One of the world’s finest landscaped parks
The most intriguing element of the architecture of the Palace is the 120-metre-long underground passage which leads to the park. Access to this passage is by a stone staircase in the cellar of the central block of the Palace; it comprises a tunnel which runs, at no great depth, under the meadow between the Palace and the Silver Lake. The atmosphere in the passage is always damp, cold and eerie. On the walls lamps glow dimly, and the light of day penetrates weakly through small window-shafts. The sound of footsteps on the stone flags echoes dully from the vaulted ceiling. The mysterious atmosphere of this passage has given rise to numerous tales of Palace conspiracies and of the appearance of ghosts. A walk down the underground passage is always an especially interesting part of a visit to the Palace.
The underground passage
The underground passage - window-shafts
The purpose, however, of the underground passage – which was constructed during the time of the Palace’s first owner – was not to frighten guests at the Palace, but to entertain them.
The exit from this dark tunnel forms an exotic cave, adorned with blocks of tufa and an iron grille. The cave has been named “the grotto of Echo”. In it an acoustic effect has been put to good use: a word, loudly spoken, is repeated in the tunnel, illustrating the ancient Greek myth of the unhappy wood-nymph Echo and her beloved, the beautiful young man Narcissus who fell in love with his own image. In the 18th century people loved to construct such grottos as a feature of their parks - “where Echo answers us, where there is the freshness of water, and shadow, and silence, and behind it, the smooth and peaceful blue lake.” Formerly, when coming out of the “grotto of Echo”, one could make a trip by water across the Silver Lake, then pass through a tunnel under the Long Island to the White Lake.
The grotto of Echo
The Silver Lake
The enchanting lake christened “the Silver Lake”, because of its crystal-clear waters, is hidden among picturesque hills at the foot of the Palace. It seems to have been designed by Nature herself for fair nymphs and naiads to sport and bathe in.
A later owner of the palace, Tsar Alexander III, loved to spend time fishing on the shore of this lake, to the singing of the Gatchina nightingales. It was here, in 1881, that the talented inventor S. K. Dzhevetsky demonstrated to the Tsar the possibilities of a new “underwater mine-laying machine” – the second model of his submarine. A charming description of this event has survived. After the submarine had dived and surfaced again, the inventor presented to the Tsar’s consort, Maria Fyodorovna, a bouquet of lilies with these words: “To the Russian Empress from the Tsar of the sea.” Following successful trials of the new vessel, a decree was issued for the construction of fifty submarines, “so necessary” for Russia’s navy.
The Octagonal Well
The Octagonal Well
Not far from the shore of the Silver Lake and the Grotto of Echo lies a large granite bowl sunk into the ground – the Octagonal Well. The edges of the well are curved, like the petals of some fabulous stone flower. In the 19th century the well was filled to the brim with spring water from an underground pipe connecting it to the Carp Pond. In our day, unfortunately, because of the inexorable demands of the city water-supply system, the Octagonal Well is empty and the level of water in the Silver Lake is significantly lower. One of the most poetic parts of the park, it lies in a fenced-off “forbidden zone” which is closed to visitors.
Among the park’s structures which have been preserved to the present day are the Chesme obelisk and the Eagle column. Like the Palace, they were built under the supervision of Antonio Rinaldi.
The Chesme obelisk stands as a memorial in honour of the splendid victory over the Turks gained by the Russian navy at the battle of Chesma Bay in 1770. The obelisk was erected in the Orlov park for good reason: the commander-in-chief of the Russian forces was the owner’s brother, Alexei Orlov. Besides many other awards, he was granted by the Empress Catherine II the right to make a commemorative addition to his surname, which became Orlov-Chesmensky.
The Chesme obelisk stands on a small peninsula projecting out into the White Lake. Made pf pink and blue-grey marble, it stands out strongly against the sky and the surrounding scenery. It is one of the most beautiful and romantic parts of the landscaped portion of the Palace park.
