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things 17-18
spring 2004
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Prisoners of paradise
The figures of St Petersburg
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Tony Wood
Prisoners of paradise

The caryatids and atlantes of St Petersburg

At the beginning of Notes from Underground, Fedor Dostoevsky’s narrator describes St Petersburg as ‘the most abstract, intentional city in the whole round world.’ Founded in 1703 by Peter the Great on the swampy delta of the river Neva, the city was partly modelled on Amsterdam: he had some of the Neva’s tributaries turned into canals segmenting his new city, and its original name - Sankt Piter Burgh - had a distinctly Dutch ring to it. But the modest proportions of medieval Europe were no match for the scale of Peter’s ambitions: his new capital was intended as Russia’s ‘window onto Europe’, a city whose vast, magisterial geometry would rival imperial Rome or Versailles, and whose splendour and grace would prove the rising Russian empire the equal of its Western peers. In his correspondence, Peter repeatedly referred to his city-in-the-making as ‘paradise’, issuing instructions to his courtiers to have flowers brought up from Moscow, fruit trees imported from Persia, and fountains installed, the better to make it resemble a new Eden (1). By the time of his death in 1725, vast rectilinear avenues had been laid down, gardens had been planted and many important buildings erected. But swathes of land remained empty, and there was a sense that nature had only provisionally been tamed: floods still regularly plagued the city, and wolves roamed its streets after dark.

Now a metropolis of some five million inhabitants, for most Russians St Petersburg still represents this uneasy equilibrium between grand human artifice and hostile elements barely kept in check. With buildings that disappear into the distance with mathematical regularity, it is a literal embodiment of mankind’s desire to bring primordial disorder into line. It is also the physical manifestation of Russia’s obsession with the west, a powerful symbol that has been mobilised by detractors and proponents with equal force, and equal degrees of mystification. Indeed, St Petersburg often seems to be as much symbol as city, see-sawing between material presence and sheer abstraction. Its phantasmatic condition is only heightened by the phenomenon of the ‘white nights’ when, in mid-summer, darkness barely falls, and the city is shrouded in an unearthly pallor. It’s this peculiar combination of striking beauty, seeming material precarity and symbolic potency that makes you feel less as if you’re inhabiting a city than living inside an argument, a mental landscape in which ideas or metaphors will do battle – as if you’d wandered into a de Chirico painting.

The French aristocrat and minor novelist Astolphe de Custine, who visited Russia in 1839, compared the architecture of St Petersburg – ‘this provisional capital’ – to theatrical decoration (2). The feeling of artificiality inspired by its layout is only increased by the staginess of its streets, lined by buildings that reprise styles from across Europe and across the ages as if in preparation for scene changes in an immense history play – here a neoclassical square, there a baroque palace, here a renaissance balcony, there an onion-domed church. For a while the city’s population struggled to keep up with these architectonic riches: Custine makes repeated references to empty streets, immense but deserted squares peopled only by columns and statues. The latter are a constant presence in St Petersburg: every important public space is presided over by human figures of one sort or another – from the Admiralty’s two trios of nereids, each group carrying a globe, to the quadriga of Apollo on Palace Square; from the figure of Neptune commanding the Neva from atop the Bourse to the famous Bronze Horseman, portraying Peter the Great on a rearing steed.

But the more haunting of St Petersburg’s sculptural inhabitants, for me, are the bewildering number of figures bent under the weight of balconies, or acting as pillars to prop up an entablature – male and female, clothed and unclothed. They play no immediately apparent figurative role, convey no obvious imperial narrative or allegorical meaning, but merely raise arms aloft as if to thwart gravity. I’ve long been fascinated by these figures – caryatids and atlantes, to give them their proper names – which recur with such insistent regularity on the city’s facades that they cannot simply be dismissed as a passing ornamental fad. In any given society, architectural forms nearly always respond, I think, to some imaginative need, some sudden kink in the cultural economy. Pinpointing it across large stretches of time is perhaps beyond us; but caryatids and atlantes – classical devices taken up in renaissance Europe, and used extensively in baroque – provide an interesting instance of how the same form can recur in response to wholly different conditions. With each recurrence, moreover, their meanings and resonances undergo a subtle shift, so that by the time they colonise the facades of St Petersburg, they form a knot of associations that I’ll try to untie, and re-tie, in what follows.

