At the Empress’s Fireside. The Fireplace Screen of the Grand Peterhof Palace

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On 1st April 2019 the exhibition At the Empress’s FireplaceFireplace Screen of the Grand Peterhof Palace, opened in the Ball Room of the Grand Peterhof Palace.

The screen’s completion is the first stage of work on the reconstruction of the lost porcelain fireplace ensemble in the Empress’s Cabinet. The project was carried out by Pallada LLC, and is part of the revival program of the Grand Palace’s historical collection.

Emperor Nicholas I (1796-1855), who was particularly fond of Peterhof, invested a lot of time and resources in maintaining the grandeur of this Imperial residence. In the 1840s, under the Emperor’s direct supervision, the famous Russian architect Andrei Shtakenshneider (1802-1865) carried out large-scale repair and restoration work in the Grand Palace, during which the old marble fireplace was replaced with a new Rococo Style porcelain mirror fireplace in the Empress’s Cabinet. Executed at the Imperial Porcelain Factory in St. Petersburg, by the personal order of Nicholas I, it immediately became the central motive in the decoration of the interior. 

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A distinctive feature of the fireplace was the amazing design and execution of the screen, made of bronze in the form of a fan with porcelain inlays, painted with flowers.

Unique in its beauty and artistic creation, this work of art of Russian porcelain masters decorated the interior of the Great Peterhof Palace until 1941. During World War II, the fireplace with screen was destroyed during a devastating fire. Only a few fragments, extracted after the war from the ruins of the palace were left. But, it was enough for artists and restorers to recreate his exquisite work of art beginning in 2016. 

The exhibition At the Empress’s Fireplace.  Fireplace Screen of the Grand Peterhof Palace runs from 1st April to 31st December 2019

© Paul Gilbert. 12 April 2019

 

75th Anniversary of the Liberation of Peterhof

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Ruined Grand Peterhof Palace and Grand Cascade, 1942

On 19th January 1944, troops of the 2nd Shock Army of the Leningrad Front broke through the blockade of New Peterhof and liberated the city from Nazi occupation. As a result of the January Thunder offensive in the days which followed, all the suburban Imperial palace-museums of Leningrad were liberated: Peterhof, Pushkin (Catherine and Alexander Palaces at Tsarskoye Selo), Pavlovsk, and Gatchina. The Peterhof Museum-Reserve was in sheer ruin. During it’s two year occupation, New Peterhof was on the front line, under constant artillery shelling and aerial bombardment from both German and Soviet forces.

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Soviet soldiers survey the ruins of the Grand Palace, Peterhof in 1944

The eloquent testimony of liberated Peterhof was left by the senior researcher and museum curator M.A. Tikhomirova. According to Tikhomirova, who visited the city on 31 January 1944, “Peterhof is in an horrific state. The Grand Palace gives the impression of ancient ruins. The center part of the palace is completely destroyed, the wings of the building still stand, but inside there are no ceilings. There are no domes on the church, while the Neptune and Samson statues have been stolen. In Alexandria, the cottage is intact, but the entire decoration of the walls has been stripped and the furniture has been stolen.” 

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German soldier in the Upper Garden of Peterhof, September 1943

The same hard impressions of the destruction seen in Peterhof were also noted by the and well-known writer, front-line correspondent P.N. Luknitsky.  “Walking around the Grand Palace, a narrow path displays a red cord and many landmines. There are no traces of fire on the remains of the walls. No roofs, no rooms, no ceilings, no rafters – nothing. Piles of stone and brick are covered with snow … The Germans turned the Samson Canal into an anti-tank ditch. The lower park looks like a neglected forest, part of it has been cut down.”

Red army soldiers with recovered paintings stolen from the peterhof palace (petrodvorets) and pushkin palace (tsarskoye selo) by the germans, abandoned in east prussia during the nazi retreat, world war 2, 1945.

