The turn of the 17th and 18th centuries marks the beginning of a new period for Russian engraving, which owes a lot to the reforms of Peter the Great. He initiated and assisted the modernization of old printing centres (the Armoury Chamber, the Mint Court) and foundation of new ones (V.O. Kipriyanov's "Civil Printing House" and the "St Petersburg Printing Works"). In addition to funding the printing centres, Peter also set them specific targets reflecting his reforming activities. Under the Emperor's personal influence, engravings became the medium for new ideas in all spheres of cultural, political, social and ideological life.
The collection of engravings from Peter's time in the prints section at the Department of the History of Russian Culture is one of the largest in Russia - both in terms of the number of plates and the quality of the prints themselves. It is unique in its composition and scale and is comparable to such superb collections of early 18th-century engravings as those of the State Historical Museum, the State Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, and the Russian National Library. An important part of the Hermitage collection contains works by European master engravers, who were invited to work in Russia by Peter the Great: Andriaan Schoonebeek, Pieter Picart and Henrik Devit. Many rare and valuable plates were made by remarkable Russian masters, such as the brothers Alexei and Ivan Zubov, Alexei Rostovtsev and Vasily Kipriyanov. The collection also owns a number of works commissioned by Peter the Great in the United Kingdom, Holland and France.
The thematic range of the collection is extensive. It contains unique materials reflecting the most important political and military events, household novelties, landmarks in scientific and cultural development and artistic trends of the first quarter of the 18th century.
A significant part of the collection is comprised of portraits of Peter himself, as well as his family and associates: A.D. Menshikov, F.M. Apraksin, B.P. Sheremetev, F.A. Golovin etc.
Many plates commemorate the Northern War between Russia and Sweden (1700-1721). Peter ordered the making of engravings depicting all the major land and sea battles, including The Battle of Lesnaya, The Storming of Noteburg, The Battle of Poltava, two superb engravings The Battle of Hangethe and The Battle of Granhamn. Engravings with battle plans and views of cities besieged by Russian troops were made for the so-called Book of Mars, which also contained plates showing fireworks staged to celebrate Russian victories.
Various festivities and state occasions were often depicted in engravings, e.g. the nuptial feast of Peter I and Catherine I, as well as numerous allegorical banners for fireworks and triumphal gates.
Russia's new capital, the Emperor's favourite creation, his "paradise", St Petersburg became a beloved theme of the time. Especially valuable are the famous Panorama of St Petersburg engraved by A.F. Zubov in 1716; the standard house designs based on drawings by D. Trezzini, as well as the first plans of St Petersburg printed in Holland and France.
Developments in science required the printing of more and more books containing engraved illustrations, handbooks and manuals, tables and maps. Nearly all the engravers who worked in Moscow or St Petersburg took part in the making of such plates. Among the Hermitage exhibits, the items of special interest are The Image of the Celestial Globe, plates from the map of Asia, the first precise map of the Caspian Sea. Many illustrations were intended for artillery and fortification manuals. A curious witness combining occult and scientific knowledge of the time is the so-called Bruce's Calendar.
The Emperor's special love of the navy was also reflected in engraving. The Hermitage collection has many plates showing ships, from Peter's own little boat, nicknamed "The Grandfather of Russian Fleet", to tables of maritime signals and illustrations to various editions related to maritime matters.
The Hermitage collection of early 18th-century engravings is extensive and contains unique and perfectly preserved prints. The width of its scope makes it possible to provide a full reflection of various aspects of social and cultural life in Peter the Great's Russia.