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Monday, 24 April 2017
Pierre le Grand, a Tsar in France. 1717
Topic: Peter the Great

Louis XV, King of France, aged 7, welcoming Tsar Peter I of Russia, at the Tuileries Palace during his visit to France in 1717.
Artist: Gorski
The exhibition called «Peter the Great, a Tsar in France. 1717» will be on display in the Grand Trianon from 30 May to 24 September 2017. It is dedicated to Tsar Peter the Great’s trip in and around Paris in May and June 1717, and will commemorate the 300th anniversary of this diplomatic visit. The fruit of exceptional collaboration between the Palace of Versailles and the Hermitage Museum, the exhibition will present over 150 works including paintings, sculptures, decorative artworks and tapestries, as well as plans, medallions, scientific instruments, books and manuscripts, two thirds of which belong to the collections of the prestigious museum in Saint Petersburg.

 A member of the house of Romanov and son of Tsar Alexis Mikhailovich (1645-1676) and Nataliya Naryshkina (1651 – 1694), Peter I (1672-1725) embarked on a second journey to the West 20 years after the « Grand Embassy » which took him to Europe for the first time in 1697-1698. He arrived in France on 21 April 1717 and remained until 21 June. He stayed at Versailles twice and was accommodated in the Grand Trianon, from 24 to 26 May and from 3 to 11 June 1717. The exhibition visit will lead visitors step by step through the trip which, although official, nonetheless allowed a certain amount of freedom since Peter I, being little accustomed to French Etiquette and with his imposing figure and unpredictability, departed from protocol on multiple occasions. His encounter with Louis XV particularly shocked onlookers when, flouting the ceremonial custom of the court, he spontaneously took the young king, aged 7, in his arms. A number of memorialists, including Saint-Simon, the Marquis de Dangeau and Jean Buvat, left precious testimonies allowing us to retrace the journey.

 Although there were political and economic aims to the stay, such as a project for an alliance with France against Sweden and the signature of a trade agreement, the reforming Tsar and founder of modern Russia most particularly wanted to see the finest of France in order to adapt certain models for his own empire. During the two months that Peter the Great spent in Regency Paris, his visits and discussions with French people provided him with food for thought and had an influence on the works he started in 1703 in Saint Petersburg and the surrounding area.
© Château de Versailles. 25 April, 2017


Posted by Paul Gilbert at 6:44 AM EDT
Updated: Monday, 24 April 2017 7:01 AM EDT
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Thursday, 9 February 2017
Russia and France to Mark 300th Anniversary of Peter the Great's Visit
Topic: Peter the Great

The meeting of Peter I with the young Louis XV on 10th May 1717
Artist: Louise Marie-Jeanne Hersent-Mauduit (1784 – 1862)
Russia and France are preparing for celebrations of the 300th anniversary of Emperor Peter the Great’s visit to Paris, Russian ambassador in France Alexander Orlov said in an interview with TASS.

"This visit in April-June 1717 resulted in the establishment of regular diplomatic ties, and our countries will together celebrate its 300th anniversary," Orlov said, adding that the program of the celebrations includes a congress in Paris and an exhibition in Versailles.

He said the congress will be organized by the Russian Culture Ministry, the Hermitage and other leading museums and institutions, as well as the Sorbonne University and the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS). According to Orlov, Peter the Great met with French King Louis XV who was seven years old during the visit. The Russian guest was interested in French architecture, physics, military arts, shipbuilding, book printing and even tapestry weaving, he added.

"The congress is set to promote the legacy of Peter the Great’s epoch and to develop cultural tourism," Orlov said.
© TASS / RBTH. 9 February, 2017


Posted by Paul Gilbert at 9:01 AM EST
Updated: Thursday, 9 February 2017 9:06 AM EST
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Tuesday, 16 February 2016
On This Day [16 February] - Peter I Issues Decree on Succession to the Throne
Topic: Peter the Great

Note: this article has been edited from its original by Paul Gilbert @ Royal Russia
On 16 February (O.S. 5 February), 1722 Emperor Peter I issued a decree on succession to the throne. Under the decree the head of state could appoint his successor using his own discretion: ‘…so that the governing sovereign could pass his power to the person of his choice, and in order that all our loyal subjects, religious and civilian, with no exception, approve of our decree in front of God and His Gospel on the ground that anyone who would be against it or will interpret it differently, would be considered a traitor and subject to the death penalty and a religious oath’.

