Catherine the Great: An Enlightened Empress
RUSSIA’S Catherine the Great was famous for her voracious appetites – for sex, power, adventure and collecting. Now some of her finest treasures are coming to Scotland
It is early morning on a glorious summer day in St Petersburg. The vast and magnificent Palace Square at the heart of this city is almost empty, but in a few hours it will be packed with tourists. The sun is beginning to warm the cobbles. The tour guides and the touts are getting themselves ready for business.
Among them are a clutch of young women dressed in tacky nylon pompadour wigs and gaudy ball gowns. For a few roubles, visitors can be photographed beside them in front of the green baroque façade of the Winter Palace, once the grandest home of the Romanov dynasty, now part of the State Hermitage, one of the world’s most fabulous museums.
The women are dressed as Catherine the Great, once the most famous woman in the world. For it was here, on the bright summer morning of 28 June 1762, an obscure German princess – Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst, first sent to Russia in 1744 at the age of just 14 and long trapped in a hellish, loveless marriage – stood on the balcony and was proclaimed Catherine II, Empress of all the Russias.
She became the greatest Romanov ruler, presiding over the modernisation of her country and its imperial expansion in the south. She inherited a nation wracked by war and the short, weak rule of her boorish and inept husband Tsar Peter III. When she died, in 1796, she left behind a naval superpower.
Catherine still casts a magnificent, personal spell over the beautiful neoclassical city, and this summer visitors to the National Museum of Scotland, in Edinburgh, can find out why. A stunning exhibition, entitled Catherine the Great: An Enlightened Empress, will bring more than 500 objects to the capital from the Hermitage museum, including old master paintings, jewellery and porcelain from her personal collections.
“She was more Russian than all the Russians, the first Russian nationalist,” Vyacheslav Fedorov, head of the department of the history of Russian culture, tells me in his cramped office in the old servants’ quarters of the Hermitage. Surrounded by tomes on Catherine and swamped by paperwork, he laughs, “She was really clever, that German brain. She could use people and she chose well the people who could help her.”
“In many ways she was a lonely woman,” says the exhibition’s co-curator, Godfrey Evans, principal curator of European applied art at the National Museum of Scotland. “She came to power by chance. She wrote that if she had had a husband who loved her she would have stayed with him.”
It seems that there are at least as many Catherines as the modern Russians who don fancy dress for the tourists on the square. There is the predatory sexual monster, largely dreamed up by Prussian propaganda. There is the physical adventuress who was obsessed by games of chance and skill, from cards to breakneck toboggan rides. Edinburgh audiences will see the gold-plated tokens she used when gaming for high stakes and a magnificent gilded sleigh used in the winter carnivals that she loved.
There is the military empress who was portrayed by the Danish painter Vigilius Eriksen on her horse, Brilliant, wearing a male guardsman’s uniform. She rode with the skill and posture of a man – and even devised a special saddle to disguise the fact from a disapproving court.
There was the enlightened European, who codified Russian law and read voraciously, a humble correspondent of the greatest minds of the age, including French philosophers such as Voltaire. A woman who gave the ageing, impecunious genius Denis Diderot a home and income.
And there was the modern rationalist: the first monarch to have a smallpox vaccination, she had her whole family inoculated. She was an autocrat, a saint, “the mother of all the Russias”. But, above all, she was a collector. As Evans says, “Without a doubt the greatest collector of the 18th century.”
It’s impossible to understand just how voracious Catherine’s collecting was until you have trudged for hours along the 10km of parquet-floored corridors at the Hermitage. In her lifetime she amassed 3,000 old master paintings, 10,000 engraved gems and cameos and 34,000 ‘Tassies’, the cameo and medallion copies made by Scotsman James Tassie.
The treasures that will come to Edinburgh, from paintings to snuff boxes, porcelain to ceremonial swords, are but a drop in a gilded and glittering ocean. “As a collector, she was ambitious, she wanted to take her own place, to be the first every time,” says Fedorov. She swooped on old Europe, throwing money at every opportunity, wrestling the famous French Crozat collection of paintings from her competitors and outbidding a skint Frederick of Prussia for 225 old masters from the Prussian merchant Gotzowski in 1794.
In revenge against the British Walpole family, who saw her as an eastern tyrant, she bought the Walpole Collection in 1779 – including works by Rubens and Claude Lorrain that will be in Edinburgh this summer. There was outrage in the press, who thought the paintings could form the basis for a new national gallery in London.
