Russia Peterhof Palace Peterhof Palace

Peterhof Palace

The word “Peterhof” is first encountered in an entry in the field journal of Peter the Great for 13 September 1705. That day, on board a ship that he had built with his own hands, the Munker, the tsar approached a small quay on the southern shore of the Gulf of Finland. He landed and climbed up the hill to his “travelling chambers” at Pieterhof (translated from the Dutch as “Peter’s court” or “residence”).

The travelling chambers were special houses built on the roadside for the relaxation of the imperial family. They were possibly built around 7 May 1704, when Peter sailed from Peterhof to Kotlin Island for the consecration of the fort of Kronslot. In a book written in 1714, Friedrich Christian Weber, a Hanoverian envoy, offers indirect evidence supporting this date: “I inspected the pleasure house at Peterhof... For over ten years now, overcoming nature, the finest architects and several thousand men have been working on it.”

No one knows exactly how Peterhof originally looked, as the travelling chambers no longer exist. They were probably a modest, two-roomed house, built from wood, rather like the Cabin of Peter the Great in St Petersburg. The chambers were possibly in the vicinity of Priest’s Grange, a nearby settlement, first mentioned in 1704.

The next building to go up at Peterhof was the “Upper Palace,” which stood on the site of the present-day Grand Palace. There is no consensus regarding the founding of the Upper Palace. It was previously believed that construction started in 1714, but some historians now claim that work began in 1710, when Peter drafted the general concept for the whole ensemble of Peterhof.

Around 1710 or 1711, a wooden palace was built in the copse beneath the hill. It was constructed not far from the present-day palace of Marly and was known as the “mansion at the bottom.” A modest single-storey building, it consisted of “two chambers” under an iron roof. Neither this nor the other structure built “at the harbour” – right on the seafront – has survived.

The reign of Empress Elizabeth Petrovna is synonymous with the greatest period of construction at Peterhof. Bartolomeo Francesco Rastrelli transformed the Upper Palace founded by Peter the Great into one of his greatest achievements – the Grand Palace. Creating an entirely new building in the Baroque style, he altered the entire appearance of Peterhof.

On 5 December 1745, Elizabeth issued a decree, asking Rastrelli to add new apartments to the Upper Palace. But the architect did not confine himself to the empress’s original wishes. Initially, he planned to add new wings with galleries. Later, however, he decided to rebuild the Upper Palace, which had fallen into disrepair since the days of Peter the Great. He proposed adding two new pavilions – the Chapel Royal and the Double-Headed Eagle Pavilion.

After listening to Rastrelli’s report and examining the architect’s model, Elizabeth satisfied herself that he intended to leave the central block, originally built by her father. She waved her tiny hand and said: “Have it your own way, only do it well!”

Rastrelli envisaged filling the skyline with a beautiful new palace, balanced between the five golden cupolas of the Chapel Royal in the east and the single cupola of the Double-Headed Eagle Pavilion in the west. The project was so important that the architect was immediately awarded a medal “for expanding the pleasure palace at Peterhof in 1745.”

An interesting feature of the Double-Headed Eagle Pavilion is not just the golden garlands running down the sides of the cupola or the Italian architect’s subtle imitation of Muscovite architecture. What is particularly intriguing is that the eagle sitting on the top of the cupola is actually three-headed. This was done deliberately so that, from a distance, the two-headed Russian eagle did not look one-headed, as on the Prussian and Polish coats of arms.

The new interiors of the Grand Palace were subordinated to a single aim. This was to create a sensation of ornate luxury, befitting the abode of the Russian empress. Everything was intended to leave a lasting impression of wealth and grandeur.

The Grand Staircase was decorated with gilt lattices, caryatids and vases. After ascending the wide flight of steps, guests entered the Ball (Merchantry) Room, where they were overwhelmed by the abundance of mirrors and shining gold. This hall was used to receive delegations from the merchantry, and the empress ordered Rastrelli “to gild as much as you possibly can... the trading classes adore gold.” Mirrors in gilt frames were reflected in other mirrors, hundreds of candles shone in holders placed between the windows, diamonds glittered on the necks of the awaiting courtiers.

Foreign diplomats awaited audiences in the Antechamber (now the Çesme Room), before being escorted to the Throne Room or Grand Hall (now the Picture Hall), where the empress offered them her hand. All festivities at Peterhof began with a special service at the royal chapel, which also shone with gold.

In 1745, the Old Manege near the Grand Palace was converted into a theatre, which was known as the Opera House. The repertoire was dominated by vaudevilles and the plays of Molière. The first works of Alexander Sumarokov were staged at the Opera House in 1750. Two years later, Fyodor Volkov and his company from Yaroslavl performed in front of the empress at Peterhof. In 1756, he became the leading actor in the country’s first professional drama theatre.

