Inside the Chinese Palace. THE STORY OF THE GLASS BEADED SALON
The marvellous Glass Beaded Salon at the Oranienbaum estate has a rich history. A unique example of 18th century Russian interior design in the Rococo style, it is part of the grand suite of rooms that grace the Chinese Palace at the beautiful country estate of the Russian Tsars west of St. Petersburg. Conceived as Catherine the Great’s main audience chamber there, the salon was lavishly decorated in the Chinese style.
The Chinese Palace today
Fascination with everything Oriental and exotic was at a peak in the 18th century. A passion for all things Chinese came to Russia from Western Europe at the beginning of the century and found expression in both interior design in the Chinoiserie style and in whole architectural ensembles such as that at Oranienbaum, which was built by the order of and for the pleasure of Catherine the Great.
The future Empress of Russia thought of building what was then called the “mansion in the Upper Gardens” when she was still a young princess. In 1775 Catherine wrote in her memoirs: “I had a fancy to plant a garden at Oranienbaum, but I knew that the Grand Duke would not spare a sliver of land for that, so I asked the Golitsyn princes to sell or cede to me a hundred sazhens [700 feet] of fallow land they owned very close to Oranienbaum... I began to draw plans for building and planting; since it was my first undertaking of that kind, it grew quite a bit.”
To help bring her ideas to life, the young Grand Duchess hired the Italian architect Antonio Rinaldi (1709/1710-1794); a student of the renowned Luigi Vanvitelli, he gained Catherine’s favour soon after his move to St. Petersburg. Rinaldi’s architectural designs were fashionable, decidedly elegant, even refined, which pleased Catherine, who was tired of the Empress Elizabeth’s pompous, opulent court and desired to set her own, European-style fashion. Catherine aspired to create something breathtaking that would express her refined taste and intellect; she was actively involved in the implementation of her vision, oversaw the work at all of its stages, and even managed the purchases of decorative objects for the interiors.
E.E. MEYER. The Chinese Palace in Oranienbaum. 1840s
Watercolour on paper
The 18th century - the era that gave us the festive and sensual Rococo aesthetics of a new, refined courtly culture - worshipped the “fair sex”, and ladies were at the centre of the court, intellectual thought and fashionable ideas. The new Oranienbaum palace embodied the tastes and pursuits of a remarkable and complex woman, a great Empress with simple personal habits whose character combined the constant pursuit of pleasure with a strong work ethic. Catherine, who always loved “building and planting”, created many palaces and parks, but it was at Oranienbaum that her very first, bold ideas and dreams took shape. There is no doubt that the concept of using glass as the principal decorative element of interior design was Catherine’s. It is true that in Europe glass beads and embroidery were already used for interior decorating - Catherine may have seen something like that at the Arnstadt palace in Thuringia. However, the plans for the audience chamber in Oranienbaum were unprecedented in their scale and splendour.
Rinaldi not only helped the future Russian Empress in building the palace she had envisioned, but also designed a whole ensemble of buildings later called the “Private Dacha”. Rinaldi’s surviving album of drawings and designs, together with axonometric projections by the topographic engineer Pierre-Antoine de Saint-Hilaire, give us a good idea of the project’s scale and magnificence. Along with the main building of the palace itself, the grounds of the “Private Dacha” had what were known as sliding hills with an elegant pavilion, greenhouses, and a park with many attractions.
Both the part of the park facing east with its complex radial lay-out, and that which faced west, famous for its intricately intertwined pathways, were designed to amaze. The alleys often intersected, creating an enormous labyrinth-like space; however, it was impossible to get lost, since all the pathways led to the small, inviting Cavaliers’ and Chinese pavilions, which were perfect for a romantic rendezvous. Saint-Hilaire’s projections listed the 18 “Chinese” pavilions as “Chinese summer salons” offering a place to enjoy lunch outdoors. Next to the sliding hills, a water labyrinth and small elaborate ponds with many little islands were added and connected to five pavilions by 17 bridges. To the north, the long Carrousel Gallery was built to host theatrical costume parties in the gallant style of the 18th century, possibly imitating medieval jousting competitions (unfortunately, the Chinese pavilions and galleries were dismantled in 1792).
