A monumental building, finished with limestone, mined in the quarry of town of Pudost, lifts its head in the highest point of a hill on the shores of the Serebryanoye Lake (literally Silver Lake) in Gatchina. The imperial palace is the only "castle palace" in the suburbs of Saint Petersburg.
But despite the fact that the appearance of the Palace resembles a medieval castle, it is the original authentic work of Russian architecture erected by several generations of craftsmen, the famous architects and decorators such as Antonio Rinaldi, Vincenzo Brenna, Andreyan Zakharov, Nikolay Lvov, Andrey Voronikhin, Andrey Stackenschneider, Roman Kuzmin.
Jacob Mettenleiter, the court painter, lived in Gatchina. He painted plafonds, portraits, and landscapes. Landscapist Semyon Shchedrin and painter Gavriil Sergeyev created panels and watercolours. K. A. Leberecht, the famous Russian medallist (the chief medallist of the Mint), the stone carver, and the academician, also worked in the Palace for some time.
The history of the Palace began with a small grange (mansion-house). The Nature itself has made the place beautiful: the wonderful lakes and rivers, the dense forests, the diverse landscapes — everything invites a visitor to have a rest. This was probably the reason to build a small mansion for hunting fun in this area, yet mentioned in the census book of 1499.
The first owner of the Gatchina grange was Peter the Great. Later he gifted it to his sister Natalia Alekseyevna (the wooden two-storied house built for her on the shore of the Beloye Lake (literally White Lake) was demolished in 1793 and the Botanical Garden was erected instead). In after years, the court doctors used the estate and then it passed into possession of the Kurakin ducal family.
In 1765, Catherine II bought the mansion with the intention of giving it to her favourite, Count Grigory Orlov. It was he for whom she ordered to construct the Palace upon the project of A. Rinaldi in the form of a hunting castle with towers and an underpass.
The Gatchina Palace was founded on the 30th May, 1766. The architect based the space composition on a mansion design according to which the main building was connected with the galleries of service buildings. However, Rinaldi used new nonconventional elements as well: the faceted towers and the underpass.
The middle part of the Palace almost has not changed since then. Just the semicircular arches of the entrance doors were through. The arch-shaped wings, the semicirculars with the galleries (balconies) open to the yard, extended from the main building. Two pentagonal towers were situated from the park facade. The space of the main courtyard was bordered with the single-store symmetrical blocks on two sides: the Kitchen and the Horse Blocks with low octagonal corner towers. The statues "Cautiousness" (by Italian sculptor Giovanni Marchiori) and "Justice" (by Johann Morlaiter) were standing in front of the main entrance from the main courtyard. Two other statues by the same sculptors "War" and "Piece" were located from the park side.
The facades were finished with the local building material, a sort of travertine mined in the neighbourhoods of Gatchina town — Pudost, Paritsi, and Chernitsi. Travertine was even used in the Ancient Greece to construct temples. The Gatchina Palace became one of the first buildings with the facades finished with natural stone.
The Palace appearance corresponded to the new, then establishing, art style of classicism. Rinaldi managed to achieve solidity of the austere impressive building and park landscape.
The construction of the Palace was finished in 1781. Grigory Orlov, a very wealthy person, made it his luxurious residence decorated with specially acquired works of art, statues, pictures, furniture, books, and weapons.
In 1783, after Count Orlov died, Catherine the Great bought the Gatchina mansion and the surroundings from the Orlov's heirs and presented it to her son, the great duke Pavel Petrovich, and future emperor Paul I.
Paul I remodelled the Palace in accordance with his ideas and tastes: the city resembled a military camp, the Palace also suffered a change. The Palace was reconstructed under the management of V. Brenna, the architect. Catherine II was overseeing the reconstruction. The Brenna's project was examined by a qualified commission of such architects as I. Starov, Y. Sokolov, and G. Quarenghi.
The through arches leading to the park were built up; the Kitchen and the Horse Blocks were overbuilt; the openings between the marble columns in the open balconies of the semicircles were closed with bricks and finished with yellowish red limestone (Chernitsi stone).
From the side opposite to the park, a parade square was created in front of the Palace instead of the meadow. It was secured with a bastion wall with portholes for canons and a moat, and four bridges. A new art image of the Palace appeared. It combined features of a countryside villa and a castle.
