The Peterhof Palace was built in the early 18th century by Tsar Peter I (the Great) to rival France's Versailles. Situated 29 km from St Petersburg the location was ideal as it enabled Peter ease of access to Europe from the Kronstadt naval base - which was situated on an island off the coast - and also to St Petersburg, it was also to provide a suitable place to enable the provision of Kronstadt.
The first building on the site was started in 1714; this was the Monplaisir Palace, which was to become Peter’s summer palace. Peter played a major part in the design of Monplaisir and the other initial buildings and fountains. Constructed in grounds that cover more than six hundred hectares it was eventually to contain thirty palaces and pavilions.
To facilitate construction a grand canal was dug between the main palace and the sea in order that building materials could be transported easily to the site by water from Western Europe in order to provide the thousands of workers. Peter wished to complete the construction in a short period of time and the main palace was completed in 1721. On August 14, 1723, Peterhof officially opened and was to become one of the favourite residences of the tsars, several of whom were to add to it over the years.
The main palace which is known as the Grand Palace was originally of similar size to the other buildings and was known simply as the Upper Palace. It was built between 1714 and 1721. The Palace was significantly altered and expanded between 1745 – 55 by Peters daughter the Empress Elizabeth, to the design of the Italian architect Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli, who added an additional floor, a new palace wing and a small domed church. The interior was remodelled in a baroque style, although Peter’s study room was left intact. The decoration to the Grand cascade and the development of the complex also progressed under Elizabeth and during the reign of Catherine II (the Great).
The Palace contains a number of opulent state rooms which are reached by a Rastrelli’s ceremonial staircase decorated with gilded statues. The rooms include the spacious Ballroom with the windows and mirrors on either side of the room creating the illusion of an even larger hall. Other notable rooms in the palace include the baroque Audience Hall, the blue Drawing Room, the white Dining Room, two Chinese study rooms, the original study of Peter I and the Throne Room which is the largest room in the Great Palace (300 square metres) with its portraits of the Romanovs. The Chesma Hall contains wall paintings depicting the naval battle of Chesma (1770) the first of a number of navel defeats for the Ottoman Empire by Russia. Also of note is the Picture Hall with its walls almost entirely covered by 368 paintings.
The Palace is however, most famous for its many and varied fountains. The greatest being the Grand Cascade, completed in 1724. This consists of a large cascade which runs from the foot of the Great Palace to a long canal that leads to the Gulf of Finland. The cascade consists of 39 gilded bronze statues, 64 water jets and 75 fountains. On a terrace at the top of the cascade is a pair of Tritons and a number of gilded sculptures. The centrepiece of the Grand Cascade is the Samson Fountain, which shows Samson opening the jaws of a lion out of which is a vertical jet of water shooting 20 metres into the air. The statue symbolized Russia's victory over Sweden at the Battle of Poltava (1709) in the Great Northern War. At the centre of the cascade is an artificial grotto connected to the palace by a hidden corridor. The grotto is constructed in brown stone and it contains artefacts of the fountains' history. This includes a table and bowl of artificial fruit which soak visitors when they reach for the fruit. A number of fountains are designed to catch the unsuspecting visitor who are wet when they approach a fountain or when they are within its reach.
All of the fountains operate without the use of pumps. Water is supplied from natural springs nearby and collects in reservoirs in the Upper Gardens. It is the elevation difference and not pumps that creates the pressure to work the fountains of the Lower Gardens, including the Grand Cascade. The Samson Fountain is supplied by a special aqueduct, over four km in length, which draws water and pressure from a source at a higher elevation.
The grounds of Peterhof are divided into three separate parks; it includes the upper, lower and the Alexandria Park. Around the park are numerous buildings and fountains. By the sea front stands the Monplaisir Palace, this is at the centre of a small park which consists of six differently themed gardens. The dragon waterfall nearby is named after the three statues of dragons that spout water onto a checkerboard patterned sloping plane. Along from the Monplaisir Palace is the Hermitage Pavilion, a small building with a white façade. Nearby is the Orangery, built to protect plants and flowers from inclement weather. Also to be seen are the recently opened Olga Pavilion built in 1846 on a small island and Tsarina’s Pavilion both of which have undergone a recent renovation and are now open to the public.
In 1918 Peterhof became a museum although during World War II it was occupied by the German troops and suffered severe damage and was destroyed by fire. The reconstruction began almost immediately after the war and continues to this day.
To see more photographs and take a virtual tour of the site click on the photoshow below.