The Roman Heart of St Petersburg: Across from the Hermitage

(Photo credit: Francesca Visser)

At the beginning of the 19th century, Palace Square was a chaotic mix of buildings of various sizes and ages jumbled into an irregular plan. The victorious Tsar Alexander I decided to rectify the situation; he hired Carlo Rossi, an ambitious architect dreaming to challenge the Ancient Romans, who eventually solved the problem with one of the smartest pieces of architectures in the century, taking inspiration from the ruins of Palmyra.

It’s 24 October 1829, a cold morning, and a crowd of people is gathered on Palace Square. They are watching the birth of the main arch of the newly built façade of the General Staff quarters. Carlo Rossi, the architect, is nervous; many in the crowd have doubts that such a big arch will not collapse, so he decides to stand on the top of it before the provisional wooden structures are dismantled, so as to demonstrate the reliability of his architecture.

As the scaffolding is removed, the audience gets a first look at the architecture that would become one of the great symbols of St Petersburg.

Carlo Rossi’s General Staff building is one of the most genial pieces of architecture in the city, studied by architecture students all over the world. In architecture, as in mathematics, a great work is apparent when different and complex problems are solved in a single, simple, and effective solution.

(Image by Christian Toson)

Rossi faced a really complex puzzle when he started his work on the Palace Square. In 1795, Tsar Alexander I decided that it was time to complete and give shape to the ensemble comprised of the Winter Palace and the other ”support” buildings around the square—the ministries of finance and foreign affairs, the general quarters of the army, representative halls, residences for high persons, apartments for staff, a chapel, a library, an archive, and other rooms. The many different functions generated a set of complex buildings that came into existence at different times.

The result constituted an inelegant contrast to the majestic Winter Palace and led to the absence of a structured square that would keep the space proportional and give importance to all of the buildings.

This was actually part of a bigger problem that involved the whole area from the end of the Admiralty to the Senate, the Synod, and St Isaac’s Cathedral. As often happens, many great monuments were erected in separate places and with the developments, the city needed to be integrated into a single urban system. The problem was accentuated by the fact that Rastrelli’s Winter Palace was made in such a grand style, with decorated columns and massive volumes, which needed a proper context to be displayed that emphasized symmetry and massive proportions.

In this sense, the Winter Palace can be compared to a dress: you may have a beautiful dress but if you truly wish to be elegant you must pair it with shoes, accessories and a hairstyle that enhances its beauty and binds the ensemble together. You may also find yourself with a purse or a necklace that you had previously bought, and thus will need to make some adjustments in order to fit them into your look.

In architecture, the problem is that dresses and shoes often come from different centuries and are not easily adapted according to the current fashion. Moreover, the body of a city—for a variety of reasons—comes in bizarre shapes, and would certainly embarrass any tailor looking to make a fitting dress.

In the case of the Winter Palace complex, the “body” is composed on the northern side by the river embankment, on the southern by Nevsky Prospekt coming in at an angle of approximately 45°, on the east by the river Moika, and on the west by the Admiralty and all the buildings that came up around. Not exactly a regular and symmetrical area, rather, quite confused and messy.

To summarize the problems that Rossi had to solve:

– Create a symmetric square to give importance to the Winter Palace
– Connect the main existing buildings
– Connect the main road axis, in particular, Nevsky Prospekt

(Image by Christian Toson)

All this was made more difficult because Tsar Alexander I had just won the war against Napoleon and intended for the square to serve as a celebration of the victory of the Russian Empire over the French.

But Rossi was a very skilled man and happily accepted the challenge. As all architects in the period, he was very well acquainted with Roman and Greek architecture, but what made him special was that he understood how to use the principles of composition present in classical cities like Rome or Palmyra to achieve the effects of grandness in his contemporary city. He didn’t simply copy decorative motifs from the ancients—such as columns and capitals—but he identified the structure underlying the classical urban space and successfully applied it to his projects.

Contemporaries say that Rossi was obsessed with the Romans. Apart from admiring them, he wanted to challenge their creations and erect structures that could compete in terms elegance and grandness, as he himself reported: “The proportions of the project proposed by me surpass the ones with which Romans felt satisfied. But are we afraid of competing with them in magnificence? Our task is not the abundance of decorations, but the grandness of shapes, the elegance of proportions; firmness! This monument must be eternal.”

There is a saying among architects—good architects find good solutions, great ones copy them.

It may seem illogical, but it is far more difficult to see a piece of architecture, remember the solutions you want to use, take them away from their context and apply them in your specific problem than simply try to invent something that probably works. The two pieces of architecture that Rossi probably “stole” for the General Staff:

(Photo credit: Wikimedia; Image by Christian Toson)

The Trajan market in Rome: one of the most famous squares of ancient Rome. It includes a semi-circular building facing the old basilica. In the middle there is the famous Trajan column, that is a model for the Alexandrinsky column in St Petersburg (we can still see a Trajan-like model of it in the Hermitage).

(Robert Wood, 1753. The Ruins of Palmyra)
(Robert Wood, 1753. The Ruins of Palmyra)

The arch of Palmyra. The ancient city of Palmyra has a great arch joining two different sections of the main caravan road, that meet at an angle. The arch works as a hinge. (Palmyra was very famous in the 18th century  thanks to The Ruins of Palmyra by Robert Wood, a best seller at the time)

(Image by Christian Toson)

Rossi uses these solutions in combination: he regularises the square with a semicircular building, which is symmetrical and opposite to the Winter Palace. The shape is not exactly semi-circular, but composed of two straight parts and an arch. To deceive this imperfection, he changes the rhythm of the façade: in the middle a series of columns that give volume and importance to the centre, on the sides a more static and simple design. In the middle, he builds a great triple arch that works in angle as a hinge between Bolshaya Morskaya street and the square. It was precisely on this arch that Rossi was standing on at that memorable opening on 24 October 1829. He used his knowledge of Ancient Rome to realise what, in his will -and in Tsar Alexander’s- was to become the new Rome.

With a single shot, Rossi managed to reconnect many parts of the city centre in a single, monumental ensemble. His building coordinates all the others that surround it. His work definitively and finally completed the centre of St Petersburg—remaining unchanged up to now—and inspiring generations of artists, writers, and architects.

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