The Winter Palace
One of the creators of the new image of St Petersburg was Francesco Bartolomeo
Rastrelli, an architect of great talent, who was commissioned to construct
the new winter residence of the Romanovs. In 1754 Rastrelli's design of
the palace was approved. The construction went on for eight long years,
through the final years of Empress Elizabeth Petrovna's reign and the
short reign of Peter III.
The Winter Palace amazes visitors by its grand scale, luxury and the variety of ornamentation. At the same time there is a surprising integrity and proportionality of all the parts. This building fully revealed all characteristic features of Rastrelli's style, which is called the Russian Baroque: majestic stately forms, an abundance of decorative details, an irrepressible striving for brilliance and luxury. The architect designed the palace as part of the city landscape - a huge structure with an inner court and façades not abutting any other buildings. The main façade looking onto Palace Square has three grand projections. The widest of them in the middle of the building is cut by three arches leading to the main ceremonial courtyard. Coaches of the Empress and her guests would pass sentries and approach the main entrance in the northern wing.
The façades of the palace are embellished in a manner typical of Rastrelli, who used a varied and imaginative decoration striving to underline the height of the building, which dominated the city and was unusual for that period. Visually this effect was enhanced by two tiers of columns which the architect arranged one above the other. The roof of the building has a balustrade of decorative stone sculptures and vases that continue the vertical axis of the columns. Originally the palace was painted light yellow, as drawings from the 18th century and first quarter of the 19th century indicate.
The arrangement of rooms inside the palace is clear and logical. The architect placed the main interior volumes of the palace in the four corner projections of the building: the Main Staircase, the Throne Hall, the Church and the Theatre. Between them are all other large and small rooms - living quarters, galleries, and storerooms - arranged according to the enfilade principle, as a suite of rooms. According to the architect's reckoning, there were more than 460 rooms.
State rooms on the first floor were designed in the Russian Baroque style of the mid-18th century, which was characterized by an enfilade configuration, with enormous halls full of light due to the double tiers of large windows and mirrors, and with the splendid rocaille decor which was widely appreciated at that time in Europe. Presently only some interiors of the palace preserve ornamentation resembling the original decor from Rastrelli's day. Among them is the Main Staircase, which was called in the 18th century the "Ambassadorial Staircase".
When the architect Vasily Stasov restored the Main Staircase after the fire of 1837, he followed the magnificent design of Rastrelli repeating it with almost no alterations. Just as it was in the 18th century, the brightly lit interior was richly decorated with gilding and with a perspective painting on the ceiling that visually enlarged the height of the staircase. This 18th-century ceiling-painting depicting Olympus was found in the storerooms of the Imperial Hermitage. The first flight of the staircase with its ornamented walls was the basis for the whole composition. The second flight was decorated with allegorical statues of Fidelity, Fairness, Wisdom, Might, Abundance, Justice, Mercury and a Muse. Vasily Stasov used decorative devices of the Baroque style, though at the same time he introduced some changes into the appearance of the staircase. Thus the wooden columns faced with pink marble were replaced with monolithic ones of grey Serdobol granite, while the carved gilded balusters were replaced by a marble balustrade. White and gold started to dominate the interior. One contemporary of the restoration works in the palace commented that the decor of the staircase by Stasov "kept forms in line with the style of Rastrelli while beautifully ennobling the space with a new understanding of art with respect to purity, relief and the appropriateness of the design".
The Large Church designed by Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli was one of the most grand premises in the Winter Palace. Everything in it was imbued with a secular joie de vivre and festive high style. Like the walls of the state rooms, so the walls of the church were embellished with intricate ornamentation and fluttering naked putti. The carving and painting of the iconostasis are in harmony with the painting and moulded decoration of the ceiling and walls. The composition is completed with the ceiling-painting of The Resurrection of Christ. After the fire of 1837, Stasov restored the interior of the church according to scarce old drawings by Rastrelli, and the interior he created shows that he had a profound understanding of the specific style of the Baroque. He tried to stay close to the original design while recreating the room leading to the church.
The decoration of the Large Throne (St George) Hall designed by Giacomo Quarenghi and built between 1787 and 1795, was almost completely lost in the destructive fire of 1837. However, drawings and engravings give us quite a good idea of what this excellent example of stately interiors from the period of Russian Classicism looked like. The huge hall with two tiers of windows and double Corinthian columns was particularly impressive. Stasov preserved the architectural proportions of Quarenghi's hall but nonetheless gave an absolutely new character to the interior. Instead of polished columns of coloured marble, he introduced columns made of white Carrara marble that was also used for facing the walls. The moulded medallions in the second tier were replaced with double marble pilasters; the ceiling-paintings depicting figures hovering in a cloudless blue sky and allegorical scenes on subjects of Classical Antiquity gave way to a caisson ceiling with cast, chased, and gilded supports and ornaments of bronze. A copper ceiling suspended from a metal construction replaced the traditional wooden one and was an innovative engineering solution. The austere and magnificent architecture of the St George Hall was in harmony with the solemn official ceremonies held there till the end of the Romanov dynasty’s reign.
The throne place in the St George Hall had been changed several times before the fire of 1837. The throne of Catherine II created after Quarenghi’s design was replaced in the time of Paul I (1796-1801) with the gilded silver throne of Empress Anna Ioannovna made by the famous London master Nicholas Clausen in the 1730s. Instead of allegorical figures supporting the shield with Catherine's monogram, the wall behind the throne was decorated with a marble bas-relief representing St George the Victorious.
The interiors of the official and private rooms and of the Theatre (Opera House) destroyed by the fire of 1837 were not restored.
The Winter Palace designed by Rastrelli, a real masterpiece of Russian architecture of the 18th century, determined the inimitable appearance of a beautiful architectural ensemble on the bank of the Neva. Each new reign became a new stage in the history of the official imperial residence. The interiors of the palace were designed by the most famous architects of the 18th and 19th centuries and reflected changes in the styles and artistic tastes of different epochs.