Catherine Palace, Russia

15 miles from Saint Petersburg is Catherine Palace, also called Tsarskoye Selo Palace. Commissioned in 1710 by Peter the Great as a summer residence for his wife, it evolved into the opulent and gilded residence of Russian emperors and empresses for two hundred years until the Russian Empire collapsed in 1917.

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1 Early History of Catherine Palace near Saint Petersburg, Russia

Among the land acquired by the Russians after their victory over the Swedes in 1709 was the Sarishoff estate (Sarskaya Myza). In 1710, Peter the Great gifted the property to his fiancée, Catherine Alexeyevna. Her name had been Marta Skavronskaya before converting to the Russian Orthodox religion five years before. As her summer residence was being built, the town of Tsarskoe Selo emerged to house servants and builders. After the death of Peter I in 1727, she became Catherine I, Empress of All Russia, for two years. During her reign, the palace that bore her name was relatively modest. But by the mid-18th century, Catherine Palace evolved into an extravagant imperial residence. Its lavish Russian Baroque design rivaled the most beautiful European palaces. When Catherine the Great died in 1796 and her son became Russian Emperor Paul I, he abandoned the palace. Although other Russian rulers of the Romanov dynasty occasionally used the Great Tsarskoye Selo Palace until 1917, it never regained the glory of the 18th century. Catherine Palace is located in the municipal town of Pushkin, a suburb of Saint Petersburg about 15 miles from city center.

Garden St, 7, Pushkin, Sankt-Peterburg, Russia, 196601
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2 Catherine Palace Façade near Saint Petersburg, Russia

The blue and white façade of Catherine Palace is stunning. At the center entrance are eight Corinthian columns plus four taller ones above the portico. Surrounding the double staircase are marble statues. Also notice the intricate bas-reliefs and medallions gracing every window. On a clear day you will be awed by the glitter … lots of glitter. Over 100 kilograms (220 pounds) of gold were used on the façade and rooftop. That is worth over $4 million in U.S. dollars.

Garden St, 7, Pushkin, Sankt-Peterburg, Russia, 196601
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3 Atlantes Sculptures on Catherine Palace near Saint Petersburg, Russia

Along each wing of Catherine Palace are two rows of Baroque gilded Atlantes. On the front of the palace, there are 48 large ones on the first level and 88 on the second story. The same number graces the backside. Using a male figure as a column was introduced by the Greeks during the Early Classical Period (490 to 450 BCE). They typically represent Atlas, the Titan from mythology who was condemned by Zeus to hold up the sky for eternity. These were created by Johann Franz Dunker. The German sculptor also designed the Atlantes and Caryatids (female columns) for the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg. Admiration for Dunker’s work sparked a revival of these columns in architecture through the early 19th century.

Garden St, 7, Pushkin, Sankt-Peterburg, Russia, 196601
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4 Main Staircase in Catherine Palace near Saint Petersburg, Russia

You are immediately impressed as you walk up The Main Staircase at Catherine Palace. The white marble steps and balustrades are accented with vases plus intricate ornamentation and molding. In the corners of this upper landing are two cupids: one is sleeping and the other is awakening. The State Staircase was not part of the original 18th century palace. It was commissioned in 1860 by Empress Maria Alexandrovna, the first wife of Emperor Alexander II. The work was completed in 1863 by architect Ippolito Monighetti.

Garden St, 7, Pushkin, Sankt-Peterburg, Russia, 196601
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5 Great Hall in Catherine Palace near Saint Petersburg, Russia

Overwhelming! That is your first and lingering impression when entering the Great Hall. It is enormous … over 8,600 square feet. It is also called the Bright Gallery because of the streaming sunlight by day and 696 candles at night. It is ornate … over 130 woodcarvers created the ornamentation between 1752 and 1756. And the carvings and stucco glistens with gold. As you stand on the wooden parquet floor, look up. The ceiling displays three allegories representing Russia, peace and victory. The art was designed by Giuseppe Valeriani in 1752. A century later, they were replaced by another painting. In the mid-1950s, two of the three originals panels were discovered. After an extensive restoration, they were replaced on the ceiling along with a reproduction of the missing Allegory of Russia. Now imagine you have been invited here for a ball or masquerade during the mid-18th century.

