Russia Peterhof Lower Park Peterhof Park

Peterhof Park

The history of Peterhof begins back in 1704, when travelling chambers were built for Peter the Great on the southern shore of the Gulf of Finland. Soon, not far from this place, work began on the creation of a new imperial residence, which, Peter determined, would one day outshine all the other royal palaces of Europe. The tsar deliberately built his new residence by the sea, as a triumphant symbol of the successful conclusion of Russia’s long struggle for an outlet to the Baltic Sea.

Although Peter the Great was not a professional architect or landscape gardener, he was responsible for the two blueprints which breathed life into Peterhof. On one hasty sketch, the tsar drew a bold line – or, as they said at the time, a “perspective” – joining the travelling chambers at the top of the hill to the seashore. This was the main axis or “needle” onto which the entire ensemble of parks, gardens, palaces, pavilions and fountains was later “threaded.”

Peter developed this concept on the second piece of paper. Three rays or “perspectives” proceed from the hill, on which the planned Upper Palace is clearly discernable. This is the future Samson Canal and the two allées leading to the sea (one to Monplaisir and the other to the Hermitage).

These two sketches formed the basis for the “system of coordinates” that, to this day, lends Peterhof such elegance, simplicity and harmony. They were possibly made in May 1710, when Peter, according to the court journal, “so desired to examine the places of the garden, and to lay down the construction of the dam, grotto and fountains of Peterhof.” Soon afterwards, building materials were delivered to Peterhof and the drainage of the Lower Park began.

Work proceeded at breakneck speed. Over the next decade and a half, the Lower Park was laid out, the Sea Channel was dug, many fountains were installed, the Upper Palace was decorated, and the private residences of Monplaisir and Marly were built. Peterhof was officially opened in the presence of the tsar and foreign diplomats in August 1723.

Created in the image of Versailles, the summer residence of King Louis XIV of France, the Lower Park is the most famous part of the entire complex. This regular garden is embellished by many handsome palaces and sculptures, but the most important ornaments are the fountains. They are supplied by water thanks to a unique engineering system created with the direct involvement of Peter the Great.

For a very long time, the question of water for the cascades and fountains had seemed an insurmountable problem. Neither Jean-Baptiste-Alexandre Le Blond nor the other fountain experts could come up with a solution (the architect proposed building a windmill to pump the water, which would have been extremely expensive and inefficient). Finally, in 1720, Peter and his engineers found a way to supply the fountains with water. They devised a system of pipes to carry water from nearby Ropsha, starting from the estate of the chancellor, Count Gavriil Golovkin. The channel took a year to dig and was launched on 8 August 1721.

Jean-Baptiste-Alexandre Le Blond offered Peter the “Water Plan,” which envisaged whole “gardens of fountains” – an enormous complex of water jets, fountains and cascades. But the French architect died, and his work was continued by Nicola Michetti. A battle broke out between the French and Italian schools of fountain art. The former was headed by the brothers Gérard and Paul Soualem, while the latter was supported by Giovanni and Giuliano Barattini.

In this battle, the main winner was Peterhof. Two “columns of water an arm’s thickness” (the words of the French ambassador, Jacques de Campredon) rose high into the air in the parterres flanking the Grand Cascade. These were known as the Grand Fountains or “Cups.” The Western or “Italian” fountain was just as handsome as its eastern or “French” neighbour.

The tsar was the principal constructor and the guiding force behind the Peterhof fountains. It was Peter who introduced the word “fountain” into the Russian language. The emperor also penned a manual entitled What Is To Be Done and Completed at Peterhof and various other instructions, showing that he remembered and knew everything, down to the very last detail.

By 1723, much of what the tsar had planned at Peterhof was either completed or nearing completion. The Upper Gardens had been laid out and the Grand Palace was built. Peterhof was already home to the world’s largest system of fountains and cascades, decorated with gilt and lead statues, reliefs, mascarons and vases.