* * *

A caryatid is a ‘carved, draped, straight standing female figure’, ‘used as a substitute for a column, and supporting an entablature’ (3). The best known examples are in the South Porch of the Erechtheion in Athens (c. 421-407 BC), but the form has been traced to the sixth century BC. The most common account of their origins comes in the first of Vitruvius’s Ten Books on Architecture, where the reader is told that the figures represent women from the village of Caryae; they have been incorporated into buildings as load-bearing elements, in symbolic punishment for Caryae’s treason in siding with the Persians against the Greeks (4). Vitruvius cites them in a passage emphasising the need for architects to know history – ironically enough, since it appears Vitruvius’s own account is less than historically accurate. There is no record of Caryae selling out to Medes in the Persian Wars of the early fifth century BC, and the village’s strategically insignificant location in this conflict meant the Persians would stand to gain little from such a transaction. But a century later, Caryae’s position on the frontiers of Lacedaemonia was to prove fateful: previously conquered by the Spartans, the village went over to the Thebans’ side after the latter defeated the Spartans at Leuctra in 371 BC; the switch made an important contribution to the Theban advance, which soon reached the very walls of Sparta. The Spartans regrouped, however, and assembled a coalition of allies that pushed the Thebans back. In 368 BC, the son of the king of Sparta took Caryae and, according to Xenophon, slit the throats of all those who were not already dead.

The French archaeologist Théophile Homolle believed the Spartans erected a monument to celebrate this victory, either in Sparta or Caryae, a copy of which was later built at Delphi (5). It consisted of a pillar topped by a group of three female figures under a cupola; the women are dressed in knee-length dresses, and they have one arm raised above their heads. From a distance, it would look as if this gesture was being made to support the cupola above them. But the breeze ruffling the figures’ dresses and the position of their other arms – down by their sides, grasping a handful of sculpted fabric – suggest otherwise. Caryae was not only a traitor-town, it was also an important place of worship, dedicated to the cult of Artemis Caryatis. Dance played a significant role in its ceremonial life; indeed, the architectural historian Joseph Rykwert notes that ‘the term karuatisein, meaning “to dance in a stately way”, “to do a round dance”, was used as a common verb’ in Ancient Greece (6). Portrayed while performing the action for which the vanquished town was known, the ‘serene and poised’ figures at the top of the column are korai – dancers – with one arm raised, perhaps as they execute a graceful turn.

The caryatids of the Erechtheion predate the destruction of Caryae by several decades – as do similar figures at Delphi, Cnidos and Siphnos. Rykwert points out that there is ‘nothing slavish or browbeaten’ about any these figures, which most likely represent dancers, and should more properly be referred to simply as korai. But the term ‘caryatid’ acquired a life of its own, encompassing a whole range of female figures. Due to the ambiguous function of the raised arms, moreover, it came to include the notion of support – Homolle cites a comedy of the late third century BC by Lynkeus of Samos, in which a character complains of having to prop up the roof of a falling house ‘like a caryatid’ (7). The narrative of treachery and war attached to Caryae, meanwhile, added the notion of symbolic punishment – hence the legend recounted by Vitruvius. Indeed, though neither caryatids, nor korai before them, were representations of prisoners, there is an element of deeper historical truth to Vitruvius’s account: the first caryatids were a victor’s view of the vanquished, a memorial that would commemorate triumph and at the same time perpetuate defeat. The women of Caryae were trapped within the iconography of the winning side. It may seem to us as if they move with a light step; but we can’t hear the whip of history slashing the air behind them.

* * *

The male equivalents to caryatids – telamones – were for a long time known as ‘Persians’, after the Portico of the Persians the Spartans built in their agora after victory at Plataea in 479 BC. In Vitruvius’s account, a number of figures in Persian-style robes stand in for columns, again as symbolic prisoners. (Scholars have since questioned Vitruvius’s sources, since it appears that these ‘Persians’ were sculpted in relief, and would therefore not be true telamones.) (8) Some of the earliest known atlantes – male figures which seem to bear the weight of an entablature or balcony on their shoulders, rather than their heads – would have been in the temple of Zeus at Agrigento in Sicily, and date from around the same time as Vitruvius’s Persians – between 480 and 450 BC. Several metres in height, the figures were alternately bearded and clean-shaven, with heads bowed under the weight of the roof they seemed to hold up. Though the term comes from Atlas, the titan of Greek mythology who held the globe on his shoulders, atlantes, like telamones and caryatids, also have a narrative of punishment attached to them. Agrigento, formerly known as Akragas, was once ruled by the tyrant Theron, who forged an alliance with Gelon of Syracuse to defeat the Carthaginians in around 480 BC. The temple of Zeus built to celebrate this victory – though it was apparently never finished – was said to have been the work of Carthaginian slave labour, and Rykwert suggests that the atlantes represented these slaves (9). The temple lay in ruins for centuries and was only excavated in the early 1800s, by which time several of the atlantes were found reclining on the ground, their arms now seemingly clasped behind their heads in daydreaming indolence.

