Saint Petersburg


A Stonemason of Genius


A century and a half ago Auguste Montferrand graced the centre of St. Petersburg with two monumental constructions, both striking in their harmonious proportions: St. Isaac’s Cathedral and the Alexander Column. However, it was only much later that they became architectural symbols of the city — at first they were objects of urban folklore.

In 1814, when Alexander I was in Paris, a little-known young architect presented him with an album with the following inscription on the title page: “Various architectural designs presented and dedicated to His Majesty Alexander I, Emperor of All the Russias, by Auguste Montferrand, Member of the French Academy of Architecture”. Other, far more eminent, architects presented the Tsar with similar albums, but for some reason Alexander showed no interest in them, and invited only Montferrand to work in Russia.

The general passion for all things French had already begun in Russia in the late 18th century. However, when the victorious Russian army reached Paris after defeating Napoleon, France and French women captivated the Russians once and for all. With all its generous hospitality Russia opened its doors not only to republican ideas, Parisian fashions and dances, but also to the French themselves: governesses, hairdressers, artists, fashion designers, chefs...

The 30 year-old Auguste Montferrand also decided to try his luck in Russia. His record already included service in Napoleon’s army (where he was twice wounded), study at the Royal Special School of Architecture and three years’ practical experience in the studio of the well-known architects Persier and Fontaine. Not too much, really, for an architect who was to tackle a project as vast as St. Isaac’s Cathedral.

The active and energetic architect had scarcely arrived in the capital of the Russian Empire when he took part in the competition to design the new St. Isaac’s Cathedral, which had been announced by Alexander I in 1809. And, to the considerable surprise of local architects, he won. The ceremonial laying of the first stone took place in 1818, and the cathedral was finally consecrated in 1858. At that time three of the largest construction projects of the century were being undertaken simultaneously: the first permanent bridge across the Neva, the railway from St. Petersburg to Moscow and St. Isaac’s Cathedral. People used to joke: “We will see the bridge across the Neva, but our children won’t; we won’t see the railway, but our children will; but neither we nor our children will see St. Isaac’s Cathedral”. Needless to say, the blame for the lengthy construction period was laid at the architect’s door.

Attacks on Montferrand on the part of his fellow-architects in the Russian capital were not long in appearing. The court architect Mondune presented a report to the Council of the Academy of Arts, using calculations and drawings to accuse Montferrand of adventurism and inexperience. Alexander I formed a special committee to investigate the matter, as a result of which it appeared that it was indeed necessary to redesign the project.

Montferrand was nevertheless not excluded from future participation in the cathedral’s construction. While the Committee was sitting (and this took a long time), the ambitious Frenchman proved successfully that he did not have to study such qualities as a capacity for work and the ability to learn, so that professionalism was something that would come in time. He pored over books in the library and worked tirelessly, building houses and palaces for the nobility of St. Petersburg, designing the fair in Nizhny Novgorod, decorating about twenty residential rooms and formal halls in the Winter Palace... In the main, original architectural and engineering concepts were used in these projects.

One of his principal works at that time was the design and construction of a house for Prince Lobanov-Rostovsky on a plot directly abutting on to St. Isaac’s Cathedral (No. 12 Admiralty Prospekt). Montferrand designed this monumental triangular building featuring an eight-column portico with marble lions.

However, the people of St. Petersburg were particularly amazed by the bulk of the Alexander Column (650 tonnes in weight and 47.5 metres in height), sculpted from a single piece of granite and erected in Palace Square in less than two hours, in memory of the heroism of the Russian people in the Patriotic War of 1812.

The Alexander Column was popularly christened the “Alexandrine Pillar”. It is not dug into the ground nor fixed on its base, but is held up only by its own weight, thanks to the precise calculations. For a long time people were afraid to walk or ride near the monument: what if it should fall? Then somebody suggested that a case of expensive champagne was enclosed in the base of the column in order that it would stand firm, not subject to settlement or incline. There were also rumours that Tsar Nicholas I had instructed the sculptor Orlovsky that the face of the Angel atop the column should resemble the face of Alexander I, and that the muzzle of the snake at the Angel’s feet should resemble Napoleon’s face.

St. Isaac’s Cathedral attracted no less mockery from Montferrand’s contemporaries. The construction was not yet complete, but citizens had already dubbed the future masterpiece “the inkpot” — on account of its incredible dimensions, as it seemed to many, that did not blend with the surrounding buildings, and on account of the massive metal cupola and the towers around it. The dimensions and decoration of St. Isaac’s are no less impressive today than they were at that time. The height of the cathedral with its cross is 101.8 metres, its length is 102.2 metres, the height of the porticoes is 18 metres, and the diameter of the base of the cupola is 33.7 metres. The outer colonnade consists of 112 columns, each of which is a single piece of granite. The cathedral is faced with grey marble. Many types of precious stones were used in the interior decoration: malachite, lapis lazuli, porphyry, marble. The walls and vaults are covered with paintings and mosaics, polished granite columns, patterned doors, and over two hundred intricate sculpture groups and reliefs. Of particular interest is one of the largest pieces of stained glass in Russia — 28.5 square metres in area. Leading masters of the time took part in the decoration of the interior: Bryullov, Klodt, Pimenov and others.

Montferrand himself lived in a house on the Moika Embankment, surrounded by a fine collection of ancient works of art. The envious people who accused the architect of financial abuse during the construction of St. Isaac’s spread rumours in the city that he had bought himself a house on that money. They also said that the Alexander Column was supposed to have been made of marble, but that the marble had been used to decorate Montferrand’s own home, and that the column had to be made of granite for that reason. Montferrand called his house “a stonemason’s abode”, which, however, was also renowned for its art collection. The architect also loved to entertain, but would invite no more than nine people, corresponding with the number of the Muses, reasoning that this number would make for pleasant conversation.

The capital’s residents had a simple explanation for why the construction of the cathedral dragged on for a full forty years: it was said that a soothsayer had predicted that the architect would die as soon as he had completed his life’s principal creation. The joke turned out to be prophetic: Montferrand died only three weeks after the ceremonial opening of St. Isaac’s.

The interior decor of the cathedral features a group of Christian saints greeting the appearance of St. Isaac of Dalmatia – the saint to whom the cathedral is dedicated — with their heads bowed. They include the sculptured image of Montferrand himself with a model of the cathedral in his hands — it is a kind of autograph of the architect, left to us as a reminder of him.

Montferrand’s work in Russian architecture marked the transfer from classicism to historicism. Historicism can be seen in the master’s ability to combine the methods of various styles — Renaissance, baroque and classicism — to achieve an overall majestic effect.

Where St.Petersburg

August 2019

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