Marble Palace

Catherine the Great commissioned the Marble Palace for her lover Count Grigory Orlov. Besides heading the artillery department and holding the post of grand master of the ordnance, Count Orlov had been instrumental in helping Catherine to overthrow her husband, Peter III, and seize the throne for herself (1762).

The Marble Palace was designed by Antonio Rinaldi and built between 1768 and 1785. Count Orlov showed his appreciation of his talent by installing a marble relief of the Italian architect opposite the entrance.

The palace reflected the new interest in Neoclassicism in the late eighteenth century and was named after the various strains of marble employed in the exterior and interior decor – mostly Russian deposits discovered on the shores of Lake Ladoga and Lake Onega in the 1760s.

A massive three-storey edifice, the Marble Palace stands out among the other buildings lining Palace Embankment. The pilasters and columns on the facades alternate with windows. The deliberate use of different-coloured stone adds a softening note to the monumental composition.

The eastern facade has the most expressive decor. Crowned with a clock tower, the main entrance faces a small courtyard. Elegant cast-iron railings topped with golden rosettes divide the courtyard from Millionnaya Street and Palace Embankment. The double gates in the railings have light, decorative tops.

The Marble Palace is lavishly decorated with stone and metal. The window-frames on the first floor of the eastern facade and the balustrades of all the balconies still retain their eighteenth-century gilt. All the copper frames adorning the windows of mirrored glass were once gilded.

The interiors of the Marble Room and the Main Staircase have changed little since the reign of Catherine the Great. Silver and grey marble predominates on the Main Staircase. Marble sculptures by Fedot Shubin stand in the niches, personifying the changing times of day – Night, Morning, Day and Evening – and the four seasons. Two statues symbolise the autumn and spring equinoxes. The clock is topped with a small cupola. Joseph Krist’s plafond depicting The Judgement of Paris was temporarily moved here from one of the palace rooms in the mid-nineteenth century.

The stone terrace on the second floor is decorated with high reliefs. Four female figures – allegories of the virtues Moderation, Strength of Spirit, Discretion and Fairness – flank the central Games of Cupids composition.

The Marble Room is a masterpiece of world architecture. The interior decor also includes elements of sculpture. Although stone was widely employed in European interior decor in the mid-eighteenth century, this fashion was less widespread in Russia, confined to such singular examples as the Agate Rooms designed by Charles Cameron for Catherine the Great in Tsarskoe Selo.

Back in the eighteenth century, the Marble Room only had one row of windows. Stefano Torelli’s plafond The Marriage of Cupid and Psyche was situated lower. The section of the hall up to the cornice still retains its original decor.

Fourteen pairs of fluted pilasters made of pink Tiutia marble divide the walls of the Marble Room into equal sections. The bronze capitals of the pilasters included eagles (in Russian orly). Recalling the palace’s first owner – Count Orlov – the eagles of white Italian marble on garlands were placed above reliefs by Mikhail Kozlovsky. Episodes from the Punic Wars – Regulus Returning to Carthage and Camillus Delivering Rome – offer graphic allegories of national loyalty, duty and self-sacrifice. The fourteen marble low reliefs in lunettes continue the theme of the selfless serving of high ideals encouraged in the age of Enlightenment.

Architect Pyotr Yegorov built the Auxiliary Wing opposite the main facade (1780–88).

After Count Orlov’s death in 1783, Catherine the Great bought the palace back from his heirs. In 1796, it was awarded to Paul I’s second son, Grand Duke Konstantin Pavlovich.

In 1797, the Marble Palace became the official residence of King Stanislaw II August Poniatowski of Poland. Deprived of his crown and state when he lost the patronage of Catherine the Great, the king moved to St Petersburg and was received by Tsar Paul I in the Marble Room. Vincenzo Brenna redesigned the building for the exiled Polish court, as well as the mourning decor when the king suddenly died in 1798.

The original decor of many rooms was altered in the early nineteenth century, surviving only in the main apartments of Grand Duke Konstantin Pavlovich, who often travelled abroad on military campaigns. In 1814, when he was appointed commander-in-chief of the Russian forces in Poland, he transferred his official seat of residence to Warsaw.

After Grand Duke Konstantin Pavlovich’s death in 1831, the palace was inherited by his nephew, Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolaevich, the second son of Tsar Nicholas I. The interiors were redesigned by Alexander Brullov (1844–49) in connection with his forthcoming marriage to Princess Alexandra Friederike Henriette of Sachsen-Altenburg in 1848. The ceilings of the first-floor interiors were decorated with stucco moulding in the 1840s.

The White Room in the south-west wing of the palace was redesigned with wide crescent arches decorated with Gothic ornamental elements. The columns of artificial white marble dividing the walls acted as visual supports for the ornamental arches. The six high Venetian windows in the second tier above the Oak Gallery looked out onto the inner courtyard, filling the enormous hall with soft light.

The small second-floor windows facing Marble Lane were hidden behind piers with modelled ornamental designs. While retaining the classical facades of the eighteenth century, Alexander Brullov managed to create a historically romantic atmosphere corresponding to the style of the period. The moulding combined elements of Gothic architecture and national motifs – figures of Russian warriors and double-headed eagles.

Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolaevich supported Tsar Alexander II’s manifesto emancipating the peasants from serfdom in 1861. Holding the rank of lord high admiral, he was responsible for the running of the Russian Navy. The grand duke implemented many important naval reforms, replacing the old wooden vessels with iron-clad ships. Many of these innovations were discussed and passed at meetings in the White Room.

An atmosphere of energy and creativity reigned in the Marble Palace under Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolaevich, who was passionately fond of music and literature. Mily Balakirev, Anton Rubinstein and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov gave concerts in the White Room. Balls were also held in the palace. Johann Strauss performed for the first time in Russia at a ball given in the Marble Palace in 1856.

Like many West European palaces, the Marble Palace had a Winter Garden. The Winter Garden was entered from the White Room through the Greek Gallery.

The artistic atmosphere continued under the son of Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolaevich – Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich. An accomplished Silver Age poet who published his verses under the cryptonym K. R., Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich was also president of the Imperial Academy of Sciences. He entertained many famous statesmen, writers and composers at the Marble Palace.

Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich married Princess Elisabeth Auguste Marie Agnes of Sachsen-Altenburg in 1884. Their private chambers running along Millionnaya Street were redesigned in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Each room had a different form of interior decor – intricate carvings in the music room, damask in the drawing room and mahogany panels and stamped leather in the library and study. The five-part plafond in the drawing room – The Service of Art – was painted by Ernst Liphart.

The family of Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich lived in the Marble Palace right up until 1917. After the revolution, the palace was nationalised and awarded to various organisations, including the Academy of the History of Material Culture. In 1937, Nikolai Lanceray reconstructed the building as a branch of the Lenin Museum. The elegant decor of the historical interiors was either destroyed or hidden from public view.

A new stage in the life of the Marble Palace began in 1992, when the building was awarded to the Russian Museum. Work began on the systematic study and historical recreation of this unique architectural monument. Part of the original layout and decor was restored, while several new museum halls were created.

The exhibitions in the Marble Palace are designed to demonstrate the role and place of Russian art in the wider context of world art. The Ludwig Museum in the Russian Museum addresses the history of art in the twentieth century. This collection of international modern art was donated to the Russian Museum by German collectors Peter and Irene Ludwig. Besides covering all leading movements in post-war art, the Ludwig collection also allows viewers to compare and contrast Russian and world art.

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