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St. Petersburg: Architecture of the Tsars


Before becoming a city, St. Petersburg was a utopian vision in the mind of its founder, Peter the Great. Conceived by him as Russia's "window to the West," it evolved into a remarkably harmonious assemblage of baroque, rococo, neoclassical, and art nouveau buildings that reflect his taste and that of his successors, including Anna I, Elizabeth I, Catherine the Great, and Paul I.
Crisscrossed by rivers and canals, this "Venice of the North," as Goethe dubbed it, is of unique ...

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Before becoming a city, St. Petersburg was a utopian vision in the mind of its founder, Peter the Great. Conceived by him as Russia's "window to the West," it evolved into a remarkably harmonious assemblage of baroque, rococo, neoclassical, and art nouveau buildings that reflect his taste and that of his successors, including Anna I, Elizabeth I, Catherine the Great, and Paul I.
Crisscrossed by rivers and canals, this "Venice of the North," as Goethe dubbed it, is of unique beauty. Never before has that beauty been captured as eloquently as on the pages of this sumptuous volume. From the stately mansions lining the fabled Nevsky Prospekt to the magnificent palaces of the tsars on the outskirts of the city, including Peterhof, Tsarskoe Selo, Oranienbaum, Gatchina, and Pavlovsk, photographer Alexander Orloff's portrait of St. Petersburg does full justice to the vision of its founder and namesake. The text, by art historian Dmitri Shvidkovsky, chronicles the history of the city's planning and construction from Peter the Great's time to the reign of the last tsar, Nicholas II. Anyone who has ever visited—or dreamed of visiting—the city of "white nights" will find St. Petersburg irresistible.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
St. Petersburg is one of the most beautiful and architecturally imposing cities in the world. Photographer Orloff, whose work has appeared in major magazines, and Shvidkovsky, a member of the Russian Federation's Academy of Fine Arts, have produced a handsome study of the buildings constructed during the reigns of the Russian tsars since Peter the Great. The text is informative, and the photos maintain a good balance between exterior and interior views. Like Washington, D.C., St. Petersburg is a planned city, decreed and dictated, with marvelous results in the case of the former Russian capital. A commission established by Catherine the Great to plan the development of the city ordered that "Three rules must be honored in the construction of the [city's] houses: solidity, utility, and beauty." Readers will see that the rules were followed indeed. Recommended for both architecture and travel collections.-Edward B. Cone, New York City
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780789202178
  • Publisher: Abbeville Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/28/1996
  • Pages: 360
  • Sales rank: 1,008,774
  • Product dimensions: 10.89 (w) x 12.66 (h) x 1.35 (d)

Read an Excerpt


Emerging from a long hibernation, Russia is once more turning toward the West. Virtually forsaken for nearly three-quarters of a century, the city envisioned by Peter the Great as Russia's main port and "window to the West" is on the threshold of a rebirth. The former imperial capital is renewing the historical, economic, and cultural ties that have made it the most European of Russian cities.

Six years ago the historical center of St. Petersburg and the palaces in its environs were added to unesco's World Cultural Heritage list, confirming the city's reappearance on the world stage, where it is valued at its just worth. This city, the largest urban center on unesco's list, is now seeking international support to ensure its preservation for the future.

A "window to the West," the imperial capital became a city of the Enlightenment. Peter the Great's heirs pursued his great enterprise, commissioning some of the most brilliant representatives of the European schools of art and architecture, from the Italian baroque to classicism, from neo-Gothic to Art Nouveau. They transformed the marshy delta of the Neva into that remarkable architectural ensemble so often referred to as the "Venice of the North."

This glorious city soon became the symbol of Russian culture and was greatly admired by the most enlightened personalities of the time. In his Essay on Morals, Voltaire marveled at both the vision of Peter the Great and its realization, emphasizing the speed with which the arts and letters had blossomed in St. Petersburg. He saw "Russia's march toward civilization" as one of the major events of his century, and concluded his essay by invoking a European civilizationextending from St. Petersburg to Madrid.

All the principal Russian arts—literature, music, theater, ballet—were and remain to this day inextricably linked to St. Petersburg, the true cultural heart of Russia. During the reign of Catherine the Great alone the acquisitions of the imperial collection in the Hermitage exceeded those made by the Louvre over a period of several centuries. These treasures—still held in the Hermitage, which is recognized as one of the world's greatest museums—are so precious that Unesco has made a commitment to contribute to their preservation.

For the greater part of the twentieth century St. Petersburg was effectively in a state of siege. Damaged by war, subject to vandalism of every sort, disfigured, and neglected, today its cultural patrimony is safeguarded by a mere handful of defenders, who continue their efforts against all odds. Miraculously, the sovereign vision of Peter the Great still prevails. Thanks to restorations and total reconstructions of remarkable quality, the imperial heritage has recovered some of its luster, attesting to the city's continuing vitality and its attachment to its glorious past. Neither war nor revolution has succeeded in severing its cultural roots. Now a new generation of defenders must take up the enterprise so steadfastly carried forward by its predecessors.

