Classics and Civic Identity at the Old Poznan City Hall

The reception of Classical antiquity has become quite a hot topic in recent years. It helps that there are lots of examples of the use and appropriation of Classical themes and motifs in modern art and architecture that can be studied through this approach. The field of reception studies has also increasingly been accepted as part of Classics ‘proper’ (see e.g. Beard & Henderson 2000; Bang 2005). I have a lot of sympathy for this interest in Classical reception, although I occasionally feel that it contributes more to a communal sense of nostalgia (i.e. longing for a time when the public still appreciated the ‘true’ value of Classics, and Latin was taught as the first foreign language in schools, etc.) rather than ‘enlivening’ the subject and rendering it relevant in the present. It is perhaps because of this that I often find that the most interesting examples of the use (and occasional abuse) of Classics are those that you come across (almost) at random and in contexts where you hadn’t expected them.

I was therefore pleasantly surprised by the extremely interesting decorative programme of the Old City Hall in Poznan when I visited this summer. Across the facade of its loggia runs a series of portrait roundels of various Classical authors, scientists, politicians, a Byzantine emperor and even a rebel slave. What is interesting here is perhaps not so much the presence of well-known Classical figures in itself (the building as it stands now goes back to the 16th century and was built by Italian architect Giovanni Battista di Quadro) – but rather the selection of who were placed on the building’s facade and how this selection contributed to the construction of a civic identity in Renaissance Poznan. It’s an interesting and rather ecclectic bunch: the Gracchi, plebeian heroes, Lucius Junius Brutus, founder of the Republic, Archimedes, Greek mathematician and engineer, Vitruvius, Roman architect, Virgil, national poet of Rome, Homer, ‘author’ of the Odyssey and the Iliad, Justinian I, Byzantine emperor and patron of the Agia Sophia, Horace, Roman poet, Spartacus, leader of a slave rebellion, and the philosopher Heraclitus. Taken together, these luminaries and what they stand for, must have represented the body politic of this Central European city in the 16th century.

Poznan - Town Hall
Vitruvius on the Poznan City Hall. Photo: TMK, July 2007.

Poznan - Town Hall
The facade of the Poznan City Hall. Photo: TMK, July 2007.

Peter Fibiger Bang (ed.) 2005. Fremmed og moderne: glimt af antikken i Europa. Ã…rhus: Aarhus Universitetsforlag.

Mary Beard & John Henderson 2000. Classics: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

This entry has been (partially) cross-posted at Philolog, a blog devoted to “Classical connections – commentary and critique.”

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1 Comment

  1. it’s a Famous Men cycle. in Renaissance Italy these were frequently used to decorate civic structures. there is a substantial literature on the subject.

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