Gatchina is a picturesque suburb of St. Petersburg, situated about 46 kilometers from the city. Gatchina is best known for its palace and park ensemble, which includes one of the most perfect works of landscape art.
Gatchina is first mentioned in 1499 as village Hotchino belonging to Novgorod. Later the lands "above the lake Hotchino" were conquered - first by Livonia, and then by Sweden. Gatchina became part of Sweden following the peace treaty of 1617. It reverted back to Russia only a hundred years later at the end of the Great Northern War of 1700-1721. A country estate was built in Gatchina in early 18th century - Peter I gave it to his sister Natalia Alekseevna. After the death of the princess the estate changed owners several times, and in 1765 it was acquired by the Empress Catherine II. Catherine gave Gatchina to her favorite, Count Grigory Orlov, which marks the beginning of history of the Gatchina palace and park ensemble.
Count Orlov appreciated the gift and invited the Italian architect Antonio Rinaldi. In 1766, construction began on the Gatchina Palace, which, according to the architect's plan, was to be a hunting castle with towers. In addition to the palace, which became the center of the Gatchina architectural and park ensemble, Rinaldi raised Chesmensky obelisk - in honor of the victory of the Russian fleet over the Turks at Cesme Bay in 1770, and the Eagle column - dedicated to the owner of the estate, Count Orlov. He also created the grotto "Echo", completing the underground passage from the palace to the Silver Lake, and developed the original plan of the park, which was created in the "English style".
... we proceeded to view the Imperial Residence of Gatchina. The great mass of this building is very striking, but the style of architecture not of an elevated character. It has, in fact, a rustic appearance, consisting of a main body, connected by a semicircular gallery at each end, with the wings, but is totally free from ornament of every kind, porticos or columns. Its aspect is south-west, and fronting it is a very extensive lawn kept in the English style, with a fine sheet of water. On each side are the extensive woods of the park, with several large and fine trees, and long and wide avenues cut through them, reminding one, as far as a general effect, but not as to particulars, of the front of Kensington Palace, its gardens, and magnificent avenues.
St. Petersburg, A journal of travels. Augustus Branville
Catherine the Great, who was in correspondence with Voltaire, wrote to him: “My Gatchina landlord now seems to look dull, as there is little progress in the building of his country residence.” It took fifteen years to build the palace. Catherine the Great visited the site 29 times, but the surviving records mention the curious fact that while often coming to check the construction work, she would never visit the building after its completion. The story of Catherine, Grigory Orlov and Paul I reminds us of the well-known events described by Shakespeare in his famous tragedy Hamlet. Everybody knows this unhappy story about the crown prince who learned in his father’s castle that his death was not natural and that he was billed. The throne was illegally seized by his mother, and the life of Hamlet himself became very complicated. He was declared to have gone mad and thus to have lost his right for the throne.
After the death of Count Orlov in 1783, Catherine II bought the Gatchina estate back and gave it to his son, Grand Duke Paul Petrovich, the future Emperor Paul I. Thus the estate was soon to become an Imperial residence. Paul I commissioned another architect - Vincenzo Brenna, whom Paul met when he traveled to Europe. Under Paul I Gatchina acquired features of a military camp. Here there were "Gatchina troops" organized, trained and dressed modeled after the Prussian army. When in 1796 Paul became emperor, Gatchina became a town and acquired its own coat of arms, and Gatchina Palace was the main residence of the Russian autocrat.
Gatchina was Paul's favourite Palace and his residence during the autumn; he was there at some distance from St Petersburg, and could give himself up without constraint to his hobbies.
Memoirs of Prince Adam Czartoryski, 1832
The Gatchina Palace Museum was opened in 1918. The tribulations of the civil war, fortunately, did not cause damage to the architectural beauty of Gatchina, but during World War II the palace, parks, park buildings and facilities were either severely damaged or destroyed. Complicated restoration work began immediately after the war and has not been completed even today. Today, a unique complex of Gatchina, which is slowly returning to its former splendor, is open to visitors.