Gatchina - the Versailles of Paul I
The splendid lakes of Gatchina’s parks are beautified by a number of large and small islands. In the 1790s the famous scholar and traveller I. Georgi, visiting Gatchina, wrote: “There are several islands here, not one of which resembles another; they may be approached on gondolas, rafts and so on, and are used by the court for excursions by water. The natural beauty of the islands is aided by art in making them more pleasant and varied.” Each island on the White Lake has its own history and name. The most remarkable of them is Long Island: it divides the White Lake into two unequal parts and seems to form a long chain of islands and peninsulas extending for about one kilometre. Long Island also extends into the Priory Park, forming a high shore of the Black Lake.
Unknown artist: view of Gatchina Palace.
End of 18th–beginning of 19th century
S. F. Shchedrin. View of Gatchina Palace
from Long Island. 1796
The plan for the island was conceived during the time of Count Orlov, and executed in the 1790s. At first all the parts of Long Island were connected by wooden bridges. A pathway was laid along the length of the island, adorned with mighty firs on the eastern shore and with groves of deciduous trees on the western side. The areas planted with trees alternated with clearings, through which other parts of the lake, and the palace, could be viewed.
Later the architectural attractions of Long Island – the landing-stage, the Humped Bridge, the Eagle Pavilion, the Stone Balcony – became one of the finest features of the Palace Park.
To walk along Long Island is to make a journey into the world of parks and gardens of bygone ages.
The Arched Bridge
The Eagle Pavilion
Opposite Long Island, on the right shore of the White Lake, there is a whole chain of islands: Some very small, like isolated floating groves, others larger, with paths and clearings. They were by piling up artificial earth embankments. The predominance, on any one island, of one particular kind of tree determines its name: Fir, Birch, Spruce, Pine Island; while the smallest, with its single group of slender birches, bears the name of Floating Island. All these islands used to be connected to the mainland by small wooden bridges or ferry-rafts.
These ferry-rafts operated by means of metal cable and pulleys. It was a popular pastime to travel from one island to another and admire the park from small stone viewing balconies. Today only the stone base of one of these ferries – from Fir Island to Birch Island - remains.
A ferry landing-stage on the islands of the White Lake
A ferry landing-stage on the islands of the White Lake
Music has been played in Gatchina park throughout its history. Many visitors to the park have enjoyed the performances of Alexander Dargomyzhsky’s opera “Rusalka” (The Mermaid) which took place on Fir Island during the 1990s. Its tragic tale unfolded against the living scenery formed by the curving columns of the island’s old trees, its dense undergrowth and the dark waters of the lake. The effect of the music was intensified by the gusts of wind and the sound of the nearby waterfall.
Making full use of its great wealth of water surfaces, the creators of Gatchina Park took skilful advantage of the way the water and dry land alternated with one another. Thus, on the right shore of the White Lake, a “water maze” was created, where people could go in boats along the intricate system of narrow channels between the islands. As a continuation of the Water Maze, a “Green Maze” was constructed on the nearby shore. In comparison with green mazes, water mazes were a relatively rare attraction in the parks of the 17th and 18th centuries.
Today a low green hill survives next to the Water Maze, which formerly was known as “Mount Chaos” – a pile of stones, heaped up artistically among the plants. The bridges of the park, which are of all possible kinds – stone, wood, iron, single-arched, three-arched, humpbacked, flat – could be considered the park’s visiting cards. Their forms have been preserved in paintings, engravings, old pre-war photographs and postcards, and their descriptions in archive documents.
The bridges were the main decorative feature of the park landscape; they lent it a special and unique charm.
Among the Gatchina bridges it is the stone bridges which may justly be accounted the best examples of park architecture and of the engineer’s art. At the beginning of the 19th century there were seven of them. Despite their variety of form and size, the bridges have in common a classical severity of proportion, a skilful use of stone and a surprising ability to blend with the surrounding landscapes. The beautifully curved arches of their spans often served as a “frame” for the park scenery.
Unfortunately, during the war almost all the stone bridges were destroyed and have not yet been restored.
The Small Stone Bridge: photograph from the 1930s
The Flat Bridge: photograph from the 1930s
The Large and Small Stone Bridges were constructed at the end of the 1790s, taking the place of earlier wooden ones. The two bridges stood on opposite sides of the large Zakharov Island, forming part of the Round Path, which continued around the White Lake.
