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A prince, philanthropist and playboy – an exciting life of Mykola Potocki

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Nov. 2, 2011, 9:49 p.m. | People — by Natalia A. Feduschak

Natalia A. Feduschak

BUCHACH, Ternopil Oblast – If ever there was a cultural kingpin in this sliver of western Ukraine, Prince Mykola Potocki was it.

Known for his lavish lifestyle and ability to get on officials’ nerves, Potocki is credited with being the driving force behind some of Ukraine’s most enduring architectural marvels of the 18th century.

Many of the works Potocki sponsored are found in his native Buchach and nearby towns. Along with channeling major funds into building the Basilian Monastery, which welcomed seminarians from all over Europe, other jewels were the town hall and the imposing Church of St. Pokrova. He also financed the work of the enigmatic sculptor Ioann Pinzel, who carved many statues for area churches and constructed a number of monuments in Buchach.

Despite his philanthropy, Potocki was often condemned by the authorities. “A woman for me is better than food,” he once said at a gathering where religious figures were present, noted Borys Voznytsky, the director of Lviv Art Gallery.

The only son of Stefan and Maria, Potocki was born in 1712 and was educated at the Jesuit collegiums in Lviv, which Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytski attended nearly a century before.

Potocki’s father died when he was 15, and his mother, five years later. Her death resulted in him inheriting huge swaths of lands in several districts stretching east to Kyiv, as well as a number of towns, including Buchach, Zoloty Potik, Horodenko and Holohory, all found in today’s Ternopil oblast.

His architectural endeavors were as bold as his personal life. The prince primarily worked in tandem with architect Bernard Meretyn and Pinzel. This relationship is explored in Voznytsky’s book “Mykola Potocki, Bernard Meretyn, Ioann Heorhiy Pinzel.”

“The activities of being a founder… were the most important social-civic accomplishment, and, if we want, an impulse of his life,” wrote Voznytsky.

The Potockis were a wealthy noble family that long dominated the territory, which comprised parts of modern-day western Ukraine and Poland. Buchach, for instance, was inherited by Potocki’s grandfather, who also founded the town of Zolotiy Potik, where the remains of the family castle stand to this day.

While past family members supported cultural endeavors, it is Potocki who seemed intent on giving away all his money in support of philanthropic activities. In his will dated eight years before his death, Potocki divided his remaining wealth among seven churches, thus hoping to take care of not only his soul, but the structures he financed. He did pretty much as he pleased, legal or not, and was considered “banita,” or someone who lived beyond the law, said Voznytsky.

Inappropriate behavior at times punctuated Potocki’s persona. He loved women and had little need for his wife, Marianna Dombrovska, who was considered by many to be beautiful and hospitable. Soon after their wedding, she fled Buchach, where Potocki made his home, and entered a convent in Lviv where she remained until the end of her days.

Potocki paid someone to pray for her, while he himself turned to the Lviv metropolitan for advice on how to get out of his marriage.

Penning a letter from Buchach, he wrote: “In my unfortunate situation, I want to be let go from the responsibilities of a husband, of which I am completely incapable. I have decided to go into a spiritual state, moving to the Pochaiv monastery.”

The metropolitan apparently suggested the nobleman enter the Order of Malta, a religious order since 1113, since Potocki wrote back to him that he would accept it “with pleasure,” noted Voznytsky.

Potocki’s disarming conduct at times may be attributed to the fact that he did not know if he was indeed his parents’ biological son. Speculation remains that because the couple, which had been married 17 years before he appeared, had their son when they were in their fifties, Potocki was adopted.

“This fact could not have reflected in the future on [Potocki’s] character,” Voznytsky wrote.

It is unknown if Potocki had any siblings, although some scholars believe he had between one and three sisters.

In 1774, the prince did move to the Pochaiv monastery, where he remained until his death on April 12, 1782. Living in the monastery changed him; he is said not to have had any other contact with women.

One of Potocki’s major undertakings was the construction in Pochaiv of the Dormition Cathedral. The monastery’s centerpiece, it was built between 1771 and 1783. Merging the baroque and neoclassical styles, Potocki did not live to see the church fully constructed. He is, however, buried inside of it, along with two great Pochaiv shrines, which include the Holy Icon of the Theotokos of Pochaiv. Set in golden diadem, it was presented to the monastery by Pope Clement XIV.

Staff writer Natalia A. Feduschak can be reached at feduschak@kyivpost.com.

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