St. Petersburg is a city awash in color. Pastel buildings sparkle under a clear blue sky peppered with billowing clouds—the same sky you see painted on the ceilings of palaces, dramatized by heroic, angelic, religious, or political figures.
St. Petersburg was designed by Peter the Great (circa 1713) to be his Imperial capital. Peter’s determination to raise Russia out of its cultural isolation and into the light of the modern world was the driving force behind his reign and set the stage for the flowering of St Petersburg under Empress Elizabeth I, Peter’s ebullient daughter.
The Winter Palace was visualized by Elizabeth as her crowning glory. Unfortunately, she did not live to occupy the magnificent building and it fell to Catherine the Great to be the first monarch to abide in the turquoise-coloured palace at the water’s edge. Catherine’s 34-year reign was St. Petersburg’s golden age of art and science.
Catherine sent emissaries to scour Europe for paintings and decorative arts, and built the Little Hermitage next to the Winter Palace to accommodate her initial purchase of 225 Dutch and Flemish paintings. As Catherine’s wealth and power grew, so did her art collection. The New Hermitage was added to house her collection, which had grown to 4,000 paintings by the time of her death in 1796.
The Hermitage’s four connecting buildings make the museum one of the largest and most celebrated in the world. Paintings by Rembrandt, de Vinci, Botticelli, Raphael, Titian, El Greco, and Rubens grace the walls of the second floor, while the third floor houses one of the world’s largest collections of Impressionist Art. The first floor’s galleries contain art from the ancient world as well as Asian art and culture.
The buildings themselves, along with their decorative arts and furnishings, are as impressive as the priceless paintings they hold. Don’t miss the throne room of Peter the Great. The throne is solid silver with the royal crest, a double-headed eagle, embroidered on the back.
Not far from the State Hermitage is the Church of the Savior on the Spilled Blood. Built in the medieval style, the 17th-century church is located at the far end of the Griboyedov Canal, directly over the spot where Czar Alexander II was assassinated. The location affords a perfect photo-op to capture its colourful onion-shaped domes. Inside the church, a small cobblestone enclosure and four jasper columns memorialize the spot where the czar’s blood was spilled.
The striking blue and white St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral sports the traditional Russian five-domes covered in gold-leaf. The church is on two levels, both festooned with precious items. The Mariinsky Concert Hall, in stark contrast to the opulence of the church, is an ultra-modern building in terms of architecture and décor.
At the opposite end of the square from the St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral is the spellbinding Yusupov Palace, whose basement served as the assassination spot for Grigory Rasputin in December 1916. The scene has been recreated in the actual room where Rasputin was poisoned and is open to the public by special request.
The Yusupov family history is fascinating. The first Yusupov was a 16th-century Muslim prince who was sent to Russia by his father. He prospered, and by the second generation the Yusupovs had converted to Christianity. The family became incredibly wealthy, rivalling the ruling Romanovs in wealth and power. Felix, the last Prince Yusupov, was married to Irina, the niece of Czar Nicholas II.
St. Isaac’s Cathedral
It took over 40 years to create the masterpiece that is St. Isaac’s Cathedral, with no expense spared on its construction. Its massive dome alone is gilded with over 220 pounds of pure gold, making it visible as far as 25 miles away. Forty-three types of stone and marble grace the interior, including huge columns of malachite and lapis lazuli mined in Russia’s own Ural Mountains.
But for pure artistic mastery, look to the walls. Originally decorated with paintings by the great Russian masters of the day, the walls suffered damage from dampness and were replaced by mosaics. A method was devised for heating different chemicals to achieve variations in colour in each tiny piece of glass, and the resulting images are difficult to differentiate from painting until you get up close.
Under the Soviet regime, the building was closed as a church and in 1931 was turned into a museum. It is still is considered more a museum than a church, although services are held on religious holidays. The cathedral holds up to 14,000 people, with each person standing on one square marble floor tile for the Russian Orthodox standing service.
There is so much more to see and do in the colourful city of St. Petersburg.
Barbara Angelakis is a seasoned international traveller and award-winning writer based in the New York City area. To read more of her articles and adventures, visit LuxuryWeb Magazine at www.luxuryweb.com