Old Town Riga, history and art nouveau

All cities and metropolises begin from a small area and spread out gradually over time. Stockholm has Gamla Stan, London has the City of London, Singapore has the Singapore River, Riga has the old town of Vecriga.

Located along the banks of the Daugava River, Riga Old Town has been in existence since the 1200s. It’s buildings tell the story of the Hanseatic League, with a statue of the Town Musician of Bremen standing in front of St Peter’s Church as a sign of the bonds between the former Hanseatic allies.

Another scene from the Hanseatic era (rebuilt to its original grandeur after being damaged in the second World War) is the House of the Blackheads. It was originally built in the 14th century for the Brotherhood of Blackheads, a German guild of unmarried merchants. It was originally formed as a guild of fighters set up to defend the city from indigenous peoples in the Baltics who tried to overthrow the Christian church. But later became more important as a social organisation after the conclusion of the Great Northern War (the Northern Crusades).

Standing in front of the House of the Blackheads is the statue of Roland, a knight with a drawn sword, signifying a city within the Hanseatic League who draws his sword to maintain peace.

Riga’s patron saint is also St Roland, but a different one. While the former is a German knight the latter is a Irish/British Cistercian monk who was an abbott of a famous monastery in present day France. Being founded as a possession of the Archbishop of Riga, it’s not surprising that old Churches dot the whole old town, including the Dome Cathedral the (now) Lutheran Cathedral of Riga,

The Dome Square looking out to the Dome Cathedral 

And the St James’ Cathederal of Riga, the present day Catholic Cathedral.

The Old Town’s beauty is not that its structures remain stuck in time but that the different eras build on each other. Buildings influenced after the Hanseatic period include the town hall. Riga has had a town council from the start in the 1200s. The current building was completed in the 17th century.

Then there is the Latvia Shooters Square, a square built during the Soviet era dedicated to Latvian soldiers who fought on the Soviet side during world war one to defend Latvia from the Germany soldier.

But the old town is more than just different building contrasts. One of the really impressive parts of Riga’s Old Town is that of Art Nouveau.

Art Nouveau is an art form used in architecture that was extremely popular from the 1890s to 1910s. It uses natural curves and is inspired by natural forms, emerging as a reaction to academic art taught in the art schools all over Europe. According to Wikipedia, “Art Nouveau is considered a “total” art style, embracing architecture, graphic art, interior design, and most of the decorative arts including jewellery, furniture, textiles, household silver and other utensils, and lighting, as well as the fine arts. According to the philosophy of the style, art should be a way of life. For many well-off Europeans, it was possible to live in an art nouveau-inspired house with art nouveau furniture, silverware, fabrics, ceramics including tableware, jewellery, cigarette cases, etc. Artists desired to combine the fine arts and applied arts, even for utilitarian objects.”

This came during the 1900s, and the Riga of the 1900s was a rich city in the heart of the Russian Empire. The rich people in Riga wanted their homes to be elegant and classy and today, art nouveau architecture decorate almost a full third of the buildings in Riga Old Town.

A gorgeous town, steeped in history. That’s all that needs to be said.




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