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Marble Palace: Architectural Jewel of Saint-Petersburg

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Marble PalaceThere is a reason why the second capital of Russia is called Northern Palmyra, Northern Venice and a bunch of other glorious names. The number of architectural monuments and entire ensembles unquestioningly recognized as world cultural heritage found in the city and its neighborhood is so high that you can probably randomly point at any building and say it belongs to XVIII-XIX and be right. In most cases, you will definitely fortune upon masterpiece. But even in this constellation of brilliant works of art, the star of so-called Marble Palace shines brighter than others.

Few historically significant buildings can boast such an exciting romantic story related to their construction as Marble Palace, which was designed to become a gift of love in the true sense of the word. Of course, in the XVIII century Russia there was only one person who could make such presents, the Russian tsar, or tsarina, to be precise. In the late 1760-ies, the Empress Catherine II decided to present her favorite Count Grigory Orlov with a sumptuous palace in the heart of the capital. At the time, there was no such thing as a «vacant» palace in St. Petersburg, so a new building was needed. Previously, the construction area was occupied by the Postal yard where ships carrying mail from abroad moored; currently the edifice is located in the quarter defined by the Palace Quay (formerly the Postal Quay), Suvorov Square, Millionnaya Street and Marble Lane.

Construction started in 1768 to designs by Antonio Rinaldi, who previously had helped decorate the grand palace at Caserta near Naples. The combination of sumptuous ornamentation with rigorously classicizing monumentality, as practiced by Rinaldi, may be attributed to his earlier work under Luigi Vanvitelli in Italy. However, the legend goes that the actual «designer» of Marble Palace was the Great Empress Catherine, who drew the conceptual designs, and Rinaldi was clever enough to «approve» them. Unfortunately, the palace has never been used for its initial purpose. Count Orlov not live to see the end of the construction works and never moved into this building. In 1783, Catherine the Great bought the palace from the heirs of the Count, and the new masters were found promptly: from the late XVIII to early XX century, it served as the residence for the members of the Imperial Family, the Grand Dukes. The last owner and resident of Marble Palace was Grand Duke Constantine Romanov, known not only for «blue blood» running in his veins, but for undeniable poetic talent. The Grand Duke was one of the best Russian poets before of the turn of the XІX century.

The palace takes its name from its opulent decoration in a wide variety of polychrome marbles (in all, 32 disparate shades of marble were used to decorate the palace). Big marble and granite blocks were used in the process of construction, and it was difficult to deliver and process them, so it took many years to construct the palace. A rough-grained Finnish granite on the ground floor is in subtle contrast to polished pink Karelian marble of the pilasters and white Urals marble of capitals and festoons. Panels of veined bluish gray Urals marble separate the floors, while Tallinn dolomite was employed for ornamental urns.

Marble Palace would be an ambitious and challenging construction project even for our time with its absolutely incredible technologies, so it's not surprising that two hundred years ago it took a decade and a half to complete it. However, brick vaulted walls of the palace were built almost instantly, in less than a year. But massive amount of time, money and labor was required to transform bare walls into a luxurious palace. Pre-processing of trim-stone alone took several years, and the decoration of the walls with marble and granite took six years, from 1774 to 1780. In 1781, the construction of the two-storied Service building, where service facilities (riding hall, stables, haylofts, valet rooms) were located, commenced. As already mentioned, the construction and decoration of Marble Palace was completed only in 1785.

The Marble Palace is distinguished among St. Petersburg 's masterpieces of architecture not only by its architectural features, the exquisiteness of its exterior and interior decoration. Its facades were never rebuilt, but the interiors were changed by order of each new owner. This palace is an original combination of the city residence, naturally blending in with St. Petersburg cityscape, and country estate of the Russian nobleman. The point is that the palace is divided into two interconnected parts. The eastern U-shaped part of the palace was the forecourt for receptions and balls. And the western part, which had a similar layout, was designed for household needs and, thus, was used as the estate. At the same time, the «the Estate» was skillfully concealed from the curious eyes of city dwellers and «masked» by the luxurious facades blending several architectural styles. The plan of the edifice is trapezoidal: each of its four facades, though strictly symmetrical, has a different design. One of the facades conceals a recessed courtyard which is nowadays dominated by a sturdy equestrian statue of Alexander III of Russia. This architecture concept was rooted in the Renaissance art, and monochrome stone decorations had much in common with the Baroque, while the layout, according to which every building was independent and at the same time connected with other buildings of the complex through a network of small hallways and staircases, was in the Rococo style. The interior decoration, though magnificent, was at the same time surprisingly low-key, since the palace was built as a gift for a military man of a strict disposition. At the same time, the decoration was subtle and elegant, as the halls were graced by numerous allegorical statues by the great Russian craftsmen Fedot Shubin and Mikhail Kozlovsky.

After 1917, Marble Palace shared the fate of many historic buildings of St. Petersburg: from 1919 to 1936 it successively housed the Academy of Material Culture (1919-36), and the Lenin Museum (1937-91). In 1992, the palace became a branch of the Russian Museum. Currently, the palace accommodates permanent exhibitions of the Russian State Museum, notably «Foreign Artists in Russia (XVIII and XIX centuries)» and the «Peter Ludwig Museum at the Russian Museum», featuring canvases by Andy Warhol and other Pop Art idols. Some of its rooms are used for commercial purposes and rented for various events and celebrations.

Inessa Hyder


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M.Zahir Kakar  - Geologist   |2010-03-16 10:53:41
I would like to know about the marble and granite exhibitions held between april and september in 2010 in Saint petersburg to attend it displaying our world class dimension stone blocks, slabs, tiles and handi crafts made by precious stones as soon as possible.


M. Zahir Kakar
mable and granite world exporter
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