Russia St Petersburg Architecture Palace St Michael’s Castle

St Michael’s Castle

The strange and eclectic style of St Michael’s Castle so aptly reflects the principles, artistic tastes and philosophical views of Paul I that it is often referred to as an “architectural self-portrait”. Named after the Archangel Michael, celestial patron of the House of Romanov, Paul planned the castle as the main residence of the imperial family.

Construction work began in 1796, straight after the death of Paul’s mother, Catherine the Great. The foundation stone was laid in November 1796. The new castle was erected on the site of the dismantled wooden Summer Palace of Empress Elizabeth Petrovna. Built by Bartolomeo Francesco Rastrelli in the 1740s, it was hastily dismantled to make way for the new building. Paul was born in the Summer Palace in 1764. By a quirk of fate, he was destined to die in the same place...

Several architects were invited to contribute to the design project. In the 1780s, one version was created by Henri-François-Gabriel Violle, a Swiss artist working at the prince’s court. Violle drew the first sketches of the future “palace of St Michael” at Paul’s “dictation.”

At this early stage, the future emperor mostly sought advice from European architects. The most important elements, however, were subsequently developed by Vasily Bazhenov, a Russian architect who moved from Moscow to St Petersburg in 1791.

Paul then asked the Italian architect Vincenzo Brenna to unite his favourite details from the different projects in a final version. Brenna also designed the interior decor and headed the construction process (1797–1801).

Construction of the palace was carried out at breakneck speed. An army of builders was recruited to construct the castle. Toiling night and day, they managed to build the grandiose structure in less than four years. On 8 November 1800, St Michael’s Castle and the chapel were ceremonially blessed in the presence of the imperial family and court.

During the reign of Paul I, the territory of St Michael’s Castle included the large garden and park ensemble running along the River Fontanka and River Moika in the direction of Nevsky Prospekt. Besides the main palace building, there were also two pavilions used as guardhouses designed by Vasily Bazhenov, stables and a parade ground. The main entrance was located on the territory now occupied by Manège Square. The two guardhouses flanked the alley leading to Connetable Square – a large parade ground in front of the main southern facade.

Fyodor Volkov placed an equestrian statue of Peter the Great in the guise of a Roman emperor (model , cast ) on Connetable Square in front of the main entrance (1800). Cast between 1744 and 1746 from a model made by Bartolomeo Carlo Rastrelli (1716–24), the statue was designed during Peter’s lifetime. The inscription on the pedestal reads To my great-grandfather from his great-grandson.

All four facades of St Michael’s Castle are different. Decorated with massive marble obelisks, the southern facade was particularly expressive and monumental. A porphyry frieze hung above the entrance, proclaiming in gilded bronze letters: Your home is befitting of an object of worship for years to come.

The northern facade looks onto the Summer Garden. Flanked by bronze statues of Hercules and Flora, it is reminiscent of an Italian Renaissance villa.

The eastern facade running along the River Fontanka is more modest. The imperial standard was raised here whenever the emperor was in residence at the castle.

The central protuberance in the western facade was the site of the palace chapel. The niches were occupied by extant statues of Religion and Faith.

The diversity of the four facades was not the only unusual feature of St Michael’s Castle. Dreaming of living in an impenetrable fortress, Paul turned the territory into an island. Besides the waters of the River Fontanka and River Moika washing the northern and eastern facades, two artificial canals – the Resurrection and Chapel Canals – were dug along the southern and western facades (filled in 1823). The palace was also defended by cannons and bastions and could only be entered across three drawbridges.

The palace interiors included sumptuous state chambers, intimate private apartments and enfilades of long, narrow rooms housing the emperor’s art collection – the Raphael Gallery, the Laocoön Gallery, the Arabesques Gallery and two Antique Rooms.

Leading to the state chambers on the first floor, the Main Staircase was decorated with marble and bronze. A copy of the Capitol Cleopatra was flanked by allegorical figures of Justice and Caution in a recess on the landing.

The enfilade of state rooms on the first floor began with the Resurrection Room. Six enormous canvases depicted subjects taken from Russian history. Two were painted by Russian artist Grigory Ugryumov and are now in the collection of the Russian Museum.

The walls of the Throne Room were upholstered with green velvet and gold embroidery. Busts of Roman emperors stood in the recesses. The coats of arms of every province in the Russian Empire ran along the perimeter. The plafonds of the Throne Room were originally painted by Venetian artist Giuseppe Valeriani for the Grand Room of the Catherine Palace at Tsarskoe Selo. Paul replaced Empress Elizabeth Petrovna’s monograms with his own and transferred the plafonds to his new residence. They were restored to Tsarskoe Selo after the Second World War; skilful copies now take their place in St Michael’s Castle.

The line of state apartments included the Chapel of St Michael the Archangel. Vincenzo Brenna designed the interior in a secular style. The two rows of monolithic columns supporting the choir gallery played an important role in the interior design. Decorated with marble, jasper and lapis lazuli, the iconostasis has survived almost in its entirety.

Paul kept his favourite works of art at St Michael’s Castle. The palace collection included masterpieces of West European art and canvases by fashionable late-eighteenth-century masters. Marble copies of famous Classical sculptures – statues of Laocoön, Apollo, Venus and other ancient heroes – were specially commissioned from Carrara in Tuscany. The interiors were also decorated by works of applied art – furniture, porcelain, bronze and lamps by West European and Russian masters.

Paul only spent forty days in St Michael’s Castle. On the night of 11/12 March 1801, he was strangled in his bedroom in a palace coup.

The emperor was not the only victim of the coup. The local population henceforth regarded St Michael’s Castle as a place of ill luck, overlooking its architectural and artistic merits. This curse hung over the building for many years to come. Tsar Alexander I and the other members of the imperial family left the castle forever. The artwork was removed from the building and the state chambers were rented out as private apartments.

St Michael’s Castle was presented to the College of Engineering in 1820. In February 1823, it was renamed the Engineering Castle. Throughout the following century, the college altered the structure and interior decor to suit its own needs. In the mid-nineteenth century, Tsar Alexander II turned the site of Paul’s murder into the Church of the Holy Apostles St Peter and St Paul. The interior of the chapel mostly survives to this day. Even in its dilapidated state, St Michael’s Castle has lost none of its former grandeur.

Many famous Russians were educated at the Central College of Engineering. The writers Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Dmitry Grigorovich, the scientists Ivan Sechenov and Pavel Yablochkov, the composer Cesar Cui and the military heroes Count Eduard von Tottleben and Roman Kondratenko all studied there.

The castle continued to turn out military engineers until the 1960s. After the college’s relocation, the building was used to house various state organisations, distorting the local perception of the palace as a unique ensemble of Russian architecture.

A time of vast upheavals came to St Michael’s Castle in the 1990s. In 1994, the building was officially awarded to the Russian Museum. A major reconstruction programme was announced, aimed at restoring the original decor and architecture.

Three of the facades and the adjoining gardens have now been fully restored. Part of the original Resurrection Canal has been recreated. The Chapel of St Michael the Archangel, the private apartments of Grand Duke Nicholas Pavlovich and Grand Duke Konstantin Pavlovich, the Main Staircase, the Antique Room, the Raphael Gallery, the Dining Room and the Empress Maria Fyodorovna Throne Room have all been restored to their former glory.

St Michael’s Castle now shows art from the collection of the Russian Museum. Besides a permanent exhibition of paintings by foreign artists working in Russia in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the palace is also home to depositories of sculpture, numismatics, graphic art and other shows of art.

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