The decree destroyed the age-old principles of handing down the power from father to son. Henceforth a sovereign could appoint anyone he wished as his heir without observing the birthright if he believed that his older son was not fit to rule the empire. In August of 1722 a book by Feofan Prokopovich ‘The truth of a monarch’s will’ was published where he explained and substantiated the emperor’s right to make arrangements for the future of the state: ‘The way a father can disinherit a son, a monarch can deprive his son of the throne’. Feofan reserved for people the right to participate in the assignment, but only in cases when there was no direct will of a sovereign. However Feofan did not propose any scheme for such participation.

The Russian practice in the 18th century had demonstrated that under the conditions of the absolute monarchy, when the emperor’s personality had a great meaning such a way of succession to the throne undermined the stability of governance and often provoked palace revolutions. That is why Emperor Paul I on the day of his coronation, on 16 April (O.S. 5 April), 1797 signed a decree on succession to the throne abolishing the decree of Emperor Peter I. The new law initiated the guaranteed passing of the emperor’s power from father to son. Putting the law on succession to the throne above the monarch’s will Paul I expressed his faith in God’s will, not in a man as Peter did. Thus the succession of monarchy power once again became independent from the impact and wishes of the ruling class though it did not secure from plots.

© Presidential Library / Paul Gilbert @ Royal Russia. 16 February, 2016


Posted by Paul Gilbert at 12:19 PM EST
Updated: Wednesday, 17 February 2016 8:06 AM EST
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Tuesday, 9 February 2016
On This Day: Peter the Great Approved New Cyrillic Alphabet
Topic: Peter the Great

Note: this article has been edited from its original by Paul Gilbert @ Royal Russia

On 9 February (O.S. 29 January), 1710 Peter the Great completed his reform of the Cyrillic alphabet – Peter I approved the new civil alphabet and the civil type. The Russian Orthodox Church continued to use the Church-Slavonic alphabet.

The reform was provoked by the national need of a large number of educated experts and the ability to provide official information to the population. A low level of book printing focused mostly on religious works without taking into account language changes put obstacles in the way of this objective. By the end of the 18th century the alphabet which came to Russia along with the Christian written language still had the archaic features in spite of the fact that some letters in temporal texts were not used or were used incorrectly. In addition the letters’ form appropriate for the handwriting was inconvenient for printed texts typesetting due to the presence of diacritical marks. Thus in the course of the reform not only the alphabet composition changed but the letters’ form too.

Tsar Peter the Great take an active part in search of a new model of the alphabet and type. In January 1707 according to drafts made supposedly by Peter I himself, a fortification engineer Kulenbakh made the drawings of thirty three lowercase letters and four uppercase ones of the Russian alphabet. The drawings were sent to Amsterdam for the letters fabrication. At the same time under the tsar’s order the Printing yard of Moscow was conducting letter-founding works. The Russian masters Gregory Alexandrov and Vasiliy Petrov led by a letter-founder Mikhail Efremov had made another type version. However the quality of the letters did not satisfy the tsar. Thus for book printing was adopted the type made by the Dutch masters. The first book set up in a new type, ‘The geometry of Slavic land survey’, was issued in March of 1708.

Later, having examined the results of typesetting samples, the tsar decided to change the form of some letters and restore some of the rejected letters of the traditional alphabet (supposedly at the insistence of the clergy). On 18 January, 1710 Peter the Great made the last correction deleting the first versions of the new type letters and the old letter of the printing Cyrillic alphabet. The decree on the new alphabet imposition was dated 9 February (O.S. 29 January), 1710. Soon after the issue of the Decree, the “Moscow State Bulletin” listed the books, printed in new alphabet, which were on sale.

