The Ideal City
I found myself on Polish Independence Day 2014 in the town Zamość, in the far southeast of the country. The town was founded in 1580 by the Polish nobleman, chancellor and general Jan Zamoyski, and built by the Polish-Italian architect Bernardo Morando. It remains a remarkable example of a Renaissance vision of an "ideal city"––an intensively designed urban composition that blends residential, religious, civic and commercial life in a fortress (or more exactly in our time, a fortress-style) complex. At the time of its founding, it was no accident that the elegant blend of Italianate and Polish archicture and the town's harmonious urban plan mirrored the blending of peoples that Zamoyski welcomed to his city: a mixture of Poles, Jews, Armenians, Germans and others. The city's tolerance certainly abetted its prosperity, and led to its becoming a site for progressive thinking, and also for political resistance during the age of partitions (1795-1918), when Poland ceased to exist as an independent state. In the 1830-1831 November Uprising against the Czarist authorities, Zamość was the last Polish town to surrender.
Map of Zamość in 1617
What is it to speak of contemporary Polish independence in the foil of the utopic visions of Zamość's founders? And what is it to speak of Polish independence in the foil of the town's (and the country's) struggles in the last century, and its losses? Polish independence is, after all, something that has unfolded in time. The November 11th date marks the re-emergence of Poland as an autonomous state following the First World War. From 1939 through 1989, that independence was effectively annulled first by the Germans and then the Soviets, so that Poland's independence is both durable and vulnerable, an age-old dream never surrendered, but still young in its current incarnation. And even as Poland is now firmly integrated into the European Union, and indeed it is significantly through EU investment that Zamość has been beautifully renovated in recent years, Zamość itself and the far eastern parts of Poland remain the poorest parts of the country, not quite reclaimed by the sphere of European prosperity. Zamość is a border town––only 50 km from Ukraine––and it feels like a borderland, which is to say a place where the destructive and constructive forces of history co-exist in about an equal balance. There is nothing scientific about this observation, or the mood it induces in me as a foreigner staying here for some weeks. (And I can only be frank about my biases as Jew, acutely aware of the complete destruction of the once-distinguished Jewish community that comprised about half of the population of Zamość at the time of Poland's independence in 1918.)
The pictures here knit together two ways of seeing and contemplating contemporary Zamość, per my predilection for dialectical inquiry. They were made at two ends of a single day, the morning and night of November 11, 2014. The daytime pictures look into Independence Day commemorations in Zamość's central square––the gathering of people from the town and the region. The nightime pictures show the city beneath the watch of the moon, quiet and at peace, as if a vision from the past and perhaps from the future also.
Zamość, November 2014