Peter the Great Equestrian Statue - The Bronze Horseman
The equestrian statue of Peter the Great is the principal architectural attraction in the Decembrist square. It is the creation of the great French sculptor Etienne Falconet, who embodied in his sculpture the idea of enlightened absolutism put forward by the French Encyclopaedists: the monarch is directing his country along the path of progress.
The Bronze Horseman
The monument is now universally known as the Bronze Horseman because of Pushkins mini-epic poem The Bronze Horseman (1833). In this haunting story about the Great Flood of 1824, the hero of the story is chased through misty St. Petersburg streets by the enraged bronze statue. Pushkin verse from the poem well described the iron will of Tsar Peter the Great:"How terrible he was in the surrounding gloom!...what strength was in him! And in that steed, what fire!"
Peter the Great is depicted as a rider crowned with a laurel wreath; he has halted his galloping steed, forcing it to obey his iron will. The rock is the symbol of the impediments removed and the crushed snake - defeated evil. On the pedestal, a granite rock bearing the outlines of a wave crashing down, in bronze letters in Russian and Latin a laconic inscription reads: "To Peter I from Catherine II". The date - 1782 - signifies the year when the monument was unveiled.
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.
Falconet worked on this sculpture intensively and selflessly
Falconet worked on this sculpture intensively and selflessly. The best horses in royal stables were placed at the disposal of the sculptor. Day after day riding-masters galloped at great speed onto a specially constructed model of the pedestal of the future monument. Falconet scrupulously copied the movements and the poses of the rearing horses, the tenseness of their muscles. Finally he found a way of depicting the horse. One of the generals, an outstanding cavalry officer who was similar in height and figure to Peter the Great, posed for the sculptor.
But we come now to one of the best objections, as it is thought. Peter the Great, say some people, did great things in the way of conquest; he ought therefore to be represented as a conqueror. This Monarch did great things also, in establishing a port, and creating a navy: he himself even worked at ship building. He might as well be represented as an Admiral; or in his carpenter apron, as he used to be seen in his shop at Saardam. Does not everybody know, that, to paint an object, is to take a comprehensive view; and that, to stop at particulars, is to be shortsighted.
Etienne Falconet, from a letter to Diderot, 1777
Marie Collot created the head of Peter the Great
Two of Falconet assistants deserve special mention: his apprentice Marie Collot created the head of the rider, and the outstanding Russian sculptor Fyodor Gordeev moulded the snake.
During the casting of the monument an accident happened: the molten metal poured out of a crack in the clay pipe, causing a fire in the workshop. Falconet, deciding that the product of his many years of efforts would be completely lost, ran out of the studio in horror.
But Khailov, the founder who was casting the statue, maintained his presence of mind - he tore off clothes and stuffed them into the crack in the pipe, covering them with clay, and completed the casting.
How did they transport the 1,600 ton granite monolith to Saint Petersburg?
Considerable difficulties were involved in transporting the granit block for the pedestal to the city from the environs of St. Petersburg, the village of Lahta, where it was found. It seemed it would be impossible to deliver the 1,600-ton monolith to St.Petersburg.
However, an unknown Russian blacksmith found a brilliant solution: he suggested that the rock should be raised by levers, mounted on a platform of logs and rolled on copper balls along rails with grooves (more than 5 miles) to the shores of the Gulf of Finland from whence a specially constructed barge delivered it to the square by the Senate.
Falconet left for Paris before the unveiling of the sculpture
Although undisputably a grand master of sculpture, Etienne Falconet proved to be a very difficult person and made a number of power enemies in the court of Catherine the Great.
Falconet had been sent to St. Petersburg, where he was responsible for raising a colossal statue of Peter the Great. He was, at first, very well received by Catherine; but proud and independent, of low accommodative mood, the Jean-Jacques of sculpture as Diderot called him, he soon came into an open conflict with Betsky, the all-powerful minister of Fine Arts. Betsky wanted to impose on him the horse of Marcus Aurelius as a template on which to base his work; to which Falconet replied with a brochure with a severe criticism of this famous work.
Henry Tronchin, Le conseiller François Tronchin et ses amis: Voltaire, Diderot, Grimm, 1895
View of the Senate Square and Peter and Great Monument by Benjamin Paterssen, circa 1800: