Gatchina - the Versailles of Paul I
Vincenzo Brenna’s most impressive architectural achievement in the park is the Great Terrace and Landing-stage on Long Island. The artistic merit of this stone terrace gives it a special role in the park’s composition. It is centred on the same axis as the palace. Thanks to its precisely calculated measurements and proportions the terrace, when viewed from the opposite shore of the White Lake, can be seen as a kind of pedestal to the palace. This impression is reinforced by the fact that, like the palace, it is faced with Pudost limestone. The stone-work was carried out by the talented “master stone-mason Kirian Plastinin and his comrades”.
Plan of the Terrace and Landing-stage. Kushelev album
The Terrace and Landing-stage. Photograph from the 1930s
The whole massive weight of the landing-stage is borne by wooden piles, and its walls descend vertically into the water. Two flights of stone steps lead down to the water’s edge. Formerly the depth of the lake in the vicinity of the terrace was 5-10 metres, making it possible for small sailing-ships to be moored there. Today springs gush at the bottom; for some distance around them water-plants grow, and the sun’s rays, striking the flowers, play through the spring waters to produce all the colours of the rainbow.
Before the Great Patriotic War the upper level of the terrace was surrounded by a balustrade; on its posts stood marble pedestals with statues representing personifications of the arts and sciences: Architecture, Painting, Sculpture and Mathematics. They were created by the famous 18th-century Venetian master Giuseppe Bernardi, surnamed Torretto.
Sculpture of a lion on the Terrace and Landing-stage
After the war two of the statues were thought to have been lost. However, in 1971 volunteer divers from the Leningrad diving club OSVOD succeeded in bringing these statues up from the bottom of the lake, where they had been thrown by the German invaders, together with fragments of pedestals and balusters. The white marble of the statues had been inscribed with hundreds of German autographs dating from 1942-43.
“On September 8th, during excavation work, we came upon something hard. After two days and nights of intensive work there finally appeared, from beneath a two-metre-thick layer of mud, the vague form of some kind of statue. ‘But it has no head,’ said one of us, his voice quivering with emotion, and lightly touched a large lump of mud. And suddenly something extraordinary happened: the mud fell away, and before our amazed eyes there appeared a lovely woman’s face…” – this is how the discovery was reported in “Gatchinskaya Pravda”. Today all four of the statues are kept in the Palace museum, but in time they will be returned to their pedestals, the embodiment of an eternal union between nature and art.
At the end of the 18th century Brenna laid out a small formal garden behind the terrace, with flower-beds and statues of antique gods. The entrance to the garden was guarded by two lions in recumbent posture, sculpted in Pudost stone, which survive to this day.
The Great Terrace and Landing-stage together with its garden often served as a place for theatrical presentations and fireworks on festival days. Indeed, at the end of the 18th century mock sea battles were staged there. It is well known that in Gatchina Grand Duke Pavel Petrovich wanted to emulate, as far as he could, his great-grandfather Peter I, by constructing a small naval fleet on its lakes. When he was still only eight years old he was granted the rank of admiral by his mother Catherine II, and thus became the formal commander-in-chief of the Russian navy.
G. S. Sergeev. A view of the Pavilion of Venus
and the terrace on the White Lake
A view of Gatchina Palace, with yachts. 1890s
The “Gatchina Fleet” consisted of twenty-four vessels, including a number of yachts, together with small sailing-ships and galleys. The eight-gun yacht “Miroliub” and the sixteen-gun frigate “Impregnable” stood at anchor at the landing-stage until the end of the 19th century.
The most famous of the “sea battles” on the White Lake took place in the summer of 1796. Three small squadrons were commanded by the famous “Gatchinists” G. Kushelev, S. Pleshcheev and A. Arakcheev. At first the ships manoeuvred on the White Lake, bombarding the shore with cannon fire, then the men disembarked on the Island of Love and occupied the high ground in the vicinity of the Birch House. The battalion commanded by Pavel Petrovich took the “enemy’s” fortified positions.
At that time a dock was constructed on the shore of the White Lake for the repair and maintenance of the vessels of the Gatchina Fleet.
The Admiralty, or Holland
The Dipper Pond. Photograph from 1950
The Admiralty (also called Holland) was a large wooden shed set on massive stone columns. In front of it a round pond was dug for the launching of vessels, with a drawbridge over the channel connecting it with the lake. Before the Revolution the Admiralty contained an exhibition of model ships, naval weapons and equipment. After the war it housed a chess club and was used as a venue for dances. The round pond was adorned with floating flower-beds. At the end of the 20th century, the Admiralty was destroyed by fire; only the stone columns survive.
Not far from the Admiralty is a majestic stone gate, the Admiralty Gate; it is the main entrance to the Palace Park.
The gate is reminiscent of the triumphal arches of ancient Rome; as with many of the structures of Gatchina Park, Brenna made use of models from his native Italy.
According to the plan – which was, however, not fully realised – the gate was to be decorated with lions’ faces and naval trophies, banners, helmets and weapons.
The Admiralty Gate
The Menagerie Gate
The gates at the boundaries of the Palace Park had not only a utilitarian function; they were at the same time remarkable examples of architecture. The Menagerie Gate, leading to the “Menagerie Park”, is one of the finest examples of park and garden architecture of the late 18th century. In the artistry of its form and placing, the harmony between the park architecture and landscape is especially apparent.
Unlike the park’s other gates, the Menagerie Gate has no central arch. Instead there are two elegant pylons of Pudost limestone, decorated with stone spheres, holding the iron gates. Through the gates one can see the wide prospect of the fields and forests of the Menagerie Park.
The gate is set in a high wall made of blocks of Pudost stone, topped with an iron railing. The railing continues over the lock at the point where the Gatchina (or Warm) River flows out of the White Lake. In Orlov’s time there was a dam where this lock now stands, which became known in Paul’s time as the “old dam”.
The lock between the White Lake and the Gatchinka River
Plan for the Cold Bath-house
This lock still helps to control the level of water in the White Lake today. In 2004 work was concluded on the repair of this hydro-technical installation, so vital to the park’s existence.
At the end of the 18th century, to the west of the “old dam”, another dam was constructed on the White Lake. The intention was to create a pool and to construct an Imperial “Cold Bath-house”: such bath-houses were a feature of many parks at that time. To carry water away from the pool a special channel was dug, leading to the Gatchina River. One interesting plan for the wooden pavilion of the bath-house was made for Paul by the architect A. D. Zakharov. It is thought that this plan remained unrealised.
Today all that remains of the Cold Bath-house are some remnants of the dam, the stone foundations and the name of the place: the “little bath”. It is a favourite bathing place for Gatchina’s children.
Photographs: G. Puntusova