Click on photos to enlarge.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

The Peterhof Palace

The Peterhof Palace from below the Cascade, the sites most dramatic feature and most
common view, May 9, 2012. I plan to do a painting from this photo some day.
For those not having visited Saint Petersburg and all its Romanov palaces personally, there might arise the problem of getting them confused.  The answer to that is to remember, the Hermitage is green, Catherine's Palace is blue, and the Peterhof is gold (or maybe just bright yellow). The Russian tour guides will tell you that most of the weather in this northernmost Russian city is cloudy, damp, and cold for all but 30, seldom-consecutive days a year. We were blessed and congratulated on having ushered in two beautiful springtime days when we arrived a week into the month of May. Just two weeks before, the last of the winter's snow had melted. In direct reaction to this mostly intransigent climate, the Russians love color--bright and beautiful, often to the point of gaudy. Not just the palaces, but elsewhere, inside and out, lots of pastels, not to mention and inordinate fondness for gold leaf, colored marbles, and painted stucco.

Originally constructed for the very practical purpose of ferrying building materials to the site,
the Grand (Bolshoi in Russian) Canal, leading from the river up to the foot of the Grand  Cascade, later became the primary point of entry to the Grand Palace for the tsar and important state visitors. It's even more grand when they leave the water running.
The Baroque Peterhof Palace is slightly older (1714-23) and slightly smaller than either Catherine's Rococo abode (1733-52) or the Winter Palace (Hermitage) in beautiful downtown Saint Petersburg. I read that somewhere. You'd never notice in actually visiting the place. In sheer acreage, the Peterhof trumps them all, and indeed, the site is as much known for its upper and lower gardens, its Grand Canal, its dozens of fountains, its monumental statuary, and a smattering of smaller palaces built by later monarchs, as for Peter the Great's imitation of Versailles. But, it was quite a step up from his first Saint Petersburg "palace" which was a log cabin overlooking the Neva (still preserved today).

Peter the Great's working quarters
The study, no effeminate gold leaf here.
Inside, the Peterhof is much more varied and interesting than Catherine II's monotonous infatuation with gold leaf on white. There is some of that, to be sure, but the frequent use of other shades, reds, greens, blues, and rich, wood paneling adds depth and variety to the rooms, allowing them to exist as separate entities. Though the palace was undeniably a male bastion, the influence of Peter's second wife and heir to the throne, Catherine I is noticeable, though its difficult to separate the various eras represented in the interior accouterments. Later tsars, emperors, and empresses all left their mark inside and outside what was, in essence, the Romanov family estate, at least in the summer time.

The vomiting fish
(in gold leaf, of course)
The gargling turtles, the
Romanovs had a sense of humor.
If the Grand Palace is fascinating for its rich decor and history, the grand gardens (my term) are nothing less than masterful, easily rivaling those of Versailles and virtually any other such royal indulgences anywhere in Europe. And, had they been in a more favorable climate, they might well be considered the most beautiful. The upper gardens are rigidly French, the lower gardens much more relaxed and informal with ponds, canals, fountains, and the riverside adding a pleasant aqueous element. Yet this was all part of the norm for 18th century imperial plantings, so much so that it's the surprising, humorous, and trivial that becomes the most memorable (above).

The Peterhof chapel where later
decorating tastes can be felt.
Peter the Great,
B. Koffr, 1713-16
Palatial visits are not for everyone. They represent only one aspect of Russian cultural history and one that can become almost sickeningly pretentious, extravagant, and overindulgent. In modern parlance, they represent how the "two-percent" of their time existed. The rest of the cultural heritage is presented by colorful Cossack dancing, babushka (Matryoshka) dolls, borscht, and picturesque horse-drawn sleighs gliding across  broad, nighttime vistas of pristine show. Of course every country is prone to such generalizations and stereotypes. Tourists are both the cause and the victims of such trite displays of pride and prejudice. A whirlwind one or two day visit is far from enough time to cut through this pretty veil. Saint Petersburg is very much the essence of that veil.

--A tip for those contemplating a visit to Saint Petersburg: combine your visit to the Peterhof Palace with your visit to the Hermitage. The Russians have linked the two by high speed hydrofoil service almost doorstep to doorstep allowing effortless travel the considerable intervening distance. It runs from the Neva River entrance to he Hermitage to the  a dock near the entrance to the Peterhof Grand Canal. You'll never experience a smoother, faster ride on/over the water anywhere. I noticed a girl applying lipstick as the craft skimmed along at 50 mph.


  1. How have I never heard of this place? That canal approach is phenomenal!

    1. One reason the Peterhof hasn't been well recognized is because St.Petersburg has only opened up to tourists in the past decade and even at that is so far off the "grand tour" beaten path of European travel, only the really curious, jaded, bored, and modestly well-off American tourists ever visit the place. And even then, it has to compete with any number of other cultural destination which are all too similar. So, that's what blogs like this are for--art and culture in small doses.