The Petrine epoch
Peterhof (in the second half of the 20th century known also as Petrodvorets - "Peter's Palace") is one of the most magnificent European palace-and-park complexes of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and is situated on the southern coast of the Gulf of Finland, twenty-nine kilometres outside St Petersburg. Its beautiful gardens and parks, its splendid palaces and exquisite pavilions, and particularly its picturesque fountains and cascades, are justly famous the world over. The origins of Peterhof are closely connected with the consolidation of Russia on the liberated Slavic shores of the Baltic after her victory in the Great Northern War, and with the building of St Petersburg, the new capital of the Russian state. Peterhof is first mentioned in the Field Journal of Peter the Great, in the entry for 13 September 1705, when he stopped there while travelling by boat from Kronstadt to St Petersburg. It was then an old farmstead at the side of a road running along the shore of the Gulf from the mouth of the Neva to the Gulf of Riga. Attracted by its convenient location between Kronstadt and St Petersburg, Peter chose it as a stopping place on his journeys, and named it after himself. Here, in a grove by the sea, he built a small wooden palace in 1710. Peter selected a site to the east of the Peterhof farmstead. In this unappealing narrow strip of the coast, overgrown with stunted vegetation and bounded by a natural coastal terrace, he saw excellent possibilities for the creation of extensive gardens in the formal style, with palaces, sculptural decorations, fountains, and cascades. Here a country residence soon arose, conceding nothing in the wealth and magnificence of its decoration to the greatest summer palaces and parks of Western European monarchs.
In the spring of 1714 there began almost simultaneously the building of the Palace of Monplaisir or the Small Mansion, and, on the edge of the terrace, the Upper or Great Mansion. This was the beginning of the Peterhof palace-and-park ensemble. More than ten sketches in Peter's own hand have survived to this day, and an even greater number of the architects' drafts with his jottings, notes, and corrections, as well as a multitude of decrees and orders connected with the building work. These documents show that it was already at this stage that the idea arose to make use of the natural features of the terrain for the layout of the Lower Park (originally called the Lower Gardens) and the Upper Gardens, and to link the Great Palace, the Great Cascade, and the Great Canal into an organic whole in the centre of the ensemble. From the outset the sea and the park were united in a single composition, and all the palaces and cascades were built to face the coast. The first sketch for the layout of the Lower Park shows three rays - the sea canal with its flanking walks, and two radial alleys - leading out from the centre of the Palace and Grotto complex to the Gulf of Finland, and intersected by a broad axial avenue running parallel to the seashore. The well-known art historian and painter Alexander Benois wrote that Peterhof "gains a peculiar charm from its location on the coast, and also from the fact that everything here bears the imprint of the great man whose will gave birth to it... Peter showed here that he was not alien to that something which can only be termed poetry."
The first man called upon to realize Peter's ideas was Johann-Friedrich Braunstein, a pupil and close assistant of the outstanding German architect and sculptor Andreas Schluter. A conscientious professional and a skilful draughtsman, Braunstein supervised the work under the control of the Chancellery of Building and a special Peterhof Construction Office. Between 1714 and 1716, concurrently with the work on the Mansions, the Cascade, and the Canal, clearings were made for the avenues, fertile soil was brought in and deposited on the site of the future gardens after the topsoil of clay had been removed, and drainage canals were dug. A dyke was built to protect the Lower Park from flooding, and the little promontory on which the Monplaisir Palace was to rise was strengthened with granite boulders and rocks. Extensive areas were planted, and walks and avenues lined with lime-trees, elms, ash, beech, hornbeam, maples, and various kinds of shrubs, all of which were imported in their thousands from Holland, Germany, Estonia, and the regions around Moscow and Novgorod.