Architecture, interior design and compositional elements in the Chinoiserie style created an atmosphere of escape from reality into a fairy tale of beautiful dreams: the palace garden became an enchanted realm.
With the passage of time much of what represented Catherine’s vision of the park was lost, but the main building, the Chinese Palace, and its interior decor was luckily spared from devastation and oblivion in spite of the many dangers it faced over 250 years.
Neither ostentatious nor monumental, the palace is hidden deep in the park; its interior is amazingly vibrant and elegant. Various complex architectonic forms alternate effortlessly, and corners and walls are gently rounded; the ornately decorated crown molding grows in size and importance to match the design of the rooms. The rooms are still aligned in the Baroque style, but the illusion of an endless suite of rooms that previously had been so characteristic of architecture, was no longer the intention. Every room of the Chinese Palace is decorated in a different style, with its unique combination of materials and textures like lacquer, porcelain, glass beads, embroidery, smalt (cobalt glass), walrus ivory and wood carvings, inlaid wood floors, painted lamp shades, gilt and, perhaps most importantly, stucco.
Decorative elements emulating Asian art - censers with burning incense, fountains, trellises, fairytale birds, Chinese hats, parasols and fans - are present in almost every room of the palace, in both the wall paintings and the stucco reliefs. These motifs are much more pronounced in Catherine’s quarters, which occupied the western wing of the palace; with rooms like the Grand and Small Chinese Salons and the Chinese Bedroom, by the end of the 18th century the Empress’s “newly built mansion” began to be called the Chinese Palace.
Catherine’s Glass Beaded Salon, whose interior has been almost perfectly preserved, provides a shining example of the cultural influence of the East. Decorated during the refined Rococo era, this room embodies the “gallant age”, with no place for boredom or weariness, but full of good humour, pleasure and lighthearted joy.
It has been called “inimitable”, “amazing” and “magical”, but none of these epithets convey the fairytale atmosphere of Catherine’s mysterious and enchanting salon. Indeed, in this room the visitor feels like they have stepped back into the past, and at any minute the Empress herself might appear, surrounded by her merry courtiers.
Lavish rocaille vegetation motifs and soft pastel colours create an interior that is festive, elegant, refined and graceful, with a strong nod to the fashionable Chinoiserie style. The aim was not to give a realistic picture of the East, but rather use decorative elements and objects to create a vision of those faraway places that nobody had ever seen. Imitating the so-called “Chinese style” was a way to achieve a magical, almost fairytale atmosphere.
The Glass Beaded Salon received its name from the 12 panels that adorn three of its walls: ten large and two smaller ones, known as dessus-de-porte or “overdoor”; two more panels were made for the fireplace screen. The base of the panels was made of unbleached canvas (16 crosses per square centimetre), which was decorated with chenille embroidery and cylindrical milk glass beads of various lengths (2-3 mm to 15 mm). The pearl-coloured glass beads were sewn on the canvas parallel to one another with a slight overlap: thus, the eye does not perceive the vertical lines, and the reflecting light creates a shimmering effect.
Nevertheless, the glass beads are merely the shimmering milky background that intensifies the impression made by the exceptionally beautiful, elegant embroidery of sophisticated compositions with magical birds in fantastic landscape, framed by a foliage ornament. Classic Chinese motifs are abundant: weightless parasols, bridges, pagodas, trellises and arbours covered with flowering plants. The embroidered birds resemble those painted on vases brought from the East. The viewer can also see many images of chimes, an important Chinese symbol of good luck, success and unity; bells were often found in homes and gardens, and their delicate sound was meant both to please the ear and create a feeling of harmony. The chenille threads used to embroider the panels were twisted and fluffy, which gave the birds’ plumage and the decorative ornaments a three-dimensional quality. The colour palette was exquisite; in contrast with the cold shine of the glass beads, soft pastels were chosen for the embroidery, dominated by gold and beige.