Soviet soldiers discover paintings, stolen by the Germans from the Peterhof Palace, 1945

Immediately after the liberation of the suburban palaces, a large public discussion about their restoration was launched, in which the resolution of the State Defense Committee “On priority measures to restore industry and the urban economy of Leningrad in 1944”, adopted on 29th March 1944, played a major role. It determined that the suburban palaces in Pushkin (Tsarskoye Selo), Petrodvorets (Peterhof) and Pavlovsk should be restored. In accordance with the decision of the State Defense Committee, on 23rd April 1944, the Leningrad Executive Committee adopted an historic decision – “On priority measures for the preservation of suburban palaces and museum parks”. According to the decree, it was necessary to carry out the cleaning and elementary improvement of the territory of the Upper and Lower parks of Petrodvorets. It was also necessary to organize the protection of palaces, pavilions, and parks.

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View of the ruined Grand Palace and Lower Park, 1948

During the second half of 1944, the Directorate of palace museums and parks of Petrodvorets actively carried out work on de-mining and clearing the territory of the Lower Park, Upper Gardens and Alexandria Park from debris, as well as preserving buildings and searching for museum objects. To carry out work on clearing the Peterhof parks, the local population was widely involved, who participated on Saturdays and Sundays in July 1944. As a result, by the autumn of 1944, work on clearing the territory of the parks at Petrodvorets had been fully completed.

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Locals help clear the parks at Peterhof in the summer of 1944

On 17th January 2019, a press tour dedicated to the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Peterhof was held in the Lower Park of the palace complex. Elena Y. Kalnitskaya, Director General of the Peterhof State Museum-Reserve, and Pavel Vladimirovich Petrov, Head of the Museum Studies Department, spoke at the “Lessons in History” memorial on the significance of this historic date, and those who dedicated their lives to restoring and preserving one of Russia’s national monuments. 

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The Grand Peterhof Palace and Cascade as they look today

© Paul Gilbert @ Royal Russia. 21 January 2019

 

Four Museums Centenary Project Opens in St. Petersburg

As Tsarskoye Selo, Peterhof, Pavlovsk and Gatchina celebrate their 100th anniversary as museums in 2018, their Four Museums’ Centenary Project culminates in their joint exhibition running at St Petersburg’s Manege Central Exhibition Hall from 19th September to 8th October 2018.

A museum and theatre project titled To Keep Forever, is conceptually curated by stage director Anderey Moguchy and essentially recites the biographies of the four former imperial residences by the language of modern theatre.

The display starts in a “theatre hall” with a huge golden traveler curtain which does not move but lets the viewer into a “labyrinth of time”. The exhibition’s narrative is based on a diary of a fictional character named “Olga” (voiced by the Russian movie and theatre star Alice Freindlich). Her voice on the audio guide set accompanies the visitor through the whole “travel in time”. Born in Tsarskoye Selo, Olga worked as a guide at Peterhof, then as a curator she evacuated art objects from the Pavlovsk Palace and later restored the Gatchina Palace. Her “diary” is full of real people, such as museum employees and other witnesses of historical events.

Following the narration, the exhibition space is divided into several areas representing different time periods. From the former royal residences the viewer proceeds to a Soviet park of culture and recreation and then, as the war begins, takes part in a large-scale evacuation of the museum collections and follows them along to the victory. The culmination is the palaces’ triumphal revival from the ashes and further paths into the present.

The most important part of the display consists of over 200 artefacts and archival photographs from the four museums’ collections, including 37 art objects, 12 surviving sculpture and décor fragments and photographic materials from Tsarskoye Selo. 

