Provisional residence - House of Blackheads

Toward the end of the 14th century, along with the guilds which brought together Rīga’s tradesmen and craftsmen, there was another upper class brotherhood which organised festivals and parties.  It brought together young and unmarried tradesmen who took on the important name of “blackheads.”  To a certain extent these men were similar to soldiers, because they travelled far and wide to supply exotic foreign goods, and they knew how to protect their ships and their caravans of horse-drawn carts from pirates and robbers.  As soldiers, they prayed to St George for courage, and they sometimes referred to themselves as “the knights of King Arthur.”  These men earned good money, they dressed in elegant clothing, they organised ornate festivals in the city, they took part in tournaments, they filled Rīga’s churches with expensive altars and ornate pews, and they used expensive silver dishes at their own parties.  It was specifically because of this ostentatious lifestyle that they found a special place in the fairly diverse society of Rīga.  After the members of the Brotherhood of Blackheads gained the right to own buildings and established families, they became a part of the elite patricians of Rīga.  They served on the City Council, were members of the Great Guild, and were respected members of the city’s community.

As their patron, the brethren chose St Maurice, whose paintings and sculptures tended to show him as a dark-skinned soldier dressed in armour.  His symbol is seen on the flags of Sardinia and Corsica, depicting the head of an officer from the Theban Legion who was sentenced to death by the Roman ruler Maximilian.  The remains of St Maurice, who was beatified in the 4th century, were interred at the abbey of the Church of St Maurice in the Swiss town of Valais.  Most of the members of the brotherhood in Rīga were tradesmen of German origin who lives in the city.  They began to call themselves “blackheads” in the 15th century, and their organisation was called the Brotherhood of Blackheads.






The facade of the House of Blackheads

The front wall of the new House of Blackheads is a precise copy of the lost facade, including various styles of architecture and artistic values from different eras.  The engraved text speaks to the rebirth of the House of Blackheads, and above the text are four allegorical sculptures placed on high consoles.  That personifies the values of the Brotherhood of Blackheads as an organisation that was open for business.  From the left side, we can look at the attributes in the hands of the sculptures and recognise images of Neptune, Unity, Peace and Mercury.  The sculptures show that trade which is the economic foundation for a society can only flourish when peace and unity prevail.  Keen-eyed visitors will spot the heralds of Rīga, Bremen, Lubeck and Hamburg which are copies of ones that were produced in 1891 by the Magdeburg-born sculptor August Foltz.  These were cities in the Hanseatic League with which Rīga has had centuries of economic co-operation.

The vases that are at the top of the pediment are designed in the style of the Dutch Renaissance.  They feature iron carvings of bushes with golden birds on their branches and golden blossoms, as well.  Buildings on the sides of City Hall Square in Brussels have similar carvings, and the idea of decorating the House of Blackheads which such ornate details may have occurred to tradesmen who travelled to other European cities as part of their work.  Between the decorations on the facade is the vertical accent of a metal pole decorated with flowers, which is also a weather vane.  It features an engraved and gilded little sculpture of St George on horseback.  The original was produced in 1622 by the silversmith Eberhart Meier in Rīga.  The upper sides of the pediment featured stone sculptures of soldiers holding pikes and shields in their hands – ones which were produced in the late 16th century.  They were reminiscent of ancient German rulers.  One level down, the facade was decorated by stone sculptures of lions.  Like the images of soldiers, these were manufactured in Lubeck.  The round medallion at the top of the pediment features a bust of the legendary King Arthur.  Under the medallion are three astronomic clock faces, behind which the “calendarium perpetuum” mechanism produced by master clockmaker Mathias was hidden.