As a result of Peter’s reform the number of letters in the Russian alphabet decreased to 38, their type face became simpler and rounder. The usage of capital letters and punctuation marks was streamlined. Arabic numerals replaced literal numerals.

The Russian alphabet composition and script continued to change and become simpler. The current Russian alphabet was put in use on 5 January, 1918 (O.S. 23 December, 1917) under the decree of the People’s Commissariat for education of the RSFSR ‘On the implementation of the new orthography’.

© Presidential Library / Paul Gilbert @ Royal Russia. 09 February 2016


Posted by Paul Gilbert at 9:03 AM EST
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Thursday, 4 February 2016
On This Day: Peter I Approved the Table of Ranks
Topic: Peter the Great

A manuscript copy of the 1722 Table of Ranks
Note: this article has been edited from its original by Paul Gilbert @ Royal Russia

On 4 February (O.S. 24 January), 1722 Emperor Peter I approved a law on the order of the state service in the Russian Empire – ‘The table of ranks’.

The law was based on the similar acts of the West Europe countries but with regard to the ranks system of the Russian Empire. The ‘Table of ranks’ included a table listing all the ranks along with the explanation for the use.

All the ranks were divided into three categories: military ranks (of the army, artillery and engineering, guards, navy), civil ranks and court ranks. Each category was in its turn divided into 14 classes or ranks. Each category had its characteristics, its names of ranks, its rules of obtaining the next rank, its decorations.

The first class was the highest one, the fourteenth – the last one. Besides, the military ranks were declared being higher that the respective civil or court ranks. Officials of different classes had a different form of address by title: Your Excellence (for the highest and senators) and Your Honour (for the rest). By the end of the 18th century the number of titles reached five and for each representative there was a special address.

Though the state service focused mainly on the nobles, the ‘Table’ of Peter enabled the talented people from the third estate to show their worth: “In order to inspire the desire to serve so that those who serve well were honored instead of impudent ones and spongers”. The order of precedence abolished in 1682 was now replaced with the principle of a good military service. Every person who received the 8th class rank, became a gentleman by birth. The ranks from the 14th to the 9th classes enabled their owners to become nobles. All the nobles were allotted with lands and peasants which stimulated the fervor for the service among the non-noble officials whose number in the officialdom was constantly increasing.

In spite of the series of changes and the repeated discussion of the issue on the ranks’ abolishment or the promotion in rank system reorganization, the Peter’s ‘Table of ranks’ existed for almost two hundred years and was abolished only on 29 December (O.S. 16 December), 1917.

© Presidential Library / Paul Gilbert @ Royal Russia. 04 February, 2016


Posted by Paul Gilbert at 9:32 AM EST
Updated: Thursday, 4 February 2016 9:35 AM EST
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Monday, 2 November 2015
On This Day: Peter I Took the Imperial Title. Russia Became an Empire
Topic: Peter the Great

Peter I ruled Russia as Tsar from 1682 to 1721, and as Emperor from 1721 to 1725
On September 10 (O.S. August 30 ), 1721 Russia and Sweden concluded the Treaty of Nystad ending the Northern war that had lasted for 21 years. Russia had obtained access to the Baltic Sea, and annexed the territory of Ingria, a part of Karelia, Estland and Levonia. To mark the occasion the Senate and Synod decided to present Peter with the title of the All-Russian Emperor with the following wording: “as usually the Senate of Rome presented its emperors with such titles in public for their excellent deeds and written down on the statutes for the entire memory”.

On November 2 (O.S. October 22), 1721 in the Trinity Cathedral of St.-Petersburg there was held a mass and after that the text of the treaty with Sweden had been read aloud. Theophan Prokopovich served a sermon describing all the eminent deeds of the tsar that allow him to be name the Pater Patriae, the Emperor and the Great. After that the senators came up to the tsar. The chancellor count G.I. Golovkin addressed Peter asking him to accept the title of the Pater Patriae, Peter the Great, the All-Russian Emperor. To the volley of hundreds of guns from the Admiralty Board, the Peter and Paul fortress and 125 galleys brought into Neva River Peter accepted the new title. According to a witness “everything seemed to be enveloped in flames and one could think that the earth and the sky were about to go to ruin”.  Russia was now an empire.