Serafino Barozzi, an independent artist who worked in St. Petersburg for more than a decade (from the 1750s to 1771), designed the glass bead panels in 1762. It took nine Russian embroiderers two years to finish the panels; from July 1762 to April 1764 Anna Andreeva, Avdotia Loginova, Tatyana and Lukeria Kusova, Praskovia and Matryona Petrova, Cleopatra Danilova and Maria Ivanova worked under the guidance of the former actress of the French theatrical troupe Marie de Chele. Only a month after her coronation, Catherine ordered that “all embroiderers in the employ of the court are to work under the direction of Madame de Chele.” In February 1763 Catherine paid de Chele “4,100 rubles for all work done”, and in May 1764 she commanded that de Chele “be paid 1,000 rubles and allowed to return to her motherland...”
The glass beads for the panels were made at the Ust-Ruditsky Mosaic Factory located near Oranienbaum. Established by the renowned Russian scientist Mikhail Lomonosov, the factory manufactured a variety of glass products, including different kinds of beads. It provided more than two million pearl-coloured, tubeshaped glass beads - the hues varied from pink to pale yellow and green - to make the panels for the Grass Beaded Salon. Compared to the cost of the embroidery, Lomonosov’s payment for the beads seems miniscule: Catherine’s archives state that in 1765 he was paid “18 rubles for the glass beads made at his factory for the decoration of the summer residence.” At the time, the Chinese Palace was the only imperial summer residence under construction.
All 12 panels were framed like paintings. Their carved gilt frames imitated tree or palm tree trunks and branches intertwined with acanthus leaves and flowers. The carving was deep and intricate: some leaves extended from the trunks by 15-20 centimeters. Five of the panels had 10 dragon figures at the tops of their frames: a common motif of the Chinoiserie-style interiors, these mythical creatures appear to be guarding the peace and wellbeing of the magical garden on the walls of the Glass Beaded Salon.
Records from 1763 tell us that Ivan Selivanov, a wood carver from the Building Division, was sent to work in Oranienbaum. In his 1764-1765 report on the “Private Dacha” expenses Andrei Selivanov, a titular counsellor, recorded a payment of 3,845 rubles “for woodcarving work in two rooms, which will have French and Chinese wallpaper, and for various carved canapes and chairs.” At about the same time, “a master wood-carver” Knikhin was paid 250 rubles under a separate contract.
Several apprentices from Jacopo Martini’s team of gilders (Gavriil Tubolkin, Nikolai Kholschevnikov, Mikhail Krivonogov and others) worked on overlaying gold on the panel frames. Using two different techniques, they laid gilt on glue and on polyment (which resembles gilding) to achieve a new decorative effect, with alternating matt and shiny surfaces. Back in the 18th century, the floors in the Glass Beaded Salon and the lower parts of the wall panels were essentially made of glass, inlaid with ochre, blue and azure smalt.
To complement the decor of the salon, Antonio Rinaldi’s idea was to make three smalt tables with their tabletops inlaid in the style of Florentine mosaic and adorned with semi-precious stones from the Urals. Jacopo Martini oversaw this work at the Peterhof Lapidary Factory. Visitors to the palace stood in awe of this striking and unique decor.
Compositionally, the crown molding and fireplace screen are in perfect harmony with the embroidered motifs and carved frames of the panels. Alberto Gianni’s enchanting pasted stucco trimming provides the perfect frame for Gaspare Diziani’s plafond “Fortuna and Envy”. Diziani’s allegoric painting shows the struggle of two opposing forces: Fortuna, the goddess of fortune and luck, who personifies everything that is good, has defeated Invidia, the symbol of evil and darkness, whose figure we see at Fortuna’s feet. The message must have been clear to the dazzled visitors to Catherine’s opulent residence.
The Empress liked to entertain her guests in the Glass Beaded Salon; naturally, this was an exclusive group - after the grand opening of the Chinese Palace on July 27 1768, Catherine often chose her salon to receive trusted courtiers and give audiences to foreign ambassadors. Both Prince Henry of Prussia and King Gustav III of Sweden enjoyed a tour of the palace during their state visits to Russia. It was in the Glass Beaded Salon that on July 27 1774 Catherine the Great received the Austrian Ambassador Prince Lobkovich. She knew only too well that her “rare, precious toy” was decorated with exquisite luxury and priceless works of art, so it gave her great pleasure to see how much her foreign guests admired her creation.