The architect Christof Haberland designed the annexes that were added on both sides of the House of Blackheads at the turn of the 18th century.  These expanded the Celebration hall and provided facilities for the active world of concert performances in Rīga.  The 1683 carved portal at the second story door was dismantled, the ancient stairs were torn down, and the entrance which is used today was established on the ground floor.  During several periods of reconstruction in the 19th century, the owners of the House of Blackheads tried to link the entrance to City Hall Square so that the proud people of Rīga could approach in carriages.  A roof was installed to protect guests against inclement weather.  A terrace-type store was established at the front of the House of Blackheads, and that helped to establish the entrance to the building.  In 1891, the sculptor Foltz decorated the entrance with zinc lions.  An image of St George was placed at one corner of the store.

When it came time to rebuild the House of Blackheads, old photographs and blueprints from the 19th and 20th centuries made it possible to repeat the building’s architecture, its artistic and technical details, its decorative texts and heralds, etc., with greater precision.  The rebuilt House of Blackheads was officially opened at a ceremony on December 9, 1999, and by the end of the year, the building was open to its first visitors.  There are ornate and imposing vases and artworks in the vestibule of the building, but its true history begins in the cellar.  The walls of the cellar have survived since the 14th century, and the cellar reminds us of the 14th century, when local Liv fishermen were forced to accept Catholicism and a trading city based on examples from Central Europe began to be established.


The 1st floor


An attractive route through the first floor of the building involves a group of three rooms that are a unified ensemble.  Together with the vestibule, these were reconstructed identically to the mid-19th century Meeting or Conference room and the Museum or Archive room.  The vestibule presents to visitors a copy of a panorama of City Hall Square that was painted in the early 19th century by Carl Traugott Fechhelm, a painting featuring the House of Blackheads produced by Siegfried August Bielenstein, and a bust of Alderman August Heinrich Hollander that was produced in 1885 by the sculptor L.B. Bernstamm.  Alongside the mirror is a display case of tobacco pouches from the 18th and 19th century.  These were presented to the brotherhood by member Eberhart Kreger.  There were 118 tobacco pouches which, like many valuable artworks, ended up in Germany, France, England and Russia during the chaos of World War II, but they have been returned to Rīga and are once again in their original place.  Made of metal, horn, turtle shells and wood, these pouches feature various stories, as well as engraved ornamentation.  Boxes for snuff made of pressed paper feature lovely miniature paintings of European rulers, beautiful women and various frivolous memories.







The Meeting room

Latvian restorers and craftsmen went to great length to restore all of the rooms to their former glory – richly profiled stucco ceilings, wall and ceiling paintings reproducing intarsia decorations carved in various types of wood, wood panels and a parquet floor.  The Meeting room was also known as the Conference hall, and the board of the Brotherhood of Blackheads held meetings there.  The room was full of antique furnishings, works of applied art, graphics and paintings, and it was very ceremonial, indeed.  Enthusiasts involved in the restoration of the House of Blackheads collected ceramic medallions depicting Moors, and they filled display cases with antique relics.


This helped to restore the building’s antique atmosphere and to fill it with valuable documentary evidence.  The fireplace at the corner of the room is original, produced at the turn of the 19th century at the Rīga ceramics factory Zelm & Boehm.  The greatest treasure in the Meeting room, however, is the “horn of plenty” which was produced by the silversmith Oļegs Auzers in 2000.  His wasteful fantasy allowed him to depict flowers, fruit, animals and insects on the artwork.  It stands 1.3 m high and weighs 21 kg, and this is a masterpiece of silverwork which has attracted the utter amazement of the House of Blackheads’ many distinguished guests.

Today the Meeting room is furnished with original antique furnishings – a large table, 12 chairs with the heralds of members of the Rīga City Council on their backs, as well as a black Baroque sideboard.  The sideboard is particularly rare because of carved wood depictions of scenes from Russian history on its doors and cornices.  The walls of this ceremonial room feature copies of panoramas of Rīga from the 18th and 19th century.  There are also portraits of senior members of the Brotherhood of Blackheads such as George Renney and Robert Jobson.  The foreground of the 1776 panorama of the city and port of Rīga which was produced by the painter Karl Brusen shows a Dutch trading ship with a flag on its mast.  The Rīga “Canaletto” – a painting by Karl Traugott Fechhelm from 1816 – shows City Hall Square, and the eye is immediately attracted to the House of Blackheads which stands on one of its sides.

