Jolita Butkevičienė, 2012-02-01
Restored House of Perkūnas, reflecting the taste in architecture and financial potential of the Lithuanian merchant

In brief: Nowadays it is fashionable to weave attractive real and unreal stories into objects of cultural heritage. Society is easily attracted by castle ghosts, spirits of lovers, pale silhouettes of maidens, etc. Often the stories set for tourists become nearly essential information about those objects. Facts show that such subjective approaches have deep traditions. One of the examples could be the House of Perkūnas (God of Thunder) situated in Kaunas, 6 Aleksoto Street. Let us reveal its secrets after the guidance of the research of art critic Jurgis Oksas.

The name of the house proves that mysterious stories were already popular a couple of ages ago. Interpretations based upon the spirit of Romanticism were much appreciated in the early 19th century. The legend was born in 1818, when a new building was being built close to the house. Its old wall was a bit demolished and a brass 27 cm statuette fell off it. It was a figure of a man; his head was crowned with a town image with towers and shrines; he held three fishes in his hands; his legs were crossed. The statuette disappeared eventually but its mystery remained alive.

The historian of those times Teodoras Narbutas saw the image of the pagan god Perkūnas in the statuette and called the house Temple of Perkūnas. No one questions the fact that such interpretation of the statuette and the function of the house was absolutely romanticist and had nothing to do with reality. However, the name of Perkūnas made the building unique in the context of Lithuanian architecture heritage.

False attempts to define the origin of the building, inspired by its distinctive architectural composition, were made in the 20th century. Two ideas were based on the image of an elaborate pediment and other elements. One of these claimed that it was the building of Hansa traders reflecting the German architecture traditions. The second one agreed on the idea of traders’ office but accentuated its Lithuanian origins. For some reason the first version was established. The gothic house of Perkūnas, which suggested great economical resources and a fine aesthetic taste, was related to the German merchants. This interpretation was soon spread both in the scientific and social field.

Fortunately, J. Oksas gathered information for more than a decade and revealed true origins of the mysterious house. The data found in 1985 in Moscow, at the Central State Archives of the Old Files, stated that in 1546 the Lithuanian trader Steponas Dulkė sold his private residential house, located in St Mary‘s Street (now 6 Aleksoto St.), to Bernard Bitner.  However, S. Dulkė was not the builder of the house; it was inherited by his wife, who most probably was also Lithuanian.

These facts discovered by J. Oksas prove that the temple of Perkūnas, or Hansa traders’ office, or Lithuanian traders’ office was actually a dwelling house. The building shows that the citizen of Kaunas in the 15th century (parents-in-law of S. Dulkė) were rich, could build a house of a complex architecture and had a refined taste. It is also possible that in such way they wished to demonstrate their fortune.

Today the House of Perkūnas is the only gothic residential house known in Lithuania, characteristic of such a sophisticated, exceptional artistic composition. On the other hand, the significant discovery of J. Oksas is still doubted in the scholarly and public discourse. The book ‘Architecture of Kaunas’ (1991) considers the primary function of the building to be communal. The notion is based on the proposition that there were no kitchen and staircase between the ground floor and first floor. However, the house belonged to the Jesuits since the 17th century and its interior was rebuilt several times.

The function of the building also changed. In the early 19th century it belonged to the school of noblemen; in 1844-1863 it was the first Kaunas drama theatre; at the end of the 19th century and in the 20th century it served for different public needs. Hence, over four hundred years the house also had a religious function, hosted various public activities, related to culture and education but not trade.

The public discourse still identifies the House of Perkūnas as the office of Hansa merchants. There is no record about where the actual office was situated. Apparently, some people still tend to perceive the past symbolically, to ignore written facts and authentic cultural heritage. For some it is easier to refer the house to foreigners than to admit that it once was a dwelling house of the Lithuanian.

Obviously, a beautiful legend increases the attractiveness of the object. The statuette found in the 19th century gave a unique aura and name to the building. However, talking about cultural heritage a clear line between human imagination and real historical facts must be drawn. Cultural heritage is a living witness of the past: once spoken it does not require new tales to be created.

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