" Leaving this, we proceeded to the arsenal, a recent red-brick erection in English Gothic, in the form of many an old English gatehouse, and a picturesque object in the most picturesque part of these noble gardens. Here a few weather-beaten veterans reside, who, peeping at our party through the latticed windows, opened the arched doors; and, once within, to an antiquarian eye, all was enchantment. For several successions the Russian sovereigns have amassed a collection of armor and curious antique instruments. These have been increased in the reign of his present majesty, who erected this building purposely for their reception, and intrusted their classification and arrangement to an Englishman ; and truly that gentleman has done credit to the known antiquarian tastes of his own land."
It would be impossible to enumerate the objects here preserved, consisting chiefly of ancient armor, weapons, and accoutrements, of every description, for man and horse, from every warlike nation, both Christian and idolater. Figures in armor guard the entrance and lead the eye along the winding staircase, whence you enter a lofty, circular, vaulted hall, with oak flooring, and walls hung round with carbines, lances, &c, in fanciful devices, and where, placed on high pedestals in a circle round the room, are eight equestrian figures in full accoutrements and as large as life, like those of the English kings in the Tower of London. Between these you pass on to various little alcoves or oratories with groined ceiling and stained window, whose light falls on the gorgeously-wrought silver cross or precious missal of some early pope, or on the diamond-and-pearl-woven trappings of present Turkish luxury; or on the hunting-horn, with ivory handle of exquisitely-carved figures, of some doughty German markgraf of the olden time, or on the jousting-instruments and other playthings of the amazons of Catherine II.'s court.
In a glass case in the arsenal are preserved the small silver drum and trumpet given by Catherine to the emperor Paul in his childhood; and beside them is the autograph letter of Bessieres to Marshal Davoust, as governor of Moscow in 1812, ordering him to evacuate the city.
In a recess are placed two sets of horse-trappings presented by the sultan to the emperor—the first on concluding the peace of Adrianople, when the "yellow-haired Giaours" passed victoriously the mountain-barrier of the Balkan, and were well nigh at the gates of his capital. This saddle is superb, with its trappings of purple velvet studded with diamonds, and its stirrups of gold; but the other makes its glories dim the instant one beholds them together. This was given when the Porte sued as a suppliant to Russia for an auxiliary force to defend a tottering throne against a rebellious vassal (Mehemet Ali, viceroy of Egypt), after the fatal field of Konieh had witnessed the overthrow of the only army the sultan possessed. The diamonds on the pistol-holsters of this saddle are of unusual size, and their brightness perfectly dazzling, while every part of the saddle and bridle is actually covered with brilliants. Several swords, studded with diamonds, are also preserved here—for the mostpart presents from various sovereigns to the emperor Nicholas.
But this pleasant arsenal, the only memento pertaining to this capital of modern objects and ephemeral fashions which recalls the past, would require a volume to itself, and offers inexhaustible interest to the artist in mind, and a very treasury of beautiful subjects to the artist in profession. By command of the emperor Nicholas, a most careful and elaborate delineation of its contents, by the best artists of the day, and under the direction of M. Velton of St. Petersburg, is going forward, to appear in numbers, of which at present only a few have been completed. These are the most exquisite specimens of drawing and emblazonry, and offer an interest second only to that of the arsenal; but the price is high, being five hundred roubles a number!
The grounds around the palace of Czarsko Selo are eighteen miles in circumference, and contain plenty of larch, oak, and elm, which flourish well. The gardens are said to be the most carefully kept in the world, the trees and flowers being watched and inspected with the most anxious minuteness. An old invalid soldier commands his five or six hundred men as gardeners and overseers. As before remarked, after every falling leaf runs a veteran to pick it up; and after a violent north wind they have enough to do, as may be well imagined. Every tiny leaf that falls in pond or canal is carefully fished out; they dust, and trim, and polish the trees and paths in the gardens, as they, do the looking-glasses and furniture of the saloons; every stone that is kicked aside is laid straight again, and every blade of grass kept in a proper position. An inquiry was once instituted here about a broken flower, and carried on with as much solemnity as if it had been a capital offence. All the gardeners were called together, the inspector held the flower in his hand, and every possible question was put, as to whose division, and out of what bed, the flower might have been taken ; whether plucked by a child, or broken by a dog: and this investigation proceeded with the most profound seriousness, and the closest contemplation of the corpus delicti — threats were lavished, rewards for the discovery of the offender were promised, &c.; but with what success, never transpired. The cost of all this polishing and furbishing alone is above a hundred thousand roubles yearly, but then the sacrifice keeps the gardens in the order of a ballroom.