The assumption of the imperial title had resulted in important changes in Russia’s international position. The first countries to recognize the new title of the Russian tsar were Prussia and Holland, then came Sweden (1723), Turkey (1739), the United Kingdom and Austria (1742), France and Spain (1745), the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (1764). These acknowledgements of the imperial title of the Russian monarch meant the acknowledgement of the fact that Russia played a leading role in the world politics of the time.

© Presidential Library / Edited by Paul Gilbert @ Royal Russia. 02 November, 2015


Posted by Paul Gilbert at 6:38 AM EST
Updated: Monday, 2 November 2015 6:42 AM EST
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Monday, 1 December 2014
Peter the Great's Collection Lives On: Russia's Oldest Museum Marks 300th Anniversary
Topic: Peter the Great

View of the Kunstkamera across the Neva
Copyright Notice: The following article was originally published in the December 1st, 2014 edition of Russia Beyond the Headlines. The author Yekaterina Chuprunova, owns the copyright of the work presented below.

The famous St. Petersburg Kunstkamera, the first museum to be built in Russia, turns 300 this year. RBTH reviews the history of the museum's unique collection, which includes Peter the Great’s notorious “freaks”, and reports on its latest news.

St. Petersburg’s Kunstkamera museum, famous for its colorful display of human and animal “freaks” collected by Peter the Great, is marking its 300th anniversary this year.

Although the museum opened in 1714, the Kunstkamera's history is considered to have originally begun with Peter's long trip abroad known as the Grand Embassy (1697-98), when the tsar went to Europe to study shipbuilding. During his travels he gathered many impressions about European life and culture. In particular, he was fascinated by the kunstkameras that were appearing on the continent and, inspired by what he had seen, he decided to create his own cabinet of curiosities.

Peter decreed that anything he found amazing was to be brought to the Russian Kunstkamera. The collection was supposed to show the diversity of the world and the mystery of nature. In 1706 the French Journal de Trévoux wrote that the muses and science were moving north, "where the current Tsar Peter Alexeyevich is intent on enlightening his country."

The foundation date of Russia's first museum is usually considered to be 1714, when, according to Peter's decree, all the articles he collected during his travels abroad were moved from Moscow to St. Petersburg. In the beginning, in order to attract visitors, the Kunstkamera offered treats and gifts. But the museum quickly became famous and soon visitors had to buy tickets.

Peter's collection moves to a house

The main difference between the St. Petersburg Kunstkamera and its European counterparts was the reason for its opening. The museum had been created not as a private collection, but as an educational institute. "I want people to look and learn!" said Peter about the Kunstkamera, according to tradition.

In the 18th century the museum moved to a building on the eastern tip of Vasilievsky Island. According to legend, Peter had chosen the location himself after seeing a pine tree of an unusual form. The Petrine Baroque building that was constructed on the spot later is still considered one of the symbols of the city. The majestic structure on the banks of the Neva is crowned by a tower with an armillary sphere, symbolizing the Solar System.

The museum collection

In the first years of its existence, the Kunstkamera collection, along with rare books, devices, instruments, weapons and natural rarities, also contained "live" exhibits. These were children born with physical defects who lived in the Kunstkamera and received a high annual income.

As years passed the Kunstkamera transformed from a collection of curiosities and oddities into a real scientific collection. When, in 1724, Peter founded the Russian Academy of Sciences, the Kunstkamera became its first institution. Having become academic, the museum subsequently concentrated on collecting ethnographic rarities: clothes and household items from various peoples. Ever since then the museum's permanent exhibition has been dedicated to the native cultures of North America, Asia and Africa.

But it is the Kunstkamera's collection of "freaks" that has always been most popular among visitors. This is an array of anatomical rarities and anomalies embalmed in alcohol. Peter had bought most of the articles from a Dutch anatomy professor, Frederik Ruysch. Ruysch had collected and treated the "freaks" for several decades and agreed to sell the collection to the Russian tsar, hoping that Peter would leave it for posterity. The embalmed embryos with their inborn anomalies shocked the 18th century public, and continue to do the same to today’s visitors.

