While walking around Vilnius Old Town you will eventually stumble upon Universiteto Street. The Vilnius University Observatory, hidden in the famous Vilnius University ensemble and the University Palace, awaits you there. This observatory is one of the oldest in Europe and a reminder of the glorious times of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.
In 1753, astronomer Tomas Žebrauskas and Elžbieta Oginskaitė-Puzinienė, the daughter of the famous manor owner Mykolas Oginskis, founded the Vilnius University Observatory. Oginskaitė-Puzinienė funded the project to establish an observatory, thus extending the cultural path of the famous Oginski family. Representatives of the Oginski family had a great impact on Lithuanian cultural life for about 400 years.
Duchess Elžbieta Oginskaitė-Puzinienė (1700–1768), a representative of the famous Oginski family of the Grand Dutchy of Lithuania nobility, occupies a special place in the history of Vilnius University. At the age of 30, she became a widow and never remarried. E. Puzinienė financed the construction of the Vilnius University Observatory. The observatory was established in 1753 and became just the fourth in Europe. After all, astronomy as a modern science was formed only in the beginning of the 17th century. E. Puzinienė supported the establishment of the observatory, helped acquire the necessary equipment and also financially supported the first internship of astronomer Tomas Žebrauskas at the Greenwich Observatory in London. According to historical sources, the representative of the Oginski family was professionally interested in astronomy, but the possibilities for female expression in the Great Dutchy of Lithuania in the 18th century were limited.
E. Oginskaitė-Puzinienė is depicted on the ornate door portal at the back of the White Hall. Its timepiece features a portrait of King Stanislaus August Poniatowski, and sculptures of two seated women, Diana and Urania, above the pediment. Diana is the one holding a portrait of E. Oginskaitė-Puzinienė. It is believed that it was painted in the second half of the 18th century by Ignotas Egenfelderis. The portrait depicts Duchess Elizabeth holding the plan for the Vilnius University Observatory created by astronomer architect T. Žebrauskas, which she funded.
The Vilnius University Observatory is a unique Baroque special-purpose building. The observatory is built on the three-storey northern building of the College Palace. On the outside, the authentic façade of the main hall building has remained. Windows decorated with various ornaments and cornices distinguish it. The observatory’s south façade also has decorated windows, including pilasters with drawings of astronomical equipment. Historical sources mention that the Vilnius University Observatory even outperformed the famous Royal Greenwich Observatory.
The size of the frame determined the dimensions of the great observatory hall, now called the White Hall. It is a spacious room with fourteen windows on both sides. Astronomical observation devices were once kept in the great hall, scientific collections were exhibited, and teaching was carried out there. Two slender towers were designed at the end of the main hall, reminiscent of the Baroque towers of Vilnius University. These two towers are identical and still symbolise the science of astronomy.
The observatory’s interior design is characterised by restraint. There are no Rococo elements, only straight shapes: graceful cornices and long columns. The observatory interior is characterised by impressive interior accents, including volutes twisted at the arches. Decorative beams line the observatory ceiling.
A fire devastated the Vilnius Astronomical Observatory in 1876. In 1882, by order of Tsar Alexander III, the observatory was closed and many of its devices were distributed to various institutions throughout the Russian Empire.
The observatory courtyard is the oldest courtyard of the university architectural ensemble. The walls of its lower floors date back to the 15th century. The courtyard was formed in the 16th century while building the premises of the Jesuit College, which began its activities in 1570. This is where the formation of the whole ensemble began. The courtyard took its current form with arcades built over all three floors in the 17th and 18th centuries. Herbs were being grown in the courtyard of the observatory at that time, and in its southern wing there was a pharmacy, and a little later – the office and archive of the Lithuanian Educational Commission.
In a square near the Vilnius University building, above the former college, the ornate façade of the White Hall rises in contrast. Large windows of classical proportions, decorated with playful Rococo ornaments, reveal that it is a work of the mid-18th century. The medallion boasts the sun above the middle window, and above the others – six, then known, symbols of the planets testify that there is a former astronomical observatory there. The instruments of mathematics, physics, astronomy, geodesy, and horology painted in the interstices symbolise the sciences whose knowledge once spread from this hall. The designer of the building, architect Tomas Žebrauskas (1714–1758), was an astronomer and founder and builder of the Vilnius University Observatory, as well as a Jesuit, doctor of philosophy and liberal sciences, and a professor of mathematics at Vilnius University. T. Žebrauskas studied at the Vilnius Academy and institutes in Vienna and Prague. He taught mathematics and science in Vilnius, and established physics and astronomy classes at the university. He also carried out astronomical observations and determined the geographical latitude of Vilnius. He wrote arithmetic and geometry exam programs in Latin.
Today, the observatory is open to everyone – the cultural object can be visited by participating in excursions around the entire Vilnius University complex. It introduces the history of Vilnius University, the individuals who have benefitted of the university, and the development of the observatory, as well as the devices inside, including written sources.