Tauride Palace, Saint-Petersburg
Tauride Palace in St. Petersburg, located on one of the city’s central thoroughfares, is among the most recognizable sights of the city. Many do not realize, however, that the history of this masterpiece is associated with important milestones in Russian history.
Catherine II, Paul I and Alexander I all possessed the palace at different times. Yet Tauride Palace, built in 1783-1789, was originally intended to be a central landmark of the northern capital and the St. Petersburg residence of Prince Gregory Potemkin-Tauride, a famous stateman favored by Empress Catherine II.
Prince Gregory Potemkin was Governor General of the Novorossiysk, Azov and Astrakhan Provinces. He received the title of Tauride in 1783 after annexing Crimea for Russia, a strategic move which gave Russia dominance along the Black Sea. To manage the newly acquired lands, which had been called Taurica from the time of the Hellenes until the 15th century, Catherine II appointed Potemkin as High Prince.
Prince Potemkin often visited Catherine II, but it soon became inconvenient for him to stop at the Winter Palace and so he began the construction of his own St. Petersburg residence a month after the annexation of Crimea. The palace was built by architect Ivan Starov, a former classmate of Potemkin and one of the most gifted, illustrious masters of 18th century architecture. While Starov’s name is associated with many buildings of St. Petersburg and greater Russia, Tauride Palace is the largest of his surviving works.
St. Petersburg’s Tauride Palace was, in fact, the largest palace of its time in all of Russia and Europe. This grand two-story complex was intended more as a residence than a palace-estate for receptions and festivals. Constructed in the heyday of the classical style of architecture, its appearance closely corresponds to the strict canons of classicism: the yellow facades of the palace are devoid of any décor save clear geometric ornamentation of the cornices and elongated windows. Tauride Palace complex consists of four main rooms: Grand Gallery (Catherine’s Hall), Dome Hall, the lobby and Winter Garden.
Granite and jasper columns opposite the entrance create the likeness of a triumphal arch, allowing visitors to walk directly from the lobby to Dome Hall and into the Grand Gallery, which is defined by thirty-six columns running in two rows.
In Dome Hall, four original bas-reliefs depicting the muses of painting, music, architecture and sculpture can still be seen today. As Potemkin preferred music above all, an organ was placed in each of his residences, including two small cabinet organs in Tauride Palace. Large, gilded trumpets were on the north balcony of Dome Hall, while the south balcony featured an illusory painting.
Prince Potemkin loved to play tricks on his guests by creating all kinds of illusions. On the western wall of Dome Hall the artist Fyodor Danilov, under the direction of Potemkin, depicted the continuation of the palace, with columns so skillfully painted that the guests did not notice the wall and would run into it with a laugh. Sadly, this painting has not survived to our day.
The ceiling of Dome Hall is another skillfully executed illusion. The arch has almost no bend yet appears spherical due to the paint job, while the mural-filled caisson ceiling with its spider web effect likely created the illusion of a dome. This style was originally inspired by the dome of the Roman Pantheon and was renovated in Tauride Palace by order of Alexander I in the early 19th century when the style was in vogue.
The most spacious room in the palace is Catherine Hall. Until the early 20th century, its colonnade was open and led into a huge conservatory filled with exotic trees and flowers, nightingales and lavender water fountains filled with goldfish. The windows overlooked Tauride Garden, a continuation of Winter Garden.
Centered on the dark green palace roof is a low, spherical dome of the same color, over which a flag flutters. The main building is connected to low one-story galleries and two-story side buildings all built according to a similar design. The central section of the palace is distinguished by a six-columned Roman Doric portico overlooking a spacious front yard which opens to the passing world.
Although the palace was built in six years, work on the solemn interior continued for many more years. Tauride Palace was filled with unheard-of luxuries: In addition to stoves in most rooms, fireplaces, which had appeared in Russia only in the 18th century, were also installed. Many pieces of furniture were new to the country and became fashionable only after a grand ball organized by Potemkin in 1791 in celebration of the capture of the Turkish fortress Izmail. After the guests enjoyed the sofas arranged throughout the palace, for example, they became an integral aspect of mansions and social salons throughout Russia.
Over 400,000 gold rubles were spent on the construction and decoration of Tauride Palace, and even contemporaries of Starov highly praised it for its simplistic and clear architecture, which serves to enhance its grandeur.
After the death of Prince Potemkin in 1791, Catherine II bought the palace. While Catherine Palace in Tsarskoe Selo was her preferred summer home and the famous Winter Palace served as an official residence, in the last five years of her life, Catherine II spent autumn and springtime at Tauride Palace. In 1797, by decree of Paul I, the grounds of the palace were transferred to Mikhailovsky Castle and the palace itself to the Horse Guards Regiment. In 1801, the palace was restored as a residence of the emperors.
Nicholas II ordered the conversion of the Winter Garden into the hall of the State Duma in 1905. In 1907, the ceiling collapsed and during restoration, a pyramidal glass dome was erected in place of the ceiling, which allowed natural light to infiltrate the room in clear weather.
During the revolutionary years of the early 20th century, the interim government and the All-Union Agricultural Communist University were located in Tauride Palace. The All-Russian Central Executive Committee of Soviets was known to meet at the palace, and during a meeting of the Bolsheviks, Lenin gave a speech here. Tauride Palace was restored after the Great Patriotic War and housed the Leningrad Higher Party School until 1990.
Today, the palace serves as headquarters of the Interparliamentary Assembly of the CIS. Located a short distance from the famed Smolny Institute, Tauride Palace in St. Petersburg continues to impress visitors with its original luxury and grandiose design.