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The old town of Kuldīga is located in the Western part of Latvia at the confluence of the River Venta and the smaller stream Aleksupite in central Kurzeme (Courla�nd) Region, about 150 km west of Riga. First documented in 1242 and member of the Hanseatic League since 1368, Kuldīga has been a trade juncture over the centuries and today is home to a population of more than 10,000 inhabitants.
The historic centre of Kuldīga, which is exceptionally well preserved, is a compelling reminder of the Courland era of growth and exchange in the late 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, when it was known by the name Goldingen. The Duchy of Courland and Semigallia was an autonomous vassal state under the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which stretched from the Baltic Sea Coast in a triangular shape around 500km eastwards to the Duna River, bordering initially the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, Polish Livonia, the Kingdom of Sweden and later the Russian Empire. Courland governed this significant part of the Baltics between 1561 and 1795 and left its legacy in the wider geopolitical region.
Kuldīga (Goldingen) was the primary residence and administrative centre of Courland’s first ruler Gotthart Kettler, since 1561. During the co-regency of Gotthard Kettler’s heirs, Goldingen was the ducal residence and administrative centre of Duke Wilhelm Kettler who had been given power over Courland in 1596 and ruled until 1616. In a 1613 census, Kuldīga was documented to have 175 buildings. In addition to structures of traditional log architecture, Kuldīga also featured brick masonry structures, timber-framed houses, often decoratively plastered and painted as well as wood panelled surfaces, both for residential and auxiliary buildings. Kuldīga’s architecture prospered due to the rich exchange of travelling craftsmen from other Hanse Towns and centres around the Baltic Sea as well as Russia, an exchange that remains legible in its architectural styles, workmanship and decorations.
Kuldīga’s old town (Goldingen) is the best-preserved and last remaining urban testimony displaying a street and plot layout with significant physical remains of architectural fabric and infrastructure dating back to the Duchy of Courland and Semigallia. As one of the smallest European entities, which participated in colonizing overseas territories, Courland and its major urban centre Kuldīga (Goldingen) are compelling reminders of the late 16th to 18th century trade exchanges in the Baltics and beyond. In addition, Kuldīga is the only urban reminder to the Duchy’s architectural production and as such a unique testimony to its cities, economy, crafts, traditions and people.
Criterion (iii): Kuldīga (Goldingen) bears a unique testimony to the Duchy of Courland and Semigallia and its era of growth, international trade relations and cultural exchange, as both its first ducal residence and administrative centre. Kuldīga has maintained not only the urban layout, but also the city scape and significant architectural fabric dating back predominantly to the 17th and 18th century. With up to three quarters of its pre-19th century masonry architecture preserved, either� partially or wholly, Kuldiga is the best and last remaining urban testimony of the Courland era.
�The historic centre of Kuldiga bears tangible evidence to the life of a small state asserting itself among much larger powers on the international stage of the time. In light of this special role, Kuldīga provides vivid testimony to the Courland trade and craft exchanges, cross-cultural encounters and tangible as well as intangible cultural heritage traditions, which the inhabitants of Kuldīga continue to recognize and celebrate today.
The old town of Kuldīga integrates the medieval castle mound plateau and the medieval village Kalnamiests into a larger urban fabric created between the 16th and 18th century and later expanded, mostly outside the historic centre, in the 19th and furthermore the 20th century. The proposed area covers the pre-19th century urban expansion and its significant environmental setting. The property is preserved mostly in its condition of the late 18th and early 19th century. It therefore includes the complete historic testimony of Courland retained until present, particularly legible in the unchanged urban layout, composition of urban volumes, architectural testimony and cityscape.
Although significant fires destroyed parts of Kuldīga in 1615 and 1669, residential dwellings were re-erected and most of Kuldīga’s architectural remains, which continue to provide testimony to Kuldīga’s role as a major urban centre of the Duchy of Courland and Semigallia, originated in these productive periods. Later abandonment of houses following the Great Plague and individual fires necessitated the construction of a number of late 18th and subsequently 19th century buildings, which retain the shape, volume, style and decorative forms of the earlier structures. Contrary to most other Courland towns, Kuldīga survived the great wars of the 20th century largely unscathed and modernist urban developments were largely implemented far outside its historic centre.
While one could consider a lack of completeness that the physical residence of the rulers of Courland, the castle of Kuldīga, was destroyed by the Swedes during the Great Northern War (1700-1721) and remained a ruin ever since only preserved as archaeological remains, the testimony of its destruction documents in fact the challenges the Courland rulers faced. In addition, the dukes re-utilized a previously built medieval castle of the Livonian Order, which did never signify Courland in its architectural language.
Due to the rigorous legal protection of the historic city and the well-managed urban conservation zone, the property is largely free of threats, which could be considered to affect the old town negatively in the future.
Kuldīga’s urban and architectural heritage is well retained in terms of material, design and in many cases workmanship. It illustrates continuity in function and use as residences, auxiliary structures or commercial spaces for the resident community. The old town further preserved its authenticity in setting and location, having preserved not only its urban layout and volume but also its environment in terms of the wider cityscape, in particular, when viewed from the opposite banks of the Venta River.