The odd caprices exhibited in the decoration of the grounds are really extraordinary, and so numerous, that it would be difficult to describe them all. In one corner is the tower of the crown prince Alexander, an ornamental building in several stories, where this young prince resided with his tutor; in another are the baby-houses of the young grand-duchesses, where they carried on a mimic menage. In front of a Chinese tower is a high pole, rigged like the mast of a frigate, where the young grand-duke Constantine (now holding a high rank in the navy) formerly practised his " hand over hand" upon. On one of the ponds is a fleet of pigmy vessels, intended to amuse the youthful admiral in'his professional studies.
In addition to all these strange objects are a theatre, a Chinese village, a Dutch and Swiss cowhouse, a Turkish kiosk, asummer-house in the form of an Ionic colonnade, supporting an aerial garden, planted with flowers, a Gothic building called the Admiralty, a marble bridge with Corinthian columns of polished marble; also rostral pillars and bronze statues which Catherine II. erected to her favorites — among these is a column to Orloff. There are likewise some commemorative monuments raised by Alexander to his " companions in arms," intermingled with fields of roses, hermitages, artificial ruins, Roman tombs, grottoes, and waterfalls.
Since the death of Alexander, the palace has been untenanted except by servants. The imperial family, when they come here, inhabit a large building in the park. Like almost all other royal buildings in Russia, Czarsko owes its origin to Peter the Great. He erected the first house here, and planted, to his eternal praise, the avenues of plane-trees with his own hand; but it was the empress Elizabeth who built the castle, which was further embellished by Catherine II., and after the great fire it was restored by Alexander.
The two imperial residences of Paulofsky and Gatchina, the favorite abode of the late empress-mother, but now seldom, if ever, visited by any member of the imperial family, are situated beyond Czarsko Selo; the one at the distance of about eight, the other about twenty-five miles. The gardens of Paulofsky are less magnificent but more attractive than those of Czarsko Selo. According to Swinin, the walks in these gardens amount to more than one hundred miles in length ; and there is so much variety in the disposition of them, and in the shrubs and grouping of the trees, that Russian literature may boast of several books written on this subject alone! Paulofsky may also be reached by the railway. ' There are many villas there, and a band plays in the gardens during the summer months. These gardens, and the palace, are the property of the grand-duke Michael.
The road to Czarsko Selo excepted, the coast-road to Peterhoff, is esteemed the most lively and best inhabited of any in the environs of the capital; the road, too, is broad, finely paved, with excellent bridges and handsome granite milestones. It is a proof, however, of the general monotony of Russian roadside scenery, that the verststones are almost the only, at any rate the most striking landmarks, and in this sense are really very useful. For instance, a St. Petersburgian, wishing to explain to a friend where his villa is situated, will say, "We are living this year on the Peterhoff road, at the seventh verst;" or, " The Orloff datscha stands at the eleventh verst"—" We will take our dinner at the traktir's (restaurateur) at the fourteenth verst" — as if these milestones were pyramids. But so it is—there are neither valleys, brooks, nor smiling villages, gnarled oaks or giant elms, whereby to distinguish places, and people can find their way only by considering the position of the milestones.
Peterhoff is distant from St. Petersburg about eighteen miles; the road to it is by the Riga gate, passing under the triumphal arch erected by the inhabitants to celebrate the return of the Russian army from Paris in 1814. This structure is cumbrous in the extreme, covered with sheets of copper, supporting a brazen triumphal car drawn by six horses abreast, in which is a figure of Victory. Shortly after passing the Riga gate, on the right is seen the old palace of Catherinenhoff, already mentioned as the rendezvous of the Russians on May-day. The castle is now deserted as an imperial residence, and is fast sinking into the bosom of the morass on which it was built; its decay was greatly accelerated by the inundation of the Neva in 1824. Beyond this is the Annenhoff lunatic-asylum, founded by the empress Anne, whose name it bears, which was removed here from its original situation within the city in order that the patients should have an additional chance of regaining their reason in the calmer situation and fresh air of the open country.
