The ensemble of the Smolny Convent is situated on Rastrelli Square. The name Smolny comes from “Smolyanoi Dvor”, meaning “tar yard”. The tar yard was built on this site soon after the construction of St. Petersburg was begun. Here tar was prepared and stored for the ships built at the St. Petersburg shipyards. In 1723, the tar yard was moved to another district in the city, and on its site Peter’s daughter, the Tsarina Elizabeth, decided to establish a convent in 1744.
In 1748, Bartolomeo Rastrelli, an outstanding master of Baroque, launched the construction of the cathedral. The framework of the cathedral was completed in 1764. Besides the cathedral, the architect built a quadrangle incorporating the cells, the refectory and other premises, creating a magnificently picturesque and imposing ensemble. The traditional motifs of Russian architecture and the innovatory method of the secular architecture of the 18th century are embodied in Rastrelli’s creations on an exceptionally large scale.
The ensemble of the Smolny Convent was never finished. Rastrelli’s project envisaged a structure with a 140 meter high bell tower, but the extravagance of Elizabeth (after her death only six roubles were left in the treasure while 16,000 dresses and gowns filled the Tsarina’s wardrobe) had exhausted the state finances. The bell tower remained only in the plans.
Among the Russo-Greek churches, that of the Smolnoi convent is distin guished for the taste of its decorations, and may serve as a specimen of the modern Russian style of church-architecture. It is more spacious than Russian churches are in general, and its ﬁve cupolas are placed in harmo nious relation with one another. They are painted deep blue, sprinkled with golden stars. A high, magniﬁcent, beautifully-designed iron grating —whose rails, or rather pillars, are wound with wreaths of vine-leaves and ﬂowers, in iron-work—surrounds the courtyards of the convent; and above it wave the elegant birch and lime trees.
Robert Sears, An Illustrated Description of Russia, 1852
Institute for Noble Young Ladies
When Catherine the Great acceded to the throne, she gave instructions that the Institute for Noble Young Ladies should be set up in the Smolny Convent, which had not been completed even at that time. The institute was the first state establishment of education in Russia for the daughters of the gentry. The building of the institute that was later named Smolny was erected in the classical style by the architect Giacomo Quarenghi in 1806-1808. It is situated to the south of the main Smolny complex, on the bank of the Neva, at the back of an extensive square. The architect felt that the building should be greatly removed from the general line of buildings on the street, for the wide open space in front of the Smolny building improves the view of it.
The long façade (over 200 meters) is broken up by projecting side wings and a greatly emphasized central front. A portico of eight Ionic columns rises above the raised arcade of the entrance. A loggia beyond the columns and the flat pediment complete the design of the central part of the façade. The interior décor of the building is even more austere. Among its premises only the assembly hall stands out for its architecture. This huge hall which occupies the first and second floors of the south wing is embellished with an elegant colonnade. Your eye is sure to be caught by the austere stucco frieze and the originally stylized chandeliers in the hall.