Gatchina - the Versailles of Paul I
In Gatchina Park there are structures not only of various kinds of wood and stone, but also of ordinary earth. On the south-west of the “left-bank” side of the Palace Park there is a unique structure, now half-destroyed - the earthen Amphitheatre.
Today the Amphitheatre is a circular area surrounded by a high wall of earth: an arena with a radius of approximately sixty metres. The wall is punctuated by four doorways with stone steps leading up to the top.
The Gatchina amphitheatre is an original example of the “green architecture” practised in the construction of parks and gardens in the late 18th century. Its creator was the architect N. A. Lvov, who also conceived the idea of building a whole palace using rammed earth in the Priory Park. Unfortunately he was not able to fully realise his project for the amphitheatre; with the untimely death of Paul I, work on it was suspended. How the amphitheatre would finally have looked can be seen from the plans in the Kushelev album.
According to Lvov’s plan, the amphitheatre was to be separated from the rest of the park by a low barrier of hedges, the walls were to be lined with benches cut in the turf for spectators, and the green walls were to be surmounted by two rows of linden trees. The space between these walls was to be filled with trellis-work, sculptures, and lanterns. The entrances to the amphitheatre were to be fitted with iron gates bearing the monogram of Paul I.
The amphitheatre was intended for the presentation of “riders’ carousels” - horse-riding contests or exhibitions of various kinds. These “riders’ carousels”, modelled on the knightly tournaments of mediaeval times, were a popular spectacle at Europe’s royal courts from the 17th to the 19th centuries.
The Amphitheatre. Kushelev album
In Russia the first “carousels” were organised on the orders of Catherine II. They were magnificent theatrical presentations. “One of the most glorious carousels” took place before the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg in 1766; its heroes were the Orlov brothers. It is recorded that the elder brother, Grigory, won the contests “by an insignificant margin”. In the pre-war art collection of the Gatchina palace museum were two “carousel portraits” of Grigory and Alexei Orlov by the Danish artist V. Erikson. Looking at the portrait of Grigory, a stately, handsome man in Roman armour, one can understand why the Empress Catherine gave her favourite not only her heart but also her Gatchina estate.
Grand Duke Pavel Petrovich witnessed these “carousels” as a child, and they made a deep impression on him. Later he of course learned to ride himself, and loved horses. In addition, the future tsar longed to revive the ideals and traditions of knightly chivalry. For Paul’s romantic nature, knightly valour, honour, generosity and respect for ladies were not simply beautiful symbols. It is no accident that historians have called him “the Don Quixote on the Russian throne”, and in 1798 he was elected Grand Master of the Maltese knightly order of St. John of Jerusalem.
Not far from the Amphitheatre is a large area formerly occupied by the Palace’s complex of hothouses and orangeries.
The first orangeries appeared on the Gatchina estate in Orlov’s time. An orangery was a sine qua non of every rich man’s property.
During Paul’s time, Gatchina began to take on the appearance of a large hereditary estate. It acquired a cloth mill, a pottery works, a cheese factory and dairy farm, a poultry farm, orangeries and hothouses. In Gatchina’s lakes there was an abundance of perch, bream, roach, pike, ide, burbot and crucian. The Carp Pond was specially set aside for the raising of silver carp, and the Trout Canal for “Gatchina trout”.
The Forest Orangery
The gateway to the orangeries
From this time the orangeries continued to produce a wide variety of fruit for the royal table. In the mid-19th century there were in the park three orangeries growing grapes, four for peaches, three for apricots, two for plums, and another five for various other fruit. In 1844, according to a “register of fruit and vegetables produced for the Royal Court on the Gatchina estate”, production was as follows:
peaches: 3275 poods (1 pood = 16.38 kilograms)
apricots: 1421 poods
plums: 3560 poods
yellow plums: 5 poods
watermelons: 34 poods
berries of various kinds: 11,495 poods
wild strawberries: 3 poods 9 pounds
grapes: 9 poods 13 pounds
figs: 1 pood 38 pounds
apples: 2 poods
peas: 40 poods
cut flowers for bouquets: 11 poods
cucumbers: 810 poods
redcurrants: 3 poods
blackcurrants: 3 poods
haricot beans: 1 pood
potatoes: 18 poods
daffodils, tulips, violets, hyacinths etc.
Guides to Gatchina published at the beginning of the 20th century offered, in addition to excursions to the Palace and the parks, the opportunity to visit the large orangeries: “While the buildings do not possess any artistic significance, having been built during the reign of Alexander III, they are nevertheless worth viewing when the peach trees are in flower, covered entirely with pink blossom.”
Today the orangery complex – often rebuilt and remodelled – is no longer a feature of the Palace Park, although various plants and seedlings have begun to be grown in it once more.
Near the orangery complex, on the path leading to the Palace, there is a strikingly beautiful and majestic, but half-destroyed building, constructed of massive blocks of Pudost stone, with wings at each side and five high arched doorways. This is the former Forest Orangery, a pavilion built at the end of the 18th century on the site of an older orangery from Orlov’s time.
Even in its present half-destroyed state, the Forest Orangery, by virtue of its splendid proportions, is an architectural jewel of the first water. Its construction is reminiscent of French models. Originally the building was surmounted by a high roof broken by dormer windows. It had many features in common with examples of orangeries in the famous album by the 18th-century French architect Jacques-Fran?ois Blondel.
The Forest Orangery
Plan for the Forest Orangery. Kushelev album
In the 17th and 18th centuries similar pavilions were an indispensable feature of European parks; examples in royal parks were often admired and copied.
Gatchina’s Forest Orangery used to grow trees which needed warmth – citrus fruits, laurels, yew-trees – and various kinds of exotic flowers and plants. In summer these trees would be placed in tubs on the shore of the small pond in front of the pavilion, which had stone steps leading down to the water, and would be used to adorn other parts of the Palace gardens.
The pavilion was destroyed during the Great Patriotic War: the mansard roof was burnt, the doors with their emerald-green glass were lost together with the trellis-work of the interior. In the 1970s plans were drawn up for the restoration of the building and the surrounding area, but for lack of funds the work has not been carried out.
Photographs: G. Puntusova