White bows, black sheep

Historic Vilnius printing houses

Until the 15th century, books were copied by monks. They were saved from monotonous work by an accidental invention by German blacksmith Johannes Gutenberg. In those days, it was believed that a mirror sewn into clothes absorbed holy light from religious objects and thus protected its owner. Johannes produced polished metal plates and, in order to automate the production process, he discovered the possibility of printing text with movable type pieces. In the 1440s, he presented his invention and printed his first book, a Latin textbook. Since then, printing presses have spread across Europe at lightning speed. Soon, they appeared in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, where religious struggles between Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants raged. The press helped the opposing camps to polemicise with their opponents publicly, to spread their ideas, to maintain order in their communities, and to codify the fundamentals of their faith. Over the centuries, the printing presses of Vilnius, like the city itself, have experienced wars, epidemics, deprivations, occupations, and various prohibitions. However, the printed word still has meaning and value today. The struggle for printing in Latin characters in the late 19th and early 20th centuries stirred up the conscious part of the Lithuanians and revived the nation for a new social and cultural life.

Along the route, we will not only pay tribute to the pioneers of the printed word but also recall the history of culture, religion and various social processes of the time.

Route map

1. Francysk Skaryna’s Printing House (1522-1525)

The memorial plaque and the sculpture ‘The Annalist’ (sculptor – V. Krutinis) commemorate the pioneer of book printing in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (GDL), Francysk Skaryna (Pranciškus Skorina in Lithuanian). Born in Polotsk to a merchant family, he came to Vilnius as a young man and found influential mentors in the city’s burgomasters, Jakub Babich and Bogdan Onkov. Thanks to them, Skaryna studied seven liberal arts (grammar, logic, rhetoric, music, arithmetic, geometry and astronomy) at the University of Krakow. He also knew seven languages (Russian, Polish, Czech, Ancient Slavonic, Hebrew, Greek, Latin), travelled around Europe, and later earned a doctorate in medicine from the University of Padua. 

It is assumed that it was in this house, invited by the same burgomasters, that he founded the first printing house in the GDL and published the first in the GDL in 1522 – a collection of psalms and didactic texts in Cyrillic, ‘The Little Travel Book’. It is possible that Skaryna printed only the missing parts here and brought most of the quires, together with printing supplies and paper, from Prague, where he had previously established a printing house. His second book, printed in the GDL, ‘The Apostle’ (1525), was certainly printed in its entirety in Vilnius. It is mentioned here that the book was printed “in the house of the venerable man Jakub Babich, the great and noble chief burgomaster of Vilnius”. The quality of Skaryna’s books published in Vilnius, decorated with vignettes, tailpieces, engravings, and stylised typefaces, was not inferior to the quality of the Western European publications of the time. 

After 1525, the printer’s publishing activities ceased for unknown reasons, and the printing house was destroyed in the Vilnius fire of 1530. 

2. The Mamonich Printing House (1574–1624)

It is not known exactly where this printing house was located. It is assumed that it was in the house of Luka Mamonich near Vilnius marketplace (now Town Hall Square), perhaps even in the same house where Skaryna worked. It was initially run by the merchant brothers Luka and Kuzma Mamonich and later by Kuzma’s son Leon. The brothers invited Piotr Mstislavets, an experienced printer from Russia. He printed the first book ‘The Gospel’ for ten months, and a year later, he published the ‘The Book of Psalms’. Although the publishing process took some time, both publications were of exceptional quality. After setting up the printing press, training the printers and publishing the first books, Piotr was no longer needed by the merchants, and a conflict broke out between them. In 1576, the court left all unsold publications to the brothers and the equipment to Mtislavets. The printing house ceased to function as it lost not only its main printer but also its equipment and typefaces. In 1586, the printing house managed to recuperate after receiving a privilege from Stephen Batory to print religious and law books in Old Church Slavonic, Greek, and Russian and to distribute them customs-free throughout the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.
The Mamonich family printed books for the Orthodox Church, textbooks, and legal publications of the GDL: the Statute of Lithuania and royal decrees. All publications were carefully prepared, originally illustrated, and printed on their own paper produced by the rich merchant Luka, who had a paper workshop in Pavilniai and his own paper monopoly. 