The Kunstkamera today

The modern Kunstkamera is one of the biggest ethnographic museums in the world, and actively carries out scientific research. The museum contains more than one million exhibits and is constantly enlarged thanks to expeditions and new acquisitions.

Every year the Kunstkamera organizes about 50 scientific expeditions to various regions of Russia, as well as to Asia and Africa. Each expedition enriches the museum with new exhibits. Museum Director Yury Chistov says that the Kunstkamera no longer "fits" in its historical building. The administration is currently in talks with the city authorities about the possibility of creating a separate storehouse for the collection.

The museum is broadly known for its educational programs and thematic guided tours on various subject matters: from the history of costumes to anthropology. Currently, only general orientations are available in foreign languages, but the Kunstkamera management promises to add more programs for foreign tourists.

"Our collections are interesting for the foreign visitor because they were collected long before those that today are exhibited in Europe," says Chistov. "All our ethnographic exhibits are unique because they were not influenced by European culture."

During the press conference dedicated to the Kunstkamera’s 300th anniversary, President of the Russian Museum Union Mikhail Piotrovsky paid tribute to the museum: "Along with the Kunstkamera's anniversary we are celebrating 300 years of Russian museology. This is the first and the oldest museum in our country and it is also a very important landmark in the development of museums in Europe." 
© Yekaterina Chuprunova / Russia Beyond the Headlines. 01 December, 2014


Posted by Paul Gilbert at 6:33 AM EST
Updated: Tuesday, 2 December 2014 6:41 AM EST
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Friday, 26 September 2014
Monument to Peter the Great Unveiled in Nizhny Novgorod
Topic: Peter the Great

In Nizhny Novgorod, a new monument to Emperor Peter I was unveiled earlier this week. It was Peter the Great, who signed a decree in 1714 founding the Nizhny Novgorod province.

"Today, we talk about the Nizhny Novgorod region as a large scientific, industrial, cultural, business center. It was Peter I, who was the first to have seen the potential and opportunities of our region. After his decree, people began working on the land to prepare it for agricultural purposes, they started introducing monetary relations and practicing social division of labor - they started building and developing industrial companies, - said Nizhny Novgorod Governor Valery Shantsev. - Each district of the Nizhny Novgorod region still has the features that saw the light and developed in those times: leather and steel production, rope factories and shipbuilding. Peter I did a lot for science, education and economy."

The figure of Peter the Great stand 3.7 meters (more than 12 ft.)  high. The monument is made of bronze; the three-meter pedestal is made of granite and concrete. The artist of the monument is Nizhny Novgorod-based sculptor Aleksey Schchitov.

"Symbolically, the monument was placed on this particular location. Peter the Great is looking at Strelka, and there is the Nizhny Novgorod Kremlin and Zachatskaya Tower behind him. I think it came out great. This is where history comes together - the present and the future: the Nizhny Novgorod Kremlin, the militia, the 300th anniversary of the creation of the region - one can feel all this at once. I'm sure that at the monument to Peter I, Nizhny Novgorod residents will be holding ceremonies, landmark meetings and other important activities," said Valery Shantsev. 
© Pravda. 26 September, 2014


Posted by Paul Gilbert at 11:54 AM EDT
Updated: Friday, 26 September 2014 12:04 PM EDT
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Monday, 21 July 2014
The Legendary Journey of Peter the Great
Topic: Peter the Great

Peter the Great at Deptford Dockyard. Artist: Daniel Maclise, 1857
Copyright Notice: The following article was originally published in the July 18th, 2014 edition of Russia Beyond the Headlines. The author Joe Crescente, owns the copyright presented below.

Peter the Great travelled to many different countries on his educational voyage in the last years of the 17th and elements of the European lifestyle: all of which went on to help shape modern Russia

Nicholas II was the first Russian Tsar to travel to the Far East and Siberia. However, the inspiration for educational trips for future heirs to the crown came from Peter the Great’s legendary European journey of 1697-1698.