On March 18, 1921, tripartite diplomatic negotiations were held at the House of Blackheads by Russia, Poland and Ukraine.  Evidence of this is a copy of the peace treaty with signatures and seals, presented to the House of Blackheads by Polish President Lech Kaczyński.  It is stored in a red cardboard case.  The cultural layer of evidence of contemporary history is made up of books about the history of the House of Blackheads, documents related to the consecration and opening of the building, as well as rare souvenirs with the herald of the blackheads.  The ornate Meeting or Conference hall has been visited in the past and is still being visited today by the crowned rulers of Europe.  Since the restoration of the building, it has been used for  tours and receptions.




















World War II brought dramatic losses and destruction to Rīga, and the exhibition at the House of Blackheads features several bits of evidence about that time.  At the very entrance, the eagle-eyed visitor will spot four water colour paintings of City Hall Square and its ruins which were painted in the summer of 1945.  On the wall of the Archive or Museum room is a round clock which stopped at 8:30 AM.  That was the moment when the last employee of the House of Blackheads carried the clock out of the burning building on June 29, 1941.




The dream of restoration

A ceremony was held on December 9, 1999, to consecrate a series of buildings which bring new life to the historical centre of Rīga – the rebuilt House of Blackheads and House of Švābe, the Blue Guard warehouse, several other buildings, and a sculpture of Roland in the centre of the square.  One month later, on January 5, 2000, the building was first used for administrative representation and cultural functions for the local government.  A few years later, the ensemble of City Hall Square obtained the strict contours of closed square along its perimeter.  A new City Hall was also built.  Trade buildings and residential buildings reproducing the architectural style of the 18th century are now an eternal part of the city’s image.


An ornate interior

Kopš 17. Ever since the late 17th century, the Celebration hall in the House of Blackheads was a stage for dynamic political life at the international level.  The mayor and members of the City Council joined together with members of the Brotherhood of Blackheads in organising elegant ceremonies when ambassadors, representatives of royal courts and other distinguished individuals came to call.  Historical information tells us that after the bombardment and occupation of Rīga, Tsar Peter I and Duke Alexander Menshikov visited the building on November 18, 1711, spending several happy hours in examining the portraits of Swedish kings that were on display.  In July 1764, a masquerade ball was organised at the House of Blackheads in honour of Russian Empress Catherine the Great.  After Konigsberg was occupied by Napoleon’s forces, in 1808, the building was visited by Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm III and his wife, Luisa.  Concerts and musical performances were staged during the 18th and 19th centuries when Russian tsars, Swedish kings and German princes came to visit, thus reaffirming the fact that the building, its relics and its ornate interiors were the centre of cultural life in Rīga.  After the establishment of the Music Association, the House of Blackheads became the site for prestigious concerts of symphonic and chamber music, with distinguished composers and artists such as Franz Liszt, Richard Wagner, Robert Schumann, Clara Wieck Shumann, Anton Rubinstein and Henryk Wieniawski taking part.  Until the destruction of the building during World War II, the Celebration hall was also used for performances by the greatest Latvian composers and performers.

The ornate nature of the Celebration hall is largely due to the crystal chandeliers which were produced by local craftsmen and restorers with glass details made in Latvia and the Czech Republic. The southern wall is decorated with the engraved and gilded herald of the Brotherhood of Blackheads, produced by the master engraver Gints Upītis.  The chairs and sofas which ring the room are precise copies of 19th century originals, manufactured by talented students at the Rīga School of Crafts and the master wood carver Aivars Mežkazs.  The niches on either side of the main door had compositions of weapons and armour that were produced by students and instructors at the Latvian Academy of Art.