In total, the Mamonich Printing House printed approximately 115 publications, 55 of which were in Cyrillic and 60 in Latin. In 1628, the Basilian Printing House took over the printing facilities. 

3. The Romm Printing House (1799–1940)

It was founded by Borukh Romm as a branch of the Grodno Printing House, which had been granted a royal privilege. When he died four years later, the company was inherited by his son and then by his descendants. The printing house was later renamed ‘The Widow and Brothers Romm’. In the 19th century, it was one of the largest printing houses in Lithuania, and later, a foundry of type pieces was established. At various times, it was home to between three and 25 printing presses. It printed mainly Jewish publications in Hebrew and Yiddish, as well as Jewish religious, scientific, and household books and periodicals. The most prestigious editions were the Babylonian and Jerusalem editions of the Talmuds, with many commentaries. In 1830-1864, he published or printed 20 Lithuanian books, including the primer ‘The Science of Learning’ (1830), as well as the ‘Grammar of the Samogitian Language’ (1832), a few Catholic prayer books, a collection of Gospels, and three Lithuanian books in ‘civil script’ (1864-1865). The printing house operated successfully under both Lithuanian and Polish rule and was nationalised in 1940 after the Soviet occupation when the Soviet printing house ‘Vaizdas’ (which continued to operate until 1982) was established.  

4. The Basilian Monks’ Printing House (1628–1839)

The location of this printing house was always in Vilnius St. Trinity Monastery. In the second half of the 18th century, it was housed in a new monastic building, first on the second floor of the west side and, at the end of the 18th century, on the ground floor of the annexe. It benefited from the royal privileges of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania granted to the Orthodox Monastery of the Holy Trinity (after the ecclesiastical union – the Monastery of the Holy Spirit). In 1768, the Basilian Printing House secured a privilege from the King of Poland and the Grand Duke of Lithuania, Stanislaw August Poniatowski, which gave it the title of His Royal Majesty’s Printing House. Although it was institutional, it printed books for the Ruthenian, Lithuanian, Polish, Eastern Orthodox, and even Latvian communities. In total, the Basilians published more than 400 publications in Polish, Latin, French and Russian, 51 Lithuanian books, and M. P. Karpowicz’s patriotic sermons on the occasion of the 3rd of May Constitution and the uprising of 1794. It mainly published religious literature, monastic school teaching materials, treatises and panegyrics. In the second half of the 18th century, the share of secular literature increased, and fiction began to be published. 

5. The Franciscan Printing House (1671-1781)

The Franciscan Monastery in Vilnius was famous as an important intellectual centre of Vilnius, where the strongest school of the 17th century operated and the monks held public religious disputations and theological conferences. Much attention was paid to science and art. The Franciscan Printing House was opened in 1671, when the King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania, Michał Wiśniowiecki, granted it a privilege. The founder of the printing house was Franciscan Jakub Francisczek Dłuski,

Due to epidemics and fires, the monastery’s deteriorating financial situation, and competition with other printing houses, especially the Vilnius Academy, the Franciscan Printing House’s activities were interrupted several times. The Franciscan Printing House used to undertake printing work on commission, mainly for the clergy but also for the laity. It also sold its printed Latin and Lithuanian primers, prayer books, Polish and Lithuanian catechisms, rosaries, and gospels in a nearby shop and through book merchants. In total, the Franciscan printing house printed more than 160 publications in Polish, Latin, Lithuanian (13 books) and Italian. In 1781, due to debts, the Franciscan hierarchy decided to sell off the printing facilities. It is believed that the printing house of the Vilnius Academy purchased them.


