The Tin Roofed Palace and its inhabitants.

A Pole can still read and speak Polish proper because not all Warsaw is covered with tin” - Ludwik Osiński

The Tin-Roofed Palace – the cave of corruption of morals. Cosmopolitan big-headed folk dancing on a motherland’s tomb. This is how the palace and its dwellers were called, the place which played a significant role in Warsaw at the turn of 18th and 19th centuries.

The Tin Roofed Palace’s front and me

Let me briefly present you with the story of this unusual, today a bit forgotten place.

The building was constructed in the middle of the 17th century, originally as a tenement house. Then it was converted into a palace at the turn of 18th and 19th centuries. Its present style is the result of modernization works done between 1720-30, when two additional wings were joined to the main body of the palace. The roof was made of tin, hence the name. 

In 1777 the palace, which is in the building complex of the Royal Castle, becomes a property of the Poniatowski family. It was purchased by the contemporary king of the Polish Commonwealth – Stanislav II August to serve as living quarters for courtiers. In 1794 the kings gave the Tinned-Roofed Palace to his nephew – Prince Jozef Poniatowski. It were turbulent times. On May the 3rd 1791 the firs European constitution was legislated, and it was called – the 3rd May Constitution. That governmental act regulated the legal system of the Polish Commonwealth – the country which tried to recover from a serious political crisis. The Polish Republic had already experienced the first partition in 1772 which was done by three neighbouring powers: Russia, Prussia and Austria. The attempts to make reforms of the system, economy and army caused the military Russian intervention and consequently the next partition in 1792. It resulted in a national  uprising  - an insurrection, called after its leader the Kosciuszko Insurrection (1794). The insurrection ended with a defeat. In 1795 the King Stanislav August Poniatowski abdicated and the Polish Republic disappeared from the maps of Europe.


The map showing the 3rd partition of Poland in years 1772-1795; Wikipedia source

Price Jozef Poniatowski, having rejected the offer from the Russian army, lost family estates.  He left for Vienna. To palace he did return, after his uncle’s death in 1789. After a long and tedious heritage procedure, the palace got renovated. Since then, it flourished. Despite a Prussian occupation the palace became an entertainment centre of the city. During Prussian reign in Warsaw, that is till 1806, prince Poniatowski was not politically involved. He tried to live peacefully with the occupants, making all efforts to maintain economic and cultural meaning of the former superpower capital city. The Palace became a venue of great balls, theatre performances and drinking sprees. It did not please Warsaw people, it annoyed generals Zajączek and Dąbrowski, who had been fighting for Napoleon Bonaparte, trying to “take care” of the Polish case. 

It is Autumn Anno Domini 1806. The French army chasing the Prussians, finds itself on a territory of the former Polish Republic. Prince Poniatowski made a decision to join and support Bonaparte. In that time the palace hosted eminent guests, for example Joachim Murat – The Grand Duke of Berg, later the King of Naples. Once there even was the French Emperor, paying a friendly visit while staying in a neighbouring Royal Castle. In the first years of the Warsaw Duchy the palace homed Ministry of War and the HQ of the Polish Army. 

After the death of Jozef Poniatowski, his sister Maria Teresa Tyszkiewiczowa (from the house of Poniatowski) inherits the palace. However, being forced to repay her brothers’ debts (money borrowed to maintain the army), she sells the castle to Tsar Alexander I. Since that time there were flats and rooms for the castle servants and the offices of general-governors of Warsaw. It was in the times of the Congress Poland, created under Russian rule, after Napoleon’s defeat. 

During WW 2 the Tin-Roofed Palace was, as the Royal Castle completely destroyed. Reconstructed in 1949, became an administrative building. In the years 2004-2008 in underwent a thorough renovation. The first floor was restored in the climate of Prince Josef and in 2011 it was opened for visitors. 

A brief history of the Palace based on archival photographs; P. Jarkiewicz, K. Drywa

The Palace and its interiors.

In the era of price Poniatowski the Tin-Roofed Palace was a lot different from what we can see today. The northern wing was 2 levels higher and housed the Royal Library. On the lower floors of the palace there were rooms for princes courtiers. The main body of the palace was occupied by the Poniatowski siblings. Maria Teresa Tyszkiewiczowa lived in the lower part of the palace, on the first floor there were prince’s apartments: private and official. In the southern wing of the palace we could find common rooms that were much more luxurious. Here and in the adjoining small pavilion lived prince’s friend – an informal lady of the palace – countess de Vauban.

the front of the Tin Roofed Palace; photo: P. Jarkiewicz

Prince’s apartments consisted of a hall, war office, staff office, military assistant’s room and private space for the prince – a bedroom and a living room. 