The ceiling of the Celebration hall is an absolute masterpiece of decorative and monumental painting.  The composition, ornaments, figural groups and architectonic bands of the ceiling were brought to life by painters, art students and the painter Andris Začests after a study of black-and-white photographs of the former design.  In 1900, when Rīga was preparing to celebrate the city’s 700th anniversary, the painting was commissioned from the German painter Ernst Tode.  At the centre of the ceiling, there is a colourful and round plafond featuring the herald of the blackheads and the apotheosis of their patron, St Maurice.  The ceiling is in the style of the Rococo Venetian painter Giovanni Battista Tiepolo.  St Maurice is shown receiving a wreath of laurels from the goddess of victory as a sign of eternal fame and immortality.  A second set of images depicts a young and beautiful woman draped in red drapery.  She is an allegory of the city of Rīga and is holding the staff of Mercury in her hand.  The child who is hugging the woman represents future hopes, and he is holding the symbol of the dominant Lutheran Church in Vidzeme – a model of the Church of St Peter in Rīga.  A young man lying at the feet of the allegory is holding a model of a ship to personify the port of Rīga and the shipping industry.  Supplementing this group of images are depictions of four members of the Brotherhood of Blackheads dressed in white wigs and colourful capes.  A third group of allegorical images is painted in blue and green, thus representing an associative linkage to the water which was the transport route that ensured the wealth of Rīga and the members of the Brotherhood of Blackheads.  The Baltic Sea has been depicted as the bearded god Neptune, and in line with antique art traditions, there is a woman holding a jug of water who is the goddess of rivers and, in this case, represents the Daugava River.

The walls of the Celebration hall are decorated by portraits of rulers in ornate and gilded wooden frames.  On the western wall, where the balcony for musicians is, there are paintings of Swedish kings.  The artist Andris Začests produced copies of original 17th and 18th century paintings produced by artists of the royal Swedish court.  From the left to the right are large portraits of King Gustav Adolf, Queen Christina, Kind Charles XI, and King Charles XII.  The originals are in the castles of the Swedish king and in museums.  The paintings of the rulers which hang on the western wall of the all are a reminder of the fact that during the 17th and 18th century, they were the ones who established values of Western culture as a part of the development of the Baltic States.

Prior to the destruction of the House of Blackheads, its halls were decorated with a large number of portraits of European rulers.  Dominant in this process were portraits of members of the Romanov dynasty of Russian tsars.  When the building was restored, specialists struck a certain balance in terms of the numerical proportions of political symbols and their portraits.  On the two sides of the entrance door to the Celebration hall and on the eastern wall, people who are familiar with history will recognise the portraits of two Russian tsars – Peter the Great and Catherine the Great.  The third version of a portrait of Catherine the Great produced by the painter Vigilius Eriksen and showing her on a horse called Brilliant immediately after her coronation on June 28, 1762, was lost.  A copy was painted on the basis of a version of the painting that is at the Hermitage in St Petersburg.  When the Baltic lands were annexed by the Russian Empire, these rulers yanked the lands out of the flesh of Europe.  Above the entrance portal, to the right and left of the clock, are copies of portraits of Tsar Pavel I and his wife, Maria Fyodorovna, painted by the Swedish artist Alexander Roslin.

On the end wall of the Celebration hall is the herald of the Brotherhood of Blackheads along with the portraits of two other rulers.  Polish ruler Stefan Batorius is shown in a long yellow coat.  His army occupied Rīga in 1582.  The portrait is a copy of the 1583 original by Martin Kober, which is found at the Krakow Castle.  The second ruler whose portrait is on the wall is Spanish King Carlos V, the original having been painted in 1532 by Jacob Seitzenger.  The copy was produced by Andris Začests in 2004.  The complicated frames were produced by several Latvian wood carvers on the basis of black-and-white photographs.  They also produced ornaments of flora typical of Baroque decorations, as well as heralds, weapons and decorative sculptures.

