Senate Square - St. Isaac's Cathedral and Bronze Horseman
Early in her reign, Catherine the Great decided to erect a monument to the city’s founder. It was to be the symbol and justification of her rule. The site was chosen with care, in front of the western ramparts of the Admiralty, where the Church of St. Isaac the Dalmatian once stood in which Peter married Catherine.
The French philosopher, Denis Dedirot, editor of the Encyclopedie, helped to find a worthy sculptor. He suggested the project to Etienne Falconet and the sculptor came to Petersburg in 1768 with his pupil Marie Collot. Ten months later the design was approved; the bronze Tsar on his proud steed has galloped up a cliff and stopped on the edge of a precipice. That year a huge piece of granite suitable for the base was found 12 kilometers away. Its weight was estimated at 1,600 tons. Thunder-Rock, as it was nicknamed, then had to be transported to the city. It was placed on huge sledges with trough-shaped runners. The thirty-two bronze balls placed under these runners slotted into troughs stretched along the road. In this way the slab was transported at the rate of 500 meters per 24 hours. It was then put on a specially constructed barge and delivered to Petersburg in 1770. A special medal was struck to commemorate the event.
While the granite was being sculptured according to architect Velten’s design, the sculptor prepared his mould for casting. Rearing up on its hind legs, the horse has three points of support, its hind legs and tail. Beneath them is a trampled snake, the symbol of envy and evil. The powerful figure of the Tsar-Reformer is most impressive. His expression (Peter’s head was modelled by Marie Collot) radiates strength and resolve.
Amongst the gems which its Czars have bestowed on her, one of the principal is the statue of Peter I., due to the liberality of Catherine II. The Czar is seated on a ?ery charger, in the act of rearing,— an image of the Muscovite nobility, whom he had so much trouble in taming. He is seated on a bear-skin, indicating the state of barbarism which he found his people. Then, that the allegory might be complete, when the artist had ?nished his work, an unhewn mass of rock was rolled up to St. Petersburg to serve as a pedestal, emblematic of the di?iculties which the civiliser of the North had to surmount. A Latin inscription, repeated in Russian on the opposite side, is engraved on the granite:— PETRO PRIMO CATHERINA SECUNDA 1782.
Alexandre Dumas, Eighteen Months at St. Petersburg
The casting took from 1775 to 1778. The first attempt failed when the mould broke. The official unveiling ceremony eventually took place on 18 August, 1782. When the shields covering the monument were removed, the crowd saw the shining gold inscription “Petro Primo Catharina Secunda” on the granite. Thus the Empress immortalized herself.
In 1837 the poet Vasily Zhukovsky published Alexander Pushkin’s long poem The Bronze Horseman in which a hapless mam is contrasted with the ruthless bronze tsar. The poem became famous overnight and the statue became known as the Bronze Horseman.
Peter the First, as founder of an empire, in the majesty of a legislator (I do not here speak of the attitude and attributes of this statue, I may give them in another place), looking directly along the course of the Neva, against the current of which be is placed, and to which he still gives law ; ordering the erection of this capital, its fortress, its harbor, its admiralty, its twelve colleges, its corps des cadets for the land and sea service, its academies, its canals, with the other military and civil edi?ces which belong to the construction of a city destined to become what I have before described. Beholding, with his right eye, the admiralty, that part of the city which is on the left side of the river, the imperial palaces, with all the buildings and monuments of which it consists.
Extract of a Memorial, entitled, Position of the Statue of Peter the Great, in the Square to be formed between the Senate on the South, and the Admiralty on the North. December 5, I 766.
After the victory over Napoleon Alexander I decided to erect new buildings for the Senate and Holy Synod on the west side of the square. His plan was carried out by his brother, Nicholas I. Carlo Rossi produced the design. Construction began in 1829. The Senate building runs from the Neva embankment to Galernaya Street. It begins with a beautiful rounded colonnade and a stepped attic story. The Synod building stretches from Galernaya Street to Konnogvardeisky Boulevard, where the Admiralty Canal was until 1842. Rossi connected the two buildings by a large arch over Galernaya Street. The architect drew on his experience of building in Palace Square, thereby linking the two squares. The new arch is lavishly adorned with numerous sculptures of Justice, Piety and others.
