Saint Petersburg: Architectural Paradise
Home to over 1,000 well-preserved historical sites, St. Petersburg is a paradise for lovers of architecture. The Historic Centre of Saint Petersburg and Related Groups of Monuments were inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1990.
In Voltaire’s opinion, “Saint Petersburg incorporates the beauty of all European cities into one,” whilst Alexander Pushkin chose to express his love for the city in his poem, “The Bronze Horseman: A Petersburg Tale.“
I love you, Peter’s great creation; I love your view of stern and grace, The Neva wave’s regal procession, The grayish granite—her bank’s dress,
The airy iron- casting fences, The gentle transparent twilight
Saint Petersburg, a city built on rock by Peter the Great (reign: 1721–1725), is the cultural capital of Russia. It is home to over 1,000 well-preserved historical sites, including 548 palaces, churches and courtyards; 32 memorial tablets; 137 garden landscapes; and more than 200 museums and former-residences of notable figures such as the Pushkin Apartment Museum, Dostoevsky Museum, Stieglitz Museum, and Ilya Repin’s Former Residence. This “Venice of the North” is made up of 42 picturesque islands, numerous interconnected canals and more than 400 bridges, as well as various styles of architecture, such as Baroque, classical, imperial, romantic and eclectic, touched with Mannerist and Gothicstyles. During its 300-plus years of history it has retained many of its important and intricately designed palaces and churches throughout the vicissitudes of history. The Historic Centre of Saint Petersburg and Related Groups of Monuments were inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1990.
Imperial Capital on the Marsh
Situated in the northwest of Russia, Saint Petersburg is located on the Baltic Sea and is the second largest city in the country after Moscow, as well as the former capital of Imperial Russia.
Saint Petersburg was originally a wetland at the head of the Gulf of Finland on the Baltic Sea. The area around the
wetland including the Gulf of Finland was previously called “Ingermanland” and was inhabited by Finnic tribe of Ingrians. In order to gain a seaport to Western Europe, Peter the Great waged his “Great Northern War”(1700–1721), declaring the establishment of a new imperial capital—saint Petersburg— on the bank of the Neva River at the entrance to the Gulf of Finland in 1703, thereby firmly gaining control of the seas and realising his ambition of conquering Europe. On May 27, 1703, the foundations of the Peter and Paul Fortress were laid. Over the two years from 1713 to 1714, Peter the Great then moved the capital from Moscow to Saint Petersburg, marking the first time the city became the capital of the Russian monarchy. Additions to the capital took place over more than 200 years throughout the reigns of Catherine the Great, Alexander I and Nicholas II. The city gradually turned from a marsh into one of the most glorious political, cultural and economic centres of Russia, in what Pushkin called “Russia’s window to the West.”
Peter the Great appointed Swiss architect Domenico Trezzini (1670–1734) as chief architect of the new city’s urban planning. The Summer Palace of Peter the Great, Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral, and the Saint Petersburg State University were all designed by Trezzini. In addition to palaces and churches, he also designed three types of standard residence for rich people or craftsmen, merchants and the nobility, respectively, to suit the developing capitalist economy. Over 300 years later, the central area of Saint Petersburg has been largely preserved according to Trezzini’s blueprints, and still meets the requirements of a modern city.
Victory in the Great Northern War gave Russia control over the Baltic Sea region, allowing it to dominate Europe. At that time, the main architectural style in Saint Petersburg was the magnificent and prosperous Baroque. A large number of palaces and churches rose up, including the Winter Palace (now the State Hermitage Museum) and Saint Isaac’s Cathedral, laying bare Imperial Russia’s aggressive foreign expansion. In 1714, Peter the Great banned the construction of stone houses in other cities across the country and ordered that all masons join in the construction of the new capital. About 100,000 craftsmen are said to have been sent to work on the swampy site and stone from all over the nation had to be transported there to lay its foundations. In addition, ships arriving in the city had to pay taxes, not in the form of money, but in stone they had to bring with them. At the time, large ships were required to carry 30 stones, and small boats were required to carry 10 stones, each weighing no less than 10 pounds.