For some time after Catherine’s death, major celebrations, which included tours of the Glass Beaded Salon, were still held at the Chinese Palace. In 1818 it hosted a ball in honour of King Frederick William III of Prussia, who was visiting to celebrate the birth of his grandson, the future Russian Emperor Alexander II. As time passed, however, fewer guests visited the palace: there were frequent changes of ownership, and the new owners did not visit often.
In 1831 the Oranienbaum estate, including the Chinese Palace, became the personal property of Grand Duke Michael Pavlovich. The arrival of the new lady of the house, the Grand Duke’s wife Yelena Pavlovna, gave the Glass Beaded Salon a new, equally important, life, which began with a reconstruction that included replacing the deteriorated azure panels and the famous smalt mosaic floor. The Grand Duchess was careful to preserve Rinaldi’s original vision as she thoughtfully renovated her new residence; thus, the design of the new inlaid parquet floor was a perfect copy of the smalt mosaic. As for the panels, it did not appear possible to clean their canvases that were grimed with dirt, so to restore its original vivid palette to the faded silk, the priceless embroidery was simply painted over with bright colours. This “restoration” took away the three-dimensional effect, while a raspberry hue was chosen to touch up the embroidered flowers and the decorative patterns on the panels. Crimson now dominated the salon’s colour scheme - a new furniture set with crimson upholstery was introduced, as well as window portieres in the same colour. As a result, along with its original name, in 1862 the room began to be sometimes called the “Crimson Salon”. In 1897, it is once again referred to as the “Glass Beaded Salon”.
When Yelena Pavlovna died, the palace first passed to her daughter, the Grand Duchess Catherine Mikhailovna, the Duchess of Meklenburg-Strelitz, and later to her granddaughter the Princess Helen Georgievna, whose married name was Saxe-Altenburg.
The new government that came to power after the chaotic and bloody events of the 1917 revolution was duly impressed with the unique beauty of the Glass Beaded Salon. A great deal of cultural heritage was lost, damaged or simply stolen during that horrific time, but salvation was offered, unexpectedly, by the Soviet of People’s Commissars: on August 30 1918 the Chinese Palace and all its accompanying property, including the priceless interior of the Glass Beaded Salon, was nationalized and properly registered. However, the most important development happened later, on July 1 1922, when the palace was turned into a museum, and the staff began cataloging, studying and restoring the collection. In 1925, conservation specialists from the Hermitage worked on restoring the sadly dilapidated “Fortuna and Invidia” plafond. The Glass Beaded Salon was coming back to life, and fear and uncertainty for its future gave way to routine museum work. Visitors to the palace at that time may have been largely unsophisticated, but their mundane curiosity quickly gave way to the kind of delight that stays with one when the initial astonishment is gone. The Glass Beaded Salon continued to share its beauty with visitors, and it seemed that this would last forever.
However, the beginning of the Great Patriotic War would change that. The new museum continued working for a month, but on July 23 1941 staff began to secure, pack and evacuate its artefacts, starting with the glass bead panels. The priceless embroidered canvases were wrapped in fabric and put on 11 rollers; in turn, the rollers were packed in two boxes. It seems that the fireplace screen panel and two small dessus-de-porte panels were put on the same roll. For the first time since they had been created, the glass bead panels were removed from the palace, when a barge transported them to St. Isaac’s Cathedral in Leningrad. The boxes were opened only once: on June 9 1943 museum employees Balaeva, Tikhomirova and Maximova inspected the condition of the panels. It is hard to understand today how these three women, starved and weak as they were, managed to take the rolls out of the boxes. However, they did, and proceeded to inspect the panels and write their report that stated that the canvases appeared to be in good condition, with no sign of excess moisture. The carved frames were not as lucky: throughout the war they were stored in St. Isaac’s Cathedral, in two boxes numbered 14 and 15, and when they were finally taken out in 1946, a considerable amount of mold damage was discovered.
