Fountain Capital of Russia

Grand Peterhof Palace and the Grand Cascade.

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The Sea Channel leading from the Grand Palace to the Gulf of Finland.

When one approaches Peterhoff from the sea, an unforgettable vista reveals itself: perched on the edge of a natural 16-meter terrace is the Grand Palace – the refined and elegant creation of Russian architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli and one of the most fascinating historical- artistic museums of Russia. The Grand Cascade – one of the most lavish fountain ensembles in the world – takes its origins at the northern façade of the Grand Palace. Its shimmering current descends down a cascade of steps and then in a straight line gushes to the granite-fronted Marine Canal.

The Grand Cascade, uniting 64 fountains, 255 sculptures and decorative elements, is a breathtaking sample of baroque art and a symbolic accolade to the historical events of the Peter I epoch. The Cascade - an acknowledged visiting card of the summer retreat of the Russian Emperors – transformed Peterhoff into an acclaimed fountain capital.

How did Peterhoff come into being? One autumn day in 1705, while sailing from St. Petersburg to the Isle of Kronstadt Czar Peter I made a stopover in a picturesque spot on the shore of the Gulf of Finland. That same day, or the following, he conceived the notion of building a summer residence there, a place where one might rest and breathe the invigorating sea air. The Czar was not one to sit back and wait for things to happen…and very soon the work was in full swing. And thus, Peterhoff came into being, which translated from Dutch as “Peter’s Court”.

On the site they built a quay and a small palace, the windows of which offered the Czar a splendid view of the sea, and Kronshtadt, rising up in the distance. Peter I had the palace built in Dutch style and called it Monplaisir, which translates from French as “My pleasure”. However, he conceived the idea for the summer residence complete with palaces and unusual fountain ensembles only after visiting the French Versailles in 1714. Czar Peter was so impressed by the French royal chateau he felt driven to erect something that would be in no way inferior to the Versailles “paradise” of Louis 14th.

It would not be an exaggeration to call Peterhoff “Peter’s creation”. The park and palace ensemble was built on the sketches and blueprints of the Czar himself, who went deeply into all the details of the process involving the architectural construction and the fountains. Peter conceived the idea for a spectacular artificial waterfall that would decorate the entrance to the residence, and even drew up some sketches, according to which vessels would pass through the sea canal, past fountains, straight to the palace. They say this is where the Russian expression “straight from the ship to the ballroom” originated from.

Not far from Peterhoff the Czar discovered inexhaustible water sources – ebullient springs that would service the fountains he had conceived. With the help of some intriguing hydro-technical engineering, still in evidence to this day, pipes were laid to feed the fountains. It is precisely his abundance of water that lends the fountains their compelling beauty.

According to Peter’s plan, on the one hand, Peterhoff was to be in no way inferior to the famous European royal palatial ensembles, while on the other – serving as a triumphant monument to the successful end of the 20-year old Great Northern War, which Russia waged against Sweden for an outlet to the Baltic sea. Both were successfully achieved.

View of the Grand Cascade.

Work to build the new royal residence proceeded with head-spinning speed, and August 1723 witnessed the solemn ceremony of opening Peterhoff. Moreover, by that time the Lower Park layout was ready, the Marine canal dug, some of the fountains already operational, the final touches to the upper chambers completed, and the palaces “Montplaisir” and “Marly” erected.

For the opening of the summer residence and the launching of the fountains the Emperor invited all the ambassadors, glowing with pride as he demonstrated his new "paradis". The guests were duly impressed by the spectacular array of sculptures, luxurious palaces and formal flowerbeds. But it was the fountains that stunned everyone. The foreign dignitaries had never anticipated that the end of the Northern war would be commemorated with such an incredible architectural wonder.

The building of the fountains continued until the mid-19th century. In engineering and artistic solution, their range, diversity, and abundance of water the fountains of Peterhoff are truly unique in world fountain art practice.

We have already mentioned the Grand Cascade, that amazing construction, graced with numerous fountains, bronze and gold-plated statues, and bas-reliefs. It was conceived by Czar Peter I and is shaped like a huge grotto, flanked by splendidly decorated waterfalls shaped like a cascade of steps. Later, after the death of Peter I, Rastrelli's spectacular statue of Samson wrestling the jaws of a lion was placed in the center of the cascade. (Samson tearing apart the lions jaws). The Biblical hero Samson is wrestling the jaws of the lion, from which spouts a 20-meter column of water. The sculpture symbolizes Russia’s victory over Sweden in the battle of Poltava, in 1709, on the day of St. Samson. Defeated Sweden is symbolized by the lion, which is emblazoned on that country’s coat of arms.