© Tsarskoye Selo State Museum Reserve. 26 September 2018

First tourist group visits Lower Dacha of Nicholas II in Peterhof

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The ruins of the Lower Dacha, Alexandria Park, Peterhof

Click HERE to watch a video (in Russian). Please note that the video is in two parts – the first part of the video shows the group visiting the ruins of the Lower Dacha, while the second part shows them visiting the interiors of the Farm Palace (opened in 2010), which is also situated in the Alexandria Park – PG

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On 25th April, more than 50 participants of the Open City Project, which promotes cognitive walks around the sights of St. Petersburg, which are inaccessible to the general public, were the first group allowed to visit the Lower Dacha, situated in the Alexandria Park of Peterhof.  Here they learned about the history of the park, about the life of its August residents, and the tragic fate of the Lower Dacha

Together with the Chief Architect of the Peterhof State Museum Preserve Sergey Pavlov, the group visited the ruins of the Lower Dacha, which is currently in the process of restoration. The complex of the Lower Dacha, the favorite summer residence of the family of Nicholas II, suffered considerably during the Great Patriotic War. In the 1960s, the remaining ruins were blown up. The possibility of restoring this unique monument of history and culture has been discussed for several decades.

In 2016, the Peterhof State Museum received approval for the concept of restoration of the Lower Dacha, combining the conservation of the original fragments of the ruins with a partial reconstruction of the building. The first stage of the concept realization, the historical foundations and the preserved part of the first floor, are currently protected by a special ventilated canopy.

Recent archaeological surveys have uncovered unique items related to the period of the occupation of Peterhof in 1941-1943. Pavlov notes that excavations have already uncovered details of the building and its interiors, including original tile floors, iron grille work, fragments of pottery, carved stone decorations, all of which will be carefully preserved and become part of the new permanent exhibition. 

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Early 20th century view of the Lower Dacha

The Lower Dacha – also known as the Lower Palace – was erected in the mid-1880s for the Tsesarevich Nicholas Alexandrovich (future Emperor Nicholas II) by the architect Anthony Osipovich Tomishko (1851-1900), the famous architect who also designed the famous Kresty Prison in St. Petersburg.

“The sovereign [Emperor Alexander III – Ed.] gave Tomishko carte blanche with the project – permitting the architect with spending, hiring contractors, and monitoring its construction – while making additional adjustments made by the emperor and especially his wife the Empress Maria Feodorovna. Despite this, Tomishko did not see the implementation of his project,” – said the chief architect of the Peterhof State Museum-Preserve Sergei Pavlov.

Despite all the difficulties, a four-story building made of bi-coloured bricks – yellow and red – was created on the shore of the Gulf of Finland in the Alexandria Park resembling an elegant Italian villa in the Neo-Renaissance style.

The remoteness of the Lower Dacha from Peterhof, which was completely inaccessible to outsiders made it a favorite residence for the emperor and his family. “The main beauty of the whole house is it’s proximity of the sea” – the Emperor wrote in his diary.  

After their marriage in 1895, it was here that Nicholas II and Alexandra Feodorovna spent their first summer together. It was also here that four of their five children were born, three daughters: Tatiana (1897), Maria (1899), Anastasia (1901), as well as their only son and heir to the Russian throne, Tsesarevich Alexei Nikolaevich (1904). It was also at the Lower Dacha that in 1914, Nicholas II signed the Manifesto of Russia’s entry into the First World War.

After the birth of their children in the 1890s, the house became too small and a second block was added to the original building, where children’s rooms were located.

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Early 20th century view of the Lower Dacha

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According to Sergei Pavlov, the fate of the Lower Dacha was met by tragedy and destruction during the 20th century. This is confirmed by the history of the palace.

Shortly after the Revolution, the Lower Dacha was opened as a museum, in which the personal items of the Imperial family, including furnishings and children’s toys were displayed.

The anti-monarchist attitude of this museum and it’s Soviet caretakers is best described by the museum’s first director Nikolai Arkhipov, who referred to himself as “the keeper of the royal underpants.”

It is clear that such a museum could not exist for long, and in 1936 a recreation center for members of the NKVD  (People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs) was opened in the Lower Dacha. Then came the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945) and the occupation and destruction of the area by the Nazis.

