The History of the Tauride Palace Wall Paintings
GRIGORY POTEMKIN WAS THE FIRST OWNER OF THE TAURIDE PALACE IN ST. PETERSBURG, WHICH WAS BUILT IN 1783-1789 TO AN ARCHITECTURAL PROJECT BY IVAN STAROV. THE MANSION'S ORIGINAL NAME WAS THE "HORSE GUARDS HOUSE" AND IT WAS INTENDED ONLY FOR CEREMONIAL RECEPTIONS. ON APRIL 28 1791 IT WAS WHERE HIS HIGHNESS THE FIELD MARSHALL GENERAL, NOVOROSSIYSK GOVERNOR GENERAL AND CONQUEROR OF THE CRIMEA THREW A GRAND BALL IN HONOUR OF CATHERINE THE GREAT AND THE TAKLNG OF ISMAIL. IN AUGUST 1792 THE PALACE REVERTED TO THE CROWN IN REPAYMENT OF THE DEBTS OF THE SUDDENLY DECEASED PRINCE. THE FUNDS FOR FURTHER ALTERATIONS INTENDED BY POTEMKLN (FOR WHICH FYODOR VOLKOV HAD BEEN ENGAGED) AND THE PERFECTION OF THE PARK WERE NOW COMING FROM THE EMPRESS. SHE TOOK SO MUCH OF A FANCY TO THE PALACE THAT SHE MOVED INTO IT AS HER NEW RESIDENCE AS EARLY AS SEPTEMBER 1792 WITHOUT WAITING FOR CONSTRUCTION WORK TO BE COMPLETED.
From that time on the palace has been referred to as the "Tauride Palace". Catherine the Great described it in a letter to Friedrich Melchior Grimm: "The palace came into fashion; it is single-storey with a beautiful enormous garden; all around along the Neva there are the barracks, the Horse Guards in the front, the Artillery to the left, and the Preobrazhensky are behind the garden. In spring and autumn one can desire nothing better. I'm living on the right from the pillar gallery, Alexander stays on the left; I don't think a drive like here can be seen anywhere else in the world."1
Volkov had to significantly redesign the side wings, make provisions for additional floors and make the whole place suitable for habitation. He started the works from the east wing in which the family of the Crown Prince (Tsarevich) Paul was housed. The music hall was converted into a theatre, and a large plot was kept for a church. The palace was ready by autumn 1793. Starov had designed the place as a series of palaces and gardens facing the Neva River. Volkov took this idea further and had a canal dug all the way from the Neva to allow boats to approach the residence.
After his mother's death in 1796 the new Emperor Paul I sent the court architect Vincenzo Brenna to examine the palace and report on its condition. Among other things, the Italian specialist paid attention to the reconstruction of the damaged wall paintings2.
Suddenly and quite unexpectedly in 1799 came an Imperial Edict by which the palace was to be handed over to serve as the Imperial Guard Mounted Regiment barracks. The palace had to be emptied and all the furniture, fireplaces, parquetry, even locks, door bolts and window bars were removed and taken to the court-intendant quartermaster office warehouse as well as to the winter, Marble and Chesme Palaces. The marble statue of Catherine the Great and the works of Fedot Shubin were passed to the Imperial Academy of Arts, and the park became a storage place for carriages. The piano nobile and especially the great column hall were ruined more than anything else; the rotunda was turned into a riding arena.
The Tauride Palace was at risk of total destruction, but everything changed with the accession of Alexander I. In May 1802 the young Emperor entrusted renovation works to the charge of Luigi Rusca, who became the court architect in the same year. The master preserved the palace's exterior by redesigning its residential section and carrying out a project for the completion of the interior. The theatre was considerably enlarged, and the interior was now dominated by sculptures (brought mostly from the Mikhailovsky Palace). The most precious one was the statue of Venus bought from Rome by the order of Paul I (the "Tauride Venus" is now in the Hermitage).
