Catherine the Great – Artful Pursuit of a Russian Parnassus

Apollo Belvedere in his purpse built Collonade of Columns in the grounds of Pavlovsk Palace, St Petersburg
Apollo Belvedere in his purpse built Collonade of Columns in the grounds of Pavlovsk Palace, St Petersburg

St Petersburg – the Venice of the North

Czar Peter 1 (1672-1725), aka Peter the Great founded St. Petersburg, which became a city of the eighteenth century age of Enlightenment with Russia, for two centuries and fourteen years, becoming an integral part of Europe. (1703-1917).

Czar Peter and his heirs pursued their passion for art, design and style. They commissioned some of the most brilliant representatives of the European schools of art and architecture and helped to transform the marshy delta of the Neva into the remarkable architectural ensemble, which so often referred to as the Venice of the North.

St Petersburg became the symbol of Russian culture, admired by the most renowned personalities of the time. In his Essay on Morals, the French writer and Philosophe Voltaire (Francois-Marie Arouet 1694-1778) spoke out against tyranny, bigotry and cruelty, marvelling at the vision of Peter the Great.

He emphasized the speed with which the arts had blossomed in St. Petersburg, as he supported ideals of progress.

Peter the Great

Jean-Marc Nattier, Portrait of Tsar Peter 1, 1717, courtesy Residenz Museum, Munich

Russia’s march toward civilisation became one of the major events of his century.

All the principal Russian arts, literature, music, theatre, ballet were and still remain to this day, inextricably linked to the city

At Tsarskoe Selo (Tsar’s Village) examples of every sort of architecture were distributed through the park in an astonishing structural variety, which constantly presented new views and lent great charm to a walk in its grounds.

Many of the great events in the history of Russian architecture of the period took place at Tsarskoe Selo. It became a Russian Parnassus, a place where prominent writers and poets gathered recording their impressions of its many splendours.

The Catherine Palace and Park belonged to Catherine I at the beginning of the eighteenth century, given to her by her husband Peter the Great. Under her influence by the 1750’s it was a strikingly unified grand manner style Baroque ensemble, displaying extreme exuberance.

Catherine II (1729 – 1796) or Catherine the Great refurbished its interiors from 1762 until her death in 1796 and the long gallery exemplifies a boundless attraction to exaggerated grandeur, sumptuousness and luxury as well as demonstrates an undeniable aesthetic sense.

During Catherine the Great’s reign, the acquisitions of the imperial collection, which founded the Hermitage museum exceeded those made by Le Louvre over a period of several centuries.


Central block, Pavlovsk Palace, St. Petersburg

The Palace of Pavlovsk, was the last palace built within the Tsarskoe Selo complex. Set among 1800 acres of birch, firs, meadows, wildflowers, pools and lakes Created by Catherine the Great’s son Paul and his wife Maria Feodorovna during the late eighteenth century, it became the residence of the Russian Imperial family until 1915, sited as it was on the hilly banks of the Slavianka, deep in the woods.

Its fame rests on the splendour of its classical architecture, incredible interiors, great art collections, and the beauty of its own spacious park. Today under the mother of pearl sky of the northern Russian countryside where in the spring white blossoms of bird cherries cover the slopes and thick bushes of lilac perfume the air, Pavlovsk Palace stands as a symbol of hope.

It is dramatic and touching testament to the eternal human quest for beauty in a forever disordered world; destroyed by the Nazi’s during WW II it rose like a phoenix from the ashes during the second half of the 20th century, due to the efforts of the people who had saved its treasures.


Pavlovsk Palace aerial view

During the 900 day siege of St. Petersburg, the Nazis used Pavlovsk as a military headquarters. They looted and destroyed whatever they found, cut down 70,000 trees in the park and when they were forced to retreat, burned the palace beyond recognition.

Before the siege the local people, learning of their imminent arrival managed to excavate thousands of objet d’art, paintings, rare furniture, clocks, porcelains, chandeliers and hide them in St. Petersburg and Siberia.

In Pavlovsk park they buried bronze and marble statues so deeply in the ground the Germans were fooled into thinking they were not there.

Drawing-Room-PavlovskBarely recovered from the horrors of the siege, and while war was still being waged, a group of dedicated museum specialists aided by thousands of citizens, determined to restore Pavlovsk to its original splendour. Young girls walked barefoot through the park grounds to detect mines, and many died. Scores of young Russians were recruited to learn and recreate the eighteenth century craftsmanship found in every aspect of Pavlovsk’s interior.

