Gatchina - the Versailles of Paul I
Part 2

In 1781-82 Grand Duke Pavel Petrovich made a journey through Europe with his wife; they travelled under the name of Count and Countess Severny (“north” in Russian). This journey had a decisive influence on the artistic tastes and preferences of the future Tsar.

Portrait of Grand Duke Pavel Petrovich - Count Severny
Portrait of Grand Duke
Pavel Petrovich - Count Severny
Portrait of Grand Duchess Maria Fyodorovna - Countess Severnaya
Portrait of Grand Duchess Maria
Fyodorovna - Countess Severnaya
In France Paul was deeply impressed by the castle of Louis-Joseph de Cond? and its surrounding parks, originally planned by the celebrated Andr? Le N?tre. The residence of Prince Cond? was located at Chantilly, forty kilometres from Paris. Thanks to the castle’s owners – French kings, princes, and field-marshals – Chantilly was fully equal to France’s famous royal castles in its beauty, luxury and extravagance. To this day Chantilly is still justly called “the Versailles of Prince Cond?”.

The reception provided at Chantilly for the noble guests from Russia was for a long time the talk of the French court. Throughout Paris this famous saying was repeated: “The King received Count Severny as a friend, the Duc d’Orl?ans received him as a citizen, but M. le Prince de Cond? received him as a sovereign.” Paul, enchanted by Prince Cond?’s residence, wished to have plans and sketches of everything he saw with him in Russia. Two years later he received, as a gift from Prince Cond?, a collection of plans which was later named “the Count Severny album”.

The materials in this album afford a deep insight into the fantasies on French themes which characterise Paul’s palace: they lie behind the creation in Gatchina of the formal palace garden and the Carp Pond, the solemn ensemble formed by the Conn?table Square and the elegant building of the Cuirassier Barracks, the mysterious Silvia Park and the magical Island of Love.

At that time artistic “borrowing” was a frequent occurrence and was regarded as something quite natural. However, it should be noted that the French models used in the creation of the Gatchina palaces and parks were adapted and reworked. On Russian soil, under the pale northern sky, they produced quite a different impression.

The Pavilion of Venus
The Pavilion of Venus
A view of the White Lake and the Pavilion of Venus
A view of the White Lake and the Pavilion of Venus

The “French corner” of the Palace Park is represented by the Island of Love. It may with justice be termed an “island of memories”. It reminded Paul and Maria Fyodorovna of the happy days and pleasant journeys of their youth. This “enchanted island” was a place of seclusion, of romantic meetings, of secret rendezvous far from others’ prying eyes.

The Island of Love is one of the park’s many artificial islands. It was created during the 1790s. Strictly speaking it is a promontory divided from the land by two straight canals. The shores of the island and the canals were strengthened with wood. Two stone balconies were built facing the lake, affording a view across the wide expanse of water. At the end of the nineteenth century iron bridges with open-work railings were built across the canals by the engineer L. F. Shperer; they replaced earlier bridges made of wood.

The garden of the Island of Love was planned in formal style. Paths radiated outwards with other paths intersecting them. Between them were copses or “green rooms” with ornamental flower-beds and sculptures of the antique gods of love.

The island was planned to be triangular in shape. In 1792, at the extreme end of it, surrounded on three sides by water, a Temple of Love or “Pavilion of Venus” was erected.

A view of the Pavilion of Venus from the White Lake
A view of the Pavilion of Venus from the White Lake
Interior of the Pavilion of Venus
Interior of the Pavilion of Venus

Like the Birch House, the Pavilion of Venus is built entirely of wood. It stands on a stone base and is supported by oaken piles. The exterior of the pavilion is covered with light trellis-work and decorated with wooden carvings. The entrance to the temple, on the side towards the island, is by means of an elegant doorway with Ionic columns. On the pediment of the doorway emblems of the goddess of love are displayed: a quiver containing the arrows of Cupid, and a blazing torch. Above the door is inscribed in bronze: “The Island of Love. The Pavilion of Venus.”

Ceiling painting: The Triumph of Venus
Ceiling painting: The Triumph of Venus
For people boating on the lake, the pavilion can be entered from the lake through a small porch-cum-balcony. The large reception room of the pavilion is very bright and festive. On a summer day, the sunshine glinting on the waters of the lake is reflected through the windows and plays on the walls, ceiling and floor, making it appear as if the pavilion were a boat sailing on the lake.

The golden-yellow walls of the room are decorated with ornamental murals; the scenery of the lake itself, visible through the windows, serves as pictures. This living scenery is repeated by being reflected in mirrors. The whole of the ceiling is taken up by an enormous painting of “The Triumph of Venus” by the German artist J. Mettenleiter, glorifying the eternally beautiful, eternally young goddess.

According to the original idea for the pavilion, there was to be water not only around it but also within it – flowing into the white marble basins of four fountains. The water was to have been drawn from the lake by means of a special system.

The pavilion in Gatchina, constructed under the guidance of Vincenzo Brenna, differs significantly from its French original. It is more severe, more laconic, in form, and lacks the multifarious decoration characteristic of the style of buildings in a landscaped park. On festive days the pavilion of Venus made a splendid observation platform; through the wide-open windows one could watch theatrical spectacles and fireworks on the Long Island and on the lake.

Plan for the Pavilion of Venus at Gatchina
Plan for the Pavilion of Venus at Gatchina
Plan for the Pavilion of Venus at Chantilly
Plan for the Pavilion of Venus at Chantilly

The pavilion plays an especially important role in the composition of the White Lake and of the Palace Park: it is, artistically, a dominant feature. The main viewing axis which connects the two shores of the White Lake passes through it. One of the deepest and most impressively beautiful prospects of the White Lake is the view of the Pavilion of Venus from the Admiralty Gate.

In the Great Patriotic War the pavilion – miraculously – survived, although it suffered considerable damage. Following the war it was partially restored and became a place of rest and recreation for the people of Gatchina. It contained a reading room and chess club, and was a concert venue. In the 1970s, when restoration work was completed, the Temple of Love was opened as a park museum-pavilion.

Two centuries have passed. At Chantilly the Temple of Love was destroyed during the French Revolution, but wars and revolutions have spared the pavilion in the Gatchina park. Today it stands as a unique memorial to the park architecture of the end of the 18th century.
V. Fedorova
Photographs: G. Puntusova


Historical Magazine «Gatchina Over the Centuries»