Together with william Gould, an English garden expert engaged initially by Potemkin, Rusca had to recreate the winter garden and return the neglected park to its proper state. In the winter garden house Rusca used suspended floors, which were a brand new engineering element for the time. The park's waterfalls were replaced and the ponds cleaned, and on August 2 1803 the Imperial family moved in and made the Tauride Palace their town residence for the spring and autumn months. Alexander I is known to have spent autumn 1803 there, and Maria Fyodor-ovna, the dowager Empress, used to visit the place from time to time. The palace was abandoned after 1825 and started to fall into decay. From time to time it would be made available to private individuals - it was there that the distinguished historian Nikolai Karamzin lived and died in 1826, and in 1829 it was the residence of Hosrov-mirza, the heir to the Persian throne.
The decorative wall paintings had been an attraction of the round hall (or rotunda) and the concert hall since the times of the first owner. Since they have not been preserved, we can only judge them by the description made by the court-intendant office that was in charge of all construction works, and from a watercolour by Fyodor Danilov (from 1792) in which the rotunda is depicted. Given that some of the original wall paintings of the Tauride Palace are now part of the Russian Academy of Fine Arts Museum (RAFA) collection, there is a chance to see what some of the rooms looked like before the reconstruction at the beginning of the last century.
To perform the monumental decoration works in 1802-1803 Rusca invited Fyodor Shcherbakov, Giacomo Ferrari and the cousins Giovanni Battista Scotti and Pietro Scotti. The ceremonial halls (the rotunda and the Catherine reception hall) and three other rooms were painted by Shcherbakov, but his design was lost and in 1819 the halls were painted again by Giovanni Battista Scotti. At the beginning of 1803 Shcherbakov was working on the church's dome.
Of all the artists mentioned, Giovanni Battista (Ivan Karlovich) Scotti (1776-1830) later became the most famous expert in decorative and monumental painting. A student of Carlo Scotti, he later cooperated with Giacomo Quarenghi, Vincenzo Brenna, Andrei Voronikhin, Jean-Francois Thomas de Thomon, Carlo di Rossi and Auguste de Montferrand while painting the interiors of the Imperial palaces - the winter Palace, the Pavlovsk Palace and the Gatchina Palace as well as the Admiralty, the Mining Academy, and executing the commissions of private individuals (at the Mikhailovsky Palace in particular). His work at the Tauride Palace coincided with the formative years of the 26-year-old painter. According to Rusca's report, he decorated nine rooms for Maria Fyodorovna (the ones in which Catherine II had lived) in the right (eastern) wing of the palace, including the Couch room and the Committee room interconnecting with the rotunda.
The Committee room (which had been called "the picture room" in the 18th century) is one of the most interesting and unusual ones in its concept. In the central part of the interior dome the elliptic and orthogonal stripes are alternating roundels with the heads of ancient gods, warriors and philosophers with insertions of floral ornament. Longitudinal and transversal stripes combine landscape motifs with painted sculpture. The attention is drawn particularly towards the landscape insertions that are designed in the "architectural fantasies"3 tradition. The theme of the paintings and their discreet colour scheme are all brought under the functional purpose of the room in which the sessions of the Committee of Ministers were held. The colour scheme is balanced within a cold green-turquoise and grey colour range. In the dining-room of the Empress Maria Fyodorovna (the "Finance Committee Hall" in the times of the Imperial State Duma) he used the motifs and touches of easel painting (ten ovals with images of gods and goddesses including "Psyche") combined with decorative painting that imitates molding.
His cousin Pietro Scotti (1768-1838) painted eight rooms in the west wing of the palace, behind the theatre, where Alexander I lived with his family. His most successful works were the paintings in the couch room and the study of Empress Elizaveta Alexeevna. Giacomo Ferrarri (1747-1807), a graduate of the Parma Academy of Fine Arts, was already an established painter when he came to Russia. Even though later he had a chance to exhibit his talent when working in the palace of Grand Prince Konstantin Pavlovich in Strelna and at the Alexandrovsky Palace in Tsarskoe Selo, Ferrari will remain in art history principally as the painter of the Tauride Palace theatre. The exceptional talent and characteristic manner of the painter are reflected in the figures of the dancing girls and the genii of art, the Muse of Comedy and the Muse of Tragedy, in the ovals with images of musical instruments and art allegories. These fragments are of particular value because they are genuine pieces by the artist that have never been subject to unfortunate later repainting and restoration.