St. Petersburg, mistreated but still vital, is now at a crossroads. In this new period of unrest, the turn toward Europe willed by its founder three centuries ago has become rife with hidden perils. Among the younger generation many are unaware of the important role culture plays in maintaining a sense of historical continuity and as a repository of collective memory. Alienated by a dark past, dazzled by the superficial allure of modernity, and seduced by the laws of the marketplace, they are rushing headlong into a world stripped of references. But there is no future without roots to ground identity. History has demonstrated time and again the grave consequences of rupturing cultural continuity. Hence the importance of mobilizing the young, explaining, showing, and making this cultural heritage meaningful and accessible.

Now inscribed on the World Cultural Heritage list, St. Petersburg belongs to the memory of humanity, and its protection has become our collective responsibility. Its cultural integrity must be preserved for future generations. This volume should prove an invaluable tool in instilling awareness of this necessity.

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Table of Contents

Preface by Federico Mayor, General Director of Unesco

St. Petersburg City of Imperial Culture

Peter the Great A Window to the West

The Founding of St. Petersburg

The Initial Plan for St. Petersburg

The Architects of Peter the Great

The Peter-Paul Fortress

The Palaces of Peter the Great

Monuments from the Era of Peter the Great on Vasilievsky Island

Anna Ivanovna and Elizabeth Petrovna

The Dazzle of the Baroque

Anna Ivanovna: The Second Birth of the City

Elizabeth Petrovna, or the Blossoming of the Rastrelli Baroque

Smolny Convent

Cathedral of St. Nicholas of the Sea

St. Petersburg Palaces in the Baroque Era

Winter Palace

Catherine II: The City of Enlightenment

From the Baroque to Classicism

Vallin de la Mothe and the Birth of Classicism in St. Petersburg

Palladianism and Classicism in the Late Eighteenth Century

The Cathedral of the Alexander Nevsky Lavra and the Tauride Palace

Paul I: The Tormented One

The Romantic Castle

Alexander I and Nicholas I Classical Grandeur

St. Petersburg and Its Culture in the First Half of the Nineteenth Century

The Tip of Vasilievsky Island

The Admiralty

General Staff Headquarters and Palace Square

Senate Square and Decembrist Square

St. Isaac's Cathedral

The Beginning of Nevsky Prospekt

Kazan Cathedral

From Kazan Cathedral to Gostiny Dvor

Mikhailovsky Palace

Theater Square

Nevsky Prospekt Beyond the Anichkov Bridge

The Field of Mars and the Work of Vasily Stasov in St. Petersburg

Palaces on Kamenny and Elagin Islands

Alexander II and Alexander III

Retrospection and Nationalism

A RapidlyEvolving City

Nicholas II The Rise and Fall of Art Nouveau

The Great Upheaval

Tsarskoe Selo

The Mystique of Tsarskoe Selo

The Triumph of the Baroque

Catherine the Great's Chinese Caprice

The Return to Antiquity

Rooms from the Era of Catherine the Great

The Meaning of the Park

Classicism and Romanticism

A City of Parks and Salons


The Palace of Vicissitudes

The Menshikov Palace

Peterstadt, or the Dream of Peter III

Catherine the Great's Personal Dacha

The Chinese Palace

The Sliding Hill Pavilion


The Masters of Gatchina

The Palace at Gatchina

The Park at Gatchina


Pavlovsk and Its Domain

The First Years at Pavlovsk

The Exterior of the Palace

The Interiors of the Palace

The Conception and History of the Park

The Park Around the Palace

The Vale of the Slavyanka

Daily Life and Festive Occasions at Pavlovsk


The History of Peterhof and Its Personalities

The Great Palace

Waterfalls and Fountains


Marly and the Hermitage

The Cottage



Author Biography: Alexander Orloff's work has appeared in Vogue, Newsweek, The New York Times, Geo, Natural History, Stern, and many other periodicals. He is the author of several books, including Carnival: Myth and Cult and Russian Ballet on Tour, and his photographic study of North Africa's Maghrebian architectural heritage for UNESCO was awarded the Kodak Photographic Critics Prize. Born in New York, he lives in both Paris and New York.

Dmitri Shvidkovsky is a member of the Academy of Fine Arts of the Russian Federation and director of the Department of the History of Architecture at the Architecture Institute in Moscow. His articles have appeared in Russian, French, English, and Chinese journals. His books include Tsarskoe Selo: City and Gardens of the Era of Enlightenment in Russia (1990) and Artistic Problems in Russian Architecture (1991).

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