How postwar Warsaw was rebuilt using 18th century paintings

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How postwar Warsaw was rebuilt using 18th century paintings
Church of the Holy Cross. All 22 of Bellotto’s street scenes survived the war / © Andrzej Ring, Lech Sandzewicz

When Warsaw’s Old Town was destroyed by Hitler’s troops in the second world war, the nation mobilised to rebuild the city with the rubble of its own destruction – and the work of Italian painter Bernardo Bellotto

It is August 1944 and the Polish resistance are in violent clashes with the Nazi forces that have occupied Warsaw. The resistance intend to liberate the city from what the Polish poet Czesław Miłosz has called the “dark, black and red world of Nazi occupation”.

During the Warsaw Uprising, the ill-equipped Polish resistance succeed in inflicting serious damage on their oppressors, with 20,000 Nazi troops left wounded or dead. But it is the civilian population that suffers the greatest losses, with 150,000 people killed in air strikes and in fighting across the city.

In retaliation, the Nazis raze the Polish capital to the ground. More than 85% of the city’s historic centre is reduced to ruins. Unlike in other European cities, where damage largely occurs during the fighting, Warsaw is systematically destroyed once the two months of conflict have ended, as an act of revenge by Hitler’s forces.

What follows is the story of how Varsovians (residents of Warsaw) reconstructed their city – in part from the cityscapes, or vedute, of the Italian painter Bernardo Bellotto (1722-1780), often referred to as Canaletto after his more renowned uncle.

Bellotto, who was made court painter to the King of Poland in 1768, created beautiful and accurate paintings of Warsaw’s buildings and squares. It is testimony to the veracity of his work that almost 200 years later, those paintings were used to help transform the historic city centre from wreckage and rubble into what is now a Unesco World Heritage Site.

In the summer of 1947, the architect Hermann H Field led a small group of American designers to study the post-war reconstruction of Europe. […]