There are not many squares in world architecture that leave as deep an impression on the viewer as the Palace Square (Dvortsovaya Ploschad). The amazing sensation of space, the harmony of the buildings surrounding it, and the beauty of each separate building, combine to produce an overwhelming effect. The secret of this enchantment lies in the integrity of the ensemble, although everything here was built at different times by different architects and in different styles.
When the Winter Palace, the oldest of the buildings here, was completed, the view from its windows in the direction opposite the Neva was far from attractive – just nondescript houses and waste lots. True, development of the territory in front of the palace began soon afterwards, and in 1779 the boundary of the square was defined by the private houses built in a semi-circle by architect Yuri Felten. Still, there was no artistic harmony, and in 1819 Carlo Rossi was commissioned to builder a “proper” square in front of the palace.
The life of this outstanding architect was wholly bound up with St. Petersburg where he grew up, was educated, worked and died in poverty and obscurity, having being debarred by Nicholas I from participation in any major projects long before his death. Among the ensembles created by Rossi in Saint Petersburg, the place of honor belongs to Palace Square.
It was a formidable task designing a building opposite the Winter Palace with Rastrelli’s ornate façade stretching the length of the vast square. Rossi’s challenge was to find the right size and shape for his building so that it would stand up to the palace and at the same time harmonize with it. Nor could he forget about the proximity of the Admiralty, built on entirely different artistic principles. And, last but not least, he was obliged to continue what Felten had begun, neither pulling down not rebuilding anything. Rossi solved all these problems brilliantly, and produced one of the finest ensembles in the city.
Palace Square in 1800 - Before Rossi's Redesign. Uknown Painter, circa 1800.
General Staff Building
The enormous white-and-yellow building half-encircling the Palace Square is usually called the General Staff (Glavny Shtab). Actually, there are two separate buildings connected by a triumphal arc opposite the main gateway of the Winter Palace. These two buildings with a total frontage of 580 meters were completed in 1829 and were meant to house the General Staff, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Finance Ministry.
The contrast between the lavishly ornate Winter Palace and the severe General Staff would seem to be too striking, and yet the two edifices are perceived as units of a single ensemble and lend the square grandeur and originality.
The façade of the General Staff is bow-shaped in the central part while the outlying walls stretch parallel to the façade of the Winter Palace. The intentional monotony of the walls with their endless rows of windows is only slightly relieved by four long balconies. In contrast, the Triumphal Arc in the center surpasses nearly all the buildings in the city in magnificence. The arch gives access to the Palace Square from Bolshaya Morskaya Street which adjoins it at an angle. In order to make it strictly perpendicular to the main gateway of the Winter Palace, Rossi gave it an artificial curve, boldly spanning it with a seventeen-meter-long double arch at a height of 28 meters.
The Triumphal Arc is decorated with martial figures, winged Glories in haut relief, and various regalia. The crowning point of the composition is the victory chariot on top of the arch (16 meters wide and 10 meters tall) designed by sculptors S. Pimenov and V. Demut-Malinovsky who for many years worked together with Rossi. The six horses, led by two foot soldiers, are harnessed to a chariot in which stands the winged figure of Glory holding the state emblem of Russia in her hands.
The arch seems to be made for the triumphal entrance of victorious troops, and it was in fact, as the building of the General Staff, erected as a monument to Russia’s victory in the 1812 war against Napoleon. The work of Rossi and his great contemporaries Zakharov, Voronikhin and Stasov, reflects those patriotic feelings which were so strong in Russian society during this war.
Another monument in honor of Russia’s victory over Napoleon was the Triumphal Column erected in the center of Palace Sqaure in 1834 (August Montferrand), called the Alexander Column. This is the tallest granite monolith in the world. The column is 47.5 meters high – higher than the Vendome Column in Paris and Columna Trajana in Rome. Morevoer, it is not anchored by anything and is kept secure on the pedestal entirely by its own weight, about 600 tons. The column has a diameter of 3.66 meters. The monolith was hewn out of a cliff in the Puterlak quarry in the vicinity of Vyborg, and brought to St. Petersburg in a specially constructed barge. The column is crowned with the figure of an angel carrying a cross (sculptor Boris Orlovsky) and trampling on a snake which symbolizes the vanquished enemies. The pedestal is ornamented with haut reliefs whose theme is the glory of Russian arms.
In 1837-1843, soon after the erection of the Alexander Column, a building for the Guards Headquarters was constructed by A. Bryullov in the east corner of Palace Square between the Winter Palace and the General Staff. Subordinated in proportions and style to Rossi’s General Staff building, it made a good complement to the ensemble.
Later, a cast-iron grille (architect R. Meltser) appeared in front of the Winter Palace and then a rather large glass cupola rose behind one of the wings of the General Staff, which broke the symmetry of the ensemble. In the 1920s, the grille was moved to Narvskaya Zastava where it is used as a fence for the Ninth of January Garden. The cobblestone square was asphalted in that same period and façades of the buildings carefully restored.