The interiors of the Palace were also rebuilt. Dimensions of halls and galleries and their finishing were changed. The arrangement of the gala rooms' enfilades had been adapted for court ceremonies.
On the ground floor of the Main Building rooms of various functional purposes including the private rooms of Paul I with windows to the Sobstvenniy Garden (literally Own Garden) were situated. The private rooms, the Lower Chevalier Chamber, the Lower Throne Hall, the Dressing Room and others, exemplified the interesting style of the 18th century interiors.
The large granite Grand Staircase led from the Hall with the walls, decorated with Pudost stone, upstairs, to the second floor.
The exquisitely styled gala rooms of the Palace are the perfect examples of the Russian Classicism style of the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries.
The enfilade of gala rooms begins with the Anterchamber (or Upper Chevalier Chamber) used for the guard mounting in the internal rooms of the Palace.
Next was the Marble Dining Room used for the gala dinners that took place during very important events. It replaced two former rooms of the Orlov's Palace. The Dining Room is decorated with 16 fluted columns made from Carrara marble, bas-reliefs displaying the scenes from the life of Dionysus, the Ancient Greek god of wine, an incredible example of sculpture that has been recently recreated by restorer L. A. Strizhova. The part of the room used as a coffee room is separated by balustrades with vases and lamps in the shape of vases. Behind it you will see a statue of Eros drawing his bow, a copy of the antique statue by Lysippos.
Adjacent to the Marble Dining Room you will find the Throne Hall of Emperor Paul I created in the place of the former study room of G. Orlov. The walls of the Hall are decorated with the tapestries "Asia" and "Africa" weaved in France in 1780s in the workshop of G. Nelson based on the design of Francois Desportes, and the "Ceres" tapestry showing the incredible floral wreaths against the pink background. The throne place is located between the windows and includes the throne with a canopy, the armchair, and the foot banquette. The throne was made from carved wood, gold-plated, upholstered with crimson velvet. The emperor's emblem was embroidered on the throne back with silver, gold and silk threads.
A special adornment of the Throne Hall is its parquet flooring. Three intertwined wreaths are made from tobacco wood, the surrounding net — from apple wood and rosewood, and the details are made from mahogany, palisander, nutwood, pear wood and other types of wood.
A door from the Throne Hall leads to the Crimson Drawing Room. The room got its name because of color of the tapestry and the French furniture set with crimson upholstery. Three pieces of tapestry from the "Don Quixote" series were created upon the designs of C. Coypel by the royal textile house, under the supervision of P. Cozette and K. Ordan, and were gifted to the Pavel Petrovich and Maria Feodorovna by Louis XVI in 1782.
The Crimson Room was next to the State Bedroom. The walls of the bedroom, the bedding, canopies, upholstery of the carved, gold-plated furniture, window curtains were made from the blue Lyons silk with the design of lockets, bouquets of flowers made with the highest-quality silver threads. The fabric was received as a diplomatic gift from King Louis XVI of France. Two large cobalt-blue vases with gold plated patterns and handles were made in the Manufactory of Sevres and attracted the attention of visitors. The artificial marble semicolumns were painted by F. Lebensky in the style of the Raphael's arabesque balconies. A picturesque plafond "Psyche's Wedding" by G. F. Doyen was restored in 1980s in the workshop of Y. Kazakov.
The State Bedroom was connected with the Empress's rooms: the Boudoir, the Tower Room, and the Dressing Room. The doors from the Dressing Room led to the Throne Hall of Maria Feodorovna, built by V. Brenna in place of the Chinese Room of G. Orlov designed then by A. Rinaldi. When the Emperor was still a Duke, the room was called the Picture Room. After it was converted into the Throne Hall, all furniture was removed, except for the big gold plated table with purple vases and sculptures on it. The main adornment of the Throne Hall was a collection of paintings by Western European artists.
The doors from the Throne Hall led to the biggest room of the Palace used in 18th and 19th centuries for special events and called the White Hall. Some of the marble bass-reliefs and sculptures that the interior of the room is decorated with belong to the era of G. Orlov. They were purchased abroad for Catherine II and used by A. Rinaldi to adorn the interiors of the Gatchina Palace. Especially valuable are the authentic antique works of art, the bass reliefs "The Offering to the Gods" and "The Shepherd" as well as the portrait busts of Emperors Caracalla and Antinous.
