Thursday, July 14, 2011

A Summer Cottage in Tsarkoe Selo

Of course no visit to St. Petersburg is complete without embarking on a visit to some of the royal palaces that the city is famed for, and the jewel in the crown is the Catherine Palace at Tsarkoe Selo 25 kms. outside the city.

Nothing prepares you for the splendor and history that lies beyond the facades of some of these palaces. One has seen everything from the Chinese Imperial Palaces of China, to the magnificence of Versailles, and the almost provincial charm of Kensington Palace and Hampton Court in London. However the series of palaces in St Petersburg will leave you gaping not only for the splendor, but for the tumultuous past of which these structures have risen like phoenixes from the ashes of history. They have been witness to it all, from wars, revolutions, famine and destruction.

(Note, with this post I have included so called ‘before’ and ‘after’ photographs of the palace. The before photographs were taken in 1931 and the after my own.)

It has long been a dream of mine to visit Tsarkoe Selo the home of the summer residences of the Romanovs. There being two main palaces in the area, The Catherine Palace and the Alexander Palace (which I dearly wanted to visit, however due to time etc. could not)
The palace by architect Rastrelli in the Roccoco style with a 325 meter long façade is dazzling! It takes your breath away when you first see it.

From the amazing façade, with its sugar coated frosting to the gold gilding, one cannot help but be impressed (along with the many 1,000s of people, who seemed to arrive just before us). One cannot quietly wander through rooms or the grounds without the ever present hordes of tourists and tour groups jostling for space or that ‘perfect’ picture.

The interiors of the Catherine Palace are no less spectacular.

The Great Hall, also known as the Hall of Light, measures nearly 1,000 square meters, and occupies the full width of the palace and one gets more of an impression of light and grandeur than the fabled Hall of Mirrors at Versailles.

However primarily all come to see the legendary Amber room. (unfortunately photos were not allowed, however the before shot is below)

To create this extraordinary chamber, Rastrelli used the panels of amber mosaic originally destined for an Amber Cabinet at Konigsberg Castle and presented to Peter the Great by Friedrich-Wilhelm I of Prussia, and surrounded them with gilded carving, mirrors, more amber panels created by Florentine and Russian craftsman (comprising a total of 450kg of amber), and further mosaics of Ural and Caucasus gemstones. The room was completed in 1770. Due to the fragility of the materials used, a caretaker was employed constantly to maintain and repair the decorations, and major restoration was undertaken three times in the 19th century. The room was used to house a substantial collection of amber-work and Chinese porcelain.
In 1941, when German troops took Tsarskoe Selo, the Amber Room was dismantled in 36 hours, and shipped to Konigsberg in a tawdry pretence at historical fidelity. As the Nazi war machine crumbled, the panels were crated up and moved out of danger, but their eventual fate is unknown. The room has been re-created in a process that took over 20 years working from photographs and drawings. While impressed with this room, it was all a bit too much for me, as I thought there were much other nicer rooms we visited.

When the German forces retreated after the siege of Leningrad, they intentionally destroyed the palace slashing canvases, burning tapestries and looting everything of value. What they could not carry off they burned, leaving only an empty shell behind.

Prior to World War II, the Russian archivists managed to document a fair amount of the contents, which proved of great importance in reconstructing the palace. Although the largest part of the reconstruction was completed in time for the Tercentenary of St Petersburg in 2003, much work is still required to restore the palace to its former glory.

Year after year, the work continues. That the palaces have been rebuilt seems even more startling that their original construction. The renovations speak volumes about Russian passion, spirit and national pride. Peter (the great) would be proud.

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