Since the 10th century Kraków played a role in far-reaching trade, and in the 12th century, when it became the seat of the ruler residing in Wawel, it was already an important trade center. In the thirteenth century, the city entered into trade for the so-called The Royal Route (Via Regia), one of the most important transport links in Central Europe on the east-west line, created from many older and younger roads, routes and medieval connections. Large transit routes connecting Gdańsk and Toruń with the Hungary, as well as German countries and Bohemia with Ruthenia and the Black Sea zone intersected in Kraków. Such a favorable location resulted in the need to erect commercial infrastructure, especially after the shape of the city was regulated in the foundation privilege of Bolesław the Chaste from 1257.
The first commercial buildings in the form of cloth hall and stalls were built in Kraków shortly after the foundation of the city on the initiative of Prince Bolesław the Chaste. As in the fourteenth century Kraków was already one of the most important commercial transit centers, around 1358 King Casimir the Great founded a new, brick, Gothic cloth hall building, enlarged and rebuilt significantly at the turn of the 14th and 15th centuries, together with Wealthy Stalls that replaced earlier Bolesław’s Stalls.
The Gothic cloth halls was destroyed during a fire in 1555. In the years 1556-1559, the cloth hall was renovated in accordance with the Renaissance style reigning in the architecture at that time. The work was led by master Pankracy, who closed the great hall of the cloth hall with barrel vault. The building was topped with an attic with arcaded divisions and a ridge with gargoyles designed by Santi Gucci. The column loggias designed by Jan Maria Padovano were also added. In the years 1599 – 1602, the transverse passages of the cloth hall were rebuilt and floors were added to them. The cloth hall survived in this form until the 19th century, when it was rebuilt in the years 1875-1879 as part of regulation of the market square. At that time, projections on the east-west axis and one-story arcades were added.
The oldest commercial buildings from the second half of the 13th century were built in the central part of the market. It was a complex of buildings arranged in several rows with longer sides on the north-south line, with two rows of wooden or half-timbered cloth houses in the center, and timber bakery stalls on their western side. A double row of cloth houses formed a street in the middle, which was closed on both sides at night. In addition, to the east of them there were stalls called Bolesław’s Stalls, i.e. seven buildings arranged in two rows parallel to the cloth hall. They were stone in the lower parts, it had basements and their walls in the upper parts probably had a half-timbered structure.
South of the above complex, the Lead Scale House was located, together with facilities for storing heavy goods such as copper, lead and silver. The oldest scale was a small timber building with a post-and-plank structure, hiding inside a weighing device and probably a weighing clerk’s flat in the attic. The market was surrounded by a beltway, i.e. a paved communication road, while individual in-market buildings received a system of roads connecting them. The most important of them, paved with cobblestones and enclosed in massive oak kerbs, allowed to drive a heavier carts through the boggy surface of the square. The area became soaked after major downpours and was additionally lined with sidewalks from timber planks or treated with straw mixed with waste and debris.
Around the middle of the fourteenth century, the western part of the timber commercial complex was demolished, which was replaced by a slightly larger cloth hall, fully stone, but roughly repeating the layout of the older building. Namely, they were four buildings arranged in two rows with streets crossing them on the north-south and east-west lines. The four entrances were probably equipped with wooden gates, locked at night to secure the stalls.
In the second half of the fourteenth century, the brick building of Great Scale House was erected in place of an earlier timber building. In subsequent years, this building underwent transformations to finally reach the shape of a two-story building with a decorative, stepped gable in the mid-15th century. Probably it was fenced enclosing the so-called Lead Market, small metal melts, warehouses and economic buildings. In the ground floor room there was a weighing device in the form of two scales hung to a horizontal arm about 5 meters long. Mainly metals were weighed on it: lead, copper and iron. On the first floor and in the attic, there was a weightener’s flat, a storehouse for measuring instruments and warehouses, although most of the building covered an open interior, separated only by timber columns supporting wooden ceilings.
In the second half of the fourteenth century, a two-storey Small Scale House was built, a rectangular building with characteristic corbels at the eastern and western elevations, supporting the wider upper floor. There, the value of goods weighing less than 65 kg was estimated, such as wax, spices, minerals, soaps and resins. The lower storey housed a weighing device for trading in raw materials, and the upper storey housed the furriers’ guild seat.
Gothic cloth hall from the end of the 14th century was an elongated building in the form of a basilica 108 meters long and 10 meters wide with a higher central part above the inner hall, covered with a high gable roof. On the southern and northern sides of the cloth hall, two ogival, closed gate portals were built, above which two tall and narrow ogival windows were pierced, separated by slightly smaller blendes. The upper part was formed from the north and south by Gothic stepped gables. The longitudinal walls, on the other hand, were reinforced with buttresses, which were decorated with slender pinnacles. Rectangular windows in stone frames were pierced between the buttresses in the spans’ axes, illuminating the main hall of the cloth hall. To improve communication, additional passages were created in the middle of the building’s length, on the eastern and western sides. On the west side, the cloth hall had two projections containing cloth cutting rooms.
Inside the cloth hall, on both sides of the main hall, along the longitudinal north-south axis, there were two rows of stalls, 7.5 meters deep, covered with mono-pitched roofs. There were 18 of them on each side, all covered with vaults and open to the inside with pointed or semicircular portals. All of them also had cellars covered with barrel vaults. Each row was separated by side entrances, creating quarters of 9 stalls. The central hall was 10 meters wide.
From the east, starting from the beginning of the 15th century, to the cloth hall adjoined the so-called Wealthy Stalls. They were stone rooms with basements measuring 5 x 2.5 meters, in which various luxury goods were traded. During this period, the entire area of the market between the main buildings was filled with more or less dense, timber commercial buildings in the form of a series of one-story buildings forming sets of stalls, divided depending on the sold goods. For example, in the north-west quarter there was a salt and fish market, from the north was a chicken market, on the north-east side, opposite St. Mary’s Church there were iron and glass stalls, and a bread and hay market. On the south-eastern side there were hat traders, Jewish market and between the small Romanesque church of St. Adalbertus and the Great Scale House – lead market. In the south-western part of the market shoemaker’s and tanner’s shacks were placed, and in the vicinity of the town hall – a coal market.
From among the numerous and varied commercial buildings of the Kraków market square, only the building of the cloth hall has survived to the present day. Today it is one of the most characteristic and best-known places in Kraków, as well as one of the outstanding works of the Renaissance. Older Gothic elements can be seen in places where they were not covered by early modern rebuilding, e.g. main ogival entrance portals, Gothic blendes visible through the Renaissance balcony, or pinnacles on buttresses at longer elevations. In total, 28 medieval portals have been partially or completely preserved from the outside and inside. Cloth Hall serve nowadays as trade stands, mainly with jewelery, souvenirs and handicrafts. On the first floor there is the Gallery of Polish Painting and Sculpture of the nineteenth century, and in the basement you can see relics of medieval Kraków, including fragments of paved roads, relics of the first stalls, old waterworks and many more.
Architektura gotycka w Polsce, red. M.Arszyński, T.Mroczko, Warszawa 1995.
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