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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.