As a relatively young city, St. Petersburg has been blessed with good fortune. The citys heyday came at a time when stunning artistic and architectural styles held sway, from baroque to art nouveau. As a result, decorative elements on buildings became just as big a feature as entire architectural ensembles. A stroll around St. Petersburg provides an opportunity to appreciate the expertise and craftsmanship that when into decorating the buildings in the historic centre.
During the reign of Peter the Great, the fashion for bas-relief, mascarons, depictions of the aegis, and other decorative sculpture had made their way from Western Europe to Russia. In those early years, the citys first great architect began to make his mark on the marshy banks of the Neva. His name was Domenico Andrea Trezzini, and he came to be known as one of the founding fathers of an entire Russian architectural style Petrine Baroque.
Trezzinis first great creation was the Peter and Paul Fortress. Despite its military purpose, exterior decorative elements were employed throughout. The initial bas-reliefs were wooden, and were later replaced with ones made of stone and plaster.
One of the citys landmarks, the Hermitage Atlantes, celebrates its 170th anniversary in 2019
The work began by Trezzini was continued and developed by Carlo Bartolomeo Rastrelli, and his son, Francesco. Rastrelli the elder was born in Florence to a wealthy and noble family. In 1716, he travelled to St. Petersburg with his son (and future architect), having received an invitation from Franz Lefort an advisor of Peter the Great. Rastrelli was originally tasked with overseeing architectural and sculptural work to decorate the new capital, creating «trueto-life» portraits, building gardens and fountains, creating machines and decorations for theatres, making medals, and providing instruction in all these areas to Russian artists. In practice, though, he focussed almost entirely on sculpture.
Peter the Greats death ushered in the era of palace revolutions. As a true Florentine, Rastrelli the elder felt right at home in this new atmosphere of intrigue. Here was a figure imbued with all the vice and virtue of his era, and one who reserved particular love for his son. He protected him in every possible way, and clearly understood the talent and aptitude Francesco possessed. It was for this reason that as soon as danger lurked in the air, Rastrelli did everything in his power to send his son abroad to study architecture. Francesco, who had adopted the Russified name Varfolomey Varfolomeevich, went to Europe six times. And perhaps most happily, unlike many Russian children of the gentry who went to France only to come back with nothing more than fashionable coats, wigs, and STDs, he learnt a great deal.
In 1730 he was appointed court architect. His most famous works include several grand palaces, such as the Vorontsov Palace (174957), Stroganov Palace (175254), Catherine Palace at Tsarskoye Selo (175257), and the Winter Palace (175462), as well as Smolny Cathedral (174854). As an expert sculptor one in no way inferior to his father Francesco paid a great deal of attention to sculptural decoration for his constructions. He made detailed drawings for the modellers and carvers who brought his ideas to life. The architects drawings served as the basis for the figures of Atlas and Caryatid which decorated the majority of his buildings.
Mascarons sculpted by Francesco himself festooned the walls of his buildings. He also created dozens of depictions of cupid, but these lacked the sense of ambiguous mystery, and do not demand to be viewed in detail and separately from Rastrellis architectural ensembles of which they form a part.
The opulent and sumptuous style of baroque architecture endured almost until the end of the 18th century. The subsequent rise of classical Greek forms in the 1770s, influenced by ideas espoused during the High Renaissance, continued the tradition of these wonderful representations. Classical-style buildings featuring facades with decorative elements particularly mascaron ornaments depicting lions and humans first began to appear in the late 1760s. These were residential buildings for regular citizens designed by the architect Andrey Kvasov, a contemporary of Ivan Starov (the man behind the Tauride Palace). Kvasov had been helping to develop a general plan for the reconstruction of St. Petersburg. One of his buildings, located at 8, Nevsky Prospekt, still stands to this day. The keystones above the windows on the ground floor are decorated with womens masks. Later, at the turn of the 19th century, womens masks became a regular feature of residential building facades, appearing on the Brullov House at 21, Kadetskaya Liniya (then Sezdovskaya Liniya); Petrov House at 92, Naberezhnaya reki Fontanki; and Dekhterev House at 11, Spassky Pereulok. Indeed, they survived as decorative elements right up until art nouveau came to prevail. Only after the Russian Revolution were complex details and ornaments deemed to be «architectural extravagances». However, there was no deliberate destruction. They instead fell victim to the effects of poor maintenance, the Siege of Leningrad, and inadequate restoration. The rise of Stalinist architecture brought with it new subjects for adorning buildings in St. Petersburg. Classical deities gave way to muscular miners and buxom collective farm workers, as well as state symbols such as the hammer and sickle, and five-pointed star.
The suffering of an angel at St. Isaacs Cathedral can only be seen from a drone
Today, bas reliefs have been forgotten. And it is not as if they have a place on the new business centres or high-rises which are springing up in and around the city. Whether facade decorations will return to fashion and be used by the architects of today and tomorrow is anyones guess. However, mascarons and depictions of the aegis from a bygone era continue to remain a quintessential feature of the city one that is both mysterious and enigmatic, much like the smiles on their stone faces.