Russia St Petersburg Architecture Palace Mikhailovsky Palace

Mikhailovsky Palace

The Mikhailovsky Palace is named after its first owner, Grand Duke Mikhail Pavlovich, the youngest son of Emperor Paul I. The palace was built between 1819 and 1825 for the marriage of the grand duke to Princess Friederike Charlotte Marie of Württemberg in February 1824.

The palace was built in the heyday of High Neoclassicism or Empire in Russian architecture. Ancient motifs and the golden age of the Roman Empire were the main sources of inspiration for architects. The Mikhailovsky Palace was also built during a period of growing national consciousness, following the Russian victory over Napoleon in the war of 1812.

The Mikhailovsky Palace was designed by Carlo Rossi (1775–1849) – an outstanding draughtsman who trained under Italian architect Vincenzo Brenna. Rossi was without equals among Russian architects in his ability to combine architecture and applied art. The Mikhailovsky Palace offers compelling evidence of this genius. It cost seven million roubles to build, with four million spent on the lavish decor alone.

Carlo Rossi also replanned the adjoining territory, creating a new square and adjoining street to form a handsome ensemble in the Empire style. The large public garden in the centre of the square was original laid out as a landscape garden.

The elegant facade of the Mikhailovsky Palace is easy to spot from Nevsky Prospekt. The most distinctive feature is the eight-columned Corinthian portico and triangular pediment in the centre. The ground floor, with its arches running along the centre and semi-circular windows, provides the foundation for the upper floors, accommodating the state apartments and decorated with stucco moulding.

The small street joining the palace to Nevsky Prospekt opens out onto a wide square encircled by residential blocks also designed by Carlo Rossi. Drawing closer to the Mikhailovsky Palace, one encounters the austere outlines of cast-iron railings. The enormous gates in the centre are adorned with gilded lance heads, military armature on pylons, shields and crossed swords.

The railings unite the two wings lying to the east and west of the Mikhailovsky Palace. Designed as auxiliary buildings, they are the same height as the ground floor of the palace. The railings and the auxiliary wings form a central courtyard convenient for the reception of in-coming carriages. The cannons guarding the entrance were a present from Tsar Nicholas I.

Like the approach to the palace, the vestibule is based on the principle of a mass of impressions. A wide and ornate arch stretches between the oak lobby and the staircase, opening up a striking view onto the flight of stairs. The granite steps are interrupted by a landing, where the staircase splits in two. The white banisters on the first floor harmonise with the general decorative scheme, conjuring up images of a Roman courtyard. The staircase ends at the upper row of windows and white columns. The decor is richer here than on the ground floor.

The main staircase was decorated with forty-four bas-reliefs by Vasily Demut-Malinovsky. Combining military attributes and rectangular friezes with winged griffins, the semi-circular high-relief recesses create a particularly striking effect. The murals on the ceilings are painted in sepia tones, imitating the rich ornamental edging of their rectangular frames – thick wreaths, acanthus leaves, rosettes and tendrils.

As in other palaces built in the early nineteenth century, the first-floor apartments were purely ceremonial. They were used to host the receptions and concerts for which the Mikhailovsky Palace was famed in the nineteenth century. On the first floor, Rossi created a stunning enfilade of state drawing-rooms adorned with mirrors, stucco moulding, murals, silk drapings, parquetry and gilt furniture.

Carlo Rossi designed the state rooms according to the enfilade principle, taking every single detail into account – the decor, materials, colour scheme and furniture in each interior. He not only designed the murals on the walls and ceilings; he also planned the door-handles, the rosettes on the parquet floor and much more.

Throughout the nineteenth century, the palace rooms were frequently altered in line with the changing fashions and tastes of the different owners. In the late 1840s, a series of rooms – mostly the chambers of Grand Duke Mikhail Pavlovich – were redesigned by the Eclectic architect Harald Julius von Bosse in the Second Rococo style. Today, only a few details recall the original architectural ensemble designed by Carlo Rossi.

An inter-connecting drawing room (Room 18) once opened out onto the suite of rooms on the first floor. An artistic device also employed in the vestibule – painting in sepia colours in imitation of moulding – was used for the mural on the ceiling. Motifs of wreaths alternate with acanthus leaves and female heads from ancient times.

The doorways leading to the following gallery are flanked by white caryatids. Combined with the triangular pediment above the door, they introduce an expressive accent into the decor of this small room. The sculptures were created by Stepan Pimenov, with whom Rossi often collaborated.

After these small rooms, visitors come to a large hall – the State Drawing Room (Room 16). When the palace was transformed into a museum at the very end of the nineteenth century, the decor of this room was destroyed. All the windows in this once well-lit interior were blocked up in order to facilitate the hanging of large pictures. Yellow artificial marble was employed in the decor, as with the numerous pilasters previously adorning the walls. The white reliefs running along the entire perimeter of this former drawing room – copies of works by students of the Imperial Academy of Arts – were reinforced at the end of the nineteenth century.