On 13-15 August 1723, Peter held a magnificent reception for foreign diplomats in Peterhof. This was done with the deliberate intention of showing the rest of the world the achievements of the Russian Empire. The emperor himself led the foreign diplomats round Peterhof, showing and describing all the edifices and fountains. This was the first guided tour in the history of Peterhof.

Outwardly, nothing changed at Peterhof after the death of Peter I in 1725. The Dutch gardener, Leonard von Garnichfelt, who had served there for ten years, continued to work alongside the old fountain masters, wood carvers, artists and a new generation of architects – Timofei Usov and Mikhail Zemtsov.

Mikhail Zemtsov completed the Pyramid Fountain, Hermitage Palace and the Grand Grotto, while Timofei Usov worked on the Marly Cascade and the Chessboard Hill. Usov studied in Holland and Italy and was a colleague and rival of Zemtsov. Although Usov died young, at the age of twenty-eight, he will forever be remembered as the creator of the magnificent Eve Fountain.

In 1723, Nicola Michetti built the Adam Fountain on the Marly Allée, which cleaves the Lower Park from west to east. Three years later, Catherine I asked Usov to build a symmetric Eve Fountain. Framed by magnificent jets of water shooting up into the air, the two white marble figures were intended to represent Peter and Catherine, the father and mother of the Russian empire. Adam and Eve were placed at the intersections of the main allées and were visible from many parts of the garden.

Another addition to Peterhof during the reign of Catherine I was the Favourite Fountain, depicting a dog remarkably similar to Peter’s Lizetka careering after ducklings. The fountain was remarkable for the great ingenuity of the architect Mikhail Zemtsov, the carver Nicolas Pineau, the fountain master Paul Soualem and the mechanic Johann Christian Förster. A water turbine at the bottom of the pool made the ducks move; they not only spouted water from their beaks, but also quacked, while the dog chasing them barked. Catherine was so delighted with the fountain that she asked Nicolas Pineau to create a similar one for the Summer Garden.

In 1730, Empress Anna Ioannovna asked Mikhail Zemtsov to restore the parks at Peterhof. Assisted by Ivan Blank and Ivan Davydov, he carefully prepared everything for the empress’s arrival in summer 1732. Each subsequent year, Anna always spent a long time at Peterhof, and something new was always added at the start of each season.

In the Lower Park, the empress could now walk down the new Maliban (now the Sea) Allée, joining Marly and Monplaisir, or admire the new Marly Cascade, which Zemtsov had decorated with seven gilded sculptures of ancient gods. As there had not been enough time to cast new figures before the empress’s arrival, they had simply removed the sculptures from the garden of the Menshikov Palace on Vasilyevsky Island. The park was clipped in the fashion of the eighteenth century. The garden was formal and symmetrical, with pergolas, bosquets and parterres.

The Ruined Cascade had originally been planned by Peter the Great to depict water running through the ruins of an old castle. Construction dragged on and was only completed under Anna Ioannovna, when Mikhail Zemtsov and Ivan Blank created the Dragon’s Hill (now the Chessboard Hill). The sculptures were three fearsome dragons, spouting water from their jaws. At the foot of the cascade were two Roman fountains, based on Bernini’s famous fountains in St Peter’s Square in Rome.

Anna Ioannovna made changes to the Upper Gardens, which were decorated by Bartolomeo Carlo Rastrelli, Ivan Blank and Ivan Davydov. Many features of the Upper Gardens recalled Versailles – the perfect symmetry of the clipped allées, parterres and trellises; the pathways scattered with white sand; the tubs with yews and other exotic trees, which were removed to the Orangery during winter.

The main fountain in the Upper Gardens was Perseus and Andromeda. Riding a horse and holding the head of Medusa, the Greek hero saves the beautiful Andromeda from the sea monster. The figures were designed by Bartolomeo Carlo Rastrelli and cast from lead. Later renamed the “Indefinite Fountain,” Perseus and Andromeda was dismantled in the 1740s.

The other fountain in the Upper Gardens was Neptune, also sculpted by Bartolomeo Carlo Rastrelli. Water gushed from the sea god’s trident and even from the nostrils and hooves of his seahorse.

