The Revival of Gatchina Palace

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Aerial view of the Imperial palace in Gatchina

This article was researched from Russian media sources and written by Paul Gilbert, Founder of Royal Russia © 2018

In 2016, the Imperial palace in Gatchina marked its 250th anniversary. The palace was built for Count Grigoriy Orlov (1734-1783), who employed Italian-born architect Antonio Rinaldi to design the Gatchina Palace. Rinaldi began work in 1766, and took fifteen years to complete the castle-style building.

After Orlov’s death, Rinaldi’s design pleased Empress Catherine I enough for her to buy Gatchina back from Orlov’s heirs, and present it to her son, the future Paul I, who commissioned his own favourite architect, Vincenzo Brenna (1747-1820), who had already reworked the Grand Palace at Pavlovsk for him, to expand Gatchina. 

The former imperial residence outside St. Petersburg, was to become a favourite among four emperors: Paul I, Nicholas I, Alexander II and Alexander III. The latter chose the palace to be one of the official residences, and periodically spent half of a year at Gatchina engaged in public affairs.

During the Revolution and Civil War, Gatchina was the site of two major events – the final fall of Kerensky’s Provisional Government in 1917, and Trotsky’s defeat of the final advance of the White Army from Estonia in July 1919. The town was renamed Trotsk for six years in the 1920s. The palace and park were opened to the public soon after the Revolution, and served as a museum until occupied by the Nazis in 1941. As elsewhere, occupation brought severe damage to the palace and park, and restoration work is still continuing over 70 years later.

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The Marble Staircase

The Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union during the Great Patriotic War (1941-45) left the grand palaces at Peterhof, Tsarskoye Selo, and Pavlovsk in ruins. The restoration of the palaces began almost immediately after the war, and continues to this day. While vast funds were allocated to the ongoing restoration of the grand palaces, the palace at Gatchina was mostly forgotten. In fact, it was not until 1984-85 that restoration of the Imperial palace at Gatchina began. Projects were continually delayed due to a lack of funding in the 1990s, however, in recent years, a number of major restoration projects have been completed in the palace. Since 2009, after a plea of former governor Valentina Matvienko, that major funding was allocated for restoration work.

Between 1874 – 1880, Eduard Hau (1807-1888) was commissioned to paint 56 watercolours of the interiors of the Gatchina Palace. In the 1870s, additional watercolours of the palace interiors were painted by another famous artist – Luigi Premazzi (1814-1891). These watercolours draw attention to detail of the rooms, including the architecture, furniture, and decorative items, and have played a crucial role in the restoration projects of Gatchina Palace.

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The Greek Gallery

In 2007, the apartments of Alexander III and his family, which occupy the mezzanine floor of the Arsenal Wing were restored. Much of the historical lay-out of the rooms were preserved and now home to a permanent exhibition which depict the private life of the Imperial family.

On 1st June 2016, four newly-restored rooms in the palace’s eastern wing – the Greek Gallery, Rotary Room, Light Passage and Rotunda – heavily damaged during the Nazi occupation of World War II, opened for public viewing for the first time since World War II. According to museum workers, the interiors were restored from archival drawings, photographs and paintings.

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The study of Emperor Alexander III.                            Photo: spbguidebook.ru

On 30th December 2016, the Marble Staircase – one of the most beautiful interiors of the Arsenal Block of the palace was reopened – after an extensive restoration, which began in mid-2013. The grand staircase was built during the reign of Emperor Nicholas I (1825-1855) by the architect R.I. Kuzmin. The staircase was badly damaged during the Great Patriotic War. A partial restoration was carried out in the 1950s, however, it would be more than 50 years before the project was completed.

Another ongoing project is the restoration of the palace chapel – the Church of the Life-Giving Trinity. The 19th century interiors of the palace church are the only ones in the palace, which have remained almost unchanged. The church was not affected by the terrible fire during the liberation of Gatchina in 1944, nor the subsequent postwar re-planning. The church dome, stucco molding, and stained glass have all been restored. The next stage of restoration will be the recreation of the lost iconostasis.

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Suite of rooms of Emperor Nicholas I currently under restoration

The private rooms of Emperor Paul I are scheduled to open this autumn, and the suite of rooms of Emperor Nicholas I and his consort Empress Alexandra Feodorovna are scheduled to open this summer. The restoration of unique fireplaces of Italian marble with hand-cut decor elements have already been recreated in the latter. Other elements which will be recreated include stucco decoration, ceiling lights, and wallpaper. Empire furniture, porcelain vases and canvases will be restored to their place, according to the watercolours of Hau and Premazzi, and pre-war photographs.

The restoration of the Chesme Gallery has been underway for some years now. It leads from the central building to the palace church. The gallery ranks among Vincenzo Brenna’s finest creations, its interior glorifying the victory of the Russian Navy off Chesme in 1770. The semicircular layout of the interior served to enhance its decorative effect. The restoration of the Chesme Gallery is expected to take several more years, but is regularly used as an exhibition hall.

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One of Hackert’s paintings in the Chesme Gallery

On 28th March 1918, the former Imperial palace and park ensembles of Pavlovsk, Peterhof, Tsarskoye Selo, Gatchina and Oranienbaum, were nationalized and turned into museum reserves. In 2018, a joint exhibition, which presents documents and collections of all four museum-reserves, will take place. Each will hold their own scientific and practical conferences for specialists, as well as prepare special programs for visitors.

After decades of neglect, the Imperial palace in Gatchina is well on it’s way to joining the string of architectural pearls, which surround the former Imperial capital of St. Petersburg.

© Paul Gilbert @ Royal Russia. 3 February, 2018