6. The Carcan Printing House (1580–1620)

The printing house on the street, which later received its name because of the printing houses, bookshops and antique shops located there, was founded at the end of the 16th century by Jan Karcan, who moved to Vilnius in 1580 from Losk (now Belarus), where he had been working on the printing machine for four years at the court of the nobleman of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania (GDL), Jan Kiszka. After his death, the printing house was inherited by his son Józef and son-in-law Piotr Blastus Kmita. It was one of the first printing companies in the GDL to operate on a commercial basis without strict denominational affiliation. Jan Karcan was a Protestant by faith but did not refuse to print Catholic writings either. Nevertheless, he printed mainly secular books in Polish and Latin, translations of famous ancient Roman, Greek and Flemish authors, and published books by authors from the GDL. In four decades, about 150 publications were published. Among them were translations of books by J. Radwan, Cicero, and Erasmus of Rotterdam, a Greek grammar, the first hymnbook in the GDL with sheet music, the first independently printed calendars: the ‘Calendar for the Year of the Lord 1606’ and the ‘Calendar for the Year of the Lord 1607’. The publications of this printing house were distinguished by the quality of their printing, the meticulous editorial work, the elaborate initials and the fine Aldine typeface. In order to protect his publications from counterfeiting, he created the distinctive symbol of the printing house – an anchor with a dolphin.

7. The Vilnius Academy Printing House (1575–1773)

In the 16th century, Protestant publications began to be printed in Lithuania Minor, and the Eastern Orthodox were working in Vilnius in full swing; naturally, the Catholics did not want to give up their position and had to take care of a printing house for Catholic publications. The Vilnius Academy Printing House was founded in 1575 by the nobleman Mikołaj Krzysztof Radziwiłł (nicknamed ‘the Orphan’), who had moved his father’s printing house from Brest. It is believed that it was originally located in Lukiškės, where the Radziwiłłs’ palace stood. A decade later, Radziwiłł handed over the printing house to the Vilnius Academy, run by the Jesuit Order. In the 17th century, the Vilnius Academy’s printing house expanded, and more printers were hired. The printing house had a dozen or so different types of fonts, many cast and engraved vignettes, and tailpieces and was, therefore, able to print books in Lithuanian, Polish, Latin, Greek, German, French, and Italian. With the most powerful printing equipment, the Vilnius Academy Printing House was the main printing house in the city for more than 200 years. It published scientific and fiction literature, textbooks, dictionaries, and works to promote science. It printed the first Lithuanian books in Lithuania proper: the ‘Catechism’ translated by M. Daukša (1595) and the ‘Catholic Postilė’ (1599), ‘The Dictionary of Three Languages’ by K. Sirvydas (1620, 1631, 1642, 1677, 1713) and his sermons ‘Punktai sakymų’ (‘Points of the Gospels’) (1629–1644). 

In 1805, Vilnius University transferred the printing house to Józef Zawadzki, and under the management of Zawadzki’s descendants, it operated until it was nationalised by the Soviet government in 1940. Having survived the Soviet occupation, it has been successfully operating as Vilnius University Press.

8. Józef Zawadzki’s Printing House (1805–1828)

Józef Zawadzki, who had trained as a printer in Wrocław, Poznań, and Leipzig, came to Vilnius in 1803 and first worked in Jan Florian Bitsas’ bookshop, and a couple of years later, he established a small but modern printing house in the premises of the Piarists College. The authorities of Vilnius University, who were interested in the printing technology and exceptional publications, gave Zawadzki their printing equipment, which he had to buy within ten years, the official title of Vilnius printer and the right to print the university’s publications. Zawadzki called in experienced book graphic designers and, for the first time in the history of the Vilnius press, hired a full-time proofreader, J. Bohdanowicz, a renowned author of Polish and Russian grammars, who had been in the position for more than 40 years. The entrepreneurial printer was able not only to meet the needs of the University but also to publish a number of books of his own choice. He was particularly fond of printing the works of distinguished scholars from Vilnius University and did not fail to satisfy the requests of customers from Warsaw and other cities. The fact that he paid the University rent for premises and equipment with his own printed books in lieu of cash and sold textbooks at a fixed price also helped him to work without losses.