The Upper Hall (Westybul Górny), on right the staircase, straight the portrait of the last Polish King Stanislav II August; photo: P. Jarkiewicz

the bedroom, photo: P. Jarkiewicz

the war office: portraits of the Prince of Warsaw Duchy - Frederick August III - the Saxon King and his wife Queen Maria Amalia; photo: P. Jarkiewicz 

the living room; photo P. Jarkiewicz

The layout of the rooms is designed in the form of a circle. In the middle, with the view to the Vistula River, there was a bedroom, with the access both from the war office and the staff office. In other words, the prince was first of all a soldier and lived in his place as on a battlefield, among ministerial clerks and military people. There was the third entrance, though – leading from a stairwell. There was a bathroom and a central stove, heating all the rooms. As the rumors say, that passage was mainly used by the ladies secretly visiting the prince. Prince’s bedroom was equipped in the way we do not really find in today’s bathrooms. There were “an upholstered mahogany stool with a copper pot, a porcelain chamber pot, copper basin on four alder legs”[1]. The ladies who lived in the palace could also use baths. 

Social life took place on a palace ground floor, in its south wing. There was the most representative  living room, a playroom and a billiards room, the game immensely popular at that time. Prince Poniatowski preferred billiards to the most trendy entertainment of the era – the cards.  

Tin-Roofed Palace was famous for its balls and parties. During the period of the Partitions of Poland these were held every Thursday (perhaps as continuation of Thursday Dinners served by prince’s uncle - the king Poniatowski). The events lasted until dawn. Not even for a time of the Lent were they suspended. It only changed when the prince was appointed a respected state official of a Warsaw Duchy. Then the party day was Sunday. The style and regularity of the parties were not in line of a really religious ruler of the Duchy – the Saxon elector Frederic August. The balls must have been really impressive, which was proven by the Prince’s tableware for more than a hundred people. For wine lovers here’s the list from Prince’s wine cellar: “There were, among many others: 54 bottles of old Hungarian wine (3 kinds), 8 half-bottles of old Hungarian wine, 34 bottles of Hungarian table wine, 2 half-bottles of Vin de Cap; 2 half-bottles of Malaga, 38 bottles of sweet Madeira, 28 bottles of dry Madeira, 47 bottles of champagne, 35 bottles of Bourbon and 9 bottles of Reinwein. Altogether 257 bottles”[2]. Nobody would probably refuse to have such a cellar. 

Next to kitchen facilities of the palace there was a special room, designed to be a room to prepare coffee and called a café. There was a coffee stove, coffee grinders and all possible devices to make a decent coffee. Coffee consumption those days was as regular as today. 

Unfortunately, those rooms did not survive until today. We only have our imagination and some descriptions made our protagonist’s death. 


Residents of the palace: 

Prince Józef Poniatowski born on 7th May 1763 in Vienna. He was called Pepi by his close friends. Became a Ministry of War, a Statesman of the Warsaw Duchy; general and a chief commander of the Polish army, the French marshal. Received the highest Polish medal – Virtutti Militari (as the first in history) and the most important French decoration: The Legion of Honour.

prince Józef Poniatowski, painted by Francis Paderewski, the Hall of the Prince (Przedpokój Książęcia)

Although not born in Poland, he was devoted to it unconditionally. Poniatowski was indeed a great leader and a cavalryman. 

he Prince on a horse, painted by Juliusz Kossak

Not only did he have a good background – his father was a general in the army of an Austrian Emperor, one of the uncles – a primate, and the other – The Polish king, but he also had a great appearance, charme, good manners, sense of humour he was a bravado. 

Stanislav August II in coronation costume, Marcello Bacciarelli's brush

Michał Jerzy Poniatowski, Primate of Poland and Lithuania, Marcello Bacciarelli's brush

Extremely honourable, chased the ideals, following the motto: “God, Honour, the Homeland”. The Prince took part in a Polish-Russian war in defence of 3rd May Constitution (1792), next he fought in The Kościuszko Insurrection (1794). When Napoleon gave the Polish a hope to regain independence, he supported him and died in his cause. Three days before death as the only foreigner in the Napoleon army, Poniatowski was promoted and became a French army marshal. He died in the River Elstera, being severely wounded while protecting the retreat of Napoleon  after a defeat of Leipzig – 19th October 1813. Lies buried in the Royal Castle in Cracow. 

