Art History and Autocrats

Article excerpt


Emmanuel Ducamp, a distinguished historian of 18th- and 19th-century Russian history, prefaces his magnificently illustrated study of the Romanov dynasty's version of the celebrated Trianon of the Palace of Versailles with a poignant memory of a past visit. Finding himself in Leningrad on an icy winter day when the thermometer was plunging past 13 degrees below zero, he writes, I had a flash of inspiration: I would go to Pushkin. Russia was still in the Soviet era, St. Petersburg had not yet had its imperial name restored, and the palaces of Tsarskoye Selo were still known by the name of the great Russian poet, a name they had been given by the Soviet government in 1937 in an attempt to wipe away memories of their close links with the Russian imperial family. Tsarskoye Selo - it need hardly be said - means village of the tsar.

So Mr. Ducamp found himself transported from the gray reality of the Soviet Union into a relic of a different time, a breathtaking collection of beautiful architecture equaled or perhaps even surpassed by the plethora of beauteous objects contained therein. Who could remain unmoved by treasures such as these, he writes, by their magnificent defiance of all measure and reason?

It is indeed hard to imagine anyone lucky enough to visit this enchanted place coming away unmoved by what might prosaically be described as the statement it is making. Of course, as architecture has rightly been called frozen music and is in any case one of the highest of the fine arts, the prosaic doesn't really come into it. Mr. Ducamp associates this splendid effusion not only with Catherine the Great and her fellow monarchs, but with a much deeper slice of Russian society:

Too often, art history is reduced to a collection of buildings, styles, and objects. The people are forgotten. Yet, without the imagination, hard work and vision of men and women, how would these buildings and objets d'art ever come into being? Ever since I was lucky enough to go to Russia for the first time, I have been struck by one thing: the importance of visions and dreams in Russian daily life, as though it were vital to stretch reality to its furthest extremes. …