All this creates a kind of enfilade leading up to the monument to the city’s founder. This creation of Carlo Rossi’s was the last specimen of Russian Empire style to be built in St. Petersburg. As art historians like to say, the Empire style left Russia through the Senate and Synod arch.
On the south side of Senate Square stands the massive St. Isaac’s cathedral.
Its history is most unusual. The first wooden church appeared on the river bank in 1710. In 1717 the architect Georg Mattarnovy rebuilt it in stone, adding a large multi-tiered bell-tower next to it. By the middle of the century the church was in poor condition.
This building can not fail to excite the admiration of those who love the great proportions, a style of simple architecture, but imposing and majestic porticos. The location of this church is also the most beautiful. It is built on one of the largest public squares in the capital, and is surrounded by its most beautiful monuments.
St Petersburg Guide, Jean Bastin, 1874
Catherine the Great decided to build a new one. Antonio Rinaldi produced the design and suggested placing it in the middle of the large square. Construction began in 1768. Various types of marble were assembled for exterior and interior use. This prolonged the building work. Then Rinaldo fell to his death from the scaffolding of the Stone Theater. When Catherine died, the new emperor, Paul I, commandeered the marble for his Mikhailovsky Castle. And asked Vincenzo Brenna to finish building the cathedral. Thus St. Isaac’s straddled two reigns with its marble lower section and brick top. This strange edifice lasted until 1818, when Alexander I approved a design by Auguste Montferrand for a new cathedral, a massive rectangle with porticos on its four façades, topped by a powerful drum with a large dome. On each of the four corners is a turret-shaped bell-tower.
St. Isaacs Cathedral is an illustration of the fact that, when she makes the effort, Russia can surpass the world in the magnificence of her architecture; for the treasures of her quarries are exhaustless, and the skill of her lapidaries is unexcelled.
John Stoddard, 1914
Construction proceeded slowly, interrupted by disputes with contractors, reports from envious informers and miscalculations in the design. Eventually it was time to put the forty-eight 17-meter-high columns weighing 114 tons in place. The first went up in April 1828 and the last in August 1830. Then they erected the walls and powerful pylons which would support the heavy dome drum. On top of all this Montferrand decided to encircle it with 24 granite columns weighing 64 tons each. It took experienced builders two hours to put up the first column. Two months later all the columns were in place. Now the dome had to be built on the drum. Montferrand decided to use a triple-casing metal construction. The lower spherical dome, which you see when you go into the cathedral, rests on the body of the drum. It is 22.15 meters in diameter. The “skeleton” of this dome supports a parabolic construction which acts as a base for the skylight. And a third construction, also spherical and adorned with sheets of gilded copper, forms the outer dome 25.8 meters in diameter. Building was finally completed in 1841. And the scaffolding was removed to reveal a massive cathedral 101.88 meters high from its base to the top of the cross and 102.24 meters long, including the west and east porticos.
Decorating the exterior and interior took sixteen years in all. There are large figures of genuflecting angels holding torches on the corners of the parapet. On the pediments of each of the four porticos are groups of three apostles and evangelists. The tympana of the pediments bear relief figures. The constant play of light and shade conveys the sense of restless movement so typical of Baroque architecture. An experienced courtier, Montferrand decided to include portraits of some important court figures in the tympana. And the sculptor Ivan Vitali, who executed the reliefs for the west pediment, carried out his request. In the background, where Emperor Theodosius’s suite is meeting Isaac of Dalmatia, you can see Prince Volkonsky, minister of the Imperial Court, and Alexei Olenin, president of the Academy of Arts. And in the left corner is Montferrand himself holding a model of the cathedral. The interior decoration took 16 tons of malachite, more than half a ton of lazurite, 1,000 tons of bronze and 400 kilograms of gold. The walls and vaults are adorned with numerous frescoes and mosaics by skilled masters. The cathedral was consecrated exactly forty years after the design was approved, on 11 July 1858, in the presence of Alexander II, the third ruler who took part in the building of St. Petersburg’s largest church.