In August 1716, Jean-Baptiste Alexandre Le Blond, one of the most talented and expert French architects, arrived at Peterhof from Paris. Even before leaving for Russia, Le Blond was well known as a builder of country and town residences for the French aristocracy and a designer of parks, and had already acquired the title of Architect to the Crown. His erudition as an architect, and his skill as a builder, were immediately recognized by Peter, who appointed him Chief Architect. On his arrival at Peterhof in September 1716, Le Blond found the ensemble already taking shape. After inspecting it and examining the drafts of Braunstein, however, he composed a detailed memorandum, in which he pointed out a number of structural and compositional errors in the architecture of the Upper Mansion, the Great Cascade, the Great Ganal, and in the layout of the Lower Park. The main weakness, in Le Blond's view, was the lack of proportion between the various elements, and the fact that, as a whole, the ensemble did not have a sufficiently dignified aspect. The new architect set about the necessary alterations with his characteristic resolution and energy. Under his direction, and in accordance with his designs, the foundations of the Upper Mansion were strengthened and its facade was given a more stately appearance; and the layout and decoration of the interiors were altered to make them more imposing. Le Blond built an underground conduit to carry away subsoil water from the Upper Mansion. He widened the canal and the pool, and improved the construction of the Great Cascade, adding the central cascade steps and a grotto with five arches, as well as planning the water-jets. He suggested widening the Monplaisir Avenue to four times its original breadth, and creating in the park etoiles -"openings with walks diverging from them like rays of starlight"- and labyrinths of clipped shrubs, with fountains and pools in their centres. Le Blond himself took charge of the interior decoration of the Palace of Monplaisir, entrusting the facing of the walls with oak and the painted decoration of the ceilings to masters who had accompanied him to Peterhof from France. In the midst of all this designing and building, Le Blond suddenly died, having barely started upon the realization of his various plans. The work he had done at Peterhof, however, had raised the whole ensemble to a new, higher artistic level, and helped to reveal and successfully exploit the potentialities of its natural setting. Le Blond's projects continued to exercise an influence on the work of the architects who took over the creation of the coastal residence after his death.
An Italian, Niccolo Michetti, was appointed Le Blond's successor as Chief Architect at Peterhof. A pupil and assistant of the great Carlo Fontana, he had taken part in several important building projects while still in Italy, and was one of the best-known architects in Rome. Michetti's activities in the building of Peterhof lasted from March 1719 to October 1723. He became one of the chief creators of the coastal ensemble, and, in particular, of its complex of ornamental waterworks. From his designs were built the Marly and Ruin Cascades, a large number of fountains, and various summerhouses and trellises. He enriched the architectural and sculptural decoration of the Great Cascade and added to the Upper Mansion two symmetrical pavilions, linked to the central section by galleries decorated with statues and vases.
To provide water for the fountains, a gravity-fed water system, twenty-two kilometres long, was designed by Vastly Tuvolkov, the first Russian hydraulic engineer. Skilfully exploiting the natural slope of the terrain from the springs of Ropsha towards the sea, he constructed a reliable hydrotechnical system here. The water-jets of the Great Cascade, and one of the fountains in the flower parterre of the Lower Gardens in front of the Great Palace, were turned on for the first time (to test the water pressure) in the summer of 1721. Extended and improved in the first half of the nineteenth century, this system still supplies enough water to the fountains and cascades of Peterhof to keep them working for up to ten hours a day.
The conclusion, in 1721, of the peace of Nystadt, which marked the end of the Great Northern War, gave a new impetus to the building of Peterhof. While during the first few years the number of men engaged daily in the construction fluctuated between three hundred and five hundred, more than two thousand men now worked in the Lower Park daily, and a year later their number had increased to five thousand. Characteristically, even at the very height of the construction work Peter kept introducing essential changes and additions to the master plan and to the individual projects, and now and then he would order a complete alteration of the projects already started. Most important for the formation of the Peterhof ensemble was the decision to give the sculptural decoration of all three cascades - the Marly, the Ruin, and the Great Cascade - a single theme: the victories and prosperity of Russia which had now consolidated its position on the sea and become one of the great European powers; also of significance were the decisions to build the Marly Palace and the Hermitage Pavilion, to raise the walls of the canal, to build trelliswork screens with niches in them along its banks, and to construct two semicircular colonnades, known as the Crooked Galleries, by the sides of the sluice built by Tuvolkov half-way between the Cascade and the Gulf.
The inauguration of the imperial residence, an occasion marked by great festivities, took place on 15 August 1723. The guests, including Russian ministers, high-ranking military and naval officers, and foreign diplomats, were shown around his "seaside paradise" by Peter himself. But even after the official opening, work on the buildings and parks was carried on as intensively as before. This period saw the rise to prominence of the gifted and erudite architect Mikhail Zemtsov, to whom Peter entrusted the execution of several projects.