It is towards the obelisk that the windows of the Golden, or Chesme, gallery of the Palace face. During the reign of Tsar Paul I this room, because of its magnificent interior decoration, was often used for the most solemn ceremonies of the court – those requiring the throne. Before the Great Patriotic War the walls of the gallery were adorned with large paintings depicting episodes from the battle of Chesma Bay, executed by the German artist J. Hackert.
The Eagle Column
Gatchina Palace. The Chesme Gallery
The Chesme obelisk
Like the Chesme obelisk, the Eagle Column is located on the “left bank” side of the Palace park. This elegant column of white marble stands in the middle of a clearing which lies open in the direction of the lake. It has symbolic significance: the image of an eagle (oryol in Russian) appears on the Orlov family coat-of-arms.
The column is crowned with a sculpture of an eagle. The marble bird’s head is proudly lifted, gazing haughtily into the distance. The eagle’s wings are slightly spread, showing that it is ready to fly up at any moment to defend its rights. However, it is well-known that after ten years, despite his exalted status and the affection shown to him by Catherine, Grigory Orlov had to give up his place as the Empress’s favourite to a successor.
The Eagle Column suffered considerable damage during the Great Patriotic War, but was restored in 1971. At the same time work was begun on the restoration of the Eagle Pavilion, which is linked with the column thematically and compositionally.
Reconstruction of the eagle sculpture. 1970
The Eagle Pavilion. Photograph from before 1917
The Eagle Pavilion was built after the Eagle Column was erected, during the reign of Paul I, according to the design of the court architect Vincenzo Brenna. It is circular in shape, with a semicircular colonnade of marble columns (of the Tuscan order, like the Eagle Column), and surmounted by a semi-dome. Formerly the colonnade was also adorned with a sculpture of an eagle, but with a tsar’s crown, and in its claws a shield with Paul’s monogram. At present this eagle – sculpted in Pudost stone – is temporarily housed in the Palace Museum.
The Eagle Pavilion is situated on Long Island. Although the column and the pavilion are separated by the waters of the White Lake, they form a single unified composition, connected by a straight cutting in the dark green fir-trees leading from the clearing to the lake. Looking from Long Island along this cutting the white marble column can be seen, and in the direction of the column the elegant form of the Eagle Pavilion’s rotunda.
In the Gatchina of Orlov’s time stone structures were few in number; most buildings were of wood and have not been preserved. At that time it was fashionable in landscaped parks to erect buildings of a pastoral character, in the form of peasant cottages with thatched roofs, solitary huts, all kinds of farm buildings, orangeries and even small hamlets. Here the rich owners of the parks and palaces would play at being “simple village folk”.
A view of the Chesme obelisk and the stone base
A view of the park from the Palace’s "Signal Tower"
“Gatchina’s lord of the manor”, as Grigory Orlov was called by Catherine II, loved to organise dinners in such “architectural shams”: Before some modest village house there would be placed two stacks of corn and one of hay, each of which, at the approach of the exalted visitors, would suddenly open up, revealing a pleasant dining hall within. These halls were furnished with tables, with benches made out of sheaves, and with festoons on the walls. Beyond them could be seen village houses and a bridge stretching from one hill to another, with shepherds driving their flocks across it.” In the park, surprises lay in store for the count’s guests not only on land but also on water. To this day, in the vicinity of the Chesme obelisk, quite far from the shore, two large rocks can be seen sticking out of the water. In former times bronze statues stood on them, presented to Count Orlov by Demidov, one of the riches mine- and factory-owners of the Urals. The statues were painted white to look like marble. To people walking on the shore it looked as if the statues had arisen straight from the bottom of the lake. The place of the statues was noted in an inventory of 1783: “on this shore are statues standing on water, which stand on stones in the lake.” This inventory was made in the year when Catherine made a present of Gatchina to her son Grand Duke Pavel Petrovich, the future Tsar Paul I, on the occasion of the birth of Alexander, her first grandson.
Photographs: G. Puntusova