As far as Strelna the traveller follows the great western road that leads to Germany, which here branches off to the south, while the road to Peterhoff continues its course along the southern bank of the Neva. This alone of all the approaches to the capital is lined with the villas and country-seats of Russian nobles and merchants, many of which are alike conspicuous for their splendor and elegance, but seem almost without exception to be much better adapted for the warm and genial climate of some land of the sun than the stern, inhospitable shore of a sea which is frozen nearly half the year. At the distance of four or five miles from St. Petersburg the line of houses on the right hand ceases, and the wide expanse of the Neva spreads before the windows and terraces of the houses which border the road on the left hand.
The palace of Strelna is a pretty Gothic building, situated on a commanding position, immediately overhanging the Neva ; but its interior is plain, and, with the exception of the ballroom, by no means splendidly furnished. Since the death of the grand-duke Constantine, this, like most of the other imperial residences near the Russian capital, has been untenanted. Hence to Peterhoff, a distance of about six miles, the road winds along the shore of the Neva, still presenting a succession of villas and pavilions, with gardens and Dutch cottages in every variety of shape.
Nothing can be finer than the actual situation of the palace at Peterhoff. Built on the verge of a steep declivity, its windows command the whole extent of the Neva, from Kronstadt to St. Petersburg, with the green islands of the majestic river, and the shore of Finland beyond. But of late years it seems to have found but little favor in the eyes of the imperial family; and, though both garden and palaces are still kept in the strictest order, they are seldom visited by them except on the occasion of the annual fetes. The gardens are not so extensive as those at Czarsko Selo ; but their situation is far more beautiful, and their arrangement more tasteful. The water-works are considered but little inferior to those at Versailles. That called the Samson, in front of the palace, is a magnificent jet d'eau, eighty feet high, and from it to the sea, a distance of five hundred yards, runs a canal, wherein are many smaller fountains. On each side of the fountain of Samson (so called from a colossal bronze figure tearing open the jaws of a lion whence rushes the water) are other jets d'eau which throw water vertically and horizontally; these basins are at the foot of the elevation on which the palace stands. In the centre is a broad flight of steps leading to the castle, and on each side a continuous range of marble slabs to the top of the hill over which the water pours down, the slabs being placed high and far apart, so as to allow lamps to be arranged behind the water. This is done at the Peterhoff fetes referred to above.
These renowned fetes take place on the first of July (old style, which still prevails in Russia), when amends are made to this charming summer abode for the neglect to which it is doomed during the rest of the year. On that day—the 13th day of July of our style—which is the empress's birthday, and also her wedding-day, the people of St. Petersburg throng in vast and motley multitudes to the famous Peterhoff festival. It is difficult to give an idea of the immense concourse that flows thither. From the earliest hour of the morning, the Neva is covered with: steamboats, skiffs, and gondolas, and the roads with vehicles of every kind, full of eager holy-day-makers, fearless of the dust so long as they reach the scene of enjoyment. There the accommodations prepared for them can not possibly suffice. Enormous tents are pitched, to afford rest and refreshment to the weary wayfarers; but so extraordinary is the throng, that it is scarcely possible to keep a place even if obtained: or else the heat drives one from under cover, to mingle and be carried along with the dense stream that fills every avenue. Hurrying from room to room, and from one garden into another, the morning passes away, and' at noon the empress appears on the balcony of the palace, and a military parade ensues. After the troops have defiled before her, the orderlies of the various corps march by, among which the Circassians are remarkable for their personal appearance, costume, and skill in military exercises.
After the parade, which has been preceded by divine service, a court drawing-room is usually held; then comes a drive through the park, and then dinner, succeeded, toward eight in the evening, by a ball in the palace. To this ball, every one, without exception, is welcome. The country-people, in their ordinary garb, mingle with the wearers of elegant dresses and brilliant uniforms; a mixture which, however, in no way diminishes the universal enjoyment. Suddenly the musicians strike up; through the folding-doors, thrown wide open, two chamberlains enter, and courteously entreat the assemblage to make room for their majesties, who are near at hand. Every one draws back, as much as the throng and pressure permit, and the Polonaise is danced, with the emperor at its head, through all the extensive suite of apartments. The entrance of the imperial couple is the moment chosen by the artist to illustrate the fete, as seen in the foregoing engraving. The stately form of the emperor, with the empress on his right, will be readily recognised in the picture. All present have an opportunity of seeing their sovereigns, and all greet them joyfully as they pass, until the royal dancers, retracing their steps, conclude the dance in the same hall wherein they commenced it.
