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The Alexander Palace

The construction of the Alexander Palace was the culmination of the thirty year “Golden Age” of Tsarskoe Selo which extended through the reign of Catherine the Great (1729-1796). The Empress had taken responsibility for the upbringing of her first and favorite grandson Grand Duke Alexander Pavlovich (1777-1825) soon after his birth. The palace was a gift to Alexander on the occasion of his marriage to Grand Duchess Elizabeth Alexeivna, born Princess Marie Augusta of Baden (1779-1826). It was constructed at Catherine’s favorite estate of Tsarskoe Selo, near the Catherine Palace which had been built by the brilliant Francesco Bartolmeo Rastrelli. The actual construction of the Alexander Palace, between 1792 and 1796, was directed by the Italian architect Giacomo Quarenghi, already renowned for his work in St. Petersburg. Visitors to the palace in 1796 agreed that the architect from Bergamo had excelled himself in this masterpiece. (1) In 1821, a quarter of a century later, the architect’s son wrote: “An elegant building which looks out over the beautiful new garden [ … ] in Tsarskoe Selo, was designed and built by my father at the request of Catherine II, as a summer residence for the young Grand Duke Alexander, our present sovereign. In keeping with the august status of the person for whom the Palace was conceived, the architect shaped it with the greatest simplicity, combining functionality with beauty. Its dignified façade, harmonic proportions, and moderate ornamentation [ … ] are also manifested in its interiors [ … ], without compromising comfort in striving for magnificence and elegance”. (2) The new palace consisted of an elongated two-story building flanked by wings and enriched with a splendid Corinthian colonnade. The grandeur of the architecture was entirely in harmony with its surrounding park. A well known art-historian, Igor Grabar wrote: “In Petersburg and suburbs there are palaces large and small, some larger and more regal than this one, but architecturally there are none superior. The great double colonnade connecting the wings of the palace is one of a kind!! This is one of the world’s architectural masterpieces by virtue of the artistic scope of its composition, the overall impression it instills, and the elegance of its decoration. One can truly say that this is a gem of the great master’s creative work.”

The palace interiors designed by Quarenghi had the same expressive touch. They were monumental both in composition and decoration. The reception rooms, comprising several chambers extending en-suite along the garden façade, were punctuated by wide arcades applied with white artificial marble. The architect gave tremendous thought to the precision of the construction and decorative details. He oversaw the exact execution of the ornamental friezes, sculptural door frames, fireplaces, in addition to the wall and ceiling paintings by J.A. de la Giacoma, an Italian artist and decorator. The resulting impression of the palace interiors was one of perfection and stateliness. One discerns the elegance of the palace furnishings in surviving photographs and paintings depicting the reception and private apartments. It is worth nothing that certain objects that once enriched the palace interiors in the nineteenth century, are preserved in various museum collections.

Even though, upon ascending the throne, Alexander chose to reside at the Catherine Palace, Quarenghi’s masterpiece was forever associated with Alexander’s residence there as grand duke. It is for this reason that it became known as the Alexander Palace. Emperor Nicholas I (1796-1855), Alexander’s brother and successor, chose the Alexander Palace as a preferred retreat from official responsibilities. He spent many holidays at Tsarskoe Selo with family and close friends. Even during the turbulent summer of 1831, a year otherwise notorious for the Polish Campaign and cholera epidemics, a contemporary source noted an idyllic portrait of the Imperial family in her memoirs.

“I remember that in those days our favorite occupation was to go and watch how the children played in the lawn in front of the Alexander Palace. I also remember that every evening this lawn was surrounded by the residents of Tsarskoe Selo who would not miss an opportunity to admire those lively family scenes of Imperial life. We were among those people and with our avid eyes followed each move of Tsar Nicholas Pavlovich, his Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, and their beautiful children.” (3)

Emperor Nicholas I used to move to the Alexander Palace from early spring until late May when he transferred his troops to their summer encampment. Following these maneuvers, the court would then return to Tsarskoe Selo until late autumn. Nicholas I devoted a great deal of attention to enhancing the beauty and comfort of the palace. From 1830 to 1850, extensive redecoration was carried out according to designs by D. Cerfolio, A Thon, D. Yefimov, A. Stakenschneider, and others in keeping with rapidly changing tastes. The appearance of the formal and private rooms of the palace during Nicholas’ reign can be seen in exquisite watercolors by E. Hau, I. Premazzi and I. Volsky from 1840-1860.