A single heroic artist Anatoly Treskin reproduced all the ceiling paintings of the original palace and over the years the gardens were replanted and the palace completely restored. Today it has once again a repository for all that was beautiful in the arts during what has been described as Russia’s golden age.


Empire Room, Pavlovsk Palace, St Petersburg

The building had been the gift of Empress Catherine the Great because she was delighted by the birth of her first grandson and it became Maria Feodorovna’s lifework.


Interior Round Salon at Pavlovsk Palace, St Petersburg

Scottish Architect Charles Cameron (1745-1812) was 34 years old when he began working at Tsarskoe Selo where he was commissioned to build a new palace and to also layout a park in what was then a tangled forest. It became the fruit of a collaboration among Russian, British, French, German and Italian designers notably Vincenzo Brenna and Pietro di Gottardo Gonzaga.

Cameron determined the principle of the palaces’ decor and furnishings in keeping with the austerity of neoclassical architecture. He was guided by a concept of beauty derived from his own studies in antique art and succeeded in creating interiors of exquisite charm.

Large numbers of genuine antiquities were purchased in Italy including statues. Roman portrait busts, cinerary urns, bronze sculptures, antique pottery and other objects discovered during the archaeological excavations in Rome and Pompeii.

To house the copy of the eighteenth century treasure the Apollo of the Belvedere, he designed the Apollo Colonnade, a double row of columns supporting a heavy entablature, placing it at the entrance to the park to proclaim it a sanctuary. He cleverly constructed it of porous limestone with an intentionally coarse finish to give it the look of an antique monument ruined by time.

Protected by the muses and watched over by the ancient Greek God Apollo, it was for those who sought poetry and by extension, learning.

The exquisite statue of Apollo, The Sun God from Greek Mythology, became known as the Apollo Belvedere after it was found in the late fourteenth century and installed in the Cortile delle Statue del Belvedere at the Vatican.


Detail: Apollo Belvedere at Pavlovsk Palace

During the age of enlightenment it was admired for ‘… the svelte and elegant pose of the figure, the lightness of its step, the tricky virtuosos modelling which passes from the smooth softness of the skin to the serpentine light and dark tangle of the hair...

German archaeologist Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717-68) Superintendent of Roman antiquities in Florence in 1763 announced I place at the feet of this statue the idea of it that I have given, imitating those, who placed at the feet of the simulacra of the gods, the wreaths that they could not place on their heads and so it became the summit touched by Greek Art in giving form to ideal beauty.

Cameron’s great talent was his ability to integrate a building into its surroundings. He sometimes allowed for it in part to emerge, while sometimes hiding his structure completely in the trees. In the gardens the Marble bridge was based on the designs of 16th century Italian architect Andrea Palladio (1508 – 1580).


Palladian Bridge through the treets, Pavlovsk Palace, St. Petersburg

He placed his temple on a bend in the river and surrounded it with splendid northern trees, silver poplars, which were special favourites of Maria Feodorovna.

He transplanted Siberian pines sent to Peterhof at the time of Paul’s birth and they became the ancestors of all the other pines at Pavlovsk right up until today.


Interior revealing sculptures at Pavlovsk

Antique marbles began arriving at Pavlovsk from Italy in May 1783 and the sculpture lent to the halls an air of grandeur and dignity providing a link between the classic tradition and the creative effort of Russian neoclassical artisans.

Furniture was ordered from great eighteenth century French cabinetmakers in Paris, such as Georges Jacob and Jean Henri Reisner whose stunning works were noted for their beauty of line, fine craftsmanship and pleasing proportions.

The sets for the State Bedroom, the Grecian Hall, Tapestry room and other state apartments are all highly representative of Jacob’s much lauded and respected art of craftsmanship.

The colour scheme of each room was determined and the upholstery of Lyon silk and the drapery borders matching it in colour and design were chosen in floral patterns., perfect for a summer residence in the midst of a park with acres of flower beds.

Apollo Belvedere in his purpse built Collonade of Columns in the grounds of Pavlovsk Palace, St Petersburg

Apollo Belvedere in his purpse built Collonade of Columns in the grounds of Pavlovsk Palace, St Petersburg

Cameron was dismissed when Catherine the Great was succeeded by the son for whom she had little time or love as ‘no longer useful’, the work carried forward in a slightly more severe neoclassical style than that of Cameron’s elegant touch.

When the work of decoration and furnishing was completed in 1794, Pavlovsk Palace in its glorious setting, was celebrated as one of the most elegant and beautiful in all of Europe.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2015


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