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The Winter Palace. Ages and Styles

The Fire of 1837 and Restoration of the Winter Palace
The fire began in the evening of 17 December 1837 in the Field Marshals' Room of the Winter Palace and lasted for more than 30 hours. A.Bashutsky, a witness to this event, vividly described the final stage of the great fire: "The last hours of this phoenix-like building were solemnly grievous... Dumb and motionless, with hearts full of deep sorrow, the crowds of people watching the fire were countless. They filled the square, the adjacent streets and some of the roofs of the houses... We observed through broken windows how the fire triumphantly moved along empty space, illuminating wide passages, splitting and crushing marble columns, impudently blackening precious gilding, throwing down crystal and bronze chandeliers in ugly heaps, stripping luxurious brocade and damask draperies from the walls..."

When he arrived back at the palace from the theatre, Nicholas I realized that it was impossible to stop the raging elements and so the decision was taken to remove from the palace whatever could be saved and to destroy the passages leading to the Hermitage. Soon piles of all sorts of different objects appeared on the dirty snow, among them furniture, plates and dishes, marble statues, stone and porcelain vases, crystal objects, paintings, chests, clothing, chandeliers and floor lamps - the luxurious and valuable property of the royal family and modest possessions of the palace servants. The unprecedented fire totally destroyed the splendid interior decoration of the imperial residence and blotted out an entire epoch in the history of the palace.

The fire of 1837 consumed a magnificent building, leaving only sullen burnt debris. Immediately after it died down, a Commission for the Restoration of the Palace was formed, with Prince P.M. Volkonsky, Minister of the Imperial Household, as chairman. Architects Vasily Stasov and Alexander Briulov were charged with the task of restoring the palace.

Vasily Stasov was instructed "to restore the palace building in general, with specific attention to the outside and interior decoration of both churches and all the rooms". His reputation as a competent specialist devoted to the fundamentals of Classicism was a guarantee that the official part of the Winter Palace would be accurately restored to its "original appearance". The architect showed due respect for the designs of his predecessors when he rebuilt the Main Staircase and the Grand Church (Rastrelli), St George Hall (Quarenghi), the Field Marshals' Room and the Memorial Throne Room of Peter the Great (Montferrand).

Stasov established the decor of the suite of rooms facing the Neva River in a strict Classical manner.

The Antechamber opening the suite of rooms is notable for its simple design, clear lines and the noble beauty of its marble walls, which are almost completely devoid of sculptural or other plastic decoration. Though this room does not have columns, it is still an example of truly Classical interior. The ceiling-painting and gilding used in its decoration reduce the visual contrast between the showy Baroque space of the Main Staircase which precedes it and the purely Classical interiors which follow.

The Grand and Concert Halls designed by Stasov on the basis of architectural ideas of his predecessor Giacomo Quarenghi produce a harmonic ensemble due to the common rhythms of the Corinthian columns situated along all four walls, the delicate shades of coloured marble and the strict monochrome grisaille painting.

The largest hall in the palace, the Grand Hall, covers a surface area of 1,103 square metres and amazes the visitors with its huge architectural composition and harmonious proportions. The Concert Hall, which follows the Grand Hall, is decorated with paired Corinthian columns and sculptures on the cornice.

The second largest hall in the palace is the Armorial Hall of the Main Suite leading to the Large Throne Room. Here the double gilded fluted columns, stucco decoration and chandeliers with the coats of arms of the Russian provinces were executed in accordance with the wishes of Nicholas I and corresponded to the tastes of that time, creating an impression of luxury.

The official halls designed by Vasily Stasov have completely preserved their decor and are a brilliant embodiment of the architecture of Late Classicism in Russia. In these splendid halls the most important state events of the Russian Empire took place: receptions, ceremonies, balls and Court processions. They help us to feel the atmosphere of magnificent court life in the 19th century.

   


The Winter Palace on Fire on 17 December 1837
Drawing by B. Grin
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The Concert Hall
Konstantin Ukhtomsky
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The Large Hall
Konstantin Ukhtomsky
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Small Antechamber Konstantin Ukhtomsky
Water-color
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The Armorial Hall
Edward Hau
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Grand Church
Edward Hau
Water-colour
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