Topic: Country Estates
Kuskovo, the mid-18th century retreat of the Sheremetyev family near Moscow, has the expected neoclassical palace, gardens and pond. But among the white columns and gilded parlors is a more unusual bit of architecture: a fantastical grotto inspired by Neptune’s underwater kingdom.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, lavishly decorated grottos were a popular feature at the estates of European elites. Among the most famous was the grotto at Ludwig II’s Linderhof in Bavaria, a watery den inspired by Wagner’s “Tannhäuser.”
German architect Fyodor Afgounov built Kuskovo’s grotto between 1756 and 1761. It lost some of its treasures when the French ransacked the estate during the War of 1812, but most of the pavilion survived intact. Today, it’s the only one of its kind left in Russia. Here’s a look at the seashells, seaweed, dragons and other curiosities inside.
The lavish Baroque structure is composed of a main room (meant to be Neptune’s throne room) and two side wings, with marble laid over the walls and floors. The grotto’s cool temperature made it an inviting place for guests to seek respite during the summer months. The green-and-gold iron grilles on the windows and doors, intended to look like seaweed, were made by serf artisans in the town of Pavlovo.
The circular windows ringing the base of the cupola were once entirely open, which helped keep the temperature low. The pictures of whales and sea turtles that now cover them are remnants from a recent exhibition about sea creatures.
The fantastical flowers, birds and plants that ornament the grotto’s walls took 14 years to complete. To create them, artisan Johann Focht used seashells, moss, mother of pearl, glass shards and tuff (a rock made of volcanic ash). The seashells, which number 26 types in all, come from the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea, the Sea of Japan and the Black Sea, as well as bodies of water outside Moscow.
The central room holds three genre paintings that are heavily studded by shells; they depict a deer, a romantic meeting by a fountain and a comedic scene involving a noblewoman slaying a pheasant. Iron garden furniture next to the panels encouraged noble visitors to put up their feet.
Statues of Greek and Roman deities such as Juno once occupied the empty pedestals along the walls. Some statues fell prey to theft, while others have lost limbs. But a variety of sculptures remain to guard the grotto’s peripheries, including a dapper monkey in a hat and an armless noblewoman carrying a basket.
A number of animal figures are hiding amidst the swirling shell patterns on the walls. In the room to the right, a pelican perches above a window, while a gaping white seahorse bobs by the main window of the room to the left. Look up: in both side rooms, dragons writhe on the ceiling.
© Moscow News. 22 January, 2013