This superb example of Baroque architecture was the home of the Russian czars and czarinas, including Catherine the Great, from the late 18th century. Built for Czarina Elizabeth (r. 1741 -62), the opulent Winter Palace was the finest achievement of Italian architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli.
Though the exterior has changed little, the interiors were subsequently altered by a number of architects and then largely restored after a fire gutted the palace in 1837. After the assassination of Alexander II in 1881, the imperial family rarely lived here. In July 1917, the Provisional Government took the palace as its headquarters, which led to its storming by the Bolsheviks.
THE SMALL AND LARGE HERMITAGE
Catherine the Great hired architect Yuriy Velten to erect the Small Hermitage so she could privately entertain her chosen friends at court. The building was designed in Baroque style with Classical features to blend in with Rastrelli’s Baroque Winter Palace. After the Small Hermitage was completed, Catherine decided to house her newly acquired collection of more than 255 paintings in the building. The Large Hermitage was built a few years later to accommodate the tsarina’s vast library and works of art. Over the centuries, Catherine’s original collection has been added to. There are now more than 3 million pieces of art displayed in the Small and Large Hermitage, as well as in an ensemble of buildings that includes the Winter Palace. There are exhibits from the Stone Age up to the 20th century, including works by Matisse, Rembrandt, and Cezanne.
The Italian architect Rastrelli (1700-71) studied under his father and assisted him during his appointment as architect for Czar Peter I. In 1722, Rastrelli took on his own commissions in Moscow and St. Petersburg, which established him as a brilliant Baroque architect. During Elizabeth’s reign, he was appointed Chief Court Architect and went on to design several buildings, including the grandiose Winter Palace. When Catherine the Great ascended the throne, Rastrelli retired from court as the empress preferred a stricter, Classical style.
Czarina Elizabeth chose the German-born princess Catherine (1729-96), the future Catherine the Great, as a wife for her successor, Peter III. When he ascended the throne in 1762, Catherine had resided in Russia for 18 years and had fully immersed herself in Russian culture. Six months into Peter’s reign, Catherine and her allies at the imperial guard had the czar killed. She was then crowned ruler of Russia in 1763. During her reign she implemented many reforms and expanded Russian territory. Art and trade flourished and new academies were built, including the Russian Academy of Sciences and the Academy of Fine Art.
The largest room in the palace, this was always used for the first ball of the season.
This vast, sweeping staircase (1762) was Rastrelli’s masterpiece. It was from here that the imperial family watched the Epiphany ceremony of baptism in the Neva, which celebrated Christ’s baptism in the Jordan River.
Field Marshals’ Hall
The devastating fire of 1837 broke out in this reception room.
Hall of St. George
Monolithic columns and wall facings of Italian Carrara marble are features of this room.
Built in 1826, this has portraits of Russian military heroes of the Napoleonic Wars, most by English artist George Dawe.
With its huge gilded columns, this vast chamber covers more than 8,600 sq ft (800 sq m). It houses the European silver collection and a restored imperial carriage.
Architect Aleksandr Bryullov employed a mixture of Gothic vaulting and Neo-Classical stucco bas-reliefs of military themes in this reception room of 1837.
Small Throne Room
Dedicated in 1833 to the memory of Peter the Great, this room houses a silver-gilt English throne made in 1731.
More than 2 tons of ornamental stone were used in this sumptuous room (1839), which is decorated with malachite columns and vases, gilded doors, and rich parquet flooring.
Designed by Bryullov in 1839, these house a collection of 18th-century French art.
This room was decorated for the wedding of the future Alexander II in 1841.
The French and Flemish tapestries here include The Marriage of Emperor Constantine, made in Paris in the 17th century to designs by Rubens.
Golden Drawing Room
Created in the 1850s, this room was extravagantly decorated in the 1870s with all-over gilding of walls and ceiling. It houses a display of Western European carved gems.
The wood-paneled library was created by Meltzer in 1894. This, and other rooms in the northwest part of the palace, were adapted to suit Nicholas II‘s bourgeois lifestyle.
Built in 1830, this connected the private apartments in the west with the state apartments on the palace’s north side.
STORMING THE PALACE
On the evening of October 25, 1917, the Bolsheviks fired some blank shots at the Winter Palace, storming it soon after to arrest the Provisional Government that resided there. The Communists took over power and the Russian Revolution was a fact .
175 4-62: The Winter Palace is constructed by Bartolomeo Rastrelli.
1764-75: The Small Hermitage by Yuriy Velten is built for Catherine II’s art collection.
1771-87: Catherine’s art collection grows and a second extension, the Large Hermitage, also by Yuriy Velten, is added.
1917: Anatoly Lunacharsky of the Soviet Government declares the Winter Palace and the Hermitage state museums.
1990: The city of St. Petersburg, including the Winter Palace and Hermitage, is declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.