Prince’s biography can be found in a column “God, Honour, the Homeland”. Here I will devote some space to his everyday life which was closely bound to the Tin Roofed Palace. 

Prince used to wake up around 6 A.M but did not get up immediately. He simply lolled about in bed, drinking coffee and smoking his pipe. He even received friendly petitioners and dealt with minor issues. 

Eye-witnesses said that the Prince had a peculiar habit of “receiving visits while early morning relieving his bowels, without changing a position. Everybody was used to that and did not show astonishment...”[3]. However, not everyone accepted opinion and thought  exchange with a general commander in such an extraordinary manner. General Stanlislav Fiszer (the Chief of Staff) once was called in front of the prince. When entered the room and saw the prince on a loo, was shocked. Deeply appalled refused to meet and ordered a butler to be called when the prince would be more officially prepared. 

After the toilete the prince started his work: took part in sessions of the cabinet, participated in drills and military parades. He usually got back home at noon to have breakfast with his friend Henrietta de Vauban. According to prince’s assistant each meal was light: soft boiled eggs or another light meal accompanied by a glass of liquor to pluck up his courage. 

Having eaten the meal, the prince returned to work, mainly in a war office. At 5 P.M he had  lunch. The prince (as the sailor Popeye), reportedly, loved spinach and had it every single day. This makes me think of an advertising slogan to make this unpopular vegetable more trendy: “Eat spinach and you will be as handsome and smooth as prince Joseph.” After lunch next working hours. It was time for official meetings and reading mail. In order to get some relaxation our protagonist spent his evenings in the theatre, met friends or went to parties and fancy balls. 

Now it is a good time to mention prince’s bravado. He was not a type of a book-like hero, a stiff on a horse, a man for whom all is about the word “Homeland”. The prince, as I mentioned earlier, was keen on having fine entertainment. And he really did so. He enjoyed a company of women, horse racing or playing cards. As far as gambling was concerned, he had less inclination than his sister but when at the table he played for high stakes. Let me skip the famous horse race in the streets of Warsaw, in which the prince presented himself in a birthday suit. Poniatowski launched the fashion for a small sports carriage of the whisky type, called “a cariolka”, which according to a producer, was to be pulled by two horses. The prince liked multiplying by 2 so he used four horses at the beginning and ended with eight. He would race the Warsaw streets standing on a coachman’s seat, whipping eight sturdy horses. 

Women – a separate, rich chapter in the prince’s life. Apparently no single lady did ever look him indifferently. He returned the interest. Once he was even late for a battle on account of too long visit, which did not go unnoticed and was widely criticised. Prince never got married which, however, was not an obstacle to bring up two descendants


Maria Teresa Tyszkiewiczowa (from the house of Poniatowski) 


Three years younger than the prince Joseph; she was a interesting person although her life was not the easiest one. At the age of 16 suffered from a serious disease and had to have one of her eyes removed. Young, beautiful princess became a cripple with a glass eyeball. After her father’s death, similarly to her brother she became an object of dynastic politics of the Poniatowski house. Alike her brother who was not allowed to marry his beloved woman, she was  made to marry “ a perfect match”. Nobody bothered that there should be more than titles and connections. Her marriage was a failure. The husband, who was a count Wincenty Tyszkiewicz (a Great Lithuanian Referendary) turned out to be, to put it mildly a lazy, narrowed minded freak who liked wearing female clothes in the evenings. It was no surprise that soon after the wedding the wife left him trying to spend time in spas outside Poland. Nevertheless, she got seriously ill more and more often. Numerous and long treatments did not help. One may assume that illnesses had their roots in countess’s psyche – deep depression caused by a unsuccessful marriage. During her European journeys she met the love of her life – Charles Maurice de Tylleyrand (though most of sources claim that they met not until he came to Poland with Napoleon in 1807). The fact is however, that their relationship lasted 30 years until Maria’s death. 