The decor of the following room was also lost when the palace was transformed into a museum. This was the former ball room (Room 15). The central element in its decor was blue columns coated in artificial stone.

Three drawing rooms – the Crimson Drawing Room (Room 12) with walls of red brocade; the White Drawing Room (Room 11); and the Orange Drawing Room (Room 10) with predominately orange decor – lay at the very heart of the Mikhailovsky Palace. One of the most famous chambers was the Second State Drawing Room, which was also known as the White-Columned Room or White Dining Room.

One of Carlo Rossi’s finest achievements in interior design, the White Room is also much changed. Running eighty feet along the garden facade, the interior was decorated in austere tones. Two pairs of columns divide it into three more or less independent sections. The middle section is slightly larger than the two side ones and is square in shape (the other two are rectangular). The use of pylons decorated with pilasters enhances the effect of division. The columns and pilasters are lined with white artificial marble and crowned with Corinthian capitals. They have a smooth, shining architrave and an elegant cornice with gilt details.

Each section has an ingenuously painted “mirror” vault on the ceiling. The sensation of space is intensified by the lighting. The high semi-circular windows are reminiscent of light arches. They look out onto the garden before an enormous balcony – a loggia with a row of white columns. The summerhouse on the bank of the River Moika was also designed by Carlo Rossi.

The architect developed every detail of the interior in strict accordance with the general principle of the White Room – symmetry and harmony. The wooden walls have two doors (one of which is fake) flanking a mantelpiece. Honey in colour and rippled in texture, the doors are made from watered birch. The magnificent gilt fretwork forms a striking element in the interior decor. The recesses above the doors are adorned with figures of muses on gilded theatrical masks.

Sculpture is employed in the decor of the mantelpieces. There were once three fireplaces in the White Room. The third standing opposite the window was dismantled at the end of the nineteenth century. In its place, a door was cut through onto the first-floor landing. The decor was sculpted by Stepan Pimenov.

High mirrors stood above the mantelpieces. The two hanging between the wall frescoes are still to be restored. Carlo Rossi commissioned Antonio Vighi to paint scenes from Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey on the white walls. Two frescoes on the wall opposite the windows in the middle section were unfortunately destroyed at the end of the nineteenth century.

The White Room offers an excellent example of the skill with which Rossi could draw the individual elements of the interior decor together in a single whole. Each object occupies its own special place. Double-backed couches were astutely positioned between the columns in such a way that each appears to lead its own double existence – one in the middle section and one in the side section. The curved armrests and round leg supports in cross-section were designed with the nearby column in mind. The backs of the chairs, decorated on both sides with carvings and positioned around the tables, are presented to the viewer from the back.

The furniture of the White Hall was once gilded and upholstered in blue silk with large gold garlands. Rossi either gilded the furniture of the state interiors or veneered it with precious woods – Karelian birch and walnut. The residential quarters on the ground floor were mostly fitted out with mahogany furniture – the ideal choice for cosy rooms and studies. An example of this was Grand Duke Mikhail Pavlovich’s study in the suite of rooms on the ground floor (Room 23).

The Mikhailovsky Palace was decorated with many works of bronze – chandeliers, candelabra and clocks. Stone vases and standard lamps adorned the rooms on the first floor. An enormous desert service, decorated with miniature paintings and gilded ornamental designs, was specially commissioned for the palace from the Imperial Porcelain Factory. In 1825, a newspaper noted that the Mikhailovsky Palace “will serve to embellish St Petersburg, while the elegant taste of the inner decor ranks it among the leading European palaces.”

The Mikhailovsky Palace was also famed for the salons and musical evenings held by Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna, who inherited the palace upon her husband’s death in 1849. During the Crimean War, she turned the lower quarters of the palace into a makeshift hospital for wounded soldiers. The grand duchess held literary and musical soirées in the Second State Drawing Room, inviting such luminaries from the world of art, music and literature as Vasily Zhukovsky, Ivan Krylov, Hector Berlioz, Franz Liszt and Mikhail Glinka. The musical classes at the Mikhailovsky Palace paved the way for the foundation of the St Petersburg Conservatoire.

When Grand Duchess Elena Pavlovna died in 1873, the Mikhailovsky Palace was inherited by her only surviving daughter, Grand Duchess Ekaterina Mikhailovna, who preferred her residences on the Stone Island and Oranienbaum. The Mikhailovsky Palace gradually fell into decline. In an attempt to save money, the auxiliary wings were let out. The west wing once housed the Imperial Palace Department.

Upon his accession to the throne, Tsar Nicholas II decided to acquire the Mikhailovsky Palace for the state and use it to house the Emperor Alexander III Russian Museum. Between 1895 and 1897, Vasily Svinin transformed the palace into a museum, leading to the loss of many original interiors. In 1898, the Mikhailovsky Palace was opened to the public as the Emperor Alexander III Museum of Russian Art, which was renamed the State Russian Museum after 1917.

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