Between 1714 and 1725, together with the architects Braunstein, Le Blond, Michetti, and Zemtsov, many outstanding artists and craftsmen also worked on the creation of the ensemble, including the sculptors Bartolomeo Carlo Rastrelli, Nicolas Pineau, Hans Gonradt Ossner, and Francois Pascal Wassoult, the woodcarvers Nikita Sevriukov, Vasily Kadnikov, and Gonradt Haan; and a number of painters: Philippe Pillement, Louis Caravaque, Fiodor Vorobyov, Stepan Bushuyev, Mikhail Negrubov, and others. The fountain-builder Paul Joseph Sualem and the brothers Giuliano and Giovanni Maria Barattini, together with their Russian assistants, Philip Krylov and Grigory Ryliov, manufactured the complicated regulating mechanisms, the valves and the force pumps for all the main water-jets. Leonardt van Harnigfelt, who was invited from Holland as early as 1710, played a major role in designing the gardens of Peterhof. He directed a team of Russian apprentices transferred here from the Moscow royal estates of Kolomenskoye and Izmailovo, his closest assistant being Anton Borisov. The parks, palaces, and fountains of Peterhof bear the imprint of the skill of hundreds of Russian craftsmen of different specialities - bricklayers, carpenters, stonecarvers, blacksmiths, stucco workers, painters, founders, and gardeners - and of thousands of workmen, peasants, and soldiers.
In ten years, they built in Peterhof the large formal Lower and Upper Gardens, the navigable Great Canal with a sluice, and three palaces - Monplaisir, the Upper Mansion, and Marly - as well as the Orangery and the Hermitage Pavilion. The building and ornamentation of the Great Cascade, with its many water-jets and its gilded statues, busts, and vases, had also been completed. During the same period many fountains were put into operation: the Great Fountains, the Sheaf, the Cloche or Water-bell Fountains, the Menager or Economical Fountains, the Adam and the Pyramid Fountains, and also the water-jets in the niches of the trellised screens placed along the banks of the canal, the Settee trick fountains, and four fountains with sculptures depicting subjects from Aesop's fables. The steps of the Marly Cascade were already built, and the waterworks had been tested; work had started on the Ruin Cascade. Surrounded by rows of trimmed trees and bushes, numerous large and small pools of regular shapes glittered like mirrors. Two light wooden Aviaries, a multitude of covered walks, arbours, and trellised screens decorated with carved ornaments and masks of different-coloured shells, added to the park's festive aspect. The terraced slopes beside the cascades, the balustraded walk overlooking the sea before Monplaisir's north facade, and the balustraded brick wall with its niches and vases in the Garden of Venus in the Marly area, all added variety to the park's appearance. The vegetation was also distinguished by its opulence. The embroidered parterres were adorned with flower borders, and the avenues and groves were edged with trees and shrubs clipped into cubes, pyramids, or spheres. The park was also decorated with marble, stucco, and gilded lead statues and busts. The Hermitage, the Eve Fountain and the fountain before the Orangery were not completed until after Peter's death.
Peterhof arose, as if by magic, rivalling in splendour the magnificent park-and-palace complexes of France, Germany, and Italy, and amazed Europe no less than did the newly-built St Petersburg itself. It was regarded as an artistic miracle and as a revelation of the creative abilities of the Russian people. During Peter's lifetime, Peterhof was already a symbol of the blossoming of a young, reformed Russia.
Portrait of Peter the Great.
B. Koffr. 1713 or 1716
View of the Greate Pool in the Upper Garden in Peterhof.
Engraving by Ukhtomsky from a painting by Shchedrin.
Early 19-th century.
The Greate palace at Peterhof.
Engraving by an unknown artist of the mid-eighteenth century.
View of the Monplaisir Palace.
Engraving by Galaktionov from a painting by Shchedrin.
Early 19-th century.
The Monplaisir Garden.
Painting by Shchedrin.
View of The Great Cascade.
Engraving by Chesky
from a drawing by Shatoshnikov.
Early nineteenth century.