In the time of The French Revolution Maria Teresa left aristocrat-disapproving Paris and sheltered in Belgium. There she met and later introduced to her brother (who joined her after the failure of Third May Constitution campaign) Henrietta de Vauban. Maria came back to Warsaw which was under Prussian rule and dwelt with her prince-brother in the Tin Roofed Palace. When he died she sold the family estate and left for Paris to join de Tylleyrand. Her body lies buried in a tomb of the Tylleyrand family. Her beloved one followed her 4 years later. Today they are inseparable, according to the Maria Teresa’s will. What was it that joined them? Surely – bright minds. The countess was profoundly interested in politics. She was indeed an impulsive and spirited person. In her contemporaries’ eyes she was actually unkind. Some used to say that they shared two more things: disability and love for gambling. Maria Teresa was addicted to playing pharaoh card game (contemporary poker), losing in the game the remains of the Poniatowski family wealth. Her Paris house was indeed a gambling den. 


Henrietta de Vauban


An extremely mysterious person, about whom not much information remains. She lived in the right wing and the pavilion of the palace. 10 years senior to the prince. Commonly regarded as dignified and well groomed but actually she was not pretty. Apparently she was terribly skinny and her face was covered with scars after pox. Her character was far from perfect: she was thought to be moody, sulky and choosy. All had to be adjusted to her requirements. As she hated cold, her part of the palace became a sheer greenhouse. She also hated noise. Rumours said that she was driven crazy by “creaking” sound of boots. So, it had to be warm and quiet. It was her who decided about the guest list to the palace. The prince rules Warsaw, she ruled the prince. No wonder then, that every important lady wanted to be friends with her. If you wanted to be closer to the prince, first you needed to tame Cerberus. We do not fully know why and how the countess was able to control the prince. People said she was in the palace since the prince owed her money. Another version says she was a spy who was in high regard even by Napoleon’s environment. The Emperor himself did not like her and suggested to the prince that he should remove her from the place. The prince met her when he was depressed by the lost fight for the ideas he believed in. The attempts to save the country together with his uncle king failed. He had a feeling that his mentor  - the king, betrayed him. His beloved homeland was partitioned again and all reforms were lost. The countess was, however, a discrete person. Therefore, the prince could tell her his secrets and uncover the feelings that tore him apart. Moreover, the was one more issue which they shared – both loved Poland  - their foster-homeland. The countess was no less devoted to the independence case than the prince Joseph. She left the palace and Warsaw three years after his death. What she did next is not known. 

Except for vividly colourful people living the Tin Roofed Palace there were a few distinguished grandees, for example two famous Frenchmen. 


Joachim Murat


The best cavalryman in the Napoleon’s army, the French Marshall, the Great Duke of Berg and next the King of Naples, privately the French Emperor’s brother-in-law. He was allowed to call “the European Lion” “A Kid”. Murat was handsome and fashionable. His bravado was not less famous than the passion for extravagant clothes. While charging at the battle of Ilawa Pruska[4] (1807) he wore “a fancy green coat and a peacock feather hat”[5]. Dressed this way and carrying only a riding whip as a weapon led the French cavalry to victory and the charge became historically known as one of the biggest and most successful ones. While fighting at the Russian front he took with himself a personal cook and hairdresser. Joachim fancied feathers and roses, however his masculinity could not be questioned. He had many mistresses and Caroline Bonaparte gave birth to his four children. It was him who as the first one entered Warsaw in the front of French army in November 1806, welcomed as a liberator from Prussian rule. To welcome the great marshall (a hero of Marengo, Austerlitz and Jena) rode prince Poniatowski who represented the Polish country. It worked. The two gentlemen who appreciated style and all what it means, made friends immediately. Again, it helped Poniatowski to reach the Emperor. Initially, the nephew if the last Polish king did not have good press among the French. Bonaparte once said about him ”He is more frivolous and irresponsible than most Poles, and it means a lot.”[6]. His opinion was created by two generals: Zajączek and Dąbrowski, who still did not forgive Poniatowski his inaction during partition times. Impossible to believe but the same man received a marshal’s baton and the offer to marry favourite Emperor’s sister – Paulina. Yet, in 1806 it was Murat who supported the prince and as the only one from Napoleon’s circle backed him up. The friendship of a beautiful Frenchman and a Polish aristocrat lasted till the death of the latter. They were so different. The first one dressy to the extreme, shocking with laces, feathers and jewellery. Aristocrat by appointment. Characterised by manners suitable for an innkeeper’s son: excessively gesturing, picking his teeth, using a tablecloth as a napkin while eating. Crude by behaviour. The way of “being a prince” he learnt from an actor, remembering phrases and prince-like gestures and movements. The other one – a prince by birth – modest, gallant, diplomatic. Both of them were involved in the art of warfare, perfect horse riding, love for bravado and courage. None of them died in bed because of the old age. The difference was that Poniatowski stayed with Napoleon and died at the battlefield while Murat betrayed his emperor brother-in-law for the price of holding the title of Naples’s king. Greed did not pay off. Not two years passed when he was dead, murdered by the oppositionists. 

