The Chinese palace for the Empress, the extension, Tsarskoye Selo featuring Chinese landmarks was the first attempt at anything Chinese in Russian architecture and landscape. In a land and times, when emulation and encapsulation of the west was a de facto means of being a force to be reckoned with, lies a manifestation of the captured Orient, albeit as interpreted by West Europe’s narratives. Wondering what it is, right? Well, let me get you through this, the inception and impact of Chinese Village and associated royal structures in Tsarskoye Selo, Russia.

Chinese Village, Tsarskoe Selo, Russia- The Chinoiserie architecture- sheet1
Aerial View of the Catherine Palace and Chinese Village_©saintpeteresburg.com

In times when the visibility of the sovereign and its power was fundamental, the first expression comes about to be when Empress Catherine I orders the construction of the summer palace (1717-1724), a two-storied structure with parks, in place of an estate that existed before the expulsion of the Swedes after the Great Northern War(1700–1721). This brings about an increase in people and servants and hence, a separate village is built nearby, bringing about a transformation of the place into Tsarskoye Selo (literally meaning, the Tsar’s village). 

Eighteenth-century – Age of Sail and Enlightenment 

The deliberated period is the 18th century, the age of enlightenment when the Russian government began actively encouraging arts, sciences, and cultural reforms, which profoundly impacted its culture. Albeit, more significant to note is the power exerted by the east on the minds of the writers and thinkers of Europe, employing fascination and intrigue for the mysteries of the Orient, an impact vested by the exchange between the West and the East. The oriental renaissance weaved itself into every aspect of culture, and manifestations of which with cultural appropriations and depiction of an atmosphere rich in images and harmonic designs of the oriental style, are found throughout Europe including Russia in art and architecture, into a stylized evolution of the late Baroque and Rococo to what came to be known as Chinoiserie. 

A large period of the 18th century in Russia had female sovereigns and Empresses stressed their image as European monarchs to strengthen their fragile status as female rulers; and hence an apparent inclination to Western standards is noticed with borrowed styles in art, architecture, cultural reforms, and philosophies. As is the case with the grand Catherine palace, an exemplary structure of the late Baroque and Rococo style, which was built by completely redesigning the existing palace on a scale to rival Versailles by the orders of Empress Elizabeth(1741-1762), daughter of Peter the Great and Catherine I.

Chinese Village, Tsarskoe Selo, Russia- The Chinoiserie architecture- sheet2
Catherine Palace in Tsarskoye Selo_©saintpeteresburg.com
Chinese Village, Tsarskoe Selo, Russia- The Chinoiserie architecture- sheet3
Facade decoration of Catherine Palace Tsarkoye Selo_©saintpeteresburg.com

Catherine the Great – dreams, desires, and whims

Significant events, as much as they are drivers of change and transformation, the role of individuals in steering to new directions is colossal; as witnessed by the life and works of Catherine the Great. The enlightenment in Europe was adherence to actual reasoning over primal beliefs, but in Russia, it connected with Rococo and Chinoiserie and primarily addressed to sense and then to actual reasoning; leading to the creation of an exciting and curious atmosphere. Architecture and landscape became a medium through which the socio-political narrative weaved itself into spatial constructs. 

The Chinese palace (1762-1788) for the Empress at Oranienbaum and later the extension in Alexander Park, Tsarskoye Selo featuring Chinese landmarks was the first attempt at anything Chinese in Russian architecture and landscape. The Chinese village at Tsarskoye Selo initiated in 1780 is the most striking manifestation of the empress’ attempt at emulating the stylistic interpretations of her western counterparts. Inspired by the Chinese pavilion at Drottningholm palace Stockholm, she envisaged a town consisting of 18 Chinese houses dominated by an octagonal domed observatory, theatres, and pavilions; of which only ten houses could be realized in her lifetime.

Chinese Village, Tsarskoe Selo, Russia- The Chinoiserie architecture- sheet4
Chinese Village at Tsarkoye Selo_©gorodskoyportal.ru

Careful framing of views and vistas and the journey in a quaint setting is manifested as one walks towards the Great Caprice, consisting of an arch and a Chinese style pavilion on a man-made hill. Three beautiful bridges (the dragon bridge, the large Chinese bridge, and the cross-shaped bridge), takes one on a journey amidst the greens and blues in the natural landscaping representative of the Orient. Another striking structure is the Chinese Opera Theatre which was constructed not far from the village in 1779, where Italian composer Giovanni Paisiello would present his operas to the empress. The commissioning of the town Sophia, separating the nobility from the gentry and the cathedral St. Sophia, emulating the Hagia Sophia Cathedral in Constantinople are testaments of her dream to establish civilization in Russia equal to that of the most developed states in Europe. While the imperial palaces and aristocrat constructs reeked of Chinoiserie and Rococo, the town planning was largely rooted in French classicism.

 The Chinoiserie architecture- sheet5
Chinese Bridges in Alexander Park at Trasarkoye Selo_©Tripster

The Bolshevik revolution in the first beginning of the 20th century and Nazi occupation (1941-45) of the place significantly diminished the importance of the imperials and their manifestations. The place was listed under the UNESCO World Heritage site Saint Petersburg and Related Groups of Monuments in 1991 which contributed significantly to the restoration and preservation of the precinct. It ensured worldwide attention to the place through which the culture and history of the place are being maintained and narrated, and today a visit to Russia remains incomplete without a day well spent at Tsarskoye Selo. 

In a place known for being a spectacular cluster of over-the-top opulent Romanov palaces, pavilions, and parks, one wonders about the existence of this Chinese Village, right? How does this come about to be? As once inhabited spaces and realizations of whims, these structures used as museums today, stand as emblems narrating the stories of the great tsars. As commemorations of cultural exchange and stylistic appropriations, the stones speak and we decipher. The sense of nostalgia associated with imperial structures and way of life, hinging on the fulcrum of the west and east, harboring interest on both sides of the world, makes those especially relevant in today’s times. Some older residents of Pushkin recall their experience of peeking in the royal world, as ‘like looking inside a magical box’. Truly we stand today gratefully peeking inside that magical box, trying to grasp a tinge of what was, and attempting to decipher the narratives, through time. 

References

Shvidkovsky, D. (2003). Catherine the Great’s Field of Dreams: Architecture and Landscape in the Russian Enlightenment. In Cracraft J. & Rowland D. (Eds.), Architectures of Russian Identity, 1500 to the Present: 1500 to the Present (pp. 51-65). Ithaca; London: Cornell University Press. Retrieved July 9, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/10.7591/j.ctv3s8r1n.8

Lim, S.S. (2013). China and Japan in the Russian Imagination, 1685–1922: To the ends of the Orient. 1-223. 10.4324/9780203594506.

http://www.alexanderpalace.org/palace/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_Village_(Tsarskoe_Selo)

https://www.atlasobscura.com/places/chinese-village-at-tsarskoe-selo

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tsarskoye_Selo

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Russian_monarchs

Author

Shiza Christie is a Masters in Urban Design student at the School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi. She is an observer of the phenomenon of time and forever enchanted by the power of words. These days she spends her time deliberating on urban complexities, its constituents and place making.

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