Dutch Rossica

From an early age, Peter the Great greatly admired Holland and did all he could to copy the Netherlands. He had a weakness for everything to do with this European nation and, consciously or not, transferred Dutch images to St Petersburg.

The profile and urban outlines of the new Russian capital had much in common with Dutch towns. In the views of St Petersburg engraved by Alexei Zubov in 1717, a multitude of Dutch spires – or, as they were called back then, “spitses” – can be seen behind the buildings in the foreground. Jacks and flags were hung from them, as is still the custom today in Holland. The first historian of the city, Andrei Bogdanov, counted no less than fifty “spitses” in St Petersburg by the middle of the eighteenth century.

Early Russian engravings show that the majority of drawbridges had Dutch counterweights, painted white in the form of inclined storks. Almost all such bridges were built by Herman van Boles. This overall picture was supplemented by the chiming of Dutch clocks on churches, the Admiralty and the belltower of the St Peter and St Paul Cathedral.

Dutch windmills turned throughout the city – not only on the Spit of Vasilyevsky Island and the Okhta, but in the most diverse places, including the bastions of the Peter and Paul Fortress. This custom was another tribute to Amsterdam, where windmills also lined the citadels. Built by Dutchmen, the windmills of St Petersburg ground flour, cement and gunpowder, pumped water and polished marble. In 1721, a special mill was built in Peterhof “that will saw and polish marble and any other soft stone, except for wild and hard varieties.”

Letters were written on soft Dutch paper manufactured at the paper mill owned by Klas Johan Woep at Ekaterinhof. People lived in townhouses built in the “Dutch taste,” based on the projects of Dutch architect Stefan van Zwieten. The walls were laid by a team of stonemasons headed by Dirk van Nambers.

Herman van Boles not only erected the bridges of St Petersburg; he was also a “spire and roofing master” who constructed towers and belfries. Canals were dug under the supervision of “sluice masters” Pieter van Hoesel and Willem Kovenhoven. Lead pipes and figures for Peterhof were cast by the Dutch “casting and soldering master” Cornelius Harley after models by Bartolomeo Carlo Rastrelli. Orangeries and cellars were built by Dirk van Aerscht and Timothy Fonarmus, who owned brick factories in the suburbs.

The striking clocks on the belltower of the St Peter and St Paul Cathedral and the Admiralty were installed by Dutch clockmaker Andris Forsen, while their musical mechanisms were created by the “bell-playing master” Johann Christian Förster. Later, they were replaced by master Hoorton. Someone with the same name as Förster, possibly a relative, “poured cement” at the Puudosin Works and “decorated chambers with alabaster in the village of Sarskoe,” where he worked as a “marbler and architect.”

The lists of foreign masters working in St Petersburg show that not only Dutchmen built the city. Frenchmen, Italians, Germans, Armenians, Swedish prisoners-of-war and, of course, a whole host of Russian architects, contractors and workers all contributed to its beauty. Ultimately, however, all these masters, from the greatest architect down to the simplest stonemason, worked under the eagle eye of Peter the Great, adjusting their talents to suit his tastes.

These tastes were very apparent in the early outward appearance of St Petersburg, reflecting the tsar’s infinite love of Holland. What later became known as the “Petrine Baroque” style was, in fact, a version of the Dutch Baroque, adapted to Russian conditions. The clearest example of the tsar’s passion is the Cabin of Peter the Great – a wooden hut painted in imitation of red Dutch brick. The wide Dutch windows and small glass panes – unusual for Russia and not very suitable for the local climate – reveal Peter’s fascination with Holland, Netherlandish culture and the Dutch way of life.

Peter’s obsession with Holland was visible elsewhere. There was his favourite Dutch cheese, which he could not live without, jealously measuring each piece before returning it to the pantry. In the Summer Palace, the staircase had to be made “in the Dutch manner.” When he launched his gilded yacht in 1723, he ordered the beds, plate, tablecloths and napkins to be exactly “as is the custom in Holland for the travel of distinguished personages.”

There were amusing cases when people, eager to imitate the tsar, took their zeal to extremes. In the bedroom of Prince Alexander Menshikov’s palace on Vasilyevsky Island, even the ceiling was covered in expensive Delft tiles, although nothing similar was ever attempted in Holland.

Sending the Russian architect Ivan Korobov to study abroad in 1724, Peter ordered him to travel to Holland, because “our building is similar to the Dutch. You need to live in Holland and to learn the manners of Dutch architecture, particularly the foundations, which are needed here, where the land is also low-lying, with much water, and such thin walls are needed... how to measure out and decorate gardens with copses and various figures, which they do not do anywhere on earth as well as in Holland.”

Peter the Great once said: “God grant me health, and St Petersburg will be a second Amsterdam!” And he largely succeeded.

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