The first water entertainments were installed at Peterhof by Peter the Great. The Little Oak was one such trick fountain. Designed by Bartolomeo Carlo Rastrelli in the form of a little tree, streams of water flowed gently from its branches. Walking past the Ruined Cascade, guests often had to take to their heels and run. Without warning, streams of water spurted from the ground, enclosing them in an aquatic trap.

The most important addition to the Lower Park during the reign of Anna Ioannovna was Samson Rending the Jaws of the Lion – a magnificent sculptural group in the centre of a pool created by Bartolomeo Carlo Rastrelli. Like everything else in Peterhof, the Samson Fountain was highly symbolic.

The Old Testament tells the story of Samson, who killed a lion with his bare hands. Peter the Great was often compared to Samson in his battle against King Charles XII of Sweden, whose coat of arms depicted a golden lion beneath three crowns. Another important parallel was the Battle of Poltava, which was won on 27 June 1709, the feast day of St Sampson the Hospitable.

Peter the Great had planned a direct predecessor of the Samson Fountain near MarlyHercules Wrestling with the Lernaean Hydra – which was not completed in his lifetime. In 1726, Timofei Usov and Bartolomeo Carlo Rastrelli created a fountain depicting Triton ripping open a monster’s jaws. Built next to the Orangery, this fountain had also been conceived by Peter. So if the tsar had suddenly appeared at the Grand Cascade in the summer of 1735, he would undoubtedly have been pleased with his niece for continuing these traditions.

Empress Elizabeth Petrovna

Unlike Anna Ioannovna or Elizabeth Petrovna, Catherine the Great did not spend much time at Peterhof. During her reign, her main suburban residence was Tsarskoe Selo. But the empress always visited Peterhof at the end of June, when she celebrated the anniversary of the day she seized power on 28 June 1762.

During the reign of Catherine II, in keeping with her self-confessed anglomania, the Lower Park and the Upper Gardens were no longer trimmed. Cosy green corners were sown, shady limes and oaks were planted, and grass lawns appeared in the parterres, in place of the former patterned flowerbeds and tubs with rare plants.

Paul I was responsible for a wide programme of reconstruction work at Peterhof in the late eighteenth century, when the old and dilapidated Baroque monuments of Bartolomeo Carlo Rastrelli were finally repaired or replaced, giving way to a new age of Neoclassical sculpture.

In 1799, Paul asked a commission of professors, artists and sculptors from the Academy of Arts to examine the sculptures at Peterhof, paying particular attention to the Grand Cascade. The results of their investigation did not make pleasant reading. Bartolomeo Carlo Rastrelli’s gilded lead sculptures had outlived their time and needed to be urgently replaced. This had already become clear during the reign of Catherine the Great, when several fountain sculptures had started to topple over.

In August 1799, the emperor issued a decree requiring “the statues standing on the cascade, opposite the middle descent at Peterhof, to be replaced by bronze ones cast from metal at the Academy of Arts. In the choice of figures, they are to adhere to the older ones, meaning those currently standing on the cascade.”

The changes taking place at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were unexpectedly hastened by nature herself. In November 1801, the Lower Park was ravaged by a storm and flooding, adding to the restoration work already planned by Paul.

An ambitious project was launched to restore – or, to be more exact, to recreate – the sculptures at Peterhof. Famous Russian sculptors employed the casts of ancient statues. The entire project took seven years and most of the work was only completed after Paul I’s death, in 1805 and 1806. The restoration project coincided with the golden age of Neoclassicism, when many leading Russian masters worked in this style – Andrei Voronikhin, Andreyan Zakharov, Mikhail Kozlovsky, Feodosy Schedrin, Ivan Martos, Jacques-Dominique Rachette and Ivan Prokofiev.

All the sculptures on the Grand Cascade were replaced by new ones. Fifteen of the thirty-two statues were recreated, while the rest were copied from ancient figures. The new sculptures formed a single ensemble, created by masters working in different periods, but all in the same classical style.