The Grand Palace underwent changes during the reign of Catherine the Great. In 1764, Jean-Baptiste-Michel Vallin de la Mothe began reconstructing the Grand Hall. Under Peter the Great, this room was also known as the Italian Salon, because so many Italians had contributed to its beauty – the architecture of Nicola Michetti, the paintings of Bartolomeo Tarsia, the gilt carvings of Bartolomeo Carlo Rastrelli.

Vallin de la Mothe did not destroy the work of his predecessors. He simply covered the walls, from top to bottom, with 368 female portraits painted by Pietro Antonio de Rotari in the Rococo style. After these changes, the Grand Hall became known as the Picture Hall, Portrait Room, or the “Fashions and Graces Cabinet.”

The court journals state that Catherine used the Picture Hall for holding conversations with guests. Sawing up the lacquered Chinese screens imported during the reign of Peter I, Vallin de la Mothe turned them into decorative panels for the adjoining premises, which became known collectively as the Chinese Cabinets.

The second and more important reconstruction of the Grand Palace occurred in the 1770s and 1780s. Georg Friedrich von Veldten transformed the palace drawing rooms into a series of “internal apartments” or “inner rooms.” The empress emerged from there to greet guests during receptions in the Picture Hall. The architect created the Partridge Room, the Divan Room, the Toilette Room and the Bedchamber (Crown Room).

The walls of the apartments were upholstered in Chinese and French fabrics. Rastrelli’s gilt carvings now seemed old-fashioned and were removed from the Dining Room and Throne Room. Both halls were redecorated in the Neoclassical style with low reliefs made from alabaster. From that time onwards, the Dining Room became known as the White Room.

Catherine was so delighted by the Russian naval victory over Turkey at the Battle of Çesme (1770) that she asked Veldten to reconstruct Rastrelli’s old Antechamber as the Çesme Room. The interior was decorated with grandiose scenes of the naval battles in the Aegean Sea, painted by German artist Jacob Philipp Hackert.

Throughout all these reconstructions, Veldten retained Rastrelli’s elegant parquet floors. Between 1779 and 1785, he built five residential pavilions behind the Double-Headed Eagle Pavilion, where Catherine’s grandchildren and other guests could stay.

Towards the end of Catherine’s reign, Peterhof began to fall into disrepair. Paul I decided to breathe new life into the Grand Palace, where restoration work began. He also ordered Franz Brouwer to build six new stone houses nearby for members of the court, to replace the old Cavalier Houses.

The Grand Palace was slightly altered in the mid-1840s, when Heinrich Stackenschneider added a third floor to the eastern block, counterbalancing the western wing. This new annexe was known as the Half of Grand Duchess Olga Nikolaevna, because Tsar Nicholas I’s daughter Olga often stayed there with her husband. In 1846, she married Crown Prince Charles Frederick Alexander of Württemberg at Peterhof.

Between 1838 and 1840, Joseph-Jean Charlemágne reconstructed the five residential buildings behind the Double-Headed Eagle Pavilion, originally created by Georg Friedrich von Veldten for Catherine the Great’s grandchildren. He replaced the mezzanines with a stone upper floor and redesigned the facades in a single Neo-Baroque style. This complex of buildings now houses the museum headquarters.

Charlemágne’s reconstructions led to the formation of a large parade ground, where troop inspections and the ceremony of the carrying of the flag were held. Crowds of people always gathered to admire these colourful pageants. Nicolas Benois’s son Alexander recalled, as a child, watching the clockwork movements of the soldiers, when “the enormous golden heraldic eagle, crowning the cupola of the pavilion, seemed to spread and raise its wings, soaring proudly in the sky.”

Alexander Benois once took Rainer Maria Rilke for a walk in the Lower Park. Upon seeing the Grand Palace from the bridge across the Sea Channel, the poet exclaimed: “Das ist ja das Schloss der Winterkönigin!” Benois wrote: “And, indeed, on that clear summer evening, everything seemed quite unreal, like a dream seen only for an instant, ready to instantly melt away. The silver rooftops of the palace, almost indistinguishable from the pale sky; the shining gold crown on the middle building; the faded reflection of the dying sunset in the windows; further down, the jets of the incessantly beating fountains, with the enormous column of water and Samson in the middle; even closer, along the banks of the channel, the two rows of water jets, showing white among the black conifers – all this came together to create a picture full of magical beauty and heart-rending melancholy.”

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