23 May 2019
A City Built on Bones: Peter the Great and the founding of St Petersburg
By Lauren Throup
As a young man Peter Alexeyevich, better known today as Peter the Great, set off in 1697 for a Grand Embassy of Europe that inspired him to set about transforming the provincial Russia of the seventeenth century into a major European power. In time, this ambition was realised in the bricks and mortar of his glittering new capital city: St Petersburg. Although we know it today as the seventh largest European city, the foundation of Imperial Russia’s historic capital was once little more than a dream of the young tsar.
Peter the Great (left) and and Charles XII of Sweden (right)
In Peter’s way stood the might of Imperial Sweden, whose territories almost completely encircled the Baltic in the second half of the seventeenth century. It was clear that a keystone of Peter’s plans, a naval route link with western Europe, would come at a price. When the fifteen year-old boy king, Charles XII of Sweden, was crowned in 1697, Peter and likeminded counterparts across Poland, Lithunania and Denmark perceived an opportunity to dismantle Sweden’s influence, and the Great Northern War subsequently began in 1700.
The first head-on clash between Russia and Sweden took place during a snowstorm in November 1700, near the Swedish-ruled city of Narva in modern day Estonia. It ended in humiliation for Russia as Sweden, who it was expected would be underprepared for a siege, used the adverse weather to their own advantage.
Map, showing the Gulf of Finland in the Baltic Sea and the surrounding area
However, immediately after Narva, Sweden turned south to deal with adversaries in Poland-Lithuania, and Peter’s forces were able to move north and conquer the Swedish province of Ingria and the fortress of Nyen on the River Neva. Ingria, situated at the easternmost end of the Gulf of Finland in the Baltic Sea, provided the ideal position from which Peter could set the groundwork for his ambitions to create a naval link between Russia and the rest of Europe. His new city, St Petersburg, was founded in May 1703 with the construction of the Peter and Paul Fortress on Zayachy Island at the mouth of the River Neva.
Peter the Great Meditating the Idea of Building St Petersburg at the Shore of the Baltic Sea, by Alexandre Benois, 1916
Over the following months and years, conscripted Russian peasants, serfs, and Swedish prisoners of war continued to build the city in challenging conditions, with bad weather and the marshy ground serving as constant obstacles. The resultant death toll of workers numbered in the tens of thousands, leading some to dub St Petersburg “the city built on bones”. Irreverent of the immense cost to human life, Peter continued with his plans. With the help of Dutch and German engineering, groundwater was drained from the swampland to form a network of canals modelled on other European seats of power including Amsterdam. These efforts, combined with a ban on the construction of stone buildings anywhere else in Russia for a time, intended to concentrate the efforts of Russia’s stonemasons, meant that Peter’s city rapidly began to take shape and was declared the Imperial Capital in 1712.
Russia’s new crowning city was embellished with many jewels, including the first Winter Palace, designed for Peter by Swiss-Italian architect Domenico Trezzini around 1711, with a second version being constructed in 1721 under the supervision of German Georg Mattarnovy. Following Peter I’s death in 1925, his grandson, Peter II, commissioned Trezzini to return and oversee further enlargements and redesigns of the palace, creating a third version of the residence in 1727.
Architect's impression of the first Winter Palace
Today, the Winter Palace, which saw further expansions and extensive remodelling under Empresses Anna, Elizabeth and Catherine throughout the eighteenth century, houses the impressive art collections of the Hermitage Museum.
Two visits to the Hermitage, as well as to many of St Petersburg’s other architectural gems, are included in the itinerary of ACE’s Palaces of St Petersburg tour this September, led by architectural historian Charles Hind.
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