The long siege of Leningrad left the Glass Beaded Salon, as well as the rest of the museum, in a terrible state, and major renovation was required. Mercifully, the wonderful Rococo palace was neither destroyed nor looted, since the German troops had been unable to capture Oranienbaum. Nevertheless, there was much damage: shellfire, exploding bombs and years of dampness had wrecked both the building itself and its interior decorations. One army officer, V. Gorbachev, whose troops defended Oranienbaum, described the Chinese Palace in 1943: “...winter winds blew snow into the palace rooms through broken cracks in the shutters and broken windows. As the patches of snow melted onto the floor, the wet parquet buckled everywhere. Water was trickling down the walls. Snow melted on the roof, too, and water seeped into the palace rooms through holes in the roof caused by artillery fire.”
By June 27 1946 the museum had accomplished only conservation and restoration work that did not require prior study. Highly skilled woodworkers, supervised by I.I. Kartoshkin, worked on restoring the inlaid parquet floors everywhere in the palace, including the Glass Beaded Salon; since at the time it was impossible to procure the necessary types of wood, the empty spaces were left unfilled. A seasoned carver, I.N. Baldaev, restored the damaged panel frames in the Glass Beaded Salon. Fragments of the carved gilt frame were pieced and glued back together, but the gaps were not filled. The only parts of the frames that were recarved from limewood were the head, two wings and three dragon tails; with no gold available, they were embronzed. A team of marble workers, headed by I.I. Dvoretsky, restored the fireplace and the panels of artificial marble. Painters (led by foreman A.V. Kryuchkov) and gilders (foreman, A.N. Kabanov) did the major and demanding job of restoring the ceiling trim, crown molding and walls. At the time, it was not possible to consult any sources, so three colours were chosen to paint the panels and ceiling: pink, pistachio, and cream; the stucco over the fireplace was whitewashed, the carved lower sections of the walls were repaired, and the plafond restored. Since the glass bead panels were well preserved, they were simply dried and hung in their original places on the walls.
The architect I.I. Varakin, who also created a series of engravings with post-war views of Oranienbaum, and his research associate L.I. Vasilieva were in charge of all the conservation and restoration efforts.
In the summer of 1946, barely a year after the end of World War II, the Glass Beaded Salon opened once again to visitors. Although the post-war conservation effort served only to preserve what had survived, it was a major victory for the restorers and museum staff, a return to peaceful museum existence, especially in comparison to the devastation of many other palaces outside St. Petersburg.
Conservation work continued in the Chinese Palace, but not in the Glass Beaded Salon, which would have to wait for more than 60 years. In 2009, with the financial support from OAO Gazprom, the BASF concern and Wintershall Holding GmbH, the museum embarked on its first ever full-scale, comprehensive conservation project, which began with changing the building’s microclimate. Pervasive dampness and mold inside the rooms were identified as the main challenges facing the diverse team of conservationists. A new climate control system was installed to maintain above-zero temperatures in the winter and appropriate humidity.
Thanks to the joint efforts of the St. Petersburg Committee for State Control, Use and Preservation of Historical and Cultural Sites, the Museum and Memorial Estate at Peterhof and the Hermitage, the long-awaited process of restoring the unique museum collection began in 2009. Before that, at the beginning of 2008, the Hermitage Museum fabric conservation specialists began working on the dessus-de-porte panel from the eastern wall of the Glass Beaded Salon to develop the proper restoration technique. By July 2008 the panel’s evaluation was finalized and the conservation technique determined, and over a period of 12 months the first six panels (three from the eastern, two from the western, and one from the southern wall) were restored.
As a result of highly customized and labour-intensive restoration, which included cleaning and strengthening of canvas threads and removal of the 19th century overpaint, the embroidered panels were returned to their original palette. In winter 2010, OOO Dedal finished restoring the gilt frames on the walls and ceiling of the Glass Beaded Salon, including two dragon figures and areas on the lower part of the western wall by the fireplace where the frames had been lost. At the same time, a team of artists from OOO Petrorestcom accomplished urgent conservation repairs of the interior, cleaned the walls and crown molding (revealing the original paint in order to match it with appropriate colours), and finished restoring the plafond. Beneath the layer of whitewash that had been applied in 1946 to the stucco panel over the fireplace, conservation workers uncovered and restored the original paint. A silvery hue of pearl white, the molded flowers and birds shimmered in the light like luxurious embroidery against the background of glass beads.
