Tallinn Cityscapes

Tallinn City Museum

In a way, Tallinn old town is easy to paint or draw. Take a red pencil or dip your brush into terracotta coloured paint and create a landscape of gable roofs. Then you must add the steeple of St Olaf’s Church, the highest tower in town and the picture starts to unveil itself as a view of Tallinn. 

The oldest painting of a view of Tallinn dates from 1561 and it depicts a battle against the Muscovite forces at the Jerusalem Hill under Tallinn. The fortress city of Tallinn can be seen on the upper left corner of the picture, crowned by St Olaf’s Church.

The second oldest view comes from the travelogue (published 1619) of Antonis Goeteeris, who passed through Tallinn in 1615. St Olaf’s steeple towers over everything there as well.

So has Tallinn been depicted on an oak chest made in 1688 that held the most important documents of the Town Council. The representative chest depicts the city accordingly: the bright stone walls and red-tiled roofs represent a prosperous city and show that the city’s money was not wasted, but invested into a chest which would last hundreds of years.

A view of Tallinn has also been painted onto the model of a war ship from the 17th century which belonged to the Brotherhood of the Blackheads. It depicts a legend according to which the Danish king Valdemar had been hunting near Tallinn in the 13th century. The deer they were tracking had ran to Toompea hill and got stuck between the hunters and the steep limestone precipice. The terrified animal had jumped off the cliff – in German, it would be called “Reh-fall” – giving Tallinn its German name Reval. In fact, that name actually stemmed from the name of an ancient Estonian area Rävala.

Cityscapes of the 19th century Tallinn
The image of the 19th century Tallinn and its surroundings is largely based on paintings of Baltic German and Russian artists. Already in the 18th century paintings and prints of cityscapes became popular due to an increase in travelling. Views of Tallinn became a popular subject in the early 19th century. Tallinn had become a fashionable vacation spot that attracted wealthy visitors from St Petersburg and elsewhere. This may have been one of the reasons why artists were motivated to create cityscapes of Tallinn. Those images were then copied in the form of prints and gained wider distribution. Besides having a value as works of art, cityscapes are essential cultural and historical documents that realistically capture the contemporary milieu and the appearance of the city that has thoroughly changed by now.

Travelling became easier and more common in the 19th century. The travellers of the time, as do the modern ones, wanted to take their memories home with them. The city views were perfect for that because the camera, with which they could take photos of their own, had not yet been invented. While paintings and original drawings were not enough to satisfy the demand, different graphic techniques, especially lithography, could, as they enabled the printing of a large amount of pictures. The inspiration could, for example, come from a painting, as it did with this image.

The Pikk Jalg gate tower depicted on the painting separated the citizen’s lower town, which followed the Lübeck laws, from Toompea, governed by the noblemen’s feudal rights. On the left, you can see the typical Tallinn civil housing with its limestone walls. The ground floor was used as living quarters while the upper floors acted as warehouses.

The painting depicts a time in which most of the 17th century earthwork fortifications had been replaced with boulevards and parks. The circuit road system that surrounded the old town and took its shape in the 19th century still exists. Luckily, the 19th century Tallinn was not prosperous enough to allow for any big redevelopments or reconstructions in the old town. The moderate poverty forced the city to renovate and use what was already there, which is why, unlike in Paris for example, we can see the network of streets established in the Middle Ages, as well as the buildings dating back to the era.

The St Olaf’s Church towers in this 19th century street view as well. Luckily, this view has remained more or less the same until this very day. The gabled medieval buildings are still there and have been preserved without obscuring reconstructions. Today, the building on the right houses a hotel which has sheltered even crowned heads.

The seaside silhouette of Tallinn has long ago become a symbolic view of the city and can often be found on souvenirs and other everyday items.

The same spot Sprengel depicted on his painting now graces the silver covers of a pad of notepaper.

The silver port cigar from the Soviet 1950s depicts the best known of Tallinn’s towers – the corner tower of Toompea Castle, Tall Hermann. The flag flying there shows who holds the power over the land. The Estonian blue-black-white national flag was flown there again in 1989, two years before the final restoration of Estonia’s independence.

The New Year’s card made ahead of the 1980 Moscow Olympic regatta shows a silhouette of Tallinn, where the lone church steeple is accompanied by modern high rises (the rightmost one is actually called Hotel Olümpia). Today, even more skyscrapers have popped up, but St Olaf’s Church with its helm as sharp as a needle is still the tallest of them all.

Town Hall Square
The most important building in Tallinn was the Town Hall, which, according to the Lübeck law, housed the magistrate that ruled over the city. The square in front of the building was for centuries the home of the town’s most important market and to this day it is the heart of the old town.

There are few views of Tallinn that are so old and rich in detail. There have been many plans to build a second town hall outside of the old town that could be a new symbol for the city alongside the medieval one. Unfortunately, that has yet to happen; however, in a town as old as Tallinn, nothing happens overnight anyway. If laws were reflected on in the Town Hall, then, according to the image, market goods were weighed on the right side of the square.

Theodor Gehlhaar's view of Town Hall Square c 1827 .The image shows the façade of the Tallinn Town Hall and the houses with shops on the ground floors lining the square. This is the oldest remaining town hall in all of Northern-Europe, and opposite to it, behind the artist’s back, is the oldest operating pharmacy in Europe.

The Town Hall has found its place on many festive consumer goods, like this cloth for bread-and-salt ceremony from 1915.

The Town Hall celebrated its 600th anniversary in 2004, as marked by this memorial medal designed by Viktor Kuik.

In honour of the anniversary, Kalev, the most famous Estonian confectionery, produced an assortment of chocolates. The box of which is decorated by a graphic 19th century view of Tallinn by Joseph Steingrübel. If a 19th century tourist could only buy a picture as a keepsake, then today’s tourist gets some chocolate as well.

The model of Tallinn
In 1825, the Engineering Command of Tallinn drew up all the facades of the Old Town and suburbs. Most likely, a city model was produced according to those drawings, but we have no record of that. In 2002, a new model was made that provides a snapshot how Tallinn looked like in 1825, before the great alterations of the 19th and 20th centuries. Come and see it yourself!
Credits: Story

This exhibit was compiled by Risto Paju and Karel Zova. Special thanks to Pia Ehasalu.
Photos by Martin Vuks and Tallinn City Museum. Translated by Avatar Translation Bureau and Karel Zova.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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