The Tsars had since long dreamed about getting access to the Baltic Sea and taking back the Russian lands seized by Sweden from Russia.
With this aim in view, Peter began the Northern War in 1700 and led a successful attack on Ingria in 1702. To strengthen the captured position in the estuary of the Neva, he made a decision to construct a fortress on a small island called Enisaari, or Hare Island, by the Finns.
The citadel was founded quickly and without pomp – the Tsar himself and his companions-in-arms could hardly think in those times about a new city and even less about turning it into the capital of Russia. The fortress-city of St Petersburg was growing fast, although gunfire could be heard roaring nearby. The crucial date for the burgeoning city was the year 1709 when the Russian army won a brilliant victory at Poltava. This victory changed the entire course of the Northern War and now Peter began to dream about a large city and a busy port like Amsterdam. He wanted to build on the banks of the Neva his “paradise”, a symbol of new Russia. (The beautiful new capital was rapidly growing on the banks of the regally powerful Neva.
Jean Marc Nattier. Portrait of Peter the Great. 1717
The Tsar-craftsman preferred common working clothes to such formal garments
St Petersburg is one of the first cities in the world built according to a previously conceived scheme. In 1716 the French architect Jean-Baptistc Le Blond (1679-1719), invited by Peter the Great, created a plan for the construction of St Petersburg and after his death in 1718 the work in accordance with this plan began under the supervision of the Swiss architect Domenico Trezzini and the control of the Tsar himself. Various specialists from Denmark, France, Italy, Germany and other countries worked in the capital of the future empire side by side with Russian craftsmen, so foreign influences were adapted to Russian town-building traditions. Dwelling houses, churches and piers were built by soldiers and war captives, local residents from nearby villages and convicts who were then sent to this large-scale construction site instead of Siberia. It took merely two decades to create on the banks of the Neva an unusual city that had no parallel either in Russia or in Western Europe. The newly built city, “of Northern lands the pride and beauty”, as the poet Alexander Pushkin wrote, overshadowed old Moscow.
Portrait of Empress Elizabeth Petrovna. 1760
The Empress was one of the most beautiful women of her time and was very proud of it
Within sixteen years after Peter the Great terrible fires devastated St Petersburg twice. Nobody undertook serious construction projects in that period – that was the era of coups and early dying rulers. It was only the light-hearted beauty Elizabeth, a daughter of Peter the Great, who decided, on coming to the throne in 1741, to implement her father’s dream about the “northern Rome”. In the twenty years of her reign St Petersburg changed its
appearance beyond recognition. The efforts of talented architects, with the Italian Bartolomco Francesco Rastrelli ranking first among them, turned St Petersburg into a splendid city of luxurious palaces designed in the whimsical Baroque style. This style perfectly-accorded with the capricious character of the Empress and served as a beautiful setting for her resplendent life that was reminiscent of an eternal festival. Rastrelli’s greatest creation was the Winter Palace, a magnificent royal residence on the bank of the Neva.
Portrait of Empress Catherine the Great. 1793
Catherine the Great thought herself to be a faithful follower of the cause initiated by Peter the Great
The architectural fashion, however, was changing meanwhile and Russia would not fail to keep up with a new up-to-date trend. A change in the style of construction became especially noticeable in St Petersburg during the reign of Catherine the Great, who ruled for 34 years from 1761 onwards. The modest Baroque predominant in Peter’s era and the luxurious Elizabethan version were ousted by quiet and stately Neo-Classicism that reflected the
worldview of the Age of Enlightenment. Its typical examples are the Taurid Palace built by the Russian architect Ivan Starov, the structures designed by the Scot Charles Cameron and the projects carried out by the Italian Giacomo Quarenghi. The “stately spirit of Peter the Great and the wit of Catherine”, when combined, lent to the capital an imperial air of monumentality and resplendence. Europe was gazing in surprise at this Russian miracle:
the northernmost capital that was growing on the Neva, as if by magic, amidst the woods, on swampy marshes. Foreigners coming from European cities with their medieval structures and narrow meandering streets, were struck by Catherine’s St Petersburg with its wide and straight avenues, vast squares, elegant granite-clad embankments and magic White Nights. But what amazed them most was the sudden emergence of the city itself and its fabulously rapid