One of the world’s finest landscaped parks

G. G. Orlov
G. G. Orlov
The history of the Gatchina’s ensemble of palaces and parks begins in the mid-18th century when, on the site of a small farmstead, the Italian architect Antonio Rinaldi built a palace in the new classical manner for the rich nobleman G. G. Orlov, and surrounded it with extensive parks in landscape style.

The 18th century was a “golden age” in the development of park and garden construction in Russia. Throughout Russia gardens and parks were laid out in great numbers, in places ranging from the Imperial residences to provincial country houses. In the middle of the century, in place of parks laid out in the formal manner, parks in landscape style began to be constructed.

In Russia the landscape style was disseminated along with the philosophical ideas of the French Enlightenment. According to these new notions, a park should be a place of “natural” scenery, which should serve as a “preceptor” and “teacher of all teachers”. The Empress Catherine II, in a letter to the great French philosopher of the Enlightenment, Voltaire, wrote: “I have a passion now for gardens in the English style, crooked lines, gentle slopes, ponds in the form of lakes with archipelagos of dry land; and I thoroughly despise straight lines. I hate fountains: they torture the water, making it flow in a direction contrary to its nature…”

Following the example of his royal lady-friend, Grigory Orlov in his correspondence with Jean-Jacques Rousseau was also a passionate supporter of the landscape style. Inviting the French philosopher to Gatchina, he gave a graphic description of the virtues of his new property: “Sixty versts – that is, ten German miles – from Petersburg I have an estate where the air is healthy, the water marvellous, with lakes surrounded by gently sloping hills, forming places pleasant for walks and conducive to reflection…”

The White Lake

Originally, the “Orlov” park covered the land which comprises the three present-day Gatchina parks plus parts of the town. The enormous forested areas surrounding Gatchina added to the park’s extensive dimensions.

In documents of the period, the area around the White and Silver Lakes was called the “English Garden”, and the rest of the territory the “Menagerie”. A large part of the Orlov park was set aside for its owner’s favourite pastime, hunting. There were no clearly defined boundaries between the parks and the surrounding forests.

Gatchina, 1770
Gatchina, 1770
The Silver Meadow and the oak tree
The Silver Meadow and the oak tree

The creators of the park made full use of the natural features of the Gatchina landscape, and of the particular beauty it displayed as a part of Northern Russia.

In the marshy areas, where there existed small natural reservoirs from which flowed the Gatchinka river, plans were made for the creation of a complex system of waterways. By means of dams the Silver, White and Black Lakes were formed. These lakes became the central features of the parks’ composition. They were connected with each other and were fed by vigorous springs “with water so pure, that every grain of sand was clearly visible even at a depth of eight or ten sazhens” (1 sazhen = 2.13 metres.) To this day the Gatchina lakes constitute the “soul” of the parks, their wide watery vistas lending it a unique beauty.

An old plan of the site
An old plan of the site
An island in the White Lake
An island in the White Lake

To provide “touches of great artistry”, the shoreline of the lakes was broken up by deep bays, rounded promontories, and numerous islands. Along the shores extensive winding paths were laid, designed for leisurely walking. Now approaching one another, now diverging, they led the walker now to the water’s edge, now into the depths of the forest; and at every turn another, and yet another, landscape picture would be revealed.

The make-up of the Orlov park’s vegetation was significantly altered; the prevailing coniferous trees were extensively replaced with oaks, ashes, elms, and lime-trees.

A number of ancient oaks, more than two hundred years old, have survived to this day. One of them stands like an old nobleman, supported by props, on the meadow behind the palace: a living link between that age and this.

Gatchina Palace
Gatchina Palace
Gatchina Palace
Gatchina Palace

A distinctive feature of the Gatchina ensemble is the unique harmony which exists between its different parts: the park, and the architecture of the palaces and the park structures.

The great talent of the architect Rinaldi is shown above all in the wonderful way he “inserted” the palace into the surrounding landscape.

The palace is situated on high ground and is illuminated by the sun throughout the day. Its bright silhouette is distantly reflected in the smooth water of the lakes that lie before it.

The Chesme obelisk
The Chesme obelisk
A view from the Signal Tower of the Palace
A view from the Signal Tower of the Palace

The basic compositional axes of the park are also oriented towards the Palace. From many points in the park the central block of the Palace can be seen, with its two corner towers. Now the Palace appears against the pale northern sky, now it vanishes among the trees. Viewed from the White Lake in the vicinity of the Chesme obelisk, it resembles a fabulous mediaeval castle, replete with fantastic stories and legends.

The palace was planned by Rinaldi in such a way that it should continually provide an opportunity of admiring the park, with its high towers, its numerous balconies, its galleries and its “bright passageways”. From the observation platforms of the towers one may have a bird’s-eye view of the park. The striking of the tower clock solemnly echoes across the blue lakes and green islands, mingling with the sound of Gatchina’s church bells.

A view of the White Lake and the Swan Island
A view of the White Lake and the Swan Island
The shore of the lake
The shore of the lake

Indeed, nature penetrates all the rooms of the Palace. In the words of A. V. Lunacharsky: “From the windows of the Gatchina palace at sunset – the time when I was there – one beholds a landscape so astounding in its severity, its melancholy grandeur, its restrained sorrow, as I do not remember ever having seen before, either in nature or in art.” And truly, the landscapes of the park may rival the canvases of the best artists which adorn the various rooms of the palace.

The eternal beauty of Nature was a continuing source of inspiration for Rinaldi. Today, in those rooms restored to their former state, the visitor’s eye is delighted by the elegance of the d?cor created by the architect for the ceilings and walls, the colourful mosaic of the doors and parquet floors, consisting of ornamental flowers and vegetation.

A view of Gatchina Palace from the Silver Lake
A view of Gatchina Palace from the Silver Lake
A view of Gatchina Palace from the Carp Pond
A view of Gatchina Palace from the Carp Pond

One of Rinaldi’s great merits is that for the facing of the Palace facades he employed limestone from the local quarries. A description of it has survived, made by an18th-century student and connoisseur of art, Yakob Shtelin: “Pudost is a town in Ingria, situated forty versts distant from Petersburg on the highway to Narva. There this stone occurs in abundance, and is cheap, thanks to the low cost of transporting it. It can be worked with knives, chisels, axes and saws; when first quarried it is very soft, but becomes gradually harder on exposure to the air.”

This “distinguished” stone served to connect the palace still more closely with the land on which it was built. Pudost limestone possesses wonderful decorative qualities. On cloudy, overcast days the palace takes on the colour of the dull sky; in sunlight it becomes a golden yellow.
V. Fedorova
Photographs: G. Puntusova


Historical Magazine «Gatchina Over the Centuries»