Peter the Great was that rare autocrat that liked to lead by example. He viewed his trip to Europe as a journey of knowledge that would have the potential to positively impact the people.

From an early age Peter was fascinated by shipbuilding and sailing, and always had ambitions of making Russia a major maritime power. When Peter became the sole ruler of Russia in 1696, the Russian Empire had access to only one port, in the North Sea at Arkhangelsk. At the time the north Baltic Sea was controlled by Sweden, and the Black and Caspian Seas were commanded respectively by the Ottoman Empire and the Safavid dynasty, an early Persian state. After capturing the fortress of Azov from the Ottomans in July 1696, Peter was determined to gain further access to the Black Sea. But, he knew that at that moment Russia couldn’t take on the Ottoman Empire alone.

Thus, Peter came up with the idea of his Grand Embassy, a diplomatic mission with the goal of securing allied support against the Ottoman Empire. In particular this trip sought to strengthen the Holy League, a union of Christian empires that Pope Innocent XI had formed in 1684. Russia joined in 1686. Peter also sought to use this journey to acquire knowledge and technology and hire foreign specialists for service in Russia.

In 1697 Peter set off with a 250-person entourage on an 18-month journey. Officially the “Embassy” was headed by three of his closest advisers and Peter used a pseudonym throughout the trip, Pyotr Mikhailov, as he wished to be anonymous. Although Peter was the first Tsar to travel abroad, he was easily recognizable as he was more than two meters tall. Records from the time attest that few European leaders were fooled by the disguise.

The first leg of the trip was considered unsuccessful. He met with the heads of France and Austria. France was unwavering in its support for the Ottoman Sultan and the Austrian leader was mostly concerned with keeping things quiet to their east, so that they could pursue their objectives to the west. Europeans on the whole were largely uninterested in Peter’s ambitions.

From there, Peter moved on to the Netherlands, where he took on an apprenticeship as a shipbuilder in Zaandam (the house where he lived is now a museum: http:/ / For the Tsar, learning about naval technology was crucial to his objective of creating a truly modern navy, and Dutch sailing vessels were considered among the most advanced in the world at the time. The home where Peter stayed belonged to Gerrit Kist, a Dutch blacksmith that had worked for a stint in Moscow for the Tsar. Kist and the Tsar remained friends for life.

Peter’s visit to the Netherlands was the most influential of any country he visited. There, he acquired not just technical knowledge, but also learned about how Europeans lived. One notable technology that Peter discovered was the fire hose. This was especially important considering the prevalence of fires in 17th Moscow. He learned about the technology from its inventor, Jan van der Heyden. Afterwards he went to Amsterdam and with a little help from its mayor, Nicolaas Witsen (an expert on shipbuilding), Peter was able to put what he had learned in Zaandam to use by going to work at the largest shipbuilding yard in the world. He spent four months at the wharf, which was owned by the Dutch East India Company. In addition to acquiring vast maritime knowledge, Peter also set to work hiring skilled workers, sailors, and lock builders. But his biggest prize was probably luring Cornelis Cruys, a high-ranking official in the Dutch Navy, to come to Russia. There, he was appointed the vice-admiral for the Russian Navy and became the most influential adviser to the Tsar for maritime affairs for decades to come.

From Holland Peter moved on to England, where he met King William III and toured the cities of Oxford and Manchester, where he learned about city planning. He would put this knowledge to use several years later when he founded St. Petersburg. After England, Peter’s entourage collectively journeyed to the cities of Leipzig, Dresden, and Vienna, and met with August the Strong, the King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania, and Leopold I, the Holy Roman Emperor and a frequent antagonist of the Ottoman Empire.

Peter was forced to return early to Russia in 1698, as the Streltsy—armed Russian guard units—had rebelled. The uprising was crushed before Peter made it back from England.