The painstaking work of mounting the glass bead panels and frames on the surviving original underframes was finished in 2011, in time for the grand opening of the first few Chinese Palace interiors. However, any interior needs decorative objects to complement it and make it complete, so the final major event that completed the restoration of the Glass Beaded Salon was the return of the famous smalt tables created by Antonio Rinaldi in the 18th century. This was the final touch that brought back the original creation - a unique and remarkable interior whose complex harmony is ensured by every one of its elements.
- Guslyarov, E. “Catherine the Great in Everyday Life”. P. 82 // Excerpts for Catherine the Great’s memoirs. 1775.
- There is a room decorated with glass beads in the New Castle Museum complex in Arnstadt, Germany. It was probably decorated in the 1730s.
- Gorbatenko, S. “Oranienbaum Architecture. The West Peterhof Road”. St. Petersburg, 2014. P. 348.
- Ibid. P. 148.
- The French term dessus-de-porte means “overdoor”, and refers to decorative compositions over doorframes or windows.
- From the Peterhof Museum-Reserve archives. H-1459. П. 616 (3). Senior research fellow V.V. Eliseeva. Memorandum on the restoration of the Glass Beaded Salon at the Chinese Palace. 1965. Sheet 2. Hereinafter - Archives.
- Klementiev, V.G. “Oranienbaum. Chinese Palace”. St. Petersburg, 2007. P. 55.
- St. Petersburg Committee for State Control, Use and Preservation of Historical and Cultural Sites. F. 616-7. Inv. #H-7282. “Historical notes on the Chinese Palace in Oranienbaum”. Compiled by V.G. Klementiev. 2005. P. 15. Hereinafter - St. Petersburg Committee.
- Voronov, M. “The Work of Russian Craftswomen. Leningrad’s Pearl Necklace”. // “Leningradsky Rabochiy”. January 28 1983.
- Archives. H-1459. П. 616 (3). Sheet 4.
- Pieces of smalt were laid upon a wooden base, glued flush, smoothed and polished.
- Two of the three tables are decorated with semi-precious stones from the Urals (agate and onyx): the console table and the table with pictures of books.
- Benois, A.N. 'The Chinese Palace in Oranienbaum’. // “Russia’s Art Treasures”. #10. 1901. P. 204.
- St. Petersburg Committee. F. 616-7. Inv. # H-7282. “Historical notes on the Chinese Palace in Oranienbaum”. Compiled by V.G. Klementiev. 2005. P. 53.
- Klementiev, V.G. “Oranienbaum. The Chinese Palace”. St. Petersburg, 2007. P. 11.
- Archives. Sheet 8.
- St. Petersburg Committee. F. 616-7. Inv. # H-7282. “Historical notes on the Chinese Palace in Oranienbaum”. Compiled by V.G. Klementiev. 2005. P. 66.
- Archives. Sheet 9.
- Ibid. // Record of June 9 1943. In her records, V.V. Eliseeva lists the surnames, with no initials, of the museum employees who opened the boxes.
- St. Petersburg Committee. F. 616-7. П-1190. Correspondence, 1946-1956. Memorandum of December 20 1946. “Regarding the state of the Chinese Palace building and the extent of required repairs and restoration as of 1947”. P. 2.
- Archives. Sheet 8.
- Ibid. Sheet 6.
- St. Petersburg Committee. F. 616-7.П-1190. Correspondence, 1946-1956. Oranienbaum newspaper “Vpered” of July 7 1946. Elzengr, Z., senior research fellow. “The Chinese Palace Opens Its Doors.” Sheet 146.
- Archives. Sheet 8.
- Lenproektrestavratsiya Institute archives. “Chinese Palace. Project Log”. 1946. Sheet 6.
- Mudrov, Y.V.; Lebedinskaya, M.P. “Oranienbaum, the 1940 s...” St. Petersburg, 2005. P. 20.
After the original 1745 painting by Louis Caravaque
Russia, St. Petersburg
Russia, St. Petersburg
Workshop of Madame de Chele Wood, chenille, glass beads, canvas, carving, gold coating