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Classical St Petersburg

By St Petersburg Expert Igor, Russian Federation, March 2012

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The second part of 18th century was marked by a new style which overtook the previously popular Baroque style from the first half of the century. The difference was so striking, it seemed that all the new buildings were stripped of all the elaborate moldings and fancy sculptural decorations which were so characteristic to era of Elizabethan baroque. My previous article about the Smolny cathedral helps to elucidate the psychology and manifestation of suppressed alter ego of Elisabeth, who was real party animal during her reign.

Court architect Francisco Bartolomeo Rasstrelli, an Italian educated in France, developed the easily recognizable style of Late Baroque and built 20 palaces during 20 years of  reign(1741-1761), including famous Winter Palace and Catherine’s palace in Pushkin. But Catherine who found herself on the throne by the same means of plotting and murderous technique as her predecessor was different in style.

Indeed she was called “philosopher on the throne”. She was in active correspondence not only with all Heads of States in Europe, as well as French luminaries. She was a true child of her age of enlightenment.  And following this trend of going back to classical principals, invented by Greeks in Athens in 5 century BC and spread all over the territory of what we now call Europe, was tantamount to identifying yourself with true European civilization.

The principles of classicism were rediscovered during the Italian Renaissance and were based on pure proportions of smooth unadorned surfaces and different orders where strict ratio of any architectural detail to everything else, became a must. Elisabeth and her courtiers, who enjoyed enormous privileges during “golden age of nobility”, which by the way she introduced to secure herself a power base amongst them, began construction en masse in St.Petersburg. And like that character from Fight Club movie who asked himself what kind of furniture defined him as a person, those nobles with Catherine the Great at the helm decided that Athenian classical culture and philosophy would be most appropriate for them. Thus mansions, houses, churches, utilitarian buildings were built in the Late Baroque style and architecture became a statement of cultural identity and social status for those nobles who were freed from state service, thereby retaining all the land, serfs, and laborers for the first time in Russia’s history and enjoyed their new found leisure, wealth and power.

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