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A Regal Rebirth "Vilnius" Royal Palace

Some tourists wonder what kind of construction is going on in the Cathedral Square, the very heart of Vilnius. The answer is simple: the building process of the Royal Palace goes on.
In 2000, a group of Lithuanian intellectuals established the Royal Palace Restoration Foundation for the rebuilding of the palace behind the Vilnius Cathedral. The palace, which used to be a symbol of Lithuanian statehood, was neglected and completely destroyed some six years after the Russian Empire occupied the Lithuanian Grand Duchy in 1795.

The Russian Empire had no interest in preserving such a symbolic building in the center of the capital city of an occupied and annexed state, one which was a former regional superpower stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea at constant war with Russia. After 1795, even mentioning the name of Lithuania was forbidden by the Russian officials who preferred to call the conquered country the Northwestern Country in their documents.

Now members of the foundation promoting the reconstruction say there are paintings from the 16th and 18th centuries that provide enough information about the palace to build it according to its former grandeur. The foundation collects money for the rebuilding but the reconstruction still relies heavily on state finances.

In the 14th – 17th centuries, this palace was the residence of Lithuanian grand dukes. Since the second half of the 16th century Lithuanian grand dukes, who at that time were also kings of Poland, resided in Poland and made only occasional visits to Vilnius. In 1655, the Russian army occupied Vilnius and plundered the castle. In 1661, the joint army of Lithuania and Poland liberated Vilnius and the castle. However, the partially destroyed palace was no longer suitable as the state rulers' residence.

In earlier days, the Lithuanian Royal Palace was one of the centers of culture. In the 1630s, the first opera performance in Lithuania was staged there. In 1625, Italian Francesca Caccini wrote an opera named Liberation of Ruggiero from Island of Alcina. The opera was created to honor Vladislav Vasa, future Lithuanian grand duke and Polish king. This Swedish man was visiting Italy with plans to marry the daughter of the Duke of Toscana. The marriage was not arranged, but Vladislav acquired an opera script dedicated to him and brought it back to Vilnius.
The current global economic crisis should not have influenced on the palace's construction though it provoked some voice of opposition.

"The Royal Palace can wait, we need to renovate schools," Julius Veselka, MP of the Order and Justice Party explained. It could mean postponement of the construction of the Royal Palace. However, Andrius Kubilius, Lithuanian prime minister and leader of the ruling Homeland Union – Christian Democrats Party,  has promised no cuts in financing for the Royal Palace reconstruction.
The Royal Palace is due to be finished July 2009. This year was chosen for the opening of the rebuilt palace as it is a significant year for Vilnius and the rest of Lithuania. During 2009, Vilnius is the official European capital of culture, attracting hundreds of European artists.

Also in 2009, Lithuania celebrates its millennium. The reason for the latter celebration is as follows: in 1009, the name of Lithuania was first mentioned in writing when the German Quedlinburg chronicle stated that "St. Bruno, an archbishop and monk, who was called Boniface, was struck in the head by the Pagans during the 11th year of his conversion at the Russian and Lithuanian border." Then Bruno, who later was proclaimed a saint by the Catholic Church, died but gave an occasion for the Lithuanians to celebrate in 2009.
The opening ceremony of the new-old palace is scheduled for July 6, a national holiday in Lithuania. July 6, 1253, the official coronation of Mindaugas as King of Lithuania took place and then it was the official recognition of Lithuanian statehood because that coronation received support from the Pope of Rome.

The area of the former palace has been undergoing archaeological excavations since 1987, when the original foundations were discovered. The rebuilding of the palace commenced in 1998 when, in a baroque-style ceremony on the ruins of the Royal Palace, then President-elect Valdas Adamkus and outgoing President Algirdas Brazauskas publicly made an oath that the palace of the grand dukes would be rebuilt. Both presidents made a joint address to the nation in a capsule at the palace's ruins.

In 2001, a royal row erupted when Adamkus unexpectedly announced that any reconstruction would not be authentic and the money should instead be spent on authentic old buildings. While Brazauskas, the ex-president and one of the leaders of the Social Democrat Party, remained faithful to idea of the rebuilding of the palace. According to critics of Brazauskas' view, the Royal Palace would be a Hollywood-style palace.
The critics of the palace's rebuilding said there was not enough reliable information describing how the original palace looked like.

However, Adamkus failed to find enough support in the parliament to revoke the already existing law and in 2000, the parliament passed a law stating that the palace of the Lithuanian grand dukes in Vilnius should be rebuilt with state budget money.
"It is good that the Soviets rebuilt the Trakai castle because Lithuanian intellectuals would just keep going around it's ruins and bleat like castrated goats," Antanas Stasiskis, Conservative MP and former member of anti-Soviet armed resistance, said at the time in response to those who had doubts about the palace's reconstruction.

Now passions over the palace are not so heated. "The Royal Palace is not the most necessary pearl in the crown of Lithuania. However, the construction is already going on. It is impossible to be semi-pregnant. So, the Royal Palace should be built," Lithuanian Parliament Chairman Arunas Valinskas told City Paper.
Napaleonas Kitkauskas, a member of the Royal Palace Restoration Foundation, which promoted the palace's rebuilding rejected all criticizm regarding the reconstruction.

"We had much less information about the castles in the towns of Trakai and Birzai before their reconstruction began," he said. Now both castles are considered symbols of Lithuania.
His supporters have a lot of arguments. Now every Vilnius guide includes photos of the Arsenal building where arms of the Lithuanian army were kept during the middle ages. It was a shabby garage just some 30 years ago. There are many examples of rebuilt historical buildings in neighboring countries. The Nazis completely destroyed the Royal Palace in Warsaw. The Soviets pulled down the House of Blackheads in Riga. Both architectural treasures were rebuilt. The British reconstructed the world famous Shakespearean theater having much less information about the building than the Lithuanians about the Royal Palace in Vilnius.

ICOMOS, advisory organization of the UNESCO on monuments' protection, expressed support for the rebuilding of the palace.
The rebuilding is supported by the Lithuanian World Community, which represents 1 million Lithuanians in the United States, Canada, Australia and other foreign countries. Lithuanian-American multi-millionaire businessman Juozas Kazickas is the biggest private donor to the Royal Palace Restoration Foundation.

Another big donor was the Siauliai town-based confectionery factory Ruta, which produced the sweets collection Valdovu Rumai ("Royal Palace"), giving a portion of the profits to the foundation.
For some chocolate-lovers, eating the sweet treats has become a patriotic act.
The newly-built palace will be a museum of history and art as well as a place for conferences, concerts and posh state ceremonies.

By Rokas M. Tracevskis
Photo by Vaida Vanagaite