The painters invited by Rusca made separate panel-paintings with distemper paint on canvas. Later the paintings would be cut out and glued to the walls and ceiling, and it is owing to this technique that parts of them remain.
In 1819 it became necessary to replace the ceiling panels in several rooms at the same time. The new decoration project was executed by the famous architect Carlo Rossi. He worked together with the already eminent artist Giovanni Battista Scotti, who repainted the wall and ceiling of the rotunda, the great column hall ceiling and the winter garden. Unlike the 1802-1803 paintings, these were made in grisaille technique with distemper paint right on the walls.
Throughout the second half of the 19th century, the Tauride Palace was used either for storing furniture from other palaces, or for the needs of the Directorate of the Imperial Theatres. At the turn of the 20th century it became an exhibition venue: in May 1899 it hosted a gardening exhibition, and in the summer of the same year was used for the ceremony celebrating the centenary of Alexander Pushkin's birth. On March 6 1905 the palace became home to an historical-artistic exhibition of Russian portraits, staged by the members of the "world of Art" artistic association that became a remarkable event in the capital's culture life. Over 2,000 works from private and museum collections were arranged around the halls according to the periods of Peter the Great, Elizabeth, Catherine the Great and their successors, with each hall decorated in the style of the corresponding epoch.
After the revolution of 1905 the destiny of the Tauride Palace would be shaped by politics. On September 19 1905 Nicholas II ordered the closure of the exhibitions, and that the palace be handed over to become the temporary home of the Imperial State Duma. It proved the start of this outstanding monument's steady devastation. This "temporary accommodation" brought the demolition of many interiors and decorations. The construction works began in 1905-1907: the Assembly Hall occupied the winter garden, and the majestic colonnade of the former Catherine reception hall was partly built-over due to the construction of staircases. In 1907 the ministerial pavilion (designed by Alexandre von Hohen) was attached to the palace from the garden side. Despite many objections the theatre was destroyed and its premises given over to a library and document archive, topped with a glass lantern made after the project of Alexander Bruni. In June 1908 in a last effort to save this precious piece of noble culture, the editor of "Starye gody" (Old Years) magazine Pyotr weiner wrote an article titled "Capital Vandalism" in the chronicle section of the magazine: "It is all ornamented, ornamented well and with style. The grey marble-like colour of the columns harmonizes with the white tone of the capitals and the light-grey tone of the walls. On each side of the stage two triumphant goddess-patronesses of theatrical performance are painted in recesses. The ceiling is entwined in vivid swags which please the eye with their unexpected brilliance. Among them there are several roundels that are all symbols and classical fantasies of the captured dream about incarnate talent. Against the stage at the very top a flower-covered genius is sounding out tunes of glory. And again the grey balustrade of the upper circle makes a sharp contrast... Some time ago candles used to burn there in carved wooden holders. The choirs were crowded, ravenous envy changing into rapture. The Tsarina praised in poems was sitting in the hall. Incense of admiration flowed towards her from the stage, and traces of it are immortal..."4
On March 2 1907 part of the assembly hall ceiling collapsed. Despite the results of the expert analysis which proved the wooden boards to be safe, the decision was made to replace the wooden parts with iron and reinforced concrete not only in this hall but in other ones as well. The paintings of the great column hall were completely destroyed in 19075. In the year before the destruction a painter named Alexandrov made calico tracings of a quarter scale of the fresco friso and produced coloured copies of separate figures (except the gryphons) on canvas. The gryphons were removed from the ceiling completely and are now stored in a museum6. In 1912, before the replacement of the floors a team of painters worked in the Tauride Palace - students of the Higher Art School of the Academy of Fine Arts led by the architect Vladimir Shchuko. Before removing the paintings they did not just measure the rooms, but also drew colour sketches of the dome paintings, made tracings of the details and some copies on canvas. In some rooms the team replaced the paintings with new ones7. One watercolour gives us the names of the artists who made copies of the paintings (and most probably the reconstructions from stencils): M.M. Davydov, Nikolai Tyrsa, A.Y. Sabnetsova, O.A. Hekkel, O.V. Beloborodova and R.V. Nieman. we also know the names of the architects who measured the halls; among them was Vladimir Gelfreich, the student and future collaborator of Shchuko, together with Andrei Shilovsky and Sigizmund Dombrovsky.
