The Birth of Saint Petersburg
Russia, or “Muscovy” as it was often called, had rarely been considered a part of Europe before the reign of Czar Peter I (Piotr Alexeievich), known as Peter the Great (r. 1682–1725). His supremacy marked the beginning of the country’s “Westernization,” whereby the political, economic, and cultural norms of the western European monarchies would become the basis for “civilizing” Russia. A radical transformation was needed to launch Russia into the modern world, a transformation later called the Petrine Revolution. The young czar, feeling oppressed by the medieval traditions and ecclesiastical patriarchy of seventeenth-century Moscow, wanted to Westernize Russia in a hurry, defying the sluggish pace of history.
Saint Petersburg was born on May 16, 1703 (May 5 by the old Julian Russian calendar). On that day, on a small island on the north bank of the Neva River, Peter cut two pieces of turf and placed them cross-wise. The setting was inauspicious. The area was a swamp that remained frozen from early November to March, with an annual average of 104 days of rain and 74 days of snow. The army, under the command of Alexander Menshikov (1996.7), had conquered the region shortly before. To show his gratitude, the czar later appointed Menshikov the first governor-general of Saint Petersburg. The fortification of the territory kept the Swedish enemy at bay and secured for Russia permanent access to the Baltic Sea (historic plan of Saint Petersburg). The partially ice-free harbor would be crucial to further economic development. All buildings on the site were erected on wooden poles driven into the marshy, unstable ground. Stones were a rare commodity in Russia, and about as valuable as precious metals.
The Dutch name “Piterburkh” (later changed to the German version, “Petersburg”) embodied the czar’s fascination with Holland and its small-scale urban architecture. He disliked patriarchal court ceremony and felt at ease in the bourgeois domestic life that he experienced during his travels throughout Europe on “the Great Embassy” (1697–98). However, the primary purpose of this voyage was to acquire firsthand knowledge of shipbuilding—his personal passion—and to learn about progressive techniques and Western ideas.
The victory over the Swedish army at Poltava in June 1709 elevated Russia to the rank of a European power, no longer to be ignored. Peter triumphed: “Now with God’s help the final stone in the foundation of Saint Petersburg has been laid.” By 1717, the city’s population of about 8,000 had tripled, and grew to around 40,000 by the time of Peter’s death in 1725. Saint Petersburg had become the commercial, industrial, administrative, and residential “metropolis” of Russia. By the 1790s, it had surpassed Moscow as the empire’s largest urban vicinity and was hailed as the “Venice of the North,” an allusion to the waterway system around the local “Grand Canal,” the Neva River.
Peter the Great’s Successors
The short reign of Peter’s second wife, Empress Catherine I (r. 1725–27), who depended on her long-time favorite Menshikov, saw the reinstatement of the luxurious habits of the former imperial household. The archaic and ostentatious court display in the Byzantine tradition which Peter had so despised was now to be restored under the pretext of glorifying his legacy. Enormous sums of money were lavished on foreign luxury items, demonstrating the court’s new international status and its observance of western European manners (68.141.133).
During the reigns of Empress Anna Ioannovna (r. 1730–40), niece of Peter I (1982.60.330a,b), and her successor Elizabeth (Elizaveta Petrovna, r. 1741–61; 1978.554.2), Peter’s daughter, Saint Petersburg was transformed into a Baroque extravaganza through the talents of architect Bartolomeo Carlo Rastrelli (1700–1771) and other Western and Russian artisans. Foreign powers began to recognize Russia’s importance and competed for closer diplomatic relations. Foreign immigrants increased much faster than the local population, as scholars, craftsmen, artisans, and specialists of all kinds flocked to the country, and especially to Saint Petersburg (65.47; 1982.60.172,.173; 1995.327).
