Ice House

The Ice House was built in January 1740 to celebrate victory in the Russo-Turkish War (1735–39) and the tenth anniversary of Empress Anna Ioannovna’s accession to the throne. The house was built on the square between the Admiralty and the Winter Palace. The outside walls and interior decor were made entirely of ice.

This combination of a technical experiment and elements of carnival brilliantly captures the perception of scientific developments in the age of Baroque. Clockwork dolls, pyrotechnic gadgets and other mechanical entertainments were all popular at European courts in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The harsh winter of 1739/40 allowed the Russian court to dabble in a similar experiment on the use of ice as a construction and decorative material. Alexei Tatischev, the chamberlain, suggested building a house entirely from ice, “according to the very latest rules of architecture,” between the Admiralty and the Winter Palace.

The rectangular house had a figured fronton above the entrance and three rooms inside – a small hallway and two rooms to the right and left. The first room had an ice table with ice candles and an ice mirror on one side and an ice bed and fireplace on the other. The second room contained a table, clock, two statues, two chairs and a cupboard with crockery, all made of ice. The house was surrounded on three sides by a gallery and low parapet with square pillars and balusters. Professor Wolfgang Kraft, an academician and professor of physics, wrote that the house was cut from “a large square slab of the purest ice and adorned with architectural decorations, measured using a compass and ruler.”

The Ice House was flanked by two ice pyramids and a bathhouse. Slightly further away stood trees with ice birds, ice cannons using real gunpowder and an ice elephant discharging water by day and fiery fountains at night. The bathhouse and ice house were heated with ice firewood smeared with oil. Oil was also employed in the candles used to light the rooms. While Anna Ioannovna was attracted to the frivolous and amusing aspects of this fascinating experiment, Wolfgang Kraft was more interested in studying the physical properties of the various materials, which he analysed in detail in his official report published by the Imperial Academy of SciencesAn Authentic and Circumstantial Description of the Ice House Built in St Petersburg in January 1740.

The Ice House was the scene of the wedding of Prince Golitsyn’s jester to his female counterpart, Buzheninova. Besides the empress and her courtiers, the wedding was attended by a total of 150 representatives of the various nationalities inhabiting the Russian Empire, including Ukrainians, White Russians, Finns, Tatars, Komi-Zyrians and Kamchadals (Itelmens). The guests donned their national attire and engaged in traditional folk dancing. When the festivities were over, the newly-weds were locked inside the Ice House for the night. The story of the jester’s wedding led Ivan Lazhechnikov to write a critical novel entitled The Ice House.

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