The Small Marble Palace: a beautiful fluke from the 19th century

(Photo credit: Wikimedia)

Not far from the Summer Garden we can admire an ambitious residential palace famous for its astonishing marble facade. Behind it lies the story of how the design of an ordinary building became a masterpiece thanks to lucky circumstances

It is difficult not to notice the Kushelev-Bezborodko Palace when walking along Gagarinskaya street. Its pink and grey marble facade, finely sculpted double-arched windows, and decorative lions with Italian motifs, combine for a unique piece in the great architectural ensemble of St Petersburg. Despite the city’s rich heritage, the number of marble-clad buildings here can be counted on the fingers of one hand—almost all of them big public buildings or churches, making the Small Marble Palace all the more remarkable.

The building was founded in 1858, when brothers Grigori and Nicolai Alexandrovich Kusheleev-Bezborodko decided to improve their assets on Gagarinskaya street. They called Edward Jacobich Schmidt (1822-1880), a designer from a protestant family in Württemberg and a naturalised Russian. As an architect, his education took place at the St Petersburg Academy of Fine Arts and was completed in a series of travels in Italy. Schmidt was connected to the Kushelevs through family relations and designed the building according to their caprices and the desire for luxury, thus combining a wide variety of styles in the different parts of the palace: a Neo-Renaissance facade, a couple of Louis XIV parlours, a Rococo chamber, a 19th century glass-and-iron orangerie, a library, and many other minor ambients and supplies.

We cannot place Schmidt among the great talents of architecture in his period, nonetheless, the palace he projected is one of the most unique masterpieces in St Petersburg. It is not always the case that a genius is needed to create a great artwork, especially when a great number of actors are involved in its realisation.

The original project of Schmidt was intended to be completed in traditional stucco, but exceptional circumstances allowed the Kushelevs to clad their facade with marble. In fact, in 1858 the long and expensive construction of St Isaac Cathedral was completed, and suddenly construction materials—high-quality marble and specialised labour coming from that working site—became relatively cheap. The Kusheleves seized the opportunity and built a small palace, as luxurious as a royal residence. In fact, after them, members of the highest aristocracy would continue to live in the building.

The palace came out so luxurious that after ten years, the Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolayevich (also the owner of the “big” Marble Palace) bought it for his son Nikolai Konstantinovich in 1873, who would become famous in Petersburg’s high society for his Casanova-style of life. In fact, the palace was the stage of one of the most claimed scandals of the time. Nikolai Konstantinovich fell in love so deeply with the American ballerina Fanny Lear (aka Hattie Blackford), that he forsook his family, getting to the point of stealing the family’s gems, a crime for which he was exiled to Tashkent.

Then, from 1880 to 1913, the building became the residence of Ekaterina Dolgorukaya, the lover and morganatic wife of Tsar Alexander II. She was also an outsider to the Royal family, but she loved the Tsar so much that after his assassination, she remained in mourning for her husband and built a small memorial museum in his honour on the first floor. Some memoirs state that at the stairs of the main entrance, there was a real stuffed bear that greeted visitors with the inscription “Lisino. Killed by his Imperial Majesty near the Lisinski school forestries on 22 January 1875 year.”

After that, the palace was no longer a noble residence. It quickly passed from a rich merchant to the Soviet state, when it was a dance school and then the Research Institute for Labour. Since 1994, it has served as the headquarters of the European University, which has planned a big renovation project for the interiors, which have become rather decrepit since the Soviet period. However, currently, the future of the building is uncertain, due to the difficult legal situation surrounding the european University.

The Italian connection

Observing the geometry, the façade is divided horizontally into a low basement and two upper levels of the same height; over the basement we see a double Corinthian order enframing a series of double-arched windows, following the rhythm A-B-A-B-A.

(Photo credit: Christian Toson)

Talking about materials, the basement and the wings are clad in a bugnato made of beautiful grey marble, full of reflexes and grains. The upper part is instead covered with finely sculpted pink marble (“tivdisky mramor”). Both materials most probably come from Karelia, somewhere not far from Olonets. The mastery of this cladding is remarkable even for today’s standards. The quality of the marble is exceptional and absolutely unusual for an urban residence (such marble is easier to see in small churches or funeral monuments). The stones are cut and polished perfectly; the sculptures are proportioned and extremely detailed. Time and bad weather seems to not have particularly affected the facade. Except for some cleaning and repair works, mostly caused by smog, everything seems untouched since the time of the Kushelevs. Pink and grey tones perfectly suit the northern light of St Petersburg, even with weak, blurry light, the façade is bright and its details are clear.

(Photo credit: Christian Toson)

Architectural principles

The marble basement is based on pyramid shapes, alternated between long and short. This elegant kind of bugnato was very popular at the end of the Renaissance, especially in Venice. We can see an example in the basement of the unrealised facade of Ca’ del Duca, on Canal Grande.

(Photo credit: Christian Toson)

Double arched windows are very popular in Florentine and Venetian medieval and Renaissance architecture. Architects like Codussi and Leon Battista Alberti used them frequently, seeing the opportunity to enclose a minor order of columns . Generally, in the half moon left by the two little arches, there is an oculus, left empty or decorated with the family banner. Here, we see a comparison between the famous double arched window in Palazzo Rucellai in Firenze by Leon Battista Alberti and the double arched window designed by Schmidt.

(Photo credit: Christian Toson)

Although at first sight, the building seems to be a Neoclassical/Neo-Renaissance building, Schmidt deliberately violates some basic principles of classical composition:

The façade is symmetrical but it has two asymmetric wings, also, the main entrance is not in the center but by the side.

The window openings are far too big for a such small palace. The second and third floor have the same height. The result is a series of conflicts in the elements of the composition. For example, the upper frame of the arched window intersects the horizontal frame dividing the floors. On the upper level the windows are not arched for the same reason, but are closed in a rectangular depression, quite unusual in a Renaissance building, but very popular in Art Noveau. The proportions of orders are not respected; the big corner pilasters and small window columns share the same base. Observing the façade, the overall feeling is like seeing a whale in a bathtub. The details are too large and rich to be squeezed in such a small and modest construction.

But this makes the building even more beautiful and interesting. The use of classical architectonic details in such a free and decorative way can be considered an anticipation of the furious eclecticism that will lead to Art Noveau, or as it’s is called in Russia, Moderne. Moreover, Schmidt organised the palace according to the modern needs of the family, for example, by building a gallery on the last floor with iron columns and a glass covering.

We can say that the Little Marble Palace is an architectural specimen that is full of contradictions. Small but extremely pretentious, old fashioned but inevitably modern, unproportional but gracious. It served as a crossway for the protagonists of Russian history in the second half of the 19th century, and was almost untouched by the last two centuries. Today it’s still there, on 3 Gagarinskaya street, waiting to see what will happen next.

Currently, the palace is occupied by the European University at St Petersburg. If you are interested in seeing the interiors, be sure to attend one of the many free public lectures and conferences of the university.

Special thanks to Elena Zherihina and Denis Shilov for providing information for this article.

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