Monday, June 6, 2011

Russian Follies and Pavilions

One of the great cultural revelations to occur in the aftermath the collapse of the Soviet Union two decades ago was the West's rediscovery of St. Petersburg and its great imperial estates.

First and oldest is Peterhof, the residence of the city's founder and namesake, Peter the Great, built on the shores of the Neva Bay of the Gulf of Finland, Russia's maritime corridor to Europe and the raison d'être of St. Petersburg itself.

Below, the cascades at Peterhof.

To the southeast are Tarskoye Selo and Pavlovsk: the former the Russian Versailles, magisterial and imprinted with the remarkable personality of Catherine (II) the Great, and later the bourgeois taste of her grandson, Alexander I; the latter the exquisite neo-Palladian estate of her ill-fated son, Paul I, and his widowed Empress, Maria Feodorovna.

At top, the Caprice or Krestovy Bridge at Tarskoye Selo and below, the Pavilion of the Three Graces by Cameron at Pavlovsk.

Oranienbaum, the baroque hunting estate of Catherine II—originally built for Duke Aleksandr Menshikov, boon companion to Peter the Great and de facto czar during the reign of Catherine I—is to the west near the Neva Bay. Though built on a monumental scale that is typically Russian, Oranienbaum is nonetheless the most intimate and rustic of all the imperial estates and that most in harmony with nature.

Below, the Peterhof Gate at Oranienbaum.

Finally, there is the outlying estate of Gatchina, the vast neoclassical palace Catherine II ordered built for her lover, Count Orlov, and which she graciously repurchased from his heirs for her son Paul upon Orlov's death. Gatchina is as far again to the south of Tarskoye Selo as it in turn is from St. Petersburg, its relative isolation (with that of Oranienbaum) causing it to suffer from a chronic lack of funds for its complete restoration.

Below, the monumental ruins of the Aviary at Gatchina.

Peterhof, Tarskoye Selo and Gatchina are palaces conceived on a scale rivaling Versailles and Fontainebleau, but were used solely as residences; there was no precedent in Russia for the court living in attendance on the czar. And all five of these estates feature formal gardens and landscape parks scattered with an unparalleled variety of pavilions, garden follies and monuments in Easter-egg colors, the work of a host of foreign architects—predominately Italian, later British—who brought to Russia the architectural knowledge it so sorely lacked. The Italians—Rastrelli, Rinaldi and Rossi—designed palaces and pavilions of such baroque exuberance that they have few counterparts even in Italy, and later the Scottish architect Cameron and the Italian Quarenghi designed a host of serenely proportioned neoclassical structures for Catherine the Great and Paul I at Tarskoye Selo and Pavlovsk.

Below, Rastrelli's spectacular Hermitage Pavilion in the Catherine Park of Tarskoye Selo.

Whether baroque or neoclassical, these imperial estates are all follies in the broadest sense; there is little or no contrast, as in France, between the sober palace and its garden buildings, but rather the palaces themselves are often more gilded, more colorful, more ornate, more plastic—in short, more exuberant—than the follies in their parks. Consider below, the chapel at Peterhof:

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