Garden St, 7, Pushkin, Sankt-Peterburg, Russia, 196601
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6 Rococo Style in Catherine Palace near Saint Petersburg, Russia

In a room as magnificent as the Great Hall, it is hard – no impossible – to focus. Your eyes will dart in every direction in a vain effort to savor every detail. This is classic Rococo design, also called Late Baroque. It is characterized by extravagant ornamentation featuring every imaginable type of scrolls, curves, sculptures, mirrors and plenty of gold. The Rococo period was short lived. It began in France in 1715 and ended at the start of the French Revolution in 1789. When Catherine Palace was built in the mid-18th century, this style was very fashionable among the world’s royalty, nobility and aristocrats.

Garden St, 7, Pushkin, Sankt-Peterburg, Russia, 196601
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7 Architects of Catherine Palace near Saint Petersburg, Russia

While admiring an edifice as magnificent as Catherine Palace and inspecting the golden details inside, you wonder about the gifted minds who designed it. Several architects were part of its evolution from 1710 until 1756. While Catherine was still second consort of Peter the Great, she hired German-born Johann Friedrich Braunstein to build a modest, two floor summer residence. Soon after Catherine’s daughter Elizabeth Petrovna became empress in 1741, she commissioned three successive architects to greatly expand the palace. Then she had a dream of rivaling the Palace of Versailles near Paris. The Chief Architect of the Imperial Court, Bartolomeo Rastrelli, was given the task in 1752. Within four years, he tore down the old Tsarskoe Selo residence and rebuilt Catherine Palace into a showcase of opulence. At the same time, he was managing the creation of Peterhof Palace. From 1721 until shortly after Catherine the Great became empress in 1762, Rastrelli created a dozen Russian palaces – including the Winter Palace – plus the landmark Smolny Convent in Saint Petersburg.

Garden St, 7, Pushkin, Sankt-Peterburg, Russia, 196601
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8 Antechambers in Catherine Palace near Saint Petersburg, Russia

Originally there were five antechambers in the southern section of Catherine Palace. These were elaborate waiting rooms for visiting guests and people with an appointment with the empress. Two were later converted into other halls. This room is the Third Antechamber. When it was remodeled for Catherine the Great, she ordered the installation of freestanding stoves. They were faced with blue and white Delftware tiles imported from the Netherlands. Apparently the empress wanted to keep her guests warm while playing billiards in this room. The doorway led to Arabesque Hall and the private staterooms of Catherine II.

Garden St, 7, Pushkin, Sankt-Peterburg, Russia, 196601
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9 White State Dining Room in Catherine Palace near Saint Petersburg, Russia

“Ladies and gentlemen, dinner is served.” You have just been summoned into the White State Dining Room as a guest of Empress Elizabeth. Encircling the tile stove are paintings by Johann Friedrich Grooth from the mid-18th century. A servant pulls out a gilded chair as you take your assigned place at the oval table garnished with fresh flowers. Each course of your meal is served on famous Meissen porcelain from Germany. This is a banquet you will never forget. There is also an intimate eating area adjacent to the Picture Hall called the Small White Dining Room.

Garden St, 7, Pushkin, Sankt-Peterburg, Russia, 196601
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10 Golden Enfilade in Catherine Palace near Saint Petersburg, Russia

Catherine Palace is 1,066 feet long yet very narrow. The floor plan is a straight line capped by two short wings. Think of the layout as an inverted capital “I.” Several of the rooms are the width of the palace and connected by a narrow doorway. This pathway is called the Golden Enfilade. Tour groups are led along this route and are continuously amazed at each room they encounter.

