Sunday, October 20, 2019

The Many Lives of the Tsar's Village

From The Moscow Times:
When she came to the throne in 1741, Peter and Catherine’s daughter Elizabeth envisioned a much grander footprint for the palace she named in her mother’s honor. Summoning her favorite architect, Italian Bartolomeo Rastrelli, Elizabeth ordered him to makeover the Catherine Palace much in the way he had assembled a new Winter Palace for her cousin, Empress Anna Ivanovna.

Rastrelli and Elizabeth worked well together, his expansive imagination a perfect match for her generous budget and exacting standards. Catherine the Great, who witnessed Rastelli’s numerous do-overs, likened the renovation to, “the work of Penelope: the next day the previous day’s work [is] destroyed.” But Elizabeth was so delighted with the finished product that she made Rastrelli a Russian count.

Rastrelli created a classic seventeenth-century setting for a French levée. Visitors to the Catherine Palace hardly had time to marvel over the solid marble Formal Staircase before being drawn into one continuous enfilade of rooms leading to the Empress, who was called “the Russian Venus.” This architecture created drama and anticipation and suited Elizabeth’s love of pageantry and ceremony. For formal occasions, Rastrelli created the magnificent Grand Ballroom with eleven high windows to let the sunlight burnish the richly gilded reliefs on the walls and set the mirrored walls glittering.

Rastrelli was a master at making the most of the materials he found in Northern Russia. There was very little suitable stone for masonry in the environs of St. Petersburg, so Rastrelli used plaster, perfecting the art of creating painted façades with elaborate sculptures. The stunning turquoise 1,200-foot façade of the Catherine Palace was set off by almost life-sized caryatids, today no longer gilded in solid gold as in Rastrelli and Elizabeth’s opulent time. Nor are the sculptures which graced the roof, which prompted many of the peasants in surrounding villages to believe that the roof was made of solid gold. (Read more.)

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