Saint Petersburg is well-known for its network of canals connected to the Neva River, which has earned it the title of the “Venice of the North.” The digging of these manmade canals was ordered by Catherine the Great, the only woman to ever be called tsar, who had them built to ease the flooding of the city from the Gulf of Finland. Since her coronation in 1762, Catherine had established Saint Petersburg as Russia’s only capital, ending the period of the capital switching back and forth between Saint Petersburg and Moscow. The canals helped facilitate transportation and develop the urban
economy, with commercial ships from Finland, Sweden and other countries still passing through its canals even today.
In addition, the city’s more than 400 large and small bridges over the canals form a unique sight every summer known as “Whites Nights and Open Bridges.” Between 2 and 5 a.m. when the skies are still light from April to November every year, the bridges over the Neva River slowly open up until they reach 45 degrees. The bridges open to allow large boats to pass through on their way to Finland, Sweden and other Northern European countries, leaving pedestrians unable to cross between parts of the city.
Grand and Gorgeous Palaces
The 74-kilometre-long Neva River begins in Lake Ladoga, with a 28-kilometrelong stretch flowing through the city of Saint Petersburg. Along the city’s “mother river” sit numerous palaces, mansions and churches. These buildings have borne witness to the history of Saint Petersburg, especially the Winter and Summer palaces, both of which are considered must-see architectural masterpieces.
The Artistic Winter Palace
The Winter Palace is the most famous building in Saint Petersburg. Situated between the Palace Embankment and Palace Square, facing the Neva River, it now houses part of the State Hermitage Museum. This great building has suffered many misfortunes since construction began around 1754. In the middle of the 19th century, a special law was enacted by the government that all buildings in Saint Petersburg except churches must be lower than the Winter Palace. Unfortunately, however, the palace burned down in a fire in 1837 and was then rebuilt from 1838 to 1839. During World War II (1939–1945), it was badly damaged again and then restored after the war. On November 7, 1917, it was stormed and captured by the masses during the October Revolution uprising, who arrested ministers of the bourgeois provisional government, marking the former imperial palace’s transfer to the hands of the people. After the October Revolution, the Hermitage Museum was established in 1922 and incorporated into part of the palace. Together with the Louvre in Paris, the British Museum in London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Hermitage Museum is one of the four biggest museums in the world.
The Winter Palace is a three-story green-and-white building, and the largest and most characteristic Baroque-style building in Saint Petersburg. In the shape of an elongated rectangle, the Winter Palace’s four sides each have distinctive features, although the interior design and decorations are strictly uniform. With an inner courtyard, the palace faces the Palace Square, the Navy Headquarters and the Neva River in three directions, and connects to the Small Hermitage Palace on the fourth side. On the side facing the Palace Square, the palace protrudes slightly in the centre, and features an opening with three arches and iron gates, and atop the building stand a group of statues of Atlas.
Rooms in the Winter Palace are sumptuously decorated, many with precious Russian stones such as malachite, jasper and agate. For example, the Malachite Room contains two tons of malachite, as well as a parquet floor made of nine types of hardwood. The palace also houses a collection of nearly three million antiques and artefacts from around the world, making it one of the largest collections in the world, including works by such masters as Da Vinci (1452– 1519), Raphael (1483–1520), Rembrandt (1606–1669) and Rubens (1577–1640). Among them, the four most worth seeing are the Egyptian mummy, the Peacock Clock, Da Vinci’s “Madonna and Child” and Rembrandt’s “Return of the Prodigal Son.” It’s said that if you spent one minute admiring every exhibit for eight hours a day, it would take you 11 years to see the whole collection.
The ‘Russian Versailles’
The Peterhof Palace, also known as Peter the Great’s Summer Palace, is located 29 kilometres west of Saint Petersburg on the Gulf of Finland. Built in 1714, it was formerly a retreat for the tsars on the outskirts of the city. The palace’s Summer Gardens are divided into upper and lower sections. The large palace sits in the upper garden, from which one can look down a cascade of fountains in the centre of the lower garden heading towards the river.