She was obsessed with arms, fancied diamonds (and played the suit of diamonds when at the card table), commissioned exquisite Sevres porcelain and Lyons tapestries. Such was the army of architects, gardeners and interior decorators at work in her Summer Palace, at Tsarskoye Selo, that she complained her world was a perpetual building site. “She was omnivorous,” says Evans. “Some said she was sexually insatiable. I would say that as a collector she was insatiable.”
But to understand Catherine’s collecting you must also understand her precarious beginnings. When she stood anxiously that morning on the balcony of the Winter Palace, she did so not as rightful heir but as a usurper in a daring coup.
She was thus politically savvy enough to have disapproved of ostentatious show for the sake of it, but understood the mechanisms of courtly power, of entertainment, diplomacy, seduction and display. She took a luxury goods industry, kick-started by her mother-in-law the Empress Elizabeth, to new heights of success.
Within days of her seizing power, Catherine’s husband, Tsar Peter III, who had rejected and humiliated her, would be dead in mysterious circumstances. Her son and heir, Paul, tragically wrested from her arms when he was a tiny baby, stood beside her on the balcony but court insiders knew he was of disputed parentage.
Her latest secret lover, the handsome artillery officer Grigory Orlov, was among the conspirators. She had recently borne him a child but disguised the pregnancy.
The day after the coup, she would first meet the soldier Gregory Potemkin, the man who, a decade later, would become her next lover, the architect of her expanded empire in victories against the Turks on the Black Sea, her life-long confidante and probable husband.
Collecting, for Catherine, was a means of bolstering her power. She was crafting a visual history for herself as a great and civilised Russian ruler and as a modern European. Above all, she wanted legitimacy, to look as though she was destined to rule. This wasn’t just hubris, it was a matter of survival. “Before she seized power,” explains Fedorov, “she may have thought she might be imprisoned or even killed: an old Russian tradition.”
“If her secret pregnancy had been discovered,” confirms Evans, “it would have been the nunnery … or worse.”
It is a ten-minute walk through the Hermitage, behind a very fast guide who suddenly stops and steps behind a screen, to reach the office of Irina Bagdasarova. I go through a small door in the panelling and find myself in a tall, book-lined room. Between the teetering shelves, I can glimpse blue-and-white tiling. This office was once the imperial bathroom of the last Tsarina, Alexandra.
Bagdasarova, keeper of Russian porcelain, takes me downstairs under low, vaulted ceilings that were lined with horsehair so the servants couldn’t hear what was happening in the private apartments above.
Here, in the depths of the museum, she is preparing her treasures for their journey to Edinburgh.
Enviably steady-handed and smiling, Bagdasarova takes me through her cabinets. Everywhere is evidence of the cult of Catherine’s personality. The tiny china figures of the peoples of Russia, smiling ethnic types, were created to reinforce the idea that she was the generous mother of a happy, multi-cultural empire.
Bagdasarova lifts a ceramic bust of Catherine, one of many churned out by the Imperial Porcelain Works. They were given as diplomatic gifts. The empress looks doughty, wise and benign, not the kind of chancer whose reign began with regicide.
I am shown a magnificent cobalt vase that was created for Catherine’s name day. And there are the dinner services: ice-cream cups, dinner plates, a breadbasket, all of them made from the finest porcelain.
Bagdasarova lifts a milky-white side plate that is monogrammed and heavily gilded. “We can see Catherine’s private life in this,” she smiles. “This is the Orlov Service, ordered specially for him. It came from her heart. With so much gold, he was her favourite.”
The Orlov Breakfast and Toilette Service is unique for its gold and silver decoration. It bears the monogram CGO at the centre and is decorated with emblems and incidental details from Orlov’s military career. Commissioned from the Imperial Works, it was unknown for many years, then rediscovered in 1912.
It is showy, but intimate, and would have been used in the count’s own apartments, when dressing and for small private gatherings. When Catherine escaped court scrutiny to be with her lover, they would certainly have used it together.
From our current perspective, it can be hard to understand the interest in porcelain, but it was a raging obsession in European courts. Its beauty and delicacy had once been an oriental secret, out of reach of even the wealthiest of rulers.
When, at the beginning of the 18th century, the Saxon court in Dresden finally developed the ability to make porcelain, it gripped monarchs like a mania, and while Catherine ordered the finest tableware from overseas, including Sevres and Wedgwood, she also improved and developed the Imperial Russian Porcelain Works. “The empress wanted to show that she is as good as everyone else, that Russia is modern,” explains Evans.
