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Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Catherine Palace

A single photo cannot contain it all, but this is a decent try. The impact of Versailles, outside
Paris, on the palatial tastes of European royalty can hardly be overstated.

Even as you encounter the front gate
(here seen from the inside) you know you're
in for quite a spectacle.
When tourists like myself plop down excessive wads of cash to catch a glimpse of Russia today, the country likes to put its best foot forward. The Hermitage, which I wrote about a couple days ago (below) notwithstanding, Catherine the Great had some pretty great digs. Even if you've seen pictures and have a fair idea what to expect, the effect of "way too much" and "over the top" is eye-popping. If you like gold leaf, if you like amber (the semi-precious stone, not the hue), if you like Russian Rococo, the 18th century architecture, turquoise (the hue, not the stone), and decadent ostentation, you're gonna love the summer home of Russia's Empress Catherine II.
Posthumous coronation portrait
Catherine II, 1793, Stefano Torrelli,
Fortunately, the palace had wide doorways.

Catherine was born in 1729 and lived to the ripe old age (for the time) of 67. Actually her birth name was Sophie Friederike Auguste. Prussian by birth, she came to Russia through an arranged marriage to her second cousin, the soon-to-be-tsar, Peter III, assuming the name of Catherine. She was 16 at the time. With the death of Peter's mother, the Empress Elizabeth, daughter of Catherine I, in 1762, and the ascendancy of Peter III to the throne, his wife became the Empress Consort. Brutal politics and palace intrigue were hallmarks of the Romanov dynasty and the eccentric (and perhaps not too bright) Peter III played the game rather poorly. Within six months there was a palace coup. Catherine II forced her husband to abdicate and shortly thereafter, he found out just how cutthroat (literally) the game could be. Catherine, on the other hand, took to empressing quite  well. She ruled Russia with grace, charm, and most of all, enlightened intelligence for the next 34 years.

There are other such gold leaf interiors in royal palaces dotting Europe from the same
period, but Catherine's delight in its glittering glow is unmatched among the lot.
Catherine's Palace, located in the Saint Petersburg suburb of Puskin, is an architectural portrait of Catherine II as vivid as Torrelli's painted posthumous coronation extravaganza (above, right). Remodeling and rebuilding upon the efforts of her mother-in-law, Elizabeth, the palace has a decidedly feminine aura, unlike the older Peterhof Palace which seems more masculine. This is especially notable inside both structures. Though the Peterhof Palace is sometimes referred to as the "Russian Versailles," the architectural influence of French residential confection of Louis XIV is every bit as much evidenced in Catherine's version. Anything that didn't move was liable to receive a layer of gold leaf, an affectation Catherine seems to have acquired from Elizabeth.

The Amber Room, 1938,
before the Nazis absconded with it.
The palace, its lavish interiors, the well-ordered grounds, the fountains, the statuary, and the lovely shade of turquoise blue we see today is not that of Catherine II. It's all restoration. As with the Peterhof Palace, the Nazis, as they laid siege to Saint Petersburg (then Leningrad) during WW II were not kind to Catherine's creation. By the end of the war, both palaces were bombed out, burned out hulks. Some of their riches had been hidden, even buried on the palace grounds, but Hitler's hoard went out of their way to destroy that which they couldn't carry off. One example, the Amber Room, simply disappeared, never to be seen again. The Russians began restoration immediately after the war and have been working on the project ever since. The Amber Room today is a total, though fairly accurate, recreation.

The Russians have lavished millions upon million of rubles upon their restroration efforts, probably as much or more than that which Catherine expended. The results are undeniably impressive, and no doubt largely responsible for Saint Petersburg being the number one tourist attraction in all Russia. Yet, despite the importance of such opulent excess in Russian history and culture, and the millions of tourist euros and dollars these palaces and museums contribute to the Russian economy today, one has to wonder, with all the desperate privation bearing upon the Russian people in the years since the war,--why?
The grand staircase, 1945

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