Due to his relationship with prince’s sister, there was another remarkable guest in the palace: the greatest cynic of contemporary Europe: Tylleyrand, the Duke of Benevento (Italy). His biography would outshine the description of the palace so just a few sentences: 


Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord


- is a real embodiment of “duke” Niccolo Machiavelli: pragmatic, cynical, diplomatic and a genial politician. He was said to be able to sell what was for sale, including himself.
Talleyrand’s personality may be best presented by a fragment of the book “Napoleon” which I will quote here: “Talleyrand was said ”to sell in his life everybody who bought him.” In some time he sold The French Directory to Bonaparte, (…) in Erfurt he sold Bonaparte to Tsar Alexander. Next he sold Alexander to the English. Only the English he did not manage to sell; cause they never wanted to buy him although he often offered his person for a reasonable price”[7].

The first time he became the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1797. Next we got the same post three times more. Napoleon was fond of him. Not until the end of his (Bonaparte’s) life he noticed Talleyrand’s immoral and emotionless approach to the world. The Emperor said: “I have never known a man so indifferent to good or evil.” [8]. However, Tylleyrand was all in tears at his wife’s (Maria Teresa Tyszkiewiczowa of the Poniatowski house) funeral. He was overcome by emotions the first and last time in his life. Anyhow you look, it showed some kind of attachment. Neither was France totally unimportant to Talleyrand. He betrayed Napoleon many times due to patriotic reasons. When at the first meeting in Erfurt he started to collaborate with the Russian Tsar, he urged Alexander to rescue Europe, explaining that France only wanted to annex The River Rhine, the Alps and the Pyrenees. Other issues were just nothing more than Emperors caprices, unnecessary for France. Tylleyrand was sharp enough to predict that Napoleon’s winning streak would soon be over and France may lose the most. He explained his attitude in his cynical manner: “Russian Tsar is a civilized man, but the Russian nation is not. The French are civilized, however, their leader is not. It is necessary then to make an alliance between Russian Tsar and the French people.”[9].

The Tin Roofed Palace has some common history with the two biggest leaders of contemporary Europe. It hosted Napoleon. But it was Tsar Alexander who became its owner, buying it from Maria Teresa after her brother’s death.

The article was made on the grounds of:

1. J. Kazimierski “Inwentarz pozostałości po księciu Józefie Poniatowskim z 1814 roku”, „Teki Archiwalne”, 1963, nr 9.
2. Andrew Roberts „Napoleon Wielki”, Wydawnictwo Magnum Ltd, Warszawa 2015.
3. „Eugeniusz Tarle „Napoleon”, Książka i Wiedza 1960.
4. Jan Dobraczewski „Bramy Lipska”, Warszawa 1976.
5. „Napoleon” – Robert Bielecki, Warszawa 1973.
7. Wikipedia.

[1] K. Jarusz-Salvadori “Inwentarz pozostałości po księciu Józefie Poniatowskim z 1814 roku”, „Archive” 1963, nr 9, p. 193–195.

[2] J K. Jarusz-Salvadori “Inwentarz pozostałości po księciu Józefie Poniatowskim z 1814 roku”, „Archive” 1963, nr 9, p. 175.

[3] Wirydiana Fiszerowa “Stories of My Life And of the Outsiders’ “ London 1975, p. 356.

[4] near Kaliningrad, today Russia

[5] Andrew Roberts, “Napoleon the Great”, Magnum Publishing House Ltd, Warszawa 2015, p. 406

[6] Andrew Roberts, “Napoleon the Great”, Magnum Publishing House Ltd, Warszawa 2015, p. 454

[7] Eugeniusz Tarle, “Napoleon”, Książka i Wiedza 1960, p. 242

[8] Andrew Roberts, “Napoleon the Great”, Magnum Publishing House Ltd, Warszawa 2015, p 153

[9] Eugeniusz Tarle, “Napoleon”, Książka i Wiedza 1960, p. 242. 


Related articles: Prince Józef Poniatowski