At a signal from the empress, the whole of the vast garden is now suddenly illuminated. This takes place as by enchantment. With lightning speed the countless flames ascend from the lowest branches to the very topmost sprigs of the trees. In less than a quarter of an hour, park and garden appear in a blaze. The waters of the fountains plash and ripple over steps which seem to burn. Lamps, ingeniously sheltered from extinction, gleam through the falling water, whose every drop glitters, diamondlike, with all the tints of the prism. Eye can not behold a more striking and beautiful scene. The finest sight of all is the " Golden Staircase," already described, next to the "Samson"—fountains with which, in the opinion of some, even the Grandes Eaux at Versailles can scarcely be compared. And now imagine the monster illumination, reflected on all sides in the colossal cascades and water-works, and in the adjacent arm of the sea; imagine the melodious murmur of music issuing from the palace, and mingled with the whizzing of rockets, with the booming of cannon from the vessels at Kronstadt, and with the joyous songs of countless groups, who, having selected spots for their bivouac, lie around the fires in various and picturesque attire. All these things combine to render this one of the most beautiful festivals that can be imagined.
At ten o'clock the ball ends; after which the court usually take a little drive on a sort of long droskies (jaunting-cars). On their return in-doors, the lights in the palace are suddenly extinguished. Gradually the walks are deserted by the promenaders, who establish themselves for the night under tents or beneath wagons, or round great watchfires—departing with the first dawn, by land and by water, to their respective homes. Thus ends the great holyday at Peterhoff, unquestionably one of the grandest and most agreeable of popular festivals.
The emperor Nicholas, when at Peterhoff, does not occupy the imperial palace, but a wooden pavilion, in which he resided when grand-duke.
The suite of apartments in which the emperor Alexander lived when last at Peterhoff have never since been inhabited; and everything remains as he left it.
The principal attraction at Peterhoff is the old castle built by Peter the Great; and, although every emperor and empress has made alterations and additions, the character of the whole is the same as that of all the palaces built by that czar; even the yellow color, which was its. original hue, is always renewed, and like them its architecture is very insignificant in character, and deserves as little to be mentioned with Versailles or the other French chateaux, which may have served as models, as the Kazan church deserves to be compared with St. Peter's at Rome. The interior presents in many instances the same curious mixture of simplicity and taw-driness as the old Michailoff palace and the Taurida in St. Petersburg, which have been described at length in a previous chapter.
Here, however, are to be seen some beautiful tapestries, countless articles of bijouterie, tazzas of porcelain, malachite, and marble, and a number of pictures chiefly representing the naval victories of Orloff and other Russian commanders of Catherine II. In the castle is also one highly-interesting apartment, containing a collection of three hundred and sixty-eight female portraits executed by a certain Count Rotali for that empress during a journey which he made through the different governments of the empire. " They are all beautiful young girls, whom the count has painted in picturesque attitudes, and in their national costume, the inventive genius of the artist giving a different position and expression to every face. One pretty girl is knitting diligently, another embroidering; one peeps archly from behind a curtain, another gazes expectingly from a window; another leans over a chair, as if listening to her lover; a sixth, reclining on cushions, seems lost in thought. One slumbers so softly and so sweetly, that a man must be a Laplander in apathy not to wish for a kiss; this stands before a glass, combing her beautiful hair; that has buried herself up to the ears in fur, leaving visible only a pair of tender, rosy lips, and soft blue eyes gleaming from under the wild bear's skin."
There are also some excellent portraits of old people—two in particular— an old man with a staff, and an old woman by the fire. This collection is unique in its kind, and would be invaluable for a physiognomist, if he could be certain that these portraits were as exact and faithful as they are pleasing and tasteful. But this must be considered doubtful, for they all bear, undeniably, rather the stamp of the French school than of the Russian, Tartar, Finnish, or any other nationality, within the Muscovite empire. It is also accounted a suspicious circumstance that the portraits were painted by a gentleman for a lady ; and probably behind every graceful attitude some flattering homage to the empress lies concealed.