Consistent state protection since 1978 and a stringently managed urban conservation zone preserved by means of an urban conservation plan, integrating a programmed approach to conservation and maintenance work, has preserved the historic fabric and continues to produce conservation results at highest international standards. The Kuldīga restoration centre, officially established in 2018 has become a strong community support towards the adequate preservation of private properties.
Kuldīga’s residents are well aware and proud of their history and heritage of both, the Duchy of Courland and other periods and are eager to transmit it to future generations. They actively continue individual craft traditions dating back to ducal times and engage in the maintenance of both their built and intangible cultural heritage, also by seeking international recognition of Kuldīga’s heritage at various levels. The European Heritage Label awarded to Kuldīga in 2008 specifically recognized the highest standards of authenticity in the old town of Kuldīga and its wider setting. It can therefore be affirmed that Kuldīga preserves authenticity at the highest level.
Kuldīga (Goldingen) holds a rich mixture of architectural attributes, giving testimony to the unique role of the Duchy of Courland and Semigallia in international (trade) relations and cultural exchanges from the 16th to 18th century. Despite it being a vassal state of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Courland succeeded in gaining relative political independence, acting with a sovereignty far beyond that of other regional powers, and establishing diplomatic and trade relations with numerous major European states and Russia. Located in the centre of the opposing powers of Sweden, Poland-Lithuania and Russia, it furthermore stood out due to its political neutrality and early liberal policies, acting as both buffer, mediator and refuge.
On an international scale, the only duchy comparable in its degree of political and economic independence as well as international recognition is the Duchy of Prussia, the distinctiveness of which has been recognised multiple times through its architectural testimonies on the World Heritage list. The Museum Island in Berlin, the Palaces and Parks of Potsdam and Berlin, and the Castles of Augustusburg and Falkenlust at Brühl all speak of the great achievements of Prussia on both an architectural and a scientific-intellectual level.
In terms of trade relations, diplomacy and colonial activities, however, Courland was far more advanced than Prussia. Likewise, the dukes’ policies of religious and ethnic tolerance as well as economic and political neutrality between opposing powers were visionary at the time. Yet, Courland and its physical testimony is not currently recognised on the World Heritage list. Although the former Couronian colony in Gambia is inscribed as part of the World Heritage site Kunta Kinteh Island and Related Sites, its Outstanding Universal Value does not stem from its role in relation to Courland. Neither Gambia nor the Duchy’s second former colonial territory in Tobago, which both represent regrettable imperial activities of Courland, could alone serve to comprehensively represent the testimony of Courland. Hence, only the contemporary Latvian territory can bear witness to this astonishing period of relevance to global history, which requires a comparative analysis predominantly at a national level.
Overall, very little historical urban fabric of the time withstood the destructive powers of the series of conflicts and wars that happened on Courland’s territory over the centuries. Due to its geopolitical location as a buffer zone between opposing powers, Courland became the battleground of multiple wars, such as the Polish-Swedish War (1655-1660) and the Great Nordic War (1700-1721). Finally, the Second World War destroyed most of what was left when, in 1944, the front line between German and Soviet Troops was placed in the Jelgava region for three months. The traces of the different wars, in addition to other conflicts and plundering, tremendously reduce the ability of most Latvian towns to authentically demonstrate the Outstanding Universal Value of the Duchy.
Across the country, the most prominent remains dating back to the 16th to 18th century are the respective churches, many of which have been altered since. Regarding the castles, the existing remnants are either highly altered or in ruins, including the castles of Ventspils, Bauska and Aizpute. Whereas the Couronian castles were reutilized Livonian Order castles and hence do not represent Couronian architecture, a number of palaces was built on ducal order in the 18th century. Unfortunately, Jelgava palace had to be entirely reconstructed in the 1950s after having burnt out. Rundale Palace, the best remaining testimony of ducal palaces, documents alterations during the time of Duke Ernst Johann Biron’s exile in the mid-18th century and was unfortunately also affected during the First World War. Apart from Kuldīga, there are few, usually smaller, towns that still show authentic urban structures from the Duchy period (e.g. Kandava, Talsi, and Bauska). The harbour towns of Liepaja and Ventspils each have remnants of trade and storage buildings, which at times however lack authenticity due to later alterations. Remains of residential buildings can be found in towns such as Bauska, Jelgava, Liepaja, Kandava, Talsi and Ventspils, the best-preserved ones being in Bauska where a building survey from 2012/2013 showed that 23 buildings from the Duchy period still exist; around 15 of them somewhat authentic. In Kuldīga, more than 70% of the pre-19th century masonry structures can still be found today.
In conclusion, Kuldīga stands out not necessarily because it was historically more important than other cities of Courland but because of its exemplary state of conservation and its completeness, which reflect times when the small Duchy of Courland and Semigallia partook in international trade along the most powerful European nations. Kuldiga is the last and only major administrative centre and residence of ruler of Courland which survived to present times and can hence provide testimony to this era in a way that no other town can. Given the intense war history of the described territory, it is in fact astonishing that the town could preserve such a significant amount of its historical urban fabric. The authenticity and integrity seen in Kuldīga have no comparison in the region. Therefore, Kuldīga (Goldingen) was found to be the sole site able to convey the proposed Outstanding Universal Value as testimony of the historical period of the Duchy of Courland and Semigallia.