In search of a pair of imperial Russian palaces, I find myself hopelessly lost amid the wild brambles of Alexander Park. Someone told me there is a way to enter through the gardens so you come upon the palaces – the Alexander and the Catherine – much the way the czars did, when, fleeing the formality and intrigue of court life at St. Petersburg, they took up residence here.
I’m doing this all backwards, I think as I slog my way past yet another folly/pavilion/victory column/caprice. Finally, I figure I’m getting close. Approaching from behind what I recognize as the Chinese Theater, the onion domes of the palace chapel suddenly blaze, golden, in the cloudless sky. Crossing around and behind the theater brings me out on to the Grand Allee that leads directly into the gilded courtyard of the Catherine Palace, the eyes of the imperial eagle meeting mine. Caught in its fierce double-headed glare, it’s difficult not to feel like a serf.
Ghosts are everywhere here: Catherine the Great and her coterie of famous lovers; Rasputin; the poet-laureate Alexander Pushkin; Nicholas and Alexandra and their doomed children. Different centuries, different times; two palaces: Tsarkoe Selo, the imperial town. One cannot help but feel invited, implored even, to enter the picture and touch what still remains, to hear the music and listen to the whispers.
What has become almost overwhelmingly grand started rather simply – or as simple as these things ever are. In 1710, Peter the Great made a small gift to his wife, Empress Catherine, of an estate south of St. Petersburg, Tsarkoe Selo, or Village of the Czar. Imperial architects built her a single story palace.
But a residence of such modest scale was not enough to satisfy her daughter, Empress Elizabeth, who took the place over in 1741. She enlarged the palace twice and named it after her mother, employing the Italian architect Rastrelli to endow it with the outlines and splendor it retains today.
The lavish gilding of the facades was echoed by a precession of state rooms known as the Golden Enfilade, which runs the length of the palace – an astonishing 1,000 feet. A series of five huge antechambers, now closed for renovations, in which the visitors would wait to be received by the empress, leads into the Great Hall, itself more that 164 feet long and abundantly ornate. For court balls and masquerades, the room was lit by more than 60,000 candles. Across the ceiling spans a monumental fresco, the “Triumph of Russia,” glorifying the nations achievements.
There is room after room of opulent moldings, intricate parquets and a vast display of wealth: the Green and Raspberry Pilaster Rooms, the Portrait Room, the Picture Hall, with some 130 canvases crowding the walls. The Amber Room, still being refurbished and only partly restored, once housed a spectacular series of amber panels that were looted by the Nazis.
In 1762, the palace came into the hands of Catherine the Great, who was to make it her favorite residence for more than 30 years, arriving every spring in time to celebrate her birthday.
Greatly influenced by the new vogue for “antique” looks, the empress commissioned the Scottish architect Charles Cameron to carry out the decorations. He produced a decor of great sophistication, covering the walls and ceilings with opaline glass and Lyons silks and sprinkling them with friezes and delicate patterns in bronze gilt.
Walk through the Buffet and you come to the Green Dining Room, Cameron’s first in a suite of salons; the Blue Drawing Room, with its turquoise inlays, blue crystal floor lamps and stellar painted ceiling; the Chinese Blue Drawing Room, walled with hand-painted Chinese landscapes.
Cameron went on to build the adjoining Agate Rooms, which flaunted the natural wealth of the empire, with an abundance of malachite, alabaster, porphyry, jasper, agate, amber and lapis lazuli.
As if to draw this litany of magnificent creation to a close, Catherine commissioned another Italian architect, Giacomo Quarenghi, to build a palace next door, the Alexander Palace, for her favorite grandson, the future Alexander I, the one on whom she founded her greatest hopes.