Peter had a predilection for all things innovative and ingenious, and insisted on the ever-popular Joke fountains, spraying unwary passers-by who stepped on a particular paving stone. In the past no park could do without them, yet Peterhoff has more of them than any other place. For example, the “Oak tree” fountain with its 5 tulips around it and 2 benches. A visitor curious to take a closer look at a tulip blooming so late in the season, would approach closer, and at once be sprayed with a jet of water. Thus caught unawares, the person would retreat under the shade of the tree, but the “Oak”, made of hollow pipes, immediately sprang to life. As a last resort rushing for the benches, the visitor likewise would be water-sprayed.

In Soviet times one newspaper published a letter penned by an incensed visitor to Peterhoff, who wrote that “it was an outrage that one could not attend Peterhoff wearing decent clothes, since one never knew when one could expect a deluge of water! It was outrageous that the administration of Peterhoff and the gardens turned a blind eye to such ridiculous jokes”. In that day and age a letter of that nature sounded quite ominous, so the administration went into a flurry of elaborate excuses, explaining that the Joke fountains were a much-loved inherently historic feature. If this particular visitor to Peterhoff was unable to appreciate them, then it was his loss.

It is customary to liken Peterhoff to Versailles. One often hears the phrase: “Peterhoff is the Russian Versailles”. In actual fact the comparison is incorrect. An expert on Peterhoff museums Alexander Benois wrote in this respect: “The feature that serves as Peterhoff’s main artistic attraction – the fountain ensembles – reflects the common for all of Europe at the time fascination with park layout and various contrivances. However, neither in layout, nor in their general concept do these water amusements have anything in common with those of Versailles. Peterhoff as much resembles Versailles, as the latter – the villa Adriana in Italy… In Versailles, the fountains (rather, the water of the fountains) is an elegant adornment that is not imperative to the general attraction of the estate. Peterhoff, however, is a residence of a Czar of the seas. The fountains here are not an appendage, but the focal feature… The tireless Samson – symbol of Russia’s triumph over the northern marine powers”.

The Samson Fountain and Sea Channel (left). Samson and the Lion (right).

It is the sea that lends Peterhoff its unique character, as though it was born from t he foaming sea waves… Who else but the audacious and ambition Czar Peter I, confident in his future, could have ventured to build his “paradise” on the sea. You would think that it would be risky, bearing in mind the dangers of pirates, war ships, siege...

Indeed, in the 19th century the sea posed a danger for the royal residence. During the Crimea war in June 1854 the English fleet reached Kronstadt unhindered and had Peterhoff and Petersburg in its line of fire… With binoculars in hand, Emperor Nikolai I observed from his palace the guns of war ships being aimed and readied... That day poet and diplomat Fyodor Tyutchev wrote in his diary: “Some 16 kilometers from the Russian Emperor’s palace stands a fully-rigged fleet – that is the entire West turned out to flaunt its rejection of Russia, desirous of robbing it of its future”.

In the Emperor’s residence some of the most illustrious architects worked on blueprints for over a dozen palaces that were erected in diverse epochs; exquisite park pavilions were built, a unique fountain system set in place, fabulous parks and gardens laid out. In Soviet times the palaces and pavilions of Peterhoff were turned into museums of Russian and west-European art of the 18th – early 20th centuries.

In the years of WWII St.Petersburg (in Soviet times renamed into Leningrad) survived the 900-day siege by fascist troops. Peterhoff, situated 29 kilometers from the city, was ravaged by German troops: the frontline passed right through it.

Peterhoff was not seized by the fascist army in its entirety, but only occupied in part. Old Peterhoff was defended by Soviet troops, while the New Peterhoff was seized by the occupants.

“In January 1944 a terrifying photo was published: all that stood in the place of the former Grand Palace was a charred hull, and snow shrouded the ravaged site,” said former director of the State Museum estate “Peterhoff” Vadim Znamenov. “The famous Samson statue was taken to Germany and melted down. The place seemed desolate and showing no signs of life… Peterhoff seemed beyond saving… However, before the war was even finished, soldiers came here to clear the land of mines. It was a difficult task: many people died in the process. But despite tremendous difficulties, the miracle was revived, and Peterhoff rose up like a Phoenix out of the ashes, just as spectacular and wondrously beautiful as it was. Peterhoff is so much more than a museum, it is a whole country, with its own rich history,” continues Vadim Znamenov. “First of all, it embraces 200 years of history of imperial Russia. It is a witness to the revolutionary events of 1917 and a monument to those who in desperate times of post-war ruin and destruction contributed to the effort to revive Peterhoff to its former splendor.

The fountains of Peterhoff come awake at exactly 11 am, and the first of these is “Samson”. Just like 300 years ago, thousands of jets of water pierce the sky, shattering into a myriad of sparkling drops. Up to 6 million people annually visit the museum- estate, to marvel at the fountains of Peterhoff, a veritable wonder of Russian national culture and world heritage.

Source & Copyright: The Voice of Russia
6 July, 2012