During the remodeling directed by V. Brenna, the Kitchen and Horse Blocks were rebuilt to create more useful space. The Horse Block space was used for the theater, the library, and the arsenal, and was renamed into the Arsenal Block. The Weapon Gallery and the Chesme Gallery appeared in the left semicircle building that was leading to the Kitchen Block. The Chesme Gallery was named this way for three big wall paintings by Jacob Philipp Hackert depicting the Battle of Chesme. The Greek Gallery was created in the right semicircle leading to the Arsenal Block.
In 1799, V. Brenna was designing the Mikhailovsky Castle, and some works in the Palace were finished by A. D. Zakharov. He finished the construction of the Kitchen Block, created the new design for the Palace Church and built it (the first church in Gatchina existed since the times of G. Orlov).
In 1801–1828, the Palace was the property of Maria Feodorovna, the widow of Paul I, then, from 1828 to 1855, it was one of the residences of Nicholas I. The subsequent owners of the Palace were Alexander II, Alexander III, and Nicholas II.
R. I. Kuzmin was the architect who finished the construction of the Gatchina Palace. The works directed by him commenced in 1845. He was going to increase the number of rooms to accommodate the family of Nicholas I, completely remodel the buildings of the Blocks and at the same time renovate the Main Building.
According to the Kuzmin's design the buildings of both blocks would be increased to the level of the semicircular galleries. Each building of the block had a deep underground floor followed by the ground floor, then the attic storey and the high second floor.
The rooms of the Kitchen Block were decorated according to their purpose, and the Arsenal Block, with over 200 rooms, had the apartments of Nicholas I, then Alexander II and Alexander III. R. I. Kuzmin also created several interiors, such as the Front Hall and the Marble Stairway done in the Renaissance style, the Theater in the late Classicism style, the Chinese and the Gothic Galleries, and the Church.
In 1851, a monument to Paul I made by sculptor A. Vitali was erected on the podium designed by R. I. Kuzmin on the square in front of the Palace.
A committee that registered the Tsar's property began its work in the Gatchina Palace at the end of May of 1917. On 19 May, 1918, the Palace became the state museum, which hosted works of art and art treasures of global impact: the number of exposition and stock items reached about 54,000 pieces.
After the World War II broke out, some measures were taken to protect the Palace from the destruction. However, on 15 August, 1941, the Germans dropped the first air bomb on the Palace. Its pieces damaged the sculptured molding of the borders of the Arsenal Gallery and the scenic panel on the walls of the Oval Room located nearby. Another bomb that blew up in the Arsenal Block and shell fires damaged the Palace significantly. On the 9th September of 1941, the Gatchina Palace was occupied by German troops.
At the beginning of the war, the head keeper of the Gatchina Palace, S. N. Balayeva and fellow researcher, I. K. Yanchenko, had organized the evacuation of the museum collections. Four train wagons full of valuable items were sent to the back land of the country, part of the exhibits was moved to Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). The remaining items were placed in the basement of the Palace. People were working near the front lines, in the life-threatening conditions. Thanks to their efforts, a fifth part of the museum treasures was preserved.
In 1944, the Gatchina Palace was burnt by the retreating German troops.
Immediately after town of Gatchina was liberated, S. N. Balayeva returned to the Palace. I. K. Yanchenko was killed under bombardment on the Nevsky Prospekt during the Siege of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). Instead of the wonderful creation of the Russian architects there was a burnt building without the roof. Major supporting beams were destroyed; walls had the holes from the parts of the missiles and bombs. Still there was some hope that the Palace could be restored according to the documents from the construction archives, photo archives, paintings by E. Gau and L. Premazzi of the interiors of the Palace, drawings of measurements done by R. I. Kuzmin and other materials.
In 1944, a team of architects and artists began copying the survived drawings, making the measurements and sketches. However, due to several reasons the restoration works didn't begin.
From 1950 to 1959, the Palace was hosted by the Naval School of the Ministry of Defense of the USSR, later, by the Elektronstandart Research Institute, the forbidden enterprise of defense industry of the USSR.
In May of 1976, the building started to be cleared up, so that restoration works could take place and the museum could be arranged. On the 8th May of 1985, three halls of the Gala Enfilade were opened to public.
Currently there are multiple permanent and temporary exhibitions to visit.
There is also an underground pathway from the Palace quarters to the Serebryanoye Lake.
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