Nicholas and his family’s residence at the Alexander Palace was marked by both happy and sad events. In 1842, the Imperial couple celebrated their silver wedding anniversary with a series of galas including a medieval jousting tournament. This was commemorated in a painting O. Vernet entitled “Tsarskoselskaya Carousel”. Two years later, the family mourned the premature death of Nicholas’s daughter Grand Duchess Alexandra (1825-1844), who was born at the palace and lived the last few months of her life there. On October 19, 1860, the Empress also passed away at the palace. Later, Nicholas’s grandson, Grand Duke Alexander Alexandrovich made the Alexander Palace his permanent residence before his coronation as Alexander III (1845-1894). His apartments occupied the right wing of the palace.

It is the period of Nicholas II that had the most significant impact on the history of the Alexander Palace. He was born at Tsarskoe Selo and made it his permanent residence after 1905. Quarenghi’s Palace, so closely entwined with the history of the Russian monarchy, was also associated with the last chapter of the Empire. It was from here that Nicholas II and his family began their journey towards their brutal end at Ekaterinburg.

Long before that August in 117, Nicholas II described the move into the Alexander Palace in his diary: “It is impossible to express in words how delightful it is for the two of us to live in this wonderful place.” (4) The British Ambassador George Buchanan recalled that the Emperor’s family was only seen in St. Petersburg: “...when state or religious events required their presence. [ … ] In the seclusion of Tsarskoe Selo the family lived a simple life that excluded outsiders from that happy family circle.” (5)

During the stormy months of war and revolution, the monumental walls of the Alexander Palace sheltered the Imperial family from the outside world. Pierre Gilliard, tutor to Nicholas II’s son Alexei (1904-1918), had free access to this inner sanctum. In his memoirs, the tutor later described that family life at Tsarskoe Selo was less formal than at other residences. Apart from a few exceptions, the court did not reside at the palace. The Imperial family would gather informally around the table at mealtimes without attendants, unless relatives were visiting. (6)

This ilyllic world was watched over by the sad and prophetic smile of Queen Marie Antoinette of France, portrayed with her unfortunate children in a marvelous tapestry in the Corner Room. This had been a gift from the French President E. Loubert during his visit to Russia in 1902. Alexandra and the children may well have met Marie-Antoinette’s gaze as they left the palace for good at dawn on 1 August, 1917.

The palaces’s exterior appearance has barely changed in the past two centuries, except for the addition of two cast-iron statues created at the Alexander Iron Works which were placed in front of the colonnade in 1838: Pimenov’s “Young Man Playing Knucklebones” and Loganovsky’s “Young Man Playing Handfid.” Somewhat later, along the palace, a corner balcony was built. This structure, created by the Petersburg Metalworks, was destroyed during renovations in 1947-1951.

In contrast to the exterior, the palace interiors underwent significant changes. Each monarch who lived in the Alexander Palace altered and added furnishings to his own taste. Only a few formal halls, on the garden side of the palace, retained their original interiors virtually without alteration. The “Quarenghi version” of the interiors, with only small changes in the middle of the nineteenth century, was retained in the Semicircular Hall, the Portrait Hall, the Billiard Hall, and the so-called “Hall with the Hill,” which received its name after the installation of a slide during the reign of Nicholas I for the use of the Imperial children.

In 1817 and in 1826-1827, several rooms in the right wing of the palace were redesigned by the architect Vasili Stasov to create living quarters for Nicholas I and his family, as well as rooms for the retinue. Included in these renovations was the Emperor’s study, well-known from a watercolor by Gau. In 1837 the formal bedroom changed its function and was redesigned as Alexandra Feodorovna’s Crimson Drawing Room. These renovations, directed by the architect Alexander Thon, included the installation of a fireplace made of Egyptian porphyry with alabaster bas-relief sculpture, new furnishings corresponding to contemporary tastes, and the crimson window dressing which gave the room its name. The new drawing room, with its spectacular décor, was captured in an 1863 watercolor painting by Luigi Premazzi.

In the 1840s, under orders from Nicholas I, major repair and reconstruction was carried out in the formal halls and living quarters of the palace. Work included the restoration of artifical marble walls and the replacement of heating stoves with fireplaces. The architect Stackenschneider supervised the redecorating of certain interiors. In 1845, according to a design by Stasov (whose creative output was closely connected for many years with the Alexander Palace), a mirrored entry was built to connect the Billiard Hall with the Empress’ boudoir. This new feature was documented in an 1854 watercolor by Luigi Premazzi.

