p.p1 Belvedere, the Russian Royal family changed four Winter

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The Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg as it is known today is actually the fifth palace built for the Russian monarchs. The very first one was built in 1712 by Domenico Trezzini for Peter I of Russia as His Majesty’s winter residence. Peter the Great introduced the policy, known as the Westernisation, in 1698 and created the Russian Empire from the Tsardom of Russia and so the new major European power appeared. The Emperor deserved a residence, which would reflect the might and power of His Empire. The modest two-storey building with a slate roof made of timber was not enough, so the second Winter Palace was built in 1721. While trying to get their own Palace of Versailles and Belvedere, the Russian Royal family changed four Winter Palaces until, finally, the final fifth version was completed in 1762 by an Italian architect Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli. The architect is given credit for the exterior, the palace ensemble and the interior of several halls, rooms and corridors. Several architects were working on the interior later during the period of 1765-1850. In this essay, I will be focusing on both exterior and interior of the Winter Palace and discuss whether the architects used any significant Ancient Roman, French and Italian precedents and how.

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The main south facade overlooking the Palace Square faces the General Staff Building. Spacious semicircular square shares some similarities with famous Piazza San Pietro in Rome, which was completed in the second half of the seventeenth century by Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Rastrelli, as well as his father, the Italian sculptor Carlo Bartolomeo Rastrelli, was a great admirer of Bernini’s works. The elegant, sacred building with several pairs of engaged Corinthian columns emphasising the entrance with a large circular open space in front of it and with a large monument in the centre. In 1834 two squares become even more alike as a monument at the palace square was replaced with the Alexander Column, which resembles the ancient Egyptian obelisk at St Peter’s Square. The Palace Square also has an interesting quality of being “simultaneously closed and open” as Bernini’s design, however, Rastrelli’s one is on a much greater scale. This similarity can be justified by the tight government control of the Russian Orthodox Church. Peter the Great replaced the Patriarch by the Holy Synod, which he controlled and that made a ruling monarch an Eastern European analogue of the Pope. Was it the intentional use of the precedent or did it accidentally come from the same idea of “building praising the owner”? Nevertheless, the architect achieved that he was asked for, St Petersburg started to resemble Western cities.

Before Francesco Bartolomeo got the commission to design the final palace, he visited and studied French architecture in the period of 1719-1721. By that time the majority of the extensions of the “Old Louvre” were completed. Bernini was one of the architects, who was asked to create the third project for the Louvre, however, the Italian architect was rejected by Fresh due to his simple forms. The plans for the new palace made by Bernini were saved anyway, and it can be observed, the proposed form and layout do remind of those of the Winter Palace of Rastrelli. The rectangular form with an enclosed courtyard and one of the outer facades overlooking the palace gardens. Even though the Bernini’s plan has not been used, it still can be considered precedents for the Winter Palace, because as it was mentioned earlier, the Russian royalty wished to have a modern palace like French sovereigns.

Gardens of the Winter Palace, unlike its predecessor the Catherine Palace in Pushkin,  are less complex due to the city location of the building. Located in front of the west facade, the garden separates the palace from the street, gives a bit of privacy and hides the ground floor and the piano noble from the Admiralty building.  In its simplicity and from the garden resembles the garden and surroundings of the Villa Barbaro at Maser by Palladio, who used Ancient Roman Villas and Vitruvius’ books as his precedents.

Originally the walls of the Winter Palace were painted yellow. The original colours may have enlivened the endless expanse of column and windows. After the completion the colours of the walls were constantly changing, altering from reds to yellows and browns. The original colour scheme resonates with those of Palace of Versailles and the Belvedere, as well as the majority of the important buildings of the Baroque period. The natural stone colours reflected the Ancient Greek and Roman ruins, leading back to the classical architecture. The present colours (greenish blue with the ornament depicted in white) were given to the building by the Soviet government during the restoration work after World War II. 

Most of the interior rooms were finished during the reign of various Emperors and Empresses. It is worth mentioning that several different architects were working in different halls and rooms of the Winter palace such as Rastrelli, Giacomo Quarengh, Auguste de Montferrand and Carlo di Giovanni Rossi. The predominant architectural styles also differ from room to room, from late French Baroque to Rococo and Neoclassicism. 

The Principal or Jordan Staircase is the most well-known work on the palace’s interior by Rastrelli. Leading to the Throne Hall and the reception rooms, these stair is the threshold between mostly bureaucratic and domestic offices of the ground floor and the great beauty of the piano noble. The visitors immediately are given notice who they are about to see. The extreme decoration, gold touches and gigantic Corinthian columns made of grey granite (they are believed to be pink before the restoration after the fire of 1837) will make an incredible first impression on anyone. The same physiological trick was used by Rastrelli in the design of the Catherine Palace in Tsarskoye Selo (Tzar’s Village) in 1749. Noticeably, the staircase resembles the one in Palazzo Madama in Turin, Italy, designed by Filippo Juvarra in 1721. Both staircases have extremely similar geometry, however, the Italian precedent is created in less decorative, more Palladian-like style in the contrast with the Jordan Staircase. For example, Juvarra didn’t incorporate the painting and murals in his design, as this design move appeared in late French Baroque period and was rejected by Italian masters, who accepted the pure and elegant stonework decorations as did their ancestors in Ancient Rome. Nevertheless, one can easily spot the repetition of Roman triumphal arches in both examples. In both buildings, this arches are the indicators that a guest is about to meet the person, whose triumph is represented through the classical architectural element. 

Small Throne Room, also known as the Peter the Great Memorial Hall, was created in the first half of 19th century. This gem of the Hermitage halls collection was designed in loose Baroque style, in order to match with most of the rooms on the piano noble, by Auguste de Montferrand, the French neoclassical architect. Best known for his church designs, especially St. Isaac’s Cathedral in St Petersburg, Montferrand seemed to use several church precedents. The most striking one is the interior of San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane church, done by Francesco Borromini. As stated earlier, Peter the Great reformed the Russian Church. For the vast majority of followers of Orthodox believes, the Tsar and later The Emperor was the closest person to the God on Earth. The fear and praise of a God-like figure was the most important foundation of the authority of the Russian monarchy. So the placement of the impressive painting of Peter I as the sanctuary was most certainly conscious decision. Related features include the pairs of the Corinthian columns, placed symmetrically on both sides, the reredos, a shallow vaulted ceiling with a circular pattern. Nevertheless, Russian example brings the richness of decoration a step ahead, combining again elects of Rococo such as golden and silver ornaments and crimson velvet embellished.

In the whole, the complexity and richness of the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg combine together the works of a great variety of talented masters, who, in their turn used a selection of precedents. Reflections of the ancient Roman villas, the Palladian philosophy, mannered, detailed facades and interiors of the Palace of Versailles and the Louvre, elegant works and ideas of Bernini and Borromini can be found in this grand scheme. It was all contributed to creating a new architectural style. In the end, the palace turned out to become the most iconic building of the Russian Baroque of the late 17th century.

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