St. Petersburg: Architecture of the Tsarsby Dmitri O. Shvidkovsky
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
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 visitedor dreamed of visitingthe city of "white nights" will find St. Petersburg irresistible.
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Russia was a part of Europe for two centuries and fourteen years: from 1703, the year St. Petersburg was founded, to 1917, the year of the Bolshevik victory. Before the eighteenth century, however, Russia had quite another historical destiny. It maintained closer ties with the Asian steppes and Byzantium than with Europe. The country was open to the south, the north, and the east rather than the west. After the Revolution of 1917, Russia in many respects reverted to its past, to the time before the reforms of Peter the Great. Thus the years of communism were an anomaly, and perhaps the greatest, strangest, and most absurd error in the history of humanity, but one from which Russia is now extricating herself. Her 214 European years remain firmly inscribed in her history. They were sometimes troubled, it is true, but by and large they were happy, triumphant, and victorious. St. Petersburg is their principal witness and monument. IT is the city of imperial culture, the capital city, the city of the court: Rome and Versailles rolled into one and set within a cityscape resembling a Baltic Amsterdam or Finnish Venicethe “Palmyra of the North,” as poets dubbed it. This allusion to antiquity is a fitting one, for St. Petersburg has always been a classical city, whether the brand of classicism in question was romantic or decadent, marked by the baroque or by the Enlightenment. This characteristic is indelibly engraved on its architecture.
In this volume we trace the evolution of St. Petersburg over the course of these two centuries. One after the other, all the periods of life in St. Petersburg will be examined through the lens of its historical monuments. We have divided its architectural history by reigns. In organizing the illustrations, however, we have often adhered to geographic criteria to facilitate a unified presentation of architectural ensembles. In the Russia of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as in France, each change of ruler was accompanied by a change of style. This is almost a law of stylistic evolution, and it was the basic premise of Igor Grabar’s important history of Russian art, which dates from the early twentieth century. We have decided to follow his approach, which is consistent with historical reality.
St. Petersburg of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries cannot be thought of without its environs, just as one could not imagine London without its parks or Paris without Versailles. The great events in the history of Russian architecture of the period often took place at Tsarkoe Selo, Oranienbaum, Gatchina, Pavlovsk, and Peterhofoutlying estates that, along with the city proper, constituted an immense, unique, and superb domain saturated with historical monuments.
These monuments are so numerous and so diverse that we can describe each of them only briefly. But we have attempted to restore these architectural achievements to their proper role in Russian imperial history.
PETER THE GREAT
The founding of St. Petersburg.
St. Petersburg was founded on May 27, 1703. Prince Vladimir Odoyevsky, one of the best-known Russian Romantic writers of the early nineteenth century, described the establishment of the city by Peter the Great: “Construction of the city had begun, but the marsh swallowed all the stone; a great many had already been piled on, block after block, but all had disappeared and nothing remained on the surface but swamp. Meanwhile, the tsar took a turn around the site: he looked and saw that this was still not his city. ‘You don’t know how to do anything,’ he told his people, and with these words he began to lift block after block and assemble them in mid-air. In this manner he constructed the entire city, and when it was complete he let it fall to earth.”
There is a grain of truth in this fantastic legend, which derives from an ancient Eastern fairy tale but is now part of the mythology of St. Petersburg. The new imperial capital of Russia sprang up at the country’s northwestern extremity so unexpectedly and became a great city with such dizzying speed that it made sense to say that it had “fallen from the sky” onto the narrow, swampy islands at the delta of the Neva River.
The history of the site prior to the city’s founding has long since been established by historians. The earliest Russian chronicler, Nestor, writes that in his time the route linking the Varangians to the Greeks went from Scandinavia to Byzantium by way of the Neva, Lake Ladoga, and the rivers of Russia. In the ninth, tenth, and eleventh centuries this was one of the vital communication corridors of Europe. It was along this route that the structure of the Russian state evolved, and this same passage provided Russia with a tentative link to the West. St. Petersburg might well have been established then, but this did not happen. In truth, we are not even sure that the site of the future city existed at the time, for the delta of the Neva changed form quickly and the islands did not assume their present form until relatively recently. It is known that in the ninth century the Normans settled in a village situated a hundred kilometers from Lake Ladoga, before proceeding farther to the south, deep into Russia as far as Novgorod and Kiev.
In the mid-thirteenth century the Tatar invasion cut off the river route between Scandinavia and Byzantium, but this did not lessen the determination of the Scandinavians and the Russians to establish themselves in the Neva delta. Throughout the medieval period the area belonged to the mercantile republic of Great Novgorod. The Swedes tried to conquer it but failed. Grand Prince Alexander Yaroslavich defeated the Swedish army there in 1240, which merited him a prominent place in Russian history as Alexander Nevsky, which means Alexander of Neva. All the grand princes and tears of Moscow were descended from him. The fortress of Landskron (“crown of the earth”) was built there in 1300 by an Italian would-be engineer traveling with the Swedish armies; the Russians soon destroyed it, but at the beginning of the seventeenth century the Swedes erected a new fortress on roughly the same spot, which they called Nienshantz (“fortification on the Neva”).
According to the terms of the peace of 1617, the northeastern seaboard of the Baltic Sea reverted to Sweden. She retained control until the beginning of the eighteenth century and the Northern War, in which Russia, Sweden, Poland, Denmark, Saxony, and some of the other German principalities took part. This conflict completely transformed the balance of power in the region, to Russia’s advantage. Hitherto the prehistory of St. Petersburg was one of scarcely populated and impoverished territorial frontiers. Now all that changed.
The Northern War began badly for Russia. Peter the Great’s troops invaded Sweden by way of the southern Baltic coast but were cruelly defeated by young Charles XII, who then proceeded to conquer Poland, chasing from the Polish throne the Russian-allied Augustus the Strong, elector of Saxony, and installing in his place Stanishaw Leszczynski, the future father-in-law of Louis XV. In the meantime Peter the Great reorganized the Russian army on the European model. Profiting from the absence of Charles XII from the Baltic Sea, he went on the offensive. In the middle of 1702 his troops headed toward the Neva, and on May 1 the Russians took the fortress of Nienshantz and occupied the current site of St. Petersburg. Three weeks later Peter founded a fortress there that he called, after his patron saint, the city of Saint Peteror, in Dutch transcribed in Cyrillic, “Sankt-Piterburkh.”
Meet the Author
Alexander Orloffs 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.
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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