Today our group visited Pavlovsk, located in the former “Tsar’s Village”—now the ridiculously quaint town of Pushkin. The palace and grounds were given as a gift from Catherine the Great to her son, Grand Duke Paul (hence “Pavlovsk,” from the Russian name Pavel, or Paul), to celebrate the birth of Paul’s heir in 1777. More facts we learned today:
- Catherine also “gave” Paul her favorite architect, Charles Cameron, to design both the palace and the park. Cameron’s Palladian mansion (1782-6) forms the central block of today’s palace, with wings added by Paul’s own favorite architect, Vincenzo Brenna.
- The Doric Temple of Friendship, built in 1780, represents the first use of Greek architectural forms in Russia.
- “English gardens” were at the height of fashion in the late 18th century, inspiring Cameron’s design of a seemingly natural landscape dotted with pavilions used for informal parties, “follies” (romantic ruins based on ancient architectural styles), and decorative walking bridges over the Slavyanka River.
- Paul and his wife traveled around Europe incognito during the palace’s initial years of construction in order to collect appropriately lavish furnishings.
- True to contemporary architectural thought, the palace was not only to be part of the landscape, but it would incorporate the landscape into its own design. Plans were generally organized with consideration for how rooms would interact with their corresponding vistas.
- In one of their more pointlessly spiteful moves, Nazi bombers severely damaged the palace, and some rooms are still undergoing re-stabilization. Fortunately, many of the original artifacts were saved, as they were preemptively moved offsite.
That said, our tour of the palace itself was standard Russian house-museum fare. Prompted by changing ideas about learning and the role of cultural institutions (as well as the recession’s affect on tourism), American museums responded to the public aversion for education by adopting a more “accessible” style—for example, by incorporating anecdotes about a house-museum’s former owners, like Alva Vanderbilt’s women’s rights meetings at Marble House.
Russia…doesn’t do that. I find museum tours here, particularly house-museum tours, to be much more conservative in that they tend to emphasize an artifact’s art-historical significance, without providing much other context to make it memorable. Even for a history nerd with an active interest in historic interiors, endless litanies of dates, materials, and designers begin to feel mind-numbing. This approach becomes an even more noticeable problem when the tour group is comprised largely of undergraduates with little to no knowledge of art history, architectural history, or Russian cultural movements.
Personally, I’ve had quite enough of 18th century aristocratic furnishings. Rococo (pastel floral patterns are an anathema to my soul), and the really over-the-top European Neoclassical stuff just don’t do it for me. What I really loved about Pavlovsk was its park. This time of year you can rent sleds, cross-country ski on miles (kilometres) of trails, take a ride in a troika sleigh, or fall on glare ice and almost get a concussion.