The Alexander Column
The Concept and the Start of Work
The creation of the Alexander Column was in a way a response to the erection of the Vendome Column in Paris (1806-10) that was dedicated to the victories of Napoleon's armies. Both monuments had as their prototype the Ancient Roman Trajan's column (2nd century A.D.), whose bronze shaft is surrounded by a spiral band of bas-reliefs. Montferrand, who possessed exceptional talent and taste, created a majestic monument that delights the eye with its harmonious proportions and beautiful lines. The architect designed a smooth shaft made from a single piece of granite, to be set upon a pedestal also made of granite and mounted with bronze. The bas-reliefs on the pedestal extolled Alexander I and the might of Russian arms. In contrast to Trajan's Column and the Vendome monument, which are both crowned by statues of the respective emperors, the Alexander Column is topped by the statue of an angel crushing a snake with a cross.
After the project was approved, tremendous work got underway to make the monument a reality: 1250 pine piles, each 6.4 metres long, were driven into a foundation pit over four metres deep and a foundation of twelve granite blocks set on top of them. A capsule containing medals and coins minted in honour of Alexander I in platinum, gold, silver and copper. They included a unique platinum medal produced to Montferrand's design bearing the date 1830 and a depiction of the column. An inscription runs around the ring: “To Alexander the Blessed from a grateful Russia”. Besides that, the capsule contains a plaque of gilded bronze proclaiming that “In the year of Our Lord 1831 construction was begun of a monument erected to EMPEROR ALEXANDER by a grateful Russia on a granite base laid on the 19th day of November 1830 in Saint Petersburg. The construction of this monument was presided over by Count Yu. Litta and committee members Prince P. Volynsky, A. Olenin. Count P. Kutaisov, I. Gladkov, L. Carbonier and A. Vasilchikov. The construction followed the design of the same architect Augustine de Montferrand.”
Meanwhile at Pytarlaks, the quarry in one of the bays on the Gulf of Finland that supplied the granite for St Isaac's Cathedral, hundreds of stonecutters were cutting by hand from the rock a whole block of granite over 30 metres long and more than 4 metres thick. The granite was of a special pink colour and known by the Finnish name rapakivi. A few kilometres from Pytarlaks a granite monolith suitable for the pedestal was also found. The work here was supervised by a 20-year-old contractor named Vasily Yakovlev, a gifted foreman and organizer.
On 3 November 1831 the monolithic plinth - a massive slab, weighing 410 tonnes, forming the base of the column - and other elements of the pedestal that together weighed over 1,000 tonnes were delivered safely to the capital on a specially constructed vessel pulled by steam tugs. Eight days were needed to move them from the landing-stage between the Admiralty and the Winter Palace to the future site of the monument in the middle of Palace Square. After the stone was dressed, it was set up on the foundation. The monolith from which the column was to be turned weighed some 4,000 tonnes. It almost sank when being loaded for the journey across the gulf, forcing workers and soldiers to struggle for 48 hours to save it. On 1 July 1832 the vessel arrived in St Petersburg and 12 days later the massive block was brought ashore under Yakovlev's supervision. Then it was trimmed by merchants and dragged to the lifting point on a sledge mounted on cast-iron rollers with the aid of capstans.