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chapter two m youth (1815–1824) O n 12/24 September 1815, “his head filled with stories about bandits,” the sixteen-year-old Mickiewicz set out from Nowogr ódek in a Jewish wagonnette for the day-long trip to Vilnius . Within a few days of his arrival there, he registered at the university and settled in with a distant relative, who also happened to be the dean of the Faculty of Physics and Mathematics. Mickiewicz was to live in the university-owned building for the next two years. Before long he became fast friends with a few of its other young residents, like him petty gentrymen from the provinces for whom a university education constituted the only path to a decent livelihood.1 1 Founded as a Jesuit academy in 1578, the University of Vilnius was revived, after a period of decline, in 1803 as the Imperial University of Vilnius under the superintendentship of Prince Czartoryski. During the tenure of rector Jan S Śniadecki (1807–1815), a mathematician , astronomer, Benthamite utilitarian, and unreconstructed rationalist, it became a beacon of Lithuania’s belated Enlightenment. With Czartoryski’s encouragement, S Śniadecki managed to attract a stable of outstanding professors to the university, including his brother Je ˛drzej, a professor of chemistry and medicine, and also a talented satirist; the renowned pathologist Józef Frank; Leon Borowski, a professor of aesthetics, poetics , and rhetoric; the classical philologist Gottfried Ernest Groddeck; and the historian Joachim Lelewel. (The latter two were also instrumental in developing a program of Orientalist studies that eventually produced some of the Russian Empire’s leading Orientalists .) Over the course of about three decades, the university, well endowed and an 10 adam mickiewicz imposing physical presence in the heart of Vilnius, became the focus of the city’s cultural life. Its professors were involved in publishing periodicals, organizing charitable societies , and since practically all were members, reforming the city’s Masonic movement. The high-spirited among them joined a few of their more enlightened gentry compatriots in founding the Society of Rogues, which through its organ, The Sidewalk News, hoped to jolt the backward province into modernity with mockery and satire. At the time of Mickiewicz ’s enrollment, the university had emerged as the most progressive institution of higher learning in the Polish lands. Aside from the university, though, Vilnius itself was not much to speak of: “A lot of pride...and few amenities,” as one memoirist put it. From the perspective of Warsaw, the capital of the Congress Kingdom and the center of Poland’s cultural establishment, it was little more than an occasion for a witticism about the sticks. A provincial capital , Vilnius was indeed provincial, with a population of about 46,000 that had grown little over the previous two centuries. To be sure, the presence in the city of the regional high court drew gentry from the surrounding countryside, particularly during Carnival. Yet few streets were paved, there were no sidewalks, and the city was illuminated only on special occasions, such as the visit that fall of Emperor Alexander I, the new king of the recently created Congress Kingdom of Poland. In the years Mickiewicz lived there, Vilnius did not even have a decent theater, but it did, thanks again to the university, have a botanical garden. There were also a few salons, most prominently that of Salomea Bécu, the mother of Mickiewicz’s future rival in poetry Juliusz Słowacki. Although many of the buildings were still wooden (hence the periodic fires that over time destroyed many vestiges of its medieval and Renaissance past), the city’s central core consisted of a remarkably uniform collection of stone buildings dating back to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Above all, Vilnius was a city of churches, Protestant, Uniate, Orthodox, Catholic, as well as monasteries, reflecting the city’s diverse religious and ethnic history. Germans, Belarusians , Lithuanians, Russians, and Poles lived side by side with a large Jewish community (some 40 percent of the population) as well as some Tatars—quite literally, since in Mickiewicz’s time Vilnius was just beginning to expand beyond what had once been the walls of a compact medieval city. Of these, only one gate remained, the one housing the miracle-working icon of the Virgin of Ostrabrama.2 By virtue of its responsibility for public education in the lands of the grand duchy, the University of Vilnius had the task of training teachers for the district. An incentive in...


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