. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A New Look at Russian Neo-Classicism

Swathed in the cladding of a high-brow coffee-table book, The Empress and the Architect: British Architecture and Gardens at the Court of Catherine the Great, is more than just that. Dimitri Shvidkovsky, professor of history at the Moscow Institute of Architecture, has written a scholarly book that examines how architecture at the cusp of the 18th and 19th centuries reflected the psychology and politics of the Russian era of Enlightenment.

When Charles Cameron, a Scot by birth and the son of a builder, was summoned to Russia by Catherine the Great in 1779, he had never had a building constructed according to his own design. He had, however, published "The Baths of the Romans" based on the original drawings of the ruins by Italian renaissance architect Andrea Palladio.

This work made a tremendous impression on the Empress, who was getting tired of the excesses of the baroque. For in the book, Cameron urged a return to the classical ideal that indulged the creative impulse only when it was "governed by art's pure and original models."

Thus Cameron seemed to be the man for Catherine, who hoped to turn her palace at Tsarskoye Selo (Tsar's Village) outside St. Petersburg into "a Graeco-Roman rhapsody."

It was next to his predecessor Bartolomeo Rastrelli's palace that the Scottish architect designed the baths, which came to be known as the Agate Pavilion, and the Cameron Gallery, which brought him lasting fame. Based on ancient Roman baths, but not without a nod to Palladio, it is the lavish interiors here and in his renovated rooms of the palace that are most spectacular.

Shvidkovsky emphasizes that Cameron was not a "doctrinaire bore" who was slavishly faithful to the ideals of classicism, as other historians have suggested. He asserts that Cameron did not merely copy the decorations of Rome and Pompeii, but "worked with total freedom, unhampered by any stylistic restrictions or rules."

Thus Cameron was able to suggest a conventionally classical composition by, for example, using a series of vases growing out of one another to create an illusion of columnar support.

Cameron and fellow Britons were also innovative in their approach to landscaping the gardens at Tsarskoye Selo. Determined to create the first English garden in Russia, they had great mounds of earth moved and lakes and waterfalls created in order to produce an English-picturesque effect. Tsarskoye Selo even boasts pavilions that are near copies of English models.

But the garden's monuments were not all mere follies; many of them were imbued with political significance. Begun in the 1770s during the Russo-Turkish war and prior to Cameron's arrival, Catherine's pet project was described by her in writing: "While this war continues, my garden at Tsarskoye Selo becomes like a toy; after each glorious military action, a suitable monument is erected in it." The garden was already strewn with obelisks, columns with literary inscriptions, and a triumphal arch when Cameron arrived. But Catherine, seeking to allegorize the triumphal processions of Rome, commissioned Cameron to create the cathedral of St. Sophia, whose powerful architectural references to the Byzantine cathedral of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, the ultimate symbol of that city, were intended to be nakedly triumphalist.

St. Sophia was located in Cameron's architecturally ideal town of Sofiya, which lay between Tsarskoye Selo and Pavlovsk. Begun in 1781 and abolished as a community a mere 28 years later, this little town's short-term importance is evidenced by its street lighting, unprecedented in Russia in the 1780s. In Sofiya, factories functioned as industrial schools where serfs and free people could receive training in how to make "handmade goods." Alas, Sofiya's demise was hastened, Shvidkovsky posits, when the French Revolution changed the world political climate and put a stop to Catherine's more progressive ideas.

Shvidkovsky's underlying thesis in the book is that, contrary to what is commonly assumed, Russian neo-classicism was not the product simply of Francophilia but took much of its inspiration from British architecture. Thus, at Grand Duke Paul's estate at Pavlovsk adjacent to Tsarskoye Selo, Cameron imported the British neo-Palladian country house. This design was to serve as a model for the estates of nobles across Russia whose owners, we are told, took their Anglomania so far as to import English pigs.

Shvidkovsky also explains how, under the guise of a classicism imported from the West, chinoiserie was introduced at Tsarskoye Selo and the court. Ironically, orientalism came in through the back door, for Russia had a wealth of its own sources, from Tatar mosques in Kazan to pagodas in Buryatia. However, the Chinese Village at Tsarskoye Selo came in British garb, overtly influenced by William Chamber's model at Kew Gardens. Shvidkovsky saliently notes that the allowance of chinoiserie alongside the classical idiom gave way to a romantic eclecticism and a revival of medieval styles that Peter the Great would have abhorred.

A chapter of The Empress and the Architect is dedicated to the rise of medieval styles alongside the classical, which at first were viewed by Catherine as a nominal homage to Russian nationalism, but whose foreign nature increasingly began to pose a political threat. The final chapter discusses the work of two of Cameron's Scottish prot?g?s, Adam Menelaws and William Hastie, the latter of whom was to make a significant contribution toward standardizing housing and urban design, in particular when replanning the destroyed city of Moscow after the Napoleonic War.

Catherine's desire to enlist architecture as a political tool found its echo during the Soviet period, for Shvidkovsky informs us that Stalin, forging a new style of Socialist Realism in architecture, ordered "a critical assimilation of the architectural heritage, and Cameron's name was synonymous with the highest precision in the reproduction of antique forms." Thus, it is not surprising that the Coal Miner's Sanatorium built in Sochi on the Black Sea in the 1930s is reminiscent of the Cameron Gallery at Tsarskoye Selo.

In its entirety, The Empress and the Architect presents Anglo-Russian architectural and urban events that are virtually unknown in the West but which are surely worthy of inclusion in the discussion of world architecture.

The book comes sumptuously illustrated with color and black-and-white photographs of rooms and buildings, many of which no longer exist, along with Cameron's original building plans, exquisitely rendered elevations, sections and decorative schemes, among other materials.

"The Empress and the Architect: British Architecture and Gardens at the Court of Catherine the Great," by Dimitri Shvidkovsky, Yale University Press, 273 pages, ?29.95 or $45.