Of particular importance in the decoration of the Celebration hall are girandoles which are reflected in the mirrors and provide a sense of ceremony during concerts and other events.  They were produced by the sculptor Edvīns Krūmiņš.  The stained glass windows with their colourful ornaments and their heralds of the Brotherhood of Blackheads were the work of the artists Andris Kļavnieks and Inita Ēmane.











The Lubeck hall

On the first floor of the annex built on the Svaru Street side of the House of Blackheads are administrative facilities.  A large hall has been installed on the second floor, where there once was a conference hall and a dining room.  In honour of the 800th anniversary of the establishment of Rīga, the room where leaders of Hanseatic cities once met was named the Lubeck hall.  The name is depicted by a panorama of the German city that is more than four metres long and hangs on one of the hall’s walls.  Opposite it is a Rococo frame containing a copy of an historical illustration of the Battle of Leithen.  As supporters of the Swedes, the Brotherhood of Blackheads purchased the painting, which shows the last battle in which Swedish King Gustav Adolf was involved.



















The corridor to the Latvian hall and the Small salon

A narrow corridor links the Lubeck hall to the large and columned room on the second floor of the House of Švābe.  This represents a transfer from the halls of the House of Blackheads, decorated as they are in line with European artistic traditions, and it also serves as a background for photographs showing the greatest masterpieces of the brotherhood’s historical collection of silver.  Opposite the photographs are consoles with the busts of four Latvian composers – Emīls Melngailis, Jāzeps Vītols, Alfrēds Kalniņš, and Emīls Dārziņš.  The busts are a reminder of the role of the House of Blackheads in the establishment of Latvian musical traditions and the involvement of the four composers therein.




Small salon

Behind the wall, hidden from the eyes of visitors, is the Small salon with two stained glass windows.  Docent Inita Ēmane from the Latvian Academy of Art produced the outstanding windows which feature colourful artistic compositions featuring Rīga festivals.  The Baltic German artist Theodore Ernst Rickman designed the motifs for medallions that are a part of the windows, featuring the subjects “Grass Festival in Rīga” and “Carnival.”





The Latvian hall

The Latvian hall is full of stylised elements of Latvian ethnographic culture.  The overall image of the room is typified by the linen wall hangings and the designs of geometrically stylised Latvian folk ornaments which create an optic illusion.  Mythological symbols have been used in the stained glass windows, lighting fixtures and furnishings.  The large paintings on the walls were produced in the 1980s by some of Latvia’s most distinguished painters – Indulis Zariņš, Aleksanrds Stankēvičs and Rita Valnere.  They feature the seasons of the year, folk costumes, and everyday subject matter.




The stairs to the second floor

Ever since the latter half of the 18th century, the House of Blackheads has been a centre for concert life in Rīga.  The Brotherhood of Blackheads built a closed stairwell to the second floor as a matter of convenience for members and their guests.  This allowed people to access the Celebration hall from the first floor vestibule.  During the mid-19th century, the brotherhood bought busts of eight Austrian and German composers to decorate the stairwell, placing them on consoles.  After the restoration of the building, Sigismunds Ozoliņš sculpted busts of Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Wagner and Brahms, and these were put back in their original locations.  The sculptures speak to the diversity of music that has been performed in the much beloved concert hall.

A clergyman from Talsi, Karl Ferdinand Amenda, performed several concerts at the House of Blackheads featuring the music of his good friend, Ludwig van Beethoven.  The German composer Richard Wagner lived in Rīga from 1837 until 1839 and served as the conductor of the city’s orchestra.  Several of his compositions were performed at the House of Blackheads.  He also conducted several concerts there.  Later, Hector Berlioz visited the House of Blackheads as a guest conductor.

On the wall of the stairwell is a gift from the Polish Embassy – a stone plaque reminding visitors of the role which the House of Blackheads played in peace negotiations and a peace treaty among Russia, Poland and Ukraine.