9. Józef Zawadzki’s Printing House (1828–1940)

In 1820, there was a disagreement between the university authorities and Zawadzki over the price of textbooks and other payments. When the contract was up for renewal, the university set less favourable conditions for the printer. Finally, in 1828, Zawadzki bought the palace of Bishop Kosakowski (now Olizarų Palace) on Bernardinų Street and moved the printing house there. After Józef’s death, the printing house was managed by his sons Adam and Felix and later by their offspring, but it continued to be named after its founder. The palace underwent expansion; an outhouse was built at the intersection of Šiltadaržio and Bernardinų Streets, and a magnificent gate was built.

The Zawadzkis printed textbooks, religious, fiction, science and art books, newspapers, calendars, and music books in various European languages, as well as Hebrew and Arabic. Their prints were renowned for their exceptional design and quality. During the time of the press ban, the publishers arranged for several editions of the Lithuanian prayer books and published them in large numbers. They also secretly printed other Lithuanian books and were constantly monitored by the Tsarist authorities. In total, they published about 700 titles of Lithuanian publications, including A. Mickiewicz’s first book of poetry, K. Sirvydas’ book of sermons – ‘Punktai sakymų’ (‘Points of the Gospels’), as well as ‘Samogitian Diocese’ by M. Valančius, and L. Ivinskis’ calendars. The publishing stopped after 1920 when the Polish government resorted to cruel measures to suppress the Lithuanian identity. 

10. Martynas Kukta’s Printing House (1906-1924)

Its founder, Martynas Kukta, started working as an apprentice and typesetter in the printing house of the Vilnius Military District Headquarters at the age of 15 and, later, in the printing houses of St. Petersburg. In 1904, he was invited to Vilnius by Petras Vileišis and appointed head of his printing house. Two years later, Kukta set up his own printing house in what was then Universiteto Street, and in the spring of 1911, it was moved to Totorių Street. During the First World War, it printed German circulars for the population and small publications in several languages. After the war, the printing house recovered, but having been persecuted by the Polish administration and some attacks, including the windows being vandalised, M. Kukta first handed over the printing house to the established ‘Švyturys’ company, which moved to Literatų Lane, Later, in 1924, Kutka moved the printing house to Kaunas, where he established the ‘Spindulys’ enterprise.

Kukta’s greatest achievement is the sheer volume of his numerous Lithuanian publications. Until the First World War, more than 200 Lithuanian books and brochures were printed in his printing house, as well as about a dozen periodicals every year. From 1917 onwards, Kukta’s printing house also printed the official Lithuanian daily newspaper ‘Lietuvos Aidas’. On 19 February 1918, M. Kukta was the first to print a proclamation with the text of the Act of Independence of Lithuania and the signatories’ signatures. As a result, German soldiers ransacked his printing house, and he was imprisoned for several days. On 27 December 1918, the first Lithuanian postage stamps were produced in his printing house.

11. The ‘Vilniaus Žinios’ Printing House (1904–1910)

In 1904, after the ban on Lithuanian printing in Latin characters was lifted, Petras Vileišis, an engineer and industrialist, conceived the idea of establishing a Lithuanian publishing house in Vilnius. The governor of Vilnius gave permission on the condition that it had to be located in the city centre so as to make it easier to monitor its activities. The ‘Vilniaus Žinios’ printing house was located on Vilnius Street, opposite St Catherine’s Church. It had two printing machines, two printing presses, various type sets and an internal combustion engine, and 18-20 workers were employed. After building a palace for himself in Antakalnis, P. Vileišis moved the printing house there in December 1906. The printing house was profitable at the beginning of its operation, but as more such companies appeared in Vilnius, the number of orders decreased. In 1910, P. Vileišis closed the printing house and sold the equipment. 

The ‘Vilniaus Žinios’ Printing House published 158 printed materials in Lithuanian, in addition to 13 music books and postcards with historical images of Lithuania. It printed textbooks, collections of Lithuanian folklore, and informational publications. From 1905 until 1909, the first Lithuanian daily newspaper, ‘Vilniaus Žinios’, founded and edited by P. Vileišis himself, was published here.

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Skaidrė 119

Cafe “Karštos galvos”