Saint Petersburg



SIGHTSEEING

The Creation of Horses

 
 

The Anichkov Bridge, which carries Nevsky Prospekt across the Fontanka River, is the very centre of St. Petersburg. And the four sculptures by Baron Piotr Klodt that stand at the corners of the bridge are one of the symbols of the city.

Klodt belonged to an ancient family, but one that had fallen on hard times. All he had was his passion for carving wooden horses, which originated in his childhood and which he later shared with everyone. When some of his little figures came to the notice of Nicholas I, who was also passionately fond of horses, the Emperor immediately recognised the hand of a master. So it was that an unknown self-taught carver became a sculptor.

Klodt’s first project were the horses in the “chariot of victory” that crowns the Narva Gate. This triumphal gate was being built at that time in the south-western outskirts of St. Petersburg; the regiments returning from the victory over Napoleon’s army had recently passed that way. Klodt passed his first examination in sculpture with such distinction that he was immediately given his next commission.

In November 1841, in the presence of a huge crowd of people and to universal rapture, the new works by the young sculptor were unveiled on the Anichkov Bridge. The western side featured two compositions in bronze, with plaster copies of them on the eastern side. Klodt made another pair, which were intended to replace the plaster mouldings, the following year. However, the Tsar gave them to King Friedrich Wilhelm IV as a present. The next pair, which were ready a year later, were also sent abroad as a gift, this time to King Ferninand II of the Two Sicilies.

Piotr Klodt had become a celebrity of European stature, but his heart was still heavy: the years were passing, and there was no end in sight to the work. Then it suddenly dawned on him: it was not copies that were needed, but new sculptures that would form part of a whole composition reflecting all the stages in “the taming of the horse by man”.

A small dark plaque can be seen on the granite base of one of the four sculptures: “Moulded and Cast by Baron Klodt”. Not for nothing did the grateful people of St. Petersburg place the sculptor’s artistic talent and his skill in foundry on an equal footing. In the first half of the 19th century sculptures were cast in one piece, with the very modest technical resources that were available. At that time there were no more than a dozen experienced masters in this field in the whole of Europe. In Russia there had only been one, and he was now dead. So Klodt took on the job all by himself. Modern experts say that it was a real tour de force: the casting of such large figures tested the very limit of human possibilities, and Klodt coped with it brilliantly.

In the intervening century and a half or so Piotr Klodt’s masterpieces have left their pedestals on the Anichkov Bridge on several occasions.

The first time was in the summer of 1941, shortly after the beginning of the war with Nazi Germany. The sculptures were moved into the courtyard of the nearby Anichkov Palace, placed in wooden boxes and buried in the ground. This was a timely and necessary measure: during the 900-day siege of the city the pedestals were literally peppered with shell fragments and bomb blasts. After the victory the bases were, of course, restored, but it was decided to leave one such trace for perpetuity.

The last time the sculptures disappeared from the bridge was quite recently, just five years ago, when they were taken to be restored. This was the third restoration of Klodt’s horses: the first was before the First World War, and the second in the mid-1970s. Even now, however, at the beginning of the 21st century, the bronze compositions were in need of first aid. They had been afflicted by so-called “bronze disease”, the legs of the youths and the horses’ hooves were covered in cracks... This is hardly surprising: in the whole of St. Petersburg there is no other monument in such unfavourable conditions — low down and close to the thoroughfare, as well as being above water.

The restorers not only saved the sculptures but also conserved them for the future. St. Petersburg scientists, in collaboration with a group of experienced restorers, were the first to use a new method of making a protective and decorative covering for monuments. With the aid of the latest technologies they applied an unnoticeable layer on to the bronze compositions, very similar in its properties to natural patina, which will serve as a long and reliable protection for the monuments. As a result, Klodt’s masterpiece has been returned to its original appearance.

...Two more sculptures by Piotr Klodt are to be found relatively close to the Anichkov Bridge. If you walk along the Fontanka Embankment in the direction of the Neva and go into the Summer Garden, you can see the monument to the fable-writer Ivan Krylov. “The Russian Aesop” sits heavily in a large armchair, with bas-reliefs depicting his characters on the huge base.

If you walk along Nevsky Prospekt toward its beginning and then turn into Malaya Morskaya Street, you will come to St. Isaac’s Square, with its equestrian statue of Nicholas I. This work is the complete opposite of the Krylov monument. The sculpture depicting the storyteller is massive, even heavy. The statue of the Tsar, on the other hand, is marked by lightness of composition, technical virtuosity and the eye-catching silhouette of the horseman.

Nicholas I was, in fact, not the best-loved Tsar, but Piotr Klodt willingly set to work on this equestrian statue. It was not just that he remembered that it was the Emperor who had been the first to believe in his artistic talent. The sculptor and the Tsar were always linked by their common love of horses.

Magazine
Where St.Petersburg

September 2017



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