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The Lower Dacha as it looked after the Great Patriotic War 1941-45

During the war, the Nazis used the former Imperial residence as a base for its coastal defence. The building survived the war, and stood until 1961 when it was blown up by the Soviets – the Lower Dacha was left in ruins. 

Who and why the imperial summer residence was destroyed still remains a mystery. Documents in the archives have not been preserved.

According to a local legend, one of the sons of the then military hierarchy broke a leg while climbing on the ruins of the dacha. His angry father ordered that the building be “blown off the face of the earth.” Another popular theory was that the site had become popular with local Orthodox Christians and monarchists, who would often hold memorials at the ruins with candles and prayers. 

There is also a more prosaic version. Many museum workers believe that the whole thing was based on Soviet ideology, who were alien to any relics associated with the last Tsar. As the museum experts note, the explosion was carefully orchestrated, one which could only be carried out by professionals.

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Chief Architect of the Peterhof State Museum Sergey Pavlov at the ruins of the Lower Dacha

“Then the question arose: what to do next?” – recalls Sergei Pavlov.

According to him, several options for the restoration of the monument were considered. The first suggested a complete historic recreation of the Lower Dacha, based on plans, documents and photographs which have been preserved in the archives.

“But when we analyzed this proposal further, we understood two fundamental problems. First, we had little to work with when compared to the ruins of the Great Palace – of which 60-70% of the building had survived, but only 7-10% of the Lower Palace had survived. So, how can this be recreated?” Sergei Pavlov asks.

Further, since the palace, although called imperial, in fact was very small, with modest rooms and narrow halls, which excludes all sightseeing activities by visitors and tour groups. In addition, there would be a problem with filling the exposition.

“There is a legend that Peterhof has a lot of things from the Lower Dacha. I can tell you that this is incorrect. In fact, we have in our collections, only 14 pieces of furniture and about 35 additional items from the dacha. To fill them all the exhibition space of the palace is simply impossible,” – explained the chief architect of Peterhof.

Another option considered was the conservation of the ruins. However, this idea was considered difficult to implement, simply based on the harsh conditions of the St. Petersburg climate. “We took a rather difficult, hard-won decision. We agreed to combine the preservation of the surviving fragments of the ruins to become incorporated into the partial reconstruction of the dacha,” explained Sergei Pavlov.

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The ruins of the Lower Dacha

There are plans for a reconstruction of the study of Nicholas II on the upper floor, in which we will fill with genuine items and objects of everyday life of that era. The lower floor will be used for both permanent and temporary exhibitions.

“In this way, we can utilize all the necessary living spaces, which we desperately need. For instance, we do not have a conference room, or a room for scientific study, nor is there is a laboratory, are library. All of these will be implemented into the new building, “- said Sergei Pavlov.

According to Pavlov, the first priority in the recreation of the Lower Dacha will be a memorial place to the family of Nicholas II. Secondly, the building will host an historical and cultural center, where there will be exhibitions and concerts, reflecting the spirit of this place.

The new multi-museum complex will preserve the unique panorama of Peterhof and the silhouette of the coastline, the reconstruction of which will be the second stage of a larger project.

Surviving fragments of boulder fortification and a boat canal through which a small yacht transferred the Imperial family to the Imperial yacht Standart (which was unable to dock at the pier, due to the shallow bay), will all be restored.

Complete work on the reconstruction of the Lower Dacha is expected to be completed in 2025. And then the historical landscape of Alexandria Park will be fully restored.

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Nicholas II with his three eldest daughters at the Lower Dacha, 1905

Click HERE to read more articles about the history and reconstruction of the Lower Dacha, as well as additional articles on Peterhof.

© Paul Gilbert @ Royal Russia. 2 May 2018

Baroness von Rintelen donates personal items of Alexander II to Peterhof

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

On 14th April, a ceremonial transfer of memorial items from the collection of Baroness Clotilde von Rintelen, the great-great-granddaughter of the famous Russian poet Alexander Pushkin, to the collection of the Peterhof State Museum-Preserve took place in the Farm Palace of the Alexandria Park. 

