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Catherine II (1762-1796)

Catherine, who was brought to power by the palace coup that deposed her husband Peter III, did not wish to retain Rastrelli in her service. After her seizure of the throne, the celebrated architect was dismissed and left the capital. During Catherine II's reign the internal appearance of the palace changed greatly. Some of the greatest architects of the Classical style - Yury Velten, Giacomo Quarenghi, Ivan Starov - laid the foundations for a new structure within the palace and created new decor for the interiors. Gradually, as the imperial family grew, all the corner blocks were converted into living accommodation - apartments sometimes extending over more than one storey. The core of each apartment was the private rooms of a particular member of the ruling dynasty.

Catherine II ordered the architect Jean-Baptiste Vallin de la Mothe to rework for her the rooms in the second storey of the south-east corner block that had been created for Elizabeth and subsequently occupied by Peter III. In the decoration of the Empress's state rooms and private apartments "palatial grandeur combined well with comfort". Depictions of the apartments have not survived: we have only plans, documents and descriptions of contemporaries. The largest room in the Empress's apartment was the Audience Chamber (or Throne Hall, 227 square metres) with four windows overlooking the square. In this hall, the decoration of which was marked by exquisite luxury, the throne stood beneath a canopy of carved and gilded wood with crimson velvet drapes embroidered with gold. In the adjoining room soldiers of the Cavalier Guards were in constant attendance. Access to the Throne Hall was a special privilege. "To pass the Cavalier Guards" meant to have free entry to the Empress's private apartments.

The way of life in the palace was shaped by a succession of greater and lesser festivities: receptions, "entries" - ceremonial processions by members of the imperial family from the apartments to the palace church or the Throne Hall on ecclesiastical feast days or special occasions, as well as audiences, balls, masquerades and theatrical performances attended by the glittering St Petersburg aristocracy. In one of her letters Catherine wrote: "Some two weeks remain until the fast, and meanwhile we shall have 11 masquerades, not counting the lunches and dinners to which I am invited. Afraid it might be the death of me, I commissioned my epitaph yesterday."

The courtiers belonging to the small circle of Catherine's intimates gathered in the evenings in the Diamond Room. The Empress liked to play cards there. Contemporaries describe the room as "a rich cabinet of precious things" where the state regalia were kept under a glass cover and cupboards contained "a host of jewellery with diamonds and other precious stones; in others there were a great many badges of orders, portraits of Her Imperial Majesty [that were presented as awards] … and other precious things". When the weather was cold, church services would be held in the Diamond Room. In winter the palace was far from warm. On 27 December 1779, for example, "on account of the great frost" a ball had to be cancelled. The building was heated by stoves that were very decorative - with tiles and gilding - but failed to give enough heat.

A special privilege was an invitation to visit the mezzanine finished in an oriental style that was constructed above the Empress's apartments. It was reached by a spiral staircase concealed by the leaves of a cupboard in the Mirror Study. The mezzanine housed a large collection of applied art, cameos, coins, medals and miniatures - everything that the Empress referred to in her letters as "the Imperial Museum". A mezzanine above the first storey contained the rooms of her favourite, Count Grigory Orlov. Alongside, directly beneath the Great Church, the royal bathhouse was created with a "soaping-room", pool and rooms for relaxation.

Catherine's old rooms in the western wing were later occupied by the Empress's grandsons, Alexander and Konstantin. To create new apartments for her granddaughters, she gave orders for the dismantling of the Opera House in the south-western corner (architects: Yury Velten and Ivan Starov, 1783-88) that for twenty years had been the centre of theatrical life in the capital. In 1783 Catherine signed a decree on the construction of a new masonry theatre beside the Hermitage.

In September 1793 the Empress gave her favourite grandson, Alexander, and his bride (Yelizaveta Alexeyevna) a "special present" for their wedding - apartments in the north-western corner block that had been decorated by Ivan Starov in 1788-93 with exceptional luxury and refinement. Their rooms were created in place of the Oval Hall that Antonio Rinaldi had made specially for masquerades in the space that Rastrelli had intended for the Throne Hall. From the main Ambassadors' Staircase the young couple's apartments were reached by way of the Neva enfilade of state rooms that were completely altered in 1790-93 by Giacomo Quarenghi. In place of five antechambers he created a magnificent suite of rooms that were faced with artificial marble and embellished with columns, bas-reliefs, statues and ceiling paintings.

In Catherine's time, too, the second suite of state rooms, running from the Ambassadors' Staircase to the Great Church, also reached its logical completion. In 1787-95 Quarenghi added a new eastern block to the palace, containing the Great Throne Hall that could be reached by way of the White Gallery. Decoration of coloured marbles, a ceiling painting, gilded bronze ornament and a patterned parquet floor created an attractive and complex palette of colours in the Throne (or St George) Hall. The Apollo Hall behind it provided a link to the Picture Gallery in the neighbouring building of the Small Hermitage.

The state rooms were the setting for grand receptions for distinguished guests, foreign monarchs and ambassadors, celebrations of Russian military victories and the conclusion of peace treaties, balls and masquerades. A foreigner invited to one such event in the Winter Palace in 1778 wrote: "The wealth and opulence of the Russian court exceed the most fanciful description… The sumptuous brilliance of the court apparel and the abundance of precious stones leave the magnificence of other European courts behind".


Portrait of Catherine II in front of a Mirror
Virgilius Erichsen
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Portrait of Count Grigory Orlov
Andrei Cherny
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Reception of the Turkish Embassy on 14 October 1764 in the Audience Chamber of the Neva Enfilade in the Winter Palace

Engraving by Andrei Kazachinsky
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Gold goblet with a lid decorated with the monogram of Catherine II (EA)
St Petersburg, late 18th century
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Cabinet for Moulds from Carved Gems
J. Roach (?)
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Design of a heating stove for the Great Antechambers
Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli
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Grigory Chernetsov
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Project for the decoration of the Great Hall of the Neva enfilade. Floor plan of the hall with a depiction of the ceiling painting
Giacomo Quarenghi
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Design of the St George Hall in the Winter Palace. Horizontal Section Showing the Wall and the Throne
Giacomo Quarenghi
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