The Tavricheskiy Palace is a surprisingly simple, subdued, yet very serious building with its concept and purpose evading comprehension at first glance. In contrast to other palatial structures, it cannot lay claims to glamour, or splendor. Everything seems to be reserved, held back. Its inspiration is pretty straightforward – antiquity. Arguably, this is the most stringent piece of classical style in Russia. The concept was a happy coincidence of the architects vision and aspirations of the client – Prince Potiomkin Tavricheskiy immediately prior to the second Turkish campaign.
In 1791, it hosted the event of the century, in Russian historical perspective, –celebrations following the Russian victory at Ismail. Russia was looking towards Constantinople. The venue was befitting the vision.
The construction site was chosen after some hesitations. Initially, the Prince wanted to build it next to the Winter Palace, at the site of the present-day Italian Garden. But later he moved the site further up-river close to the HQ of the Imperial Mounted Horseguard regiment. Till 1792 it was in fact known as the Palace by the Mounted Horseguard.
The outlay layout of the building is emphatically flat, echoing the flatness of the surrounding landscape of gardens. It was almost as a slab lying along the course of the Neva river. In the old days the main entrance was connected with the river by a canal. One could reach the Place by water.
The concept underlying the plan was that of an Italian Villa: main section flanked by auxiliary wings, setting a fashion for noble mansions across Russia. The centerpiece is this structure with a cupola, a reminiscence of the Pantheon, of ancient Rome’s fame. The cupola evolved from an originally very large cupola through a five smaller cupolic aggregation to connect with the five domes of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople to rest at its present-day size.
Yet, central as it may seem to the whole compound, the cupola is not the architectural centerpiece. The hit is located elsewhere.
Kupolny Hall is the smallest of the three ceremonial halls of the Palace. It is an octagon with for bas reliefs at its corners in their original state. They depict the four muses that embrace the entire cultural realm: painting, music, architecture and sculpture. Music was by far the most favorite of arts to the high Prince. Wherever he went, he brought along a chapel orchestra and a chapel choir. Every residence that he owned featured a pipe organ.
The ceiling of the Kupolny hall is also a masterwork of illusion. The spherical impression comes from a visual aberration due to a drawing technique of circumcentric quessons, again a reminiscence of the Roman Pantheon. The drawing was done later in the early 19th century following a fashion of the period for the so-called grisailles, or a succession of patterns of diminishing size creating an illusion of a cavernous formation. The work was done on the orders of Alexander I together with the rest of the wall design that we see today. To be sure, the new design imitated older patterns also based on the grisailles technique. Only then it was in colors and probably more “cavernous” as it were.
Having explored the Kupolny Hall, one might think that’s the end of the walk-around, just like in a classical design of an Italian villa. Another few steps reveal something unexpected. Instead of a pantheon, we step in to a hippodrome. This was precisely the trick: to move away from a static plan towards a dynamic one. A standard Italian villa would end right here. In the Tavricheskiy we transcend the classical pantheonic space into a transversal world of balls and entertainment 74 meters wide. 1 meter in excess of the famous mirror hall of the Versailles, intentionally, of course.
In the period, this was arguably the most beautiful hall in Europe with its magnificent ionic colonnade. This row of ionic columns was the hit of the season so to say. Back then the heads of the columns were different from what we have now. Initially they had a subvolutal belt that was lost during later restorations. The hall opened into a vast winter garden with fountains, rivulets and blinking mirrors. With no wall in between, this created an airy spacious environment, a gateway to another world, as it were.
The winter garden was right here. The largest winter garden in Europe of the period. The centerpiece and the bearing structure stood in the middle of the garden as an 8-piece colonnade arranged in a rotunda with the statute of Her Majesty, the Law-giver, the legislator and a row of mirrors in the background.
However, great danger loomed over all of this splendor. The danger somehow escaped the attention of the designer of this southern villa in a northern climate. The building sat very low, lower even than the water shed in the Tavricheskiy garden with its ponds. The Palace was a damp place. Very soon after the completion, excessive humidity became a nuisance. Potiomkin even thought about completely rebuilding the Palace, but for various reasons this was not to happen. For a long time, the Winter garden was the main feature of the Palace.
1906 marked the Palace’s modern chapter of history. The Palace is the seat of the State Douma and the Winter Garden is torn down to make place for the plenary room of the State Douma. This was a net loss of an intangible value, that of the element of love and romance. The Palace was not only a place to discuss issues of imperial stewardship, it was a place for romantic rendezvous between Catherine and Prince Potiomkin.
Ever since 1906, the Palace is venue for intense political activity. It was here that Lenin read his famous speeches firming the ground for the Bolshevik revolution in 1917. Early in 1918 this is the seat for the Constituent Assembly – a short-lived episode in the Russian history ended by a notorious uttering of the Chief of guard going as follows: The guard must rest, the Assembly is dissolved! This was the end of the first chapter of Russian parliamentarianism.
For the better part of the 20th century the Palace was a place of local political importance, solemn ceremonies and gatherings of the city government. After the War it was turned over to the Communist party college.
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