Peter was very impressionable during his “Embassy” and came back convinced that certain European customs were superior to Russian ones. Peter announced upon his return that nobles had to cut their beards (or pay a tax) and wear European clothing. The calendar was changed to better align with the European one. The rest of Peter’s reign until his death in 1725 was marked by several victories over Sweden, which led to Russia’s status as the supreme power in northeastern Europe. While Russian troops engaged Ottoman forces on several occasions, no significant settlements were made. St. Petersburg was founded in 1703 and the country began to look west.

One of the first things that Peter did upon his return was to divorce his wife, Eudoxia Lopukhina. For Peter the Great it really was out with the “old” and in with the “new” after this life-changing journey. 
© Joe Crescente / Russia Beyond the Headlines. 21 July, 2014


Posted by Paul Gilbert at 4:13 AM EDT
Updated: Monday, 21 July 2014 4:19 AM EDT
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Wednesday, 25 June 2014
Breaking Bronze - the Equestrian Statue of Peter the Great
Topic: Peter the Great

The Bronze Horseman, an impressive monument to the founder of St Petersburg, Peter the Great, stands on Senate Square, facing the Neva River
Copyright Notice: The following article was originally published in the June 25th, 2014 edition of The St. Petersburg Times. The author Gus Peters, owns the copyright of the  version presented below.

The Bronze Horseman, the famous statue of Peter the Great immortalized by Pushkin and which stands sentinel on the southern shore of the Neva, is one of the most recognized symbols of the city. It is considered to be a masterpiece, an imposing edifice symbolizing the power of autocratic rule; a masterpiece its creator would never see finished.

In the 1760s, at the beginning of the reign of Catherine II, better known in the Western world as Catherine the Great, the Empress wanted to build a monument that physically expressed the monarch’s bond to the lineage of Russia’s great rulers, despite her German heritage. Yet she did not believe any artist in Russia was capable of taking the lead on such a project, so she asked her ambassador in Paris to find someone willing to work for the right price.

Through the Enlightment philosopher Denis Diderot, the ambassador was introduced to Etienne Maurice Falconet, the director of a sculpture workshop in a French porcelain factory who was renowned for his small figures but had never built anything on the large scale Catherine wanted. He was not a vastly talented sculptor but he was competent and, more importantly, willing to work for less than what more accomplished artists demanded. He accepted the Empress’ offer and moved to St. Petersburg in 1766 to begin his work.

After three years of work, an incomplete model of the statue was revealed to the public to mixed reactions. Some did not understand why there was a serpent beneath the horse’s hooves and they told Falconet he should remove it, not understanding that the serpent was essential to the statue’s ability to stand. A finished model was presented a year later to yet more criticism. Some claimed that Peter looked more like a Roman emperor than a Russian tsar because of the clothes he wore. Catherine had to reassure her obsequious sculptor, telling him in a letter, “…you can’t please everybody.”

Despite her initial assurances, Catherine grew more and more frustrated as the project dragged on. Once the base, a 1,500-ton boulder discovered in Finnish Karelia, was put in place, it took another four years to both find a casting master and to construct the mold for the statue. There were a series of failures during the casting and as time wore on and the cost rose, relations between Falconet and Catherine, who could not understand why there were such delays, frayed. Eventually, Catherine grew tired of her sculptor and asked for two Italian architects, telling the man in charge of hiring them that, “You will choose honest and reasonable people, not dreamers like Falconet; [I want] people who walk on the earth, not in the air.”

After 12 years, with the project still unfinished and Falconet tired of the constant criticism and the icy demeanor of the Empress, the sculptor asked Catherine for permission to leave Russia. She agreed and paid him the money he was due, but did not see him before he left. Falconet, a broken man, returned to Paris. He never sculpted again.

It would be another four years before the finished piece was unveiled on Senate Square on Aug. 7, 1782. In all, Falconet’s masterpiece, which he never saw completed, took 16 years to build. The statue of Peter atop his horse, looking out at the city he built, is now one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions. 
© Gus Peters / The St. Petersburg Times. 25 June, 2014


Posted by Paul Gilbert at 7:44 AM EDT
Updated: Thursday, 10 July 2014 8:23 AM EDT
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