Catherine the Great (r. 1762–96)
In a coup d’état assisted by the five Orloff brothers (33.165.2a-c; 48.187.386,.387), Catherine II overthrew her husband, the ill-fated Peter III (r. 1761) and became empress. Catherine saw herself as the political heir of Peter the Great. A German-born princess of Anhalt-Zerbst who, after her marriage, became more Russian than any native, Catherine aimed at completing Peter’s legacy (52.189.11; 48.73.1). Having lived in isolation in the shadow of Elizabeth I since her marriage to the grand duke in 1745, the time had come to satisfy her thirst for life and her insatiable quest for culture and international recognition. An admirer of the Enlightenment and devoted aficionada of Voltaire’s writings, Catherine stimulated his cult in Russia (1972.61). In response, the French philosopher dedicated a poem to the czarina; her reply, dated October 15, 1763, initiated a correspondence that influenced the empress on many matters until Voltaire’s death in 1778. The hothouse cultural climate of Saint Petersburg during Catherine’s reign can be compared to the artistic and intellectual ferment in New York City in the second half of the twentieth century.
Catherine’s desire to enhance her fame and her claim to the throne was immortalized by her own witty play on words in Latin: “Petro Primo / Catharina Secunda” (To Peter the First / from Catherine the Second). This she had inscribed on the vast lump of granite in the form of a wave supporting the Bronze Horseman on the banks of the Neva in front of Saint Isaac’s Cathedral in Saint Petersburg. This triple-lifesize equestrian figure of Peter the Great took the French sculptor Falconet twelve years to complete, until it was finally cast—after three attempts—in 1782.
Catherine had military expansion plans for Russia and a cultural vision for its capital Saint Petersburg. Above all, she knew how to attract devoted supporters. Only nine days after the overthrow of her husband, Catherine wrote to Denis Diderot, offering to print his famous Encyclopédie, which had been banned in France. Catherine recognized the power of art to demonstrate political and social maturity. She acquired entire collections of painting (Watteau, for example), sculpture, and objects. The empress avoided anything that could be called mediocre or small. With the help of sophisticated advisors, such as Prince Dmitry Golitsyn, her ambassador in Paris, Denis Diderot, Falconet, and the illustrious Baron Friedrich Melchior Grimm, the empress assembled the core of today’s State Hermitage Museum. Catherine favored luxury goods from all over Europe (33.165.2a-c; 48.187.386,.387; 17.190.1158). She commissioned Sèvres porcelain and Wedgwood pottery as well as hundreds of pieces of ingeniously conceived furniture from the German manufactory of David Roentgen in Neuwied (48.73.1). Furthermore, she encouraged and supported Russian enterprises and craftsmen, like local silversmiths (47.51.1-.5; 1981.367.1,.2) and the Imperial Porcelain Manufactory (1982.60.171; 1982.60.177,.178; 1982.60.175), as well as privately owned manufactories (1982.60.158). Catherine especially liked the sparkling decorative products of the Tula armory steel workshop (2002.115), genuine Russian art forms with a fairy-tale-like appearance, and in 1775 merged her large collection of Tula objects with the imperial crown jewels in a newly constructed gallery at the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg.
Catherine’s son and successor Paul I (Pavel Petrovich, r. 1796–1801) disliked his mother and her aesthetic sensibility (1998.13.1,.2). As grand duke, he had spent most of his time with his second wife Maria Feodorovna (1999.525) outside of Saint Petersburg, in Gatchina Palace and Pavlovsk Palace. These they transformed into the finest Neoclassical architectural gems in Europe (1976.155.110; 2002.115).
Koeppe, Wolfram. “Saint Petersburg.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/stpt/hd_stpt.htm (October 2003)
Cracraft, James. The Petrine Revolution in Russian Imagery. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.
Koeppe, Wolfram, and Marina Nudel. "An Unsuspected Bust of Alexander Menshikov." Metropolitan Museum Journal 35 (2000), pp. 161–77.
Shvidkovsky, Dmitri, and Alexander Orloff. St. Petersburg: Architecture of the Tsars. New York: Abbeville, 1995.