St. Petersburg: architecture

August 14, 2011 • 6:10 am

My brain hurts from reading theology, and I’m also engaged in another brain-using activity, so I’ll delay any substantive posting for a day or so. In the meantime, I’ll continue my series on St. Petersburg. (I have a lot more to show!).  Today I’ll put up some of the architecture, leaving the Hermitage and its wonderful art for later this week.

But here is the State Hermitage Museum, occupying several palaces in the main square of St. Petersburg. (The tsars would often build palaces for their favorite nobles and sycophants).  The museum dates from 1764 and holds collections originating with Catherine the Great, who used it to store her enormous collection of art. This collection was eventually shown to the public when the building opened as a museum a century later.  It is the largest art museum in the world if one considers the number of its holdings, and I’ve never seen a better art museum. (I”ll show some of the paintings and interiors this week).

The Hermitage occupies six buildings that adjoin; four of them, including the Winter Palace, are open to the public.  The picture above is of the Winter Palace, which was the residence of the tsars from 1728 until 1917, when the last Romanovs were deposed during the revolution and, a year later, murdered by the Bolsheviks in Ekaterinburg.  The building was occupied by several of the governments that ensued after the October revolution.

Here’s the complex of buildings that include the Winter Palace; this shot is taken from across the Neva river:

The Winter Palace and other buildings stand in a monumental square, the Dvortsvoaya Place, or Palace square; it’s the heart of historic St. Petersburg. The first shot is of the Winter Palace from across the square; the second of the square itself from the third floor of the Winter Palace:

Here’s one of the Hermitage gates, showing the double-headed eagle that was the symbol of the Romanov dynasty:

Here is another palace, the famous Marble Palace built between 1768 and 1785 by architect Antonio Rinaldi. It’s said to use 36 different kinds of marble, all integrated into a harmonious structure.  It was a gift to a nobleman, Grigory Orlov, from Catherine the Great, and now houses a branch of the Russian State Museum. The statue of Alexander III has been the butt of jokes for its corpulent horse and rider.  When asked about it, sculptor Paolo Trubetskoy said, “I don’t care about politics. I simply depicted one animal on another.”  (As with all pictures, click to enlarge, and click this one twice to see how unconventional the statue is.)

The Peterhof is Peter the Great’s summer palace, residing on the Gulf of Finland 45 minutes by hydrofoil from St. Petersburg.  Begun in 1714 (the grounds include several buildings), it’s an amazing place, more to be seen from the outside, which includes its incredible gravity-fed fountains, than from the inside, which is only partly renovated:

The view from the Peterhof down to the water is splendid and imposing; visitors were obviously meant to be impressed:

The fountains are amazing. They’re turned on promptly at 11 a.m., accompanied by loud patriotic music. This is the famous “cascade”:

Russian churches, with their onion-shaped domes, are justly famous.  One of the best is the gruesomely named Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood in St. Petersburg. It was built between 1883 and 1907, and modelled in part on the famous St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow’s Red Square. It is so named because it was built to commemorate the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, who was killed by terrorists on the spot in 1881. Inside the church is a jasper canopy above the spot where the tsar died.

It’s very elaborate inside. It was originally meant only as a private venue for mourning, but was opened to the people by the Bolsheviks. It underwent an elaborate restoration from 1970-1997:

Finally, two other buildings. One of my favorites is the Art Nouveau Singer Building, built in 1904 by, yes, the Singer Sewing Machine Company, which had a branch in the city.  It also housed the American consulate before the First World War, and is now a bookstore:

St. Petersburg is occasionally marred by dreadful examples of Soviet-era architecture, severe and fascistic. The Finland Station is one of these; here’s another:

To me St. Petersburg resembles a cross between Amsterdam and Venice, situated as it is on islands and dissected by canals.  A typical view from the historic area:

And wandering around, one constantly gets a frisson of pleasure from details like this:

Do go if you get a chance; it’s one of the loveliest cities I’ve ever seen.

18 thoughts on “St. Petersburg: architecture

  1. I knew you couldn’t be done with St. Petersburg. Well that’s just stunning. You don’t see that kind of urban open space here. love the fountains.

  2. Sadly, even the “severe and fascistic” Soviet architecture has more going for it than the typical office building in this part of the world. And even the grandest of Phoenix cathedrals can’t hold a candle to their Russian counterparts.

    Ah, well….


    1. Winter palace was damaged, it was directly hit by 2 bombs and 32 shells.

      Peterhof was ocсupied and mostly destroyed, you can see how it looked like on first photo here

      Church of the Saviour on Spilled Blood was used as mortuary.

      If you want to get an impression here is a collection of superimposed photos, taken from the same place now and during blockade.

      Many items from museum collections were evacuated, some buried under ground and some captured and removed by German forces. The most known from last category is Amber Room (Amber Cabinet?), which was never found and rebuild from scratch in 1981-1997. I wonder if Jerry visited it, it’s beautiful sight.

  3. Terrific pictures. Now I need to apply for that zoning variance so I can duplicate the Winter Palace in my yard.

  4. Part of the German film ‘Downfall’ was shot in Saint Petersburg because some of the street architecture resembled Berlin. German architects were also active there too before WWI. It was thought easier to use Saint Petersburg than to have to try to recreate the street scenes anywhere within Germany. The interior shots were done on set in Munich.

  5. Is there any particular meaning to all those fancy domes having different patterns etc or is it merely to look pretty?

    It’s not hard to understand the revolution when you see they way the ruling classes flaunted their wealth in the face of the poor. Fabulous and disgusting all at the same time.

    1. This is just from a Google search so I can’t say if the information is accurate…

      This article on domes has a section on Russian domes that says the number of domes can be symbolic. The article is interesting for itself.

      This eHow: Colors of the Domes of Orthodox Churches says

      The symbolism of the colors of Orthodox domes is not strictly assigned, but can be extrapolated from the rules guiding Orthodox art. For instance, in Orthodox iconography, gold represents the light of God and his divine nature. Red is traditionally a reminder of the passion and suffering of Jesus and the martyrs, but also signifies the Resurrection and eternal life. Green is the color of the Holy Spirit, the natural world and new life. Blue is a color associated with the “God bearer,” or mother of Jesus, Mary. White is another symbol of the light of God, and is also used to denote righteousness, purity and holiness.

      I have seen other articles saying the same.

      See the sections entitled Layout, Structure & Color: Cathedral of the Protection of Most Holy Theotokos on the Moat,
      Temple of Basil the Blessed
      The Book of Revelation was an influence

      The 25 seats from the biblical reference are alluded to in the building’s structure, with the addition of eight small onion domes around the central tent, four around the western side church and four elsewhere. This arrangement survived through most of the 17th century. Walls of the church mixed bare red brickwork or painted imitation of bricks with white ornaments, in roughly equal proportion. The domes, covered with tin, were uniformly gilded, creating an overall bright but fairly traditional combination of white, red and golden colours. Moderate use of green and blue ceramic inserts provided a touch of rainbow as prescribed by the Bible

      The ‘swirly’ ribs, the straight ribs & the other 3D patterning effects remind me of Islamic art [non-representational geometry], but there seems to be different schools of thought about the origins. I wonder if it was left to the master builder & what was hot that year 🙂

  6. Their treasures are just stunning. Finally people are traveling to all corners of the world – we all have soooo much to learn. Great stuff.

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