabited the territory of present-day Ukraine.
In the 17th century, two Italian architects and sculptors Paolo de Ducato Klemenci (known by his guild nickname Paul the Fortunate) and Paolo Dominici Romanus applied da Vinci’s ideal city concept to Zhovkva and its existing structures.
Both Italians were well-known in the region as Paul the Fortunate built Lviv’s Golden Rose Synagogue (destroyed by the Nazis in 1941), while Paul of Rome, also active in Lviv, erected that city’s Bernadine and Dormition churches, as well as several buildings on the Market Square.
The city complex in Zhovkva is unique not only because it is the only well-preserved realization of the ideal city in Ukraine, but is also an extremely rare type of planning among the nearly 200 preserved ideal cities in Europe.
The result of their urban planning is a town impressive in both scope and implementation. One half of Zhovkva’s center is lined with streets covered by Italian arches – no other city in Ukraine has them – while the other half is dominated by Paul of Rome’s St. Lawrence Church, which boasts friezes of military scenes.
Other churches and buildings are scattered about, positioned on streets reminiscent of those found in Italy. Holding the complex together is the massive Zhovkva Castle, which has words in Latin inscribed beneath the roof on its backside.
Zhovkva was first inhabited in the 14th century and in 1594, the Polish military commander Stanislaw Zolkiewski, who gave the city its name, fortified the settlement and built the Zhovkva castle. The town did not, however, reach its peak until the latter half of the 17th century, after King Jan III Sobieski made Zhovkva his royal residence.
As leader of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth for 22 years, Sobieski brought about much-needed stability after a turbulent period of war, which included the 1648 Bohdan Khmelnitsky-led Cossack uprising.
Along with the two Paolos, some of the region’s finest architects worked in Zhovkva, unfortunately many of which remain unknown to modern scholars even today.
Today, Zhovkva has 51 architectural monuments, 49 of which have national significance. In 2001, the Ukrainian government supported a local initiative to preserve and restore Zhovkva. The 20-year program not only envisions restoration work, but renewing destroyed architecture, as well as conducting historic and academic studies.
As a result, buildings in the center are slowly being renovated. Zhovkva’s castle, which needs some $8 million in refurbishments, has been saved from ruination. Eventually, it will house a stage for open-air concerts in its impressive courtyard, a museum, a conference centre and a small hotel.
Zhovkva has received money for restoration as part of those allocated for the EURO 2012 championship preparation, however for the present year the current government has cut restoration funding completely. Still Zhovkva’s officials are dedicated to restoring the city to its previous grandeur so that visitors and residents can continue enjoying Ukraine’s one example of da Vinci’s ideal city.