A sad event within the Imperial family resulted in the most considerable changes made to the palace in the mid 1840’s. This was the death of Grand Duchess Alexandra Nicholaevna, the youngest daughter of Nicholas I and Alexandra Feodorovna. It was a profound tragedy to the Tsar and Tsaritsa, as well as the inhabitants of St. Petersburg who grieved deeply. The Imperial family abandoned Tsarskoe Selo in the summer of 1844 to participate in the procession to the Peter and Paul Fortress in St. Petersburg. They only returned to their residence in July of 1845 after a year of mourning. During this period, there were some significant changes to the palace interiors: “...the Empress didn’t have the strength to live in the rooms that were reminiscent of her loss. Therefore, the distribution of the rooms was completely modified, and the Alexander Palace never again hosted any kind of ball or celebration during the lifetime of Nicholai Pavlovich and Alexandra Feodorovna”. (7)

The desire to transform the interiors that recalled the youngest daughter’s slow decline resulted in a large amount of work that lasted throughout the winter. By order of Nicholas I, the actual purpose of each of the rooms was altered in addition to the interior decoration. Thus, the dining room was converted into a bedroom, a bedroom into a dining room, and the former Small Study into a dressing room, etc….

Another outcome of the construction was the appearance of a chapel. It was built in Alexandra Feodorovna’s study and located where the grand duchess had died. The walls were covered over once again, with murals after drawings by the academician Feodor Solntsev. In keeping with Nicholas I’s wishes, the decoration was inspired by those of the Terem Palace of the Russian Tsars in the Moscow Kremlin.

Originally, the Alexander Palace chapel was set up in memory of Alexandra Nicholaevna. A number of icons that had belonged to the Grand Duchess were displayed. These included “Saint Alexandra, Being Assumed into Heaven” which depicted a holy visage in which the features of the royal daughter were easily recognized.

This unusual icon in a silver-gilt frame was displayed on a walnut lectern in the center of the small chapel. The portrait-icon was painted by the famous Russian artist Karl Briullov. It was commissioned by officers of the Preobrazensky regiment and presented in 1845 to Nicholas I who liked it very much. According to a contemporary of the artist “...the marvelous image of Saint Alexandra bore a great resemblance to the deceased grand duchess”. (8) At the time, the icon was permanently located at the Alexander Palace. Presently, it is on view in one of the exhibition rooms.

Changes to the palace interiors were not limited to the right wing. The rooms in the left wing were repeatedly redesigned. This section of the palace housed the Imperial court, as well as a concert hall which had been designed by Quarenghi. Its walls, faced with artificial marble, were decorated with pilasters and Corinthian columns. Extensive redesign work in 1896-1898 resulted in the elimination of the courtiers’ rooms and made way for the personal living quarters of Nicholas II and his family. The series of rooms in the left side of the wing became the Imperial bedroom, the Empress’ Mauve Boudoir, and the Palisander Drawing Room. The right side of the wing became a dining room, working study, dressing room, and other rooms for Nicholas II.

The Great Concert Hall, which occupied the entire breadth of the wing, survived until 1903. The architect Danini had proposed various alternative uses for this space as private and public rooms, including a 1901 design which retained the concert hall while adding a gallery. However, during the 1903 reconstruction by the firm of Friedrich Meltser to the designs of architect Roman Meltser, the Concert Hall was eliminated. The space was divided into Alexandra Feodorovna’s Maple Drawing Room and Nicholas II’s New Study on the first floor, and children’s rooms above. At the same time as the reconstruction of the Concert Hall, the English firm of Maples was commissioned by Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna to redesign a series of the Stasov interiors of the right wing. This part of the palace was renamed the English Suite. It is worthwhile mentioning that these renovations (as well as those in the Emperor’s suite) were aimed at making the apartments more comfortable. Great care was taken to avoid destroying any of the interiors. Instead, previous decorative elements were covered by subsequent renovations.

Even as late as the 1920s, in noting that the apartments of the last Romanovs were filled with “factory-produced items contemporary to the inhabitants and characteristics for the industrial-capitalist class,” authors writing about the palace emphasized the importance of preserving “these interiors which are highly valuable from a historical standpoint.” Floor plans and diagrams of wall hangings were produced with this in mind. V. Yakovlev, the chief curator of the Alexander Palace museum beginning in 1918, wrote in 1927, “Although these rooms appeared within the walls of a building of Catherine’s age, they must be carefully preserved and serve as a comparative illustration of another time, and other tastes, which have fallen into oblivion”. (9)