In 1800, Mikhail Kozlovsky began to create a new Samson, in place of the now dilapidated model designed by Bartolomeo Carlo Rastrelli. The most important features of a Neoclassical sculpture were a sense of harmony and proportion, the cult of the human body, a dramatic composition, and a lifelike movement. All of this is present in Kozlovsky’s Samson Rending the Jaws of the Lion, which was installed after Paul I’s death in 1801.

Although Mikhail Kozlovsky repeats Bartolomeo Carlo Rastrelli’s sculptural composition of 1735, he adds a new dynamic tension to the struggle between the biblical hero and the raging lion. As a result, Samson seems more like such classical heroes as Perseus or Hercules. The spurting jets of water and the splashing of the fountain bring the whole scene to life, transporting the viewer back to the ancient arenas of Greece and Rome.

Kozlovsky’s sculpture suffered an unhappy fate. The current Samson is only a copy, created from photographs in 1947. The original was stolen by the Germans during the war, when it was probably melted down into the shells used to bombard Leningrad.

In July 1800, Andrei Voronikhin was asked to reconstruct the rotting wooden colonnades alongside the Samson Fountain. He created colonnades with golden cupolas and the white-stepped terraces on both sides of the Grand Cascade. He also added ten terrace fountains to the green slopes next to the Grand Cascade. The granite lions guarding the stairs were sculpted by Ivan Prokofiev.

There were also important changes in the Upper Park. During his trip to Europe in the early 1780s, Paul had bought the Neptune Fountain in Nuremberg. Created by Christoph Ritter in 1660, it was intended to form part of the “Fountain of Peace,” celebrating the end of the Thirty Years War.

In 1798, Paul decided that Ritter’s fountain was the perfect replacement for what now remained of Bartolomeo Carlo Rastrelli’s lead group depicting Neptune in his chariot (1737). In 1941, the Nazi occupiers took the Neptune Fountain back to Germany, where it was found and returned to Peterhof in 1947.

Paul was succeeded by his eldest son, Alexander I, who was not a frequent visitor to Peterhof. He spent much of his reign away from St Petersburg on military campaigns and distant travels. When he did have time for relaxation, he preferred the Stone Island Palace. But his mother religiously visited Peterhof every year, albeit only for a short time. Although she resided mainly at Pavlovsk, Empress Maria Fyodorovna adored Peterhof as much as her late husband.

Further improvements were made to the Lower Park in the 1850s. Heinrich Stackenschneider employed marble to line Voronikhin’s colonnades and embellish various details of the cascades and the fountains on the terraces. New marble bowls were installed at the Grand Fountains. The basin of the pool where Samson stood was relined in granite.

New fountains also appeared. Heinrich Stackenschneider created the Marble Bench Fountains and a magnificent Allée of Fountains running along the Sea Channel. The Lion Cascade replaced the dilapidated Hermitage Cascade. In 1854 and 1856, two new fountains added an extra touch of gold to the Lower Park – Danaide (sculpted by Giovanni Vitali after an original by Christian Daniel Rauch) and Nymph (an exact copy of an ancient figure).

Stackenschneider’s Lion Cascade was particularly elegant. Built between 1853 and 1857, it has the harmonious clarity and pure forms of a Greek temple. The Ionic columns look particularly unusual, because they are made from Serdobol granite. Between the columns, fountains gush into the air. The combination of the eternal dark-red granite and the short-lived jets of light-blue water creates a magical impression.

The most important event in the history during the reign of Alexander II was Nicolas Benois’s major reconstruction of the Grand Grotto. The arcades, walls and pillars were replaced between 1859 and 1860. The following year, Benois added five new figures – copies of ancient originals – to the group of classical sculptures on the cascade. In 1875, he replaced the three wooden dragons on the Chessboard Hill with new figures cast from iron, which were just as “fierce” as the previous ones. Nicolas Benois performed similar work on the Marly Cascade in 1870, replacing the lead sculptures with marble versions.

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