The bridges’ creator is thought to be the court architect Vincenzo Brenna. The stone-work was supervised by the famous stone-mason Ivan Visconti, and the contractor was the merchant Makei Vorobiev: “The merchant Makei Fedorov, son of the Vorobiev family, undertook to construct in the English Garden two stone bridges: the first opposite the dam, and the second on the path near the turning leading to the Cold Bathhouse, in ordinary dark stone.” According to the plans, the bridges were to be decorated with sculptures: the Large Stone Bridge with centaurs, and the Small with lions and decorative vases. This plan, however, was not realised.
The Flat Stone Bridge was situated in one of the most poetic corners of the Palace park, at the mouth of the Silver Lake: it connected the strip of land before the Palace with Long Island. Across the bridge ran an artistic pathway from the Palace to the shore of the Silver Lake, continuing to the terrace and landing-stage on Long Island. Before the war it was a popular trysting-place for courting couples and a favourite subject for tourists’ cameras.
The Humped Bridge was constructed in 1801 under the supervision of Andrian Zakharov, the architect of the Admiralty building in St. Petersburg. It connects two parts of Long Island. Until the end of the 18th century, there existed here “a wooden bridge, built on piles, ten sazhens in length”; this was replace by the new bridge, built of stone, and bearing four obelisks and iron chains.
In the elegance of its form the Humped Bridge is reminiscent of the famous hump-backed bridges of Venice. On his European journey, Paul visited a number of Italian cities, Venice among them. To honour the heir to the Russian throne the city organised a great regatta, followed by a magical carnival on St. Mark’s Square which continued far into the night. Twenty years later, approving the plans for the Palace park, the Emperor Paul might well have remembered the splendour of Venice, the “queen of the Adriatic”, and thought how the arch of the Humped Bridge in Gatchina would float high above the waters of the lake.
The beautiful outline of the Humped Bridge stands out to good effect against the blue sky and water among the greenery of Long Island: a unique stone bridge, which miraculously was spared from destruction during the war, although the Germans attempted to blow it up. Today, sadly, the bridge has become a target for contemporary vandals and is in need of substantial restoration.
Watercolour by G. S. Sergeev. Kushelev album, 1798
The Lion Bridge
The Carp Bridge is located near the Palace. Destroyed during the war, the bridge was successfully restored during the 1980s. Like the Humped Bridge, the Carp Bridge connects two parts of Long Island. Its name comes from the artificial pond – the Carp Pond – in which silver carp were reared for the royal table. Beneath the bridge a small dam was constructed to regulate the flow of water into the pond.
The architect of the bridge was probably Vincenzo Brenna. The bridge’s severe, laconic form, with its trapezoidal recesses and continuous stone parapet, is in keeping with the architecture of the palace’s wings and towers.
On the two sides of the Carp Bridge landscapes of contrasting emotional quality have been created. On one side is a tranquil, mirror-like sheet of water, which reflects the bridge in its depths; on the other, a seething flow of falling water descends over a course of artfully placed boulders.
The Carp Bridge
The Admiralty Bridge with its sentinels
On the opposite side of the Carp Pond, where the pond is fed through a channel with water from a reservoir, there is yet another stone bridge – the Zakharov, or Lion, Bridge. It was built according to the plan of A. D. Zakharov in 1799-1801. The alternative name for the bridge comes from the stone lions’ faces which adorn the keystones of its three arches. As well as these stone faces, the architect planned to place groups of sculptures on the bridge’s low pedestals - allegorical figures depicting “the wealth of rivers”. After the tragic death of the Emperor Paul I this project remained unrealised. But even without these sculptures, the Lion Bridge may be considered as one of the finest examples of architecture in the Palace park. The bridge was destroyed during the war and finally restored at the end of the 20th century.
Next to the Lion Bridge, on the road which separates the Palace park from Priory Park, is the Admiralty Bridge. This single-arch stone bridge boasts a small corps of stone sentinels, standing guard at its two ends. These stone sentinels are yet another reminder of Chantilly – there are still some similar ones at the entrance to the Connetable courtyard in the Conde chateau.
Photographs: G. Puntusova