Looking pensive and wise, Warsaw’s Nicolas Copernicus monument is certainly up there as one of the city’s best-known landmarks.
Honoring the first academic to suggest that the world traveled around the sun, and not vice versa, the statue was eight-years in the making, with the design first coined by Bertel Thorvaldsen in 1822.
Depicting a seated Copernicus holding a compass and armillary sphere, it was funded by both public donations and the generous intervention of Stanisław Staszic – as such, when it was unveiled in 1830, it took a position right outside the Staszic Palace, a grand building that itself housed the Warsaw Society of Friends of Science.
Overseen by the poet and statesman Julian Niemcewicz, the unveiling was boycotted by the clergy in light of a 17th century papal condemnation of Copernicus’ defining work, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium.
Originally intended to be placed in Toruń, the astronomer’s birthplace, the 2.8-meter statue returned to the news in 1940 when the occupying Germans covered the original inscriptions on the plinth with German-language plaques.
Two-years later, on the evening of February 11th, Maciej Aleksy Dawidowski, a scoutmaster heavily involved in resistance activities, removed the German signboards, an act that prompted the Nazis to shift the statue of Jan Kiliński to the National Museum. Getting wind of this, Dawidowski and his colleagues painted the walls of the museum to announce: “People of Warsaw, I am here, Jan Kiliński.
Moreover, they added another sign under the feet of Copernicus: “for the removal of the Kiliński statue, I am extending winter by two-months.”
Damaged during the 1944 Warsaw Uprising, the statue was then boxed up and taken to Nysa where it was intended to be smelted to produce ammunition. Fortunately, the speed with which the Eastern Front collapsed meant this plan never bore fruit.
Recovered from a scrapyard, the statue was temporarily reinstalled before being spirited away again to be renovated in a foundry on Hoża 55 – in the same workshop that reconstructed the city’s Chopin monument.
Ceremonially unveiled on July 22nd, 1949, Copernicus has subsequently been targeted twice, once in 2008, and again in 2011, by thieves who made off with his armillary sphere. Both times it was recovered.