In the 1920s the altar careen of the church with the icons painted by the RAFA professors (including Alexei Egorov) was handed over to the museum of the "Old Petersburg" society which was later closed. Originally the measurements and copies made by the Shchuko team were kept in the Tauride Palace itself, but the new authorities didn't want them; in 1924 the order came to destroy them. As it was indifferently stated in the documents: "The fragments of paintings removed from the walls together with the plaster and the ceiling boarding were stored in the palace's barn. As was discovered in 1924, as the result of roof decay they fell totally into disrepair and were destroyed there and then."8
At present the palace accommodates the Inter-parliamentary Assembly of the Commonwealth of Independent States. The pictural decorations of the former Committee room, the Finance committee hall and other places have been lost. The Imperial State Duma and its library and archives with unique autographs are also gone, taken out by the organizations that used to occupy the palace. Now the former library has been turned into an ultra-modern conference hall. The small yard in front of it is covered with a glass dome that looks recent and deliberately faux-an-tique, while all the windows are double-glazed.
When and how the fragments of paintings by Giacomo Ferrari, Giovanni Battista Scotti and other artists reached the Academy of Fine Arts remains unclear; it might have been at the same time as the drafts, measurements and copies made by the Shchuko team. The original condition of most of the painted originals was very poor. The paint layer of some dome panels was so wiped away that it was incredibly difficult to distinguish the image. It is still uncertain which part of the paintings had been destroyed back in 1924. Perhaps the museum fragments are part of what has been rescued, and the honour of that should be attributed to Vladimir Shchuko who became а professor of the Academy in 1920.
At present the museum is conducting restoration works on the fragments of the paintings and designing a major exhibition from its collections. The exhibition will feature not only the painting fragments themselves but also the architect-made clamp-ons of the premises before the removal of paintings and historical photographs of the early 20th-century interiors.
- Pyliayeva, M.I."Old Petersburg. Stories from the Capital's Past Life". with 100 prints. SPB Publishing house, 1883. P. 300.
- Shuisky, V.K. Chapter 1. The 18th Century //"The Tauride Palace". SPB Publishing house, 2003. P. 44.
- Bogdan, V.'The pearl of classical St. Petersburg architecture'. //"Antiquarian Review". No. 2. 2011. P. 60-69.
- "Days ofYore". 1908. Section: Chronicle. Pp. 342-344.
- Archives of the Committee on State Control Use and Protection of Historical and Cultural Landmarks . Petrov, A.N., Vassilyeva, N.I."The Tauride Palace. A historical note". Fund 157. H-779. Leningrad, 1953. Sheet 69.
- Ibid. Sheet 52.
- Archives of the Committee on State Control Use and Protection of Historical and Cultural Landmarks. Glikin, Y.D., Medersky, L.A. "The Tauride Palace. The historical and artistic passport". 1943. Fund 157. H 119/1. Sheet 12.
- Archives of the Committee on State Control Use and Protection of Historical and Cultural Landmarks . Petrov, A.N., Vassilyeva, N.I."The Tauride Palace. A historical note". Fund 157. H-779. Leningrad, 1953. Sheet 16