Medieval Banská Štiavnica: A visual appearance of the town – results of ongoing research

Katarína Vošková


According to historiography and archive documents, Banská Štiavnica is considered to be the oldest mining town in Slovakia. However, the look of the town’s urban and architectural form in its earliest days is almost unknown or, at best, rather vague. Long-term research of archive materials picked up only indirect references to Banská Štiavnica that cannot be used to form a more specific idea of the town’s inhabitants and their life. Architectural and art historians doing research in archive materials since the early 20th century have focused their attention primarily on the town’s sacral architectural monuments. Urban architectural forms (the town’s visual appearance) from its oldest period (especially residential dwellings) are still almost unknown. In spite of, or because of this lack of information, the main goal of this project is to visualise the look of the town’s earliest settlement. Due to the lack of relevant scientific information preceding the first documented graphic visualisation of the town, it is necessary to delve into other areas of scientific research – in-situ as well as archive materials, both published and unpublished raw data. Research into residential dwellings in the centre of Banská Štiavnica was conducted for more than three decades, but it always focused on just one particular house at a time, never on a complex of dwellings as a whole. Therefore, the first aim of this project is to research the town’s oldest architecture, which is Romanesque, from the period between the 12th and 13th century, and compare the results with the historical research conducted so far in individual historical houses in the relevant location. There are few written archives and they contain only indirect remarks; and almost no visualisation of this oldest period of the town (the first veduta dates back only to 1676 and depicts the town fortifications against the Ottomans).

However, according to the historiography, there were two churches there in the first third of the 13th century and they were Romanesque, both basilicas: one with a Dominican monastery, another at a higher location with the carner chapel (the funeral chapel of St. Michal with ossuary). This sacral architecture was documented and described so far in most detail by a Czech architect and preservationist Václav Mencl in 1937. In contrast, detailed architectural research of the cloister church (with original St Nicholas patrocinium) was only conducted in 2017. The other Romanesque church – originally a three-nave basilica (the funerary chapel of St. Michal, rebuilt into a fortification structure and today part of the Old Castle) – has been researched several times from architectural and archaeological perspective, but never in an urban context with the town. However, interesting and productive archaeological and architectural/historical research has been conducted there since the 1970s. The results of that research are scattered among different archives and publications. Nevertheless, all these published and unpublished (archive) data comprise the precious sources for our research, and it is necessary to collect them and put them together for this purpose.

The position of the two Romanesque churches in relation to one another (only 600 m separates them) suggests that a residential settlement must surely have existed between them. The urban context of the probable medieval (Romanesque) settlement of dwellings, which supposedly existed at least between the two churches, has never been researched in detail. There was archaeological research conducted in some of the houses in the 1970s, which included research of the architectural/historical development of the houses, but it always focused on only one single dwelling at a time.

At the outset of our research, it was first necessary to collect and evaluate all documentation/information that had been published so far. For example, in the 1980s, results of Polish research on the architectural and historical development of houses located in the line between the two churches and near the spring were published, but this research has proven the Romanesque origin in two cases only. Other houses on the street (now called Andrej Kmeť street) were misevaluated as houses from the 15th – 16th century. Since this was highly improbable, art historian Silvia Paulusová conducted new research in the 1990s, and re-interpreted the history of this oldest street. Unfortunately, the information and data gained from her survey and her hypotheses were not wholly documented and do not include graphic and photographic materials. No comprehensive paper on the research has been written either. The author summarized the information rather briefly in her report on the research findings, which she published in 1994 in the journal Pamiatky a múzeá. Therefore, we are returning to her research more than 20 years later, and we conduct our research based on both her published results and her raw data. However, time is running out for this project, because of the massive increase in building reconstruction, especially in the very centre of the historic town. We must discover, rescue, document and archive the oldest remaining fragments of these buildings before their authentic sites are gone. This reality became the motivation for continuing the research of the oldest parts of houses on Andrej Kmeť street, the main and probably oldest street in Banská Štiavnica. Our aim is to update and supplement the latest research, and identify precisely the fragments from the oldest residential structures, to recognise their shape, form, proportions, and details. Another equally important objective is to prepare precise documentation of the oldest urban and architectural town structures from the turn of the 12th and 13th century, and then, on the basis of new and more accurate knowledge, to visualize the 13th century Romanesque residential dwellings in their urban context.

This article brings new information from the research of the oldest part of the town, which has been confirmed only on one side of the street to date. The research was conducted with the assistance and cooperation of archaeologists and art historians – experts on medieval architecture, namely: Jozef Labuda, Jaroslava Žuffová and Michal Šimkovic. Following the specification of the main characteristic marks of the Romanesque architecture by art historian Silvia Paulusová (and her research in the 1990s) the oldest architectural fragments of Romanesque residential dwellings were identified. The Romanesque architecture was visible and provable mostly in the basement floors of the houses, although originally the Romanesque houses were two or three stories high. The characteristic elements of Romanesque stone-built architecture include for example: the shape of the stone portal and its proportion, the stone material of the wall (a type of grey-greenish stone), the shape of the door niche, and other details. We can compare all these characteristic features and details scientifically and architecturally with the architectural details from the original Romanesque carner chapel of the Old Castle (St Michal Chapel) whose historical origin from the first third of the 13th century has been confirmed by architectural research.

In 2018 – 2019, students of architecture and geodesy were also involved in this project. They helped to document the confirmed architectural fragments of the oldest houses and specify their exact location with respect to other structures on the street using geodetic methods. After this research and its documentation are completed, new research of the other side of Andrej Kmeť street and Strieborna street will follow up. Only after all the research has been completed will it be possible to attempt a realistic and graphic visualisation of the medieval – Romanesque town during its earliest development (naturally, it would include the hypothetically reconstructed structures of two Romanesque churches, a location named Bana in the Old Town, after it has been subject to archaeological research and workshops and other non-residential structures in the parcel of what is now Kammerhof). In addition, as Banská Štiavnica was founded and grew as a consequence of rich gold and silver mineral resources, a more complete visualisation of the town could benefit from the survey of the position of the mining work from that period.

Keywords: built heritage, mining, medieval town, architecture, architectural form of a town, medieval architecture, historic structure, Banská Štiavnica, visualisation, Romanesque style