The other apartments do not contain anything very remarkable. In one are the little table and benches with which the emperors Alexander and Nicholas played as children; in another, some carving and turner's work of Peter the Great. In one room are shown the blots of ink, made by this emperor or that, while engaged in his boyish studies; and in another is seen on the ceiling an extraordinary picture, representing a whole corps of angels playing from notes! every one with his music lying on a cloud by way of desk!—while a fifth room contains all the gods of Greece, also reclining on clouds.
Descending from the palace to the seashore, the garden is laid out in terraces, and adorned with fountains and waterfalls. The basins, the Neptunes, storks, swans, and nymphs, the tritons, dolphins, painted rocks, and grottoes, are copied from the engravings in Hushfield's "Art of Gardening." These are commonplace enough: not so the oaks and lime-trees, planted by Peter himself, which one can not pass without notice. The smaller buildings of "Marly" and "Monplaisir," which lie under these trees as wings to the larger edifice, remind the spectator, as the small house in the Summer garden has done, of the modest domestic arrangements of the carpenter of Sardaam, Holland—the great reformer of eastern Europe.
It was from these humble retreats that Peter the Great loved to contemplate his growing power over the Swedes on the Baltic. In Monplaisir, a low, Dutch-built summer-house, the empress Elizabeth used to amuse her royal leisure by cooking her own dinner. In this lowly abode the great Peter breathed his last, and his bed is still preserved untouched since his death, and now fast crumbling to decay. The last act of his life, the attempt to succor a stranded vessel, was well worthy to close the busy career of such a being as Peter. A view of this favorite residence of the great monarch is given on the following page. The Rev. John 0. Choules, in his visit to the Baltic in 1853, thus speaks of it: —
" Our first sight was the residence of Peter the Great; it is not far removed from the old palace. It is beautifully surrounded by trees, and the house is quite small, and not very unlike a Dutch farmhouse. Its interior is quite like some old houses that I remember on the Hudson river. In this snuggery Peter died. We saw the bed on which he breathed his last; the bedclothes are all preserved as when he occupied the chamber. On the pillow are his caps and nightclothes, and his robe-de-chambre lying on the coverlet of the bed. Nothing can be more simple than all the furniture. The rooms are small, and you can fancy that the old people who live in the cottage have just stepped out. In the room adjoining the small chamber are his slippers, boots, and sedan-chair, and other articles of personal dress. In a small corner-cupboard is his camp-equipage, as plain as tin, iron, and brass can be. The walls of the kitchen are covered with blue Dutch tiles. Nothing indicates that royalty ever resided here, but some good Flemish pictures and a few elegant Japanese cabinets and beautiful stands. His escritoire remains as he last used it. A long, narrow saloon, which is really a covered gallery, has many portraits; and here the emperor used to walk and receive his visiters. The dining-room was a small apartment, with a circular oak table, and the panels of fine Japanese work; the lower wainscoting of old black oak. From a noble terrace, paved with marble, Peter could gaze upon his infant navy, lying off at Kronstadt. The rocks of the seashore come quite up to the balustrades of the terrace, and greatly add to the scenery."
The " Hermitage " at Peterhoff is chiefly remarkable for the contrivance by which the dishes and plates descend from the table through grooves cut in the floor, and are replaced by others without any servant being seen.
The famous " Cottage" of Catherine II. is, without, all plain, even to poverty; within, all glorious and radiant with gold, and mirrors reflecting each object, giving the tiny dwelling an appearance of size and magnificence quite astonishing. The present empress has a small palace in the park of Peterhoff, called Sniamnisky. There is likewise a low, thatched building, called the "Straw palace." In a piece of water in the gardens are a great many tame carp, which, says an English traveller, " are regularly fed, and come to the visiters as readily as the swans in James's park, London, or a parish-clerk for his Christmas-box."
A few miles hence is the country-seat of Ropscha, at which Peter III. met his death by assassination. Beyond Peterhoff, in a situation, if possible, more beautiful and commanding, stands Oranienbaum, now the property of the grand-duke Michael, It was originally bestowed upon Prince Menchikoff by Peter the Great, to whom it again reverted on the disgrace and banishment of that proud courtier.
Sears, Robert. An Illustrated Description of the Russian Empire. New York: Robert Sears, 1855