Biographies Russian Architects 18th Century Jean-Baptiste-Alexandre Le Blond

Jean-Baptiste-Alexandre Le Blond

Born: 1679, Paris
Died: 1719, St Petersburg

Jean-Baptiste-Alexandre Le Blond was born in Paris in 1679. He was the son of Jean Le Blond, a leading artist and member of the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture. As a young boy, he showed an early talent for art. During the reign of King Louis XIV, he became one of the leading French architects and a student of André Le Nôtre, the creator of Versailles. Le Blond’s own work on the principles of French formal garden design, La théorie et la pratique du jardinage, was reprinted in many countries, bringing him international fame.

Besides laying out gardens, Le Blond also built palaces and mansions for the aristocracy. The French architect’s designs were cosy and functional. He came up with the idea of a separate niche in the bedroom for the bed – a revolutionary development for that time. Instead of uncomfortable stools, he introduced the fashion for sofas and couches. Another innovation was the modern toilet, banishing the need for an evil-smelling bedpan.

Le Blond was already a famous architect when Peter the Great visited France in 1716 and invited him to come and work in St Petersburg. Tempted by the enormous sum of five thousand roubles, a private mansion, the prestigious title of “architect-general” and endless possibilities on the banks of the Neva, the French master quickly accepted.

In St Petersburg, Le Blond immediately threw himself into work, taking all construction projects into his own hands. He compiled the general plan of the city (1717), taught young architects, and designed parks and palaces. He spent a lot of time and thought on the new royal residence at Strelna, for which the tsar was willing to supply an unlimited amount of men and money.

By instantly rejecting everything done before him by Domenico Trezzini, Bartolomeo Carlo Rastrelli and other architects, Le Blond immediately made a lot of enemies for himself in Russia. He particularly incurred the wrath of Rastrelli, who had himself just arrived in St Petersburg from Paris, only to discover that he had already been outflanked by his French rival. Alexander Menshikov, the governor general of St Petersburg, supported Rastrelli – possibly because the Italian had offered to sculpt his portrait. While the vain prince posed, Rastrelli turned him against Le Blond, who did not suspect any intrigues and kept on working. In 1718, however, the great French master unexpectedly fell ill. He died at the height of his fame on 27 February 1719.

There is no clear reason for the sudden illness of the previously healthy architect – only dark and hollow rumours. According to one version, Menshikov disliked Le Blond – confirmed in documents – and falsely told the emperor that the Frenchman had ordered the felling of the trees that Peter had personally cultivated with great care and attention at Peterhof. The infuriated tsar rushed to Peterhof, where he publicly reprimanded Le Blond and even beat him with a stick. The architect was so shaken that he took to his bed in shock.

Later, Peter learnt the truth and punished Menshikov for falsely slandering Le Blond. The tsar sent the Frenchman his apologies and assurances of his continued favour. But Le Blond was so traumatised by the public insult that he never recovered, dying of humiliation and shame. On 3 March 1719, in response to a petition by Le Blond’s widow, the Chancellery ordered “two hundred roubles to be paid out for the burial of Le Blond, in offset of his salary.” Two months later, Marie Le Blond returned to France.

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