Garden St, 7, Pushkin, Sankt-Peterburg, Russia, 196601
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11 Restoration of Catherine Palace near Saint Petersburg, Russia

Touring Catherine Palace is overwhelming. The flamboyance of every inch competes for your attention because the details are incredible. An example is this gilded wood carving of a cherub next to the double-headed eagle from Russia’s coat of arms. On top is a facsimile of the Imperial Crown of Russia, worn from 1762 until 1917. Now imagine everything you see in ruins. The Germans occupied the palace from 1941 until 1944. When they left, they destroyed what they could not plunder. In the 1980s, a painstaking restoration process began using old photographs as reference. The project has been expensive. For example, reconstructing the Amber Room cost over $12 million. Work on this palace and the nearby Alexander Palace continues.

Garden St, 7, Pushkin, Sankt-Peterburg, Russia, 196601
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12 Portrait Hall in Catherine Palace near Saint Petersburg, Russia

For 67 of the 71 years between 1725 and 1796, four women were the rulers of Imperial Russia. They were Catherine I, Anna, Elizabeth and Catherine II. You can see several of their likenesses in The Portrait Room. Elizabeth of Russia reigned from 1741 until 1762. This portrait of her was painted by Heinrich Buchholz in 1768. As court artist, Buchholz created several paintings of the Imperial family including a portrait of Catherine the Great also displayed in this room.

Garden St, 7, Pushkin, Sankt-Peterburg, Russia, 196601
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13 Green Dining Room in Catherine Palace near Saint Petersburg, Russia

In 1773, Catherine the Great commissioned architect Vasily Neyelov to design the Green Dining Room as part of the Highnesses’ Apartment for her son Paul. The room and fireplace were decorated with motifs from Greek and Roman antiquity by sculptor Ivan Martos. When Catherine II died of a stroke in 1796, Paul illegitimately claimed to be successor to the crown. His reign lasted less than five years before he was assassinated. Then his son, Alexander I, became emperor as his grandmother had specified in her unread will.

Garden St, 7, Pushkin, Sankt-Peterburg, Russia, 196601
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14 State Study in Catherine Palace near Saint Petersburg, Russia

Grand Duke Alexander Pavlovich was raised by his grandmother, Catherine the Great. In 1793, when he married at the age of 15, Catherine II gifted him the nearby Alexander Palace where he lived. When his father, Paul I, was killed in 1801, Alexander I became Emperor of All Russia until 1825. His legacy is defeating Napoleon’s army during the French invasion of Russia in 1812. Alexander I preferred to conduct formal meetings with certain audiences at Tsarskoe Selo (Catherine Palace). So, in 1817, he commissioned Vasily Stasov to design this State Study. It is also called the Marble study because the walls and columns have a pink marble veneer. The impressive room with friezes and paintings of Cupid was destroyed by fire a few years later and again during the German occupation in World War II. Restoration was finished in 1974.

Garden St, 7, Pushkin, Sankt-Peterburg, Russia, 196601
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15 Nicholas II Portrait in Catherine Palace near Saint Petersburg, Russia

This portrait of Nicholas II is displayed just off the Picture Hall inside Catherine Palace. He reigned from 1894 until 1917 and was the last emperor of Russia. The art by Vladimir Kuznetsov was painted in 1914. Four years later, Nicholas II of Russia, his wife, five children and a few attendants were executed by the Bolsheviks founded by Lenin. The event marked the end of the Russian Empire and gave way to the rise of the Soviet Union. In 1981, Nicholas and his family were canonized as saints by the Russian Orthodox Church.

Garden St, 7, Pushkin, Sankt-Peterburg, Russia, 196601
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16 Catherine Park in Catherine Palace near Saint Petersburg, Russia

When scheduling your visit to Catherine Palace, leave extra time to walk through Catherine Park encircling the palace. The three terraces of the Regular Park were created in the 1720s before and during the reign of Catherine I, the wife of Peter the Great. Also called the Old Garden, it features several ponds, pavilions, baths and sculptures. About fifty years later, architect Vasily Neyelov designed the Landscape Park. The work was managed by John Bush. He was a master gardener from England. This gave the area the second name of English Park. The centerpiece is a lake connected to the other ponds. It includes monuments to Russian war victories plus many buildings such as the Cameron Gallery and Concert Hall.

Garden St, 7, Pushkin, Sankt-Peterburg, Russia, 196601
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