“And she used porcelain to do that. She wanted great services of what was, after all, white gold.”
“It was her wish to put her personality on the plate,” says Bagdasarova, showing me details of the vast Arabesque Service that numbers almost 1,000 pieces. Arabesques were fashionable decorative details gleaned from classical and renaissance sources, but especially the newly discovered friezes at Herculaneum and Pompeii.
For Catherine, the language of arabesques may have had deeper private resonances. At Tsarskoye Selo, she commissioned a magnificent arabesque room, designed by the Scottish architect Charles Cameron, every elegant inch of which is covered in painted cameos. Sometimes when Potemkin replied to her letters, he used not just words but these scrolls and symbols.
These days, some 7,000 visitors a day troop through room after stateroom in the Summer Palace, from the extraordinary gilded Great Halls, that apes the excess of Versailles, to the legendary Amber Room, clad in golden amber panels, carvings and mosaics.
What is striking, when I am taken off the main drag into the private apartments, commissioned by Catherine for her family, is the difference in scale. The imperial family clearly craved intimacy.
It is no wonder. In the public spaces the tables are laid out as if a ceremonial dinner might begin at any minute. Hundreds would attend such feasts. Up to 5,000 might attend a ball. Every move, every outfit was scrutinised. When the Empress Elizabeth, Catherine’s decadent mother-in-law, died, the closets here were reputed to hold 15,000 dresses, many unworn.
The banquets defy the modern imagination. Special tables were constructed in the shapes of letters and symbols. The court architects devised table settings elaborate with statuary, real turf and pyramids of fire. There were piles of candies in the shape of apples and filled with vodka. At some events each toast was met with a cannonade fired from the grounds.
At the Winter Palace, the night after Catherine’s ill-fated marriage, the banqueting went on until 2am. The elaborate decorations included an indoor waterfall, while some 8,000 flames lighted the hall.
These ceremonies and the life at court were not only decadent gestures, however. “It’s an extension of what Louise XIV did in France,” explains Godfrey Evans. “You want the nobles at your court, not out in the country making trouble, and you’ve got to keep them entertained. When Catherine moved, there might be 100 nobles in front of her, 100 behind. You had to feed them and entertain them to keep the court occupied, or before you knew it there would be muttering.”
In winter in St Petersburg, Catherine took part in the vast carnivals, ice slides and winter sports that kept the court busy in the dark days, which might otherwise have been dedicated to plotting by candlelight. One of the most stunning objects that will come to Edinburgh is a carnival sleigh, ornately carved with the figure of St George slaughtering the dragon. It was practical, made from wood and iron, but elaborately ornamental and beautifully gilded. “She was very interested in sledges and ice slides,” says Evans.
“When the river Neva freezes over, you have a vast playground. And it’s easy to build an ice mountain when you have 10,000 serfs at your disposal.”
The sledges on her year-round wooden slide at the Oranienbaum Palace could achieve 50 miles an hour. Some described it as the world’s first modern rollercoaster. “You could stick it in Blackpool or Coney Island,” laughs Evans, “and it wouldn’t be out of place.”
These days, overlooking the River Neva is one of Catherine’s most important monuments: The Bronze Horseman, Falconet’s equestrian statue of Peter the Great. The statue sits on the Thunder Rock, a single lump of granite that took two years to travel to St Petersburg by sled and ship, and is reputed to weigh 15,000 tonnes. When I visit on a sunny afternoon, a newly-wed couple have gathered their wedding guests in front of the statue for photographs and a champagne toast.
Peter the Great founded his capital on a piece of unpromising marshland, and it was still a garrison town of barracks and teetering wooden palaces when Catherine took over. She transformed it.
The message of this tribute to her forbear was clear: the German princess who once faced an uncertain future was as steady and as certain as a rock; like Peter before her, the foundation stone of a great Russian empire.
When Catherine died at the age of 67, collapsing ailing and exhausted in her dressing room on 6 November 1796, contemporary sources reported that the capital fell into immediate disarray. At the Winter Palace, “the change was so great that it looked like nothing other than an enemy invasion”.
“You know we are having many strange discussions about Russian history these days,” Fedorov says as we sit under the very same roof some 200 years later. “Recently there was a discussion – Catherine the Great: was she great or not?’”
From this perspective, in the depths of her palace and with thousands of her treasures around us, that’s surely a rhetorical question.
• Catherine the Great: An Enlightened Empress, supported by Baillie Gifford Investment Managers, runs from 13 July to 21 October, National Museum of Scotland www.nms.ac.uk
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