The Baroness brought a unique album Chasses dans la forte de Białowieźa (Hunting in Białowieźa Forest), which highlights one of the important events that took place during the reign of Emperor Alexander II – the royal hunt in Białowieźa Forest in October 1860.

Hunting in Białowieźa Forest, organized in October 1860 on the initiative of the Russian monarch, became an unofficial meeting of the heads of European states and was the beginning of the gradual withdrawal of the Russian Empire from the isolation in which it found itself after the Crimean War of 1853-1856. The Hungarian-Russian artist Mikhail Alexandrovich (Mihai) Zichy (in 1859, Zichy was appointed court painter and held this post until his death in 1906) was commissioned to create watercolours of Białowieźa Forest. Alexander II approved the watercolours, and ordered that an album be published. Only 50 copies of the album were published in Russian, and was intended exclusively as gifts for the participants of the hunt. But even more rare was the publication of a French album, issued specifically for diplomatic gifts.

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In addition to the album Chasses dans la forte de Białowieźa, a framed picture of Alexander II and a brass snuff-box were presented to the museum-preserve. According to the Baroness, the photograph of the emperor-liberator up to the last days adorned the bedside table of her grandmother, the daughter of A.S. Pushkin – Natalia Alexandrovna, later Countess von Merenberg (1836-1913). The brass snuff-box with a medallion image of the Austrian Empress Maria Theresa (1717-1780).

According to the baroness, the memorial items “have finally returned home to Russia, where they will be studied, preserved and displayed.” Deputy Director General of the Peterhof State Museum Tamara Nikolaevna Nosovich, welcomed Clotilde von Rintelen and thanked her on behalf of all employees of the museum, noting that this is not her first gift to Peterhof. In 2005, to the 60th anniversary of the Victory in the Great Patriotic War, the Baroness gifted the museum with 60 specimens of ancient varieties of roses for the garden on Tsaritsyn Island, while another 15 rose bushes gifted for the garden of the Farm Palace in 2010. 

© Paul Gilbert @ Royal Russia. 19 April 2018

Restored “Elizabethan” chandeliers returned to the Chesme Hall in the Great Palace at Peterhof

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

On 9th April, the eve of the new summer tourist season at Peterhof, two crystal chandeliers were returned from the restoration laboratories to the Chesme Hall of the Great Peterhof Palace. These chandeliers, made in France in the 18th century, according to the researchers, appeared in the Chesme Hall in the 1770s when the Great Peterhof Palace was redesigned during the reign of the Empress Catherine II.

For two centuries, the chandeliers adorned the Chesme Hall. At the beginning of the Great Patriotic War (1941-45), they were evacuated to Sarapul (1800 km east of Leningrad). In 1975, 26 years after the re-creation of the Chesme Hall, the chandeliers were restored to the historic hall. The current restoration is the first since the war.

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The Chesme Hall as it looked before the Great Patriotic War (1941-45)

During the restoration, the chandeliers were inspected for wear and tear: the loose parts were strengthened, bronze was partially restored in places by soldering. According to the available samples, experts were able to produce lost suspensions, as well as glass parts – bottles and rod parts. In addition, the obsolete electrical wiring was replaced.

The chandeliers of the Chesme Hall refer to the “Elizabethan” style named after the Empress Elizabeth Petrovna, in whose era they originally appeared. They are distinguished by a special design consisting of many crystal pendants of various shapes and sizes, their numbers almost completely hiding the core of the chandelier. The glass of the chandeliers in the Chesme Hall has an uncharacteristic lilac hue due to the fact that in the 18th century, manganese was added to it. Such chandeliers adorn the famous Mirror Hall in the Palace of Versailles, France and the interiors of palace in Sanssouci and Potsdam in Germany. 

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The beautifully restored “Elizabethian” chandeliers once again hang in the Chesme Hall 

© Paul Gilbert @ Royal Russia. 15 April 2018