The Peterhof Palace was built by Peter the Great along the Baltic Sea as his summer residence. During the reign
(1762–1796) of Catherine the Great, the palace was expanded. Modelled on the Versailles Palace in France, it is sometimes also known as the “Russian Versailles.” Its magnificently decorated interior includes a reception hall, ballroom, portrait hall and the China room. The most popular sites with visitors are Peter the Great’s oak study and the oak staircase leading to it, the China room decorated with an 18th century Chinese lacquer screen and furniture, and the mirrored ballroom modelled on the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles.
The Peterhof Palace is famous for its cascade of fountains, with water being supplied directly from natural springs. Known as the “Capital of Fountains” and “Kingdom of Fountains,” the Grand Cascade includes over a hundred sculptures, 150 fountains, more than 2,000 spray columns and two trapezoidal waterfalls, and cleverly utililises the natural drop in height from the palace to the river below.
Diverse Styles of Churches
In addition to the grand and gorgeous royal palaces, Saint Petersburg is also dotted with many religious structures, such as the Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood, Saint Isaac’s Cathedral, the Catholic Church of St. Catherine and the Alexander Nevsky Monastery. These edifices are not only representatives of religious belief, but are also historical and architectural marvels.
The colourful Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood with its large decorated onion domes is a landmark building and one of the few traditional orthodox churches in Saint Petersburg. Its official name is the “Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ,” it stands around 81 metres (m) in height, built in both Baroque and neoclassical styles, and was partially modelled on St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow. In stark contrast to the classical architecture nearby, its coloured ceramic tiles and enamelled copper panels make it one of only a few purely Russian-style buildings in Saint Petersburg.
The cathedral was built between 1883 and 1907 to honour Emperor Alexander II (1855–1881), who was assassinated in 1881 by the “People’s Will,” a radical revolutionary group which advocated the overthrow of the monarchy and the establishment of rural communes. As such, it acquired the nickname “Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood.” After the October Revolution in 1917, the church was ransacked and so severely destroyed inside that the Soviet government closed it down. The cathedral underwent a long restoration project beginning in July 1970 and ending with its reopening in August 1997. The exquisite mosaics and murals on display in the present- day Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood are testament to the thoroughness of the 27-year-long restoration.
Perfect Classical Work
Saint Isaac’s Cathedral stands on Saint Isaac’s Square and is both the main cathedral of the Russian Empire and the largest of its kind in Saint Petersburg. Along with St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, St. Paul’s Cathedral in London and the Basilica of Saint Mary of the Flower in Florence, Saint Isaac’s Cathedral is one of the world’s four great churches. Designed and constructed by French architect Auguste de Montferrand (1786–1858) from 1818 to 1858, the building was called the “last perfect classical work.” About 440,000 workers spent 40 years to complete the building, spending more man-hours than for any other church in Saint Petersburg. Its large central dome affords commanding views over the old city to tourists who can access a walkway that encircles it.
The cathedral is approximately 102 m high and has three large oak doors on one side, each weighing approximately 20 tons and covering an area of 42 square metres, and above each of which is a relief depicting stories from the Gospels. The cathedral’s spacious interior allows it to hold nearly ten thousand people at the same time; and various kinds of precious stone used in its construction reflect its glory and dignity. The main altar’s wall is carved with icons, each framed in white marble and separated by six malachite pilasters from the Urals. It is said that the cost of this wall alone accounted for 10 percent of the total costs of the project. The dome at the centre of the cathedral is equally impressive, measuring over 100 m high and 25 m in diameter. The dome’s frescoes are painted to the subject of the “Virgin in Glory” by the famous Russian painter, Karl Bryullov (1799–1852).
The Winter Palace, situated on the bank of the Neva River
The Summer Palace, known for its ingeniously-designed fountains
Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood