Bronze Horseman

In 1766, Étienne-Maurice Falconet, a French sculptor and professor of the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture in Paris, was invited to Russia by Catherine the Great to work on a statue of Peter the Great. Falconet had been recommended by French philosopher Denis Diderot, with whom the empress corresponded and whose tastes she fully trusted. The sculptor arrived in St Petersburg in October 1766, accompanied by his seventeen-year-old student, Marie-Anne Collot.

Étienne-Maurice Falconet described the planned monument in a letter to Diderot: “The monument will be simple, I shall limit myself to the statue of this hero, and I am treating him neither as a great marshal, nor as a victor, though he was both. More important is his creative personality, that of the benefactor of the whole country, and it is this personality that is to be shown to the people. My tsar is not holding any warder; he is stretching his benefactory arm over the country that he is trying to ‘break in.’ He is going up to the top of the rock that serves as a pedestal – this is the symbol of the hardships that he had to overcome ... He overcame them by the persistence of genius ... In other words, this is a monument to Russia and its transformer.” One of the most striking elements was the pedestal. The statue was installed on an enormous granite boulder shaped like a wave, in memory of Peter the Great’s battles to secure an outlet to the Baltic Sea.

Falconet sculpted the Bronze Horseman between 1768 and 1782 with the help of Marie-Anne Collot (Peter’s head) and the smelter Yemelyan Khailov. He also designed the pedestal, which was hewn from an enormous block of natural granite weighing 1,600 tons. Discovered by a peasant called Semyon Vishnyakov at Lakhta on the Gulf of Finland (1768), the granite block was transported to St Petersburg by special ship (1770).

The verses on the pedestal were written by Vasily Ruban (1742–1795). Fyodor Gordeyev sculpted the serpent beneath the horse’s hooves, which acted as a support. Georg Friedrich von Veldten designed Senate Square and the nearby embankment. Falconet’s statue was officially opened on the hundredth anniversary of Peter the Great’s accession to the throne (7/18 August 1782) and immortalised in Alexander Pushkin’s poem The Bronze Horseman (1833).

Catherine II and the whole of St Petersburg society were present at the opening ceremony. Guardsmen lined the square, while the windows and balconies of the surrounding houses were filled with onlookers. All the guests were given gold and silver medals specially struck for the occasion. The unveiling of the first monument in the Russian capital was captured for posterity on an engraving by Alexander Melnikov. To the sound of cannon fire and a drum roll, the shields covering the statue were removed, revealing Falconet’s masterpiece. The ceremony ended with a parade of guards regiments and an illumination show in the evening.

The Bronze Horseman personifies the creative and merciless will of Peter the Great and the growing power of Russia. One of the main symbols of St Petersburg, it represented the highest achievement of Russian monumental sculpture in the eighteenth century. Incorporating heroic pathos and solemn grandeur, the emperor stretches his hand out towards the River Neva. This image was one of the favourite subjects in views of the imperial capital, while Senate Square became an important landmark in St Petersburg.

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