Significantly, the well-known scholar of St. Petersburg architecture G. Lukomsky, while a harsh critic of the artistic taste of the palace’s last residents and the interiors they had created, asked: “When one’s attitude to many things changes and one’s tastes are different . . . who can say in advance that the people of another generation will fail to like all this so-called art of the early years of the twentieth century?” (10) In fact, today’s world sees many things differently. We can only regret that having survived the war, the exquisite Modernist decor was deemed artistically insignificant and destroyed during the 1947-1951 reconstruction. It is worth mentioning that the Alexander Palace saw an increasing flow of technological innovation. Already in the 1840’s, the palace was equipped with Ammosov’s heating system and fitted with plumbing. In Nicholas I’s study in 1843, Russia’s first telegraph apparatus was installed, linking the palace with public offices in St. Petersburg. During the reign of the last Tsar, the palace was wired for electricity and equipped with a telephone system. In 1899 a hydraulic lift was installed connecting the Empress’s suite with the children’s rooms on the second floor. Furthermore, with the advent of motion pictures, a screening room was built in the Semicircular Hall to show films—primarily feature or documentary movies—for the Imperial children.

The palace’s last commandant, V.I. Voyeykov, recalled these screenings: “...normally films were shown once a week. The choice of films was usually assigned by the Emperor to Pierre Gilliard. When the Tsarevich was healthy, the films were shown in the Circular Hall of the palace with the Emperor, sometimes the Empress, Alexei, the Grand Duchesses and the Adjutant-on-duty in attendance. Invitations to the movies were usually passed on to me by the Emperor in Alexei’s name [ … ] I will never forget the last showing in early February . . . It was the film ‘Madame Du Barry,’ featuring all the horrors of the French Revolution, the guillotine, people’s courts, executions, etc. . . . After this film, I felt an unbelievable weight on my soul.” (11)

Immediately following the Imperial Family’s exile in Tobolsk until the beginning of the Second World War, the first floor of the palace’s central section and left wing were devoted to museum exhibits. These were designed to acquaint visitors with Quarenghi’s formal halls, the interiors redesigned during the reign of Nicholas I, and the living quarters of the last Romanovs.

At the beginning of World War II, the most valuable furnishings were evacuated to the interior of the country. The remaining parts of the collection, hidden in the basement were looted by the occupying forces. During the war years, the Alexander Palace was used as headquarters for the German military command. The area in front of the palace was turned into a cemetery for SS soldiers. Unfortunately, unlike other Imperial palaces which remained intact during the war or which were rebuilt from their ashes, the Alexander Palace museum was not reinstated after the war. Artistically and historically unique collections were partially destroyed. The remaining objects were redistributed among several museum collections.

In 1944, the town of Tsarskoe Selo was renamed Pushkin in honor of the legendary Russian author who had attended the Imperial Lycee there. Despite the significant damage that had marked the palace during the occupation, a series of interiors was preserved which represented various periods of its history. Conservation work was initiated after the war. As early as 1946, the palace was turned over to the Academy of Sciences of the U.S.S.R to transform the interiors into exhibition galleries honoring Alexander Pushkin. As a result, the Alexander Palace underwent restoration work.

At that time, two separate reconstruction projects were developed. The first alternative called for the complete recreation of the interiors as they had been designed by Giacomo Quarenghi in the late eighteenth century. As a result, any decorative modifications that had been developed later and had survived through World War II, were to have been destroyed. These included the interiors that been created for the last Russian Emperors.

Taking into account the ideology that was prevalent during this period, it is astonishing that the project was not adopted. Even more striking is the fact that the plan was rejected and that the second version was implemented. It called for a combination of original eighteenth century interiors to be opened to the public in conjunction with recreated period rooms from the residences of Nicholas I and II. However, in the course of the work on this project by a courageous and outstanding group of architects and museum workers, the plan was revised. The surviving elements of Empress Alexandra Feodorovna’s Maple and Palisander Drawing Rooms, as well as Nicholas’ Dressing Room were destroyed. The spaces were transformed into exhibition rooms with very simple architectural designs. The reconstruction work was begun in 1948 and extended through 1951. At that time an unexpected decision was made to turn over the Alexander Palace to the Navy Department. Thereafter, it was no longer accessible to visitors.

Until very recently, this famed palace was seen as little more than an enhancement to the beautiful Alexander Park. Few knew that formal halls had been preserved within, or that the Catherine and Pavlovsk palaces contained exquisite chandeliers, torchieres, formal portraits, and many other works of art created specifically for those halls. Fewer realized that, in the left wing of the palace, decorations dating from the the last Russian emperor had survived intact. Today, memorabilia connected to the palace and its inhabitants is being returned. We are opening a new chapter in the story of this remarkable monument.


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