All these forms were taken up by the Romans – in some cases literally, since there are numerous instances of collectors having whole structures, let alone individual sculptures, transported home. They were copied, borrowed and adapted – the Forum Augustum, dedicated in 2 BC, had dozens of caryatids lining the upper storey of the wings enclosing the main court. The afterlife of atlantes and caryatids in European architecture is above all owed to these Roman recyclings, and to the Roman texts that survived in manuscript form throughout the Middle Ages – notably Vitruvius’s De Architectura. Though they cropped up in medieval illustrated manuscripts and carved church interiors, they only regained the prominence they had in antiquity with the rediscovery of classical forms in the renaissance. Vitruvius was an important source in this process, gaining especially authoritative status after the advent of printing. The first edition of De Architectura came out in Italy in 1486, and was soon followed by commentaries and translations – into Italian in 1521, German in 1528, and French in 1547 – each with their own illustrations, or, better, approximate visions of caryatids and atlantes. (10)

Though Italy was where the revival of classical devices began, the resurgence of caryatids and atlantes began in France: in the Caryatid Portal of the Diana Garden at Fontainebleau of 1533; on the entrance to the Hotel des Bagis in Toulouse, built in 1538; and in the salle des caryatides in the Louvre, built in 1555 by Jean Goujon, author and illustrator of the first French translation of Vitruvius (11). Yet although they recur in French architecture in subsequent years – notably in the Oval Room of the chateau of Vaux-le-Vicomte, built between 1656 and 1661 by Louis Le Vau, and decorated by Charles Lebrun – caryatids and atlantes only truly came into their own in central Europe in the 18th century.

French architecture and decorative arts were enormously influential on the development of late mannerism in Northern Europe and Germany, where the art historian Germain Bazin identified a ‘passion for ornamentation’ breaking out around 1600 (12). In 1593-4, the architect Wendel Dietterlin had published a collection of drawings that were an important source of ideas for sculptors in the ensuing decades, depicting elaborate fantasies on the classical orders. Among them was a Design for a Ceremonial Doorway, in which the door is flanked by a pair of grotesque torsos whose raised arms initially recall the supporting gesture of classical atlantes – until you see that these grimacing characters have nothing to prop up, and are merely covering their ears as if to block out some infernal music. The effusive decoration is typical of mannerism, but also foreshadows the arrival of baroque, which evolved out of mannerism around the turn of the 17th century in Italy, and reached the German lands in the 1660s, via commissions executed for the Jesuit order in Bavaria and Austria – largely by Italian architects. (13)

Germany and Austria had barely had time to digest the flamboyant new style when there was an explosion of caryatids and atlantes. The former adorned the Berliner Schloss, built between 1698 and 1701 by Andreas Schlüter (and demolished in 1950). But it was atlantes that became ‘one of the principal motifs of German and Austrian baroque’ (14) ; they can still be seen on the central section of the Zwinger palace in Dresden, built in 1709-18 by Daniel Pöppelmann, and the facades of both the Daun-Kinsky Palace and Upper Belvedere in Vienna, built by Johann Lukas von Hildebrandt in 1713-16 and 1721-22 respectively. Inside the Upper Belvedere, enormous atlantes all but buckle under the weight of Hildebrandt’s vaulting, a contortion of sheer effort also found in the figures on Jakob Prandtauer’s entrance portal for the St Florian monastery in Austria of 1712-13, and in those on the south front of Sans Souci at Potsdam, built by Georg Wenzeslaus von Knobelsdorff in 1745-47. It was also in the 1740s that Balthasar Neumann built the lavishly decorated Palace of Brühl in the Rhineland, with atlantes propping up each of the main staircase’s twin second flights, and more towering over the upper landing, crammed in beneath a gallery running round the inside of the hall.

I could go on adducing examples – the interior of the Residenz Theatre in Munich, designed by François Cuvilliès in 1751-53, or the strange figures in the library of Waldsassen Abbey in Oberpfalz, carved between 1724 and 1736 by Karl Stilp – but I think the point is clear. Their almost pathological recurrence cannot be explained by functional considerations – these are decorative accretions, human barnacles. Bazin refers to the atlantes of Sans Souci and the Upper Belvedere as symbolising strength, and this was doubtless part of their appeal for architects working for self-aggrandising monarchs: brute power was at their majesties’ service, the implication being that the masters of these herculean beings possessed still greater force. But strength is not the main impression conveyed by these figures, writhing under their presumed burdens. Rather, it is a constant sense of torsion, of physical form under extreme strain.

Baroque is these days a byword for over-elaboration, for self-regarding flights into decorative excess. But its flamboyant disruptions of form are not merely superficial products of artistic fancy. The architecture critic Robert Harbison describes the baroque as characterised by ‘an interest in movement above all, movement which is a frank exhibition of energy and escape from classical restraint’ – an impulse whose rise to aesthetic prominence ‘signals a transformation of human consciousness’ (15). After the rigid hierarchies of the feudal order and the stability of an undivided Christianity, whole societies had been shaken during the 16th century by the discovery of the New World, by the reformation, and by the stirrings of capitalism, an economic phenomenon that would utterly reshape the world. The impact of these great changes on individuals would obviously have varied enormously from place to place and person to person, but I think Harbison is right to suggest that baroque is part of a wider recalibration of consciousness, in which the subject is placed at the centre of the world – escaping the orderly systems of the past for a storm-tossed landscape of individual passions, which the art of baroque sought to bring to the surface. Devotional sculpture moves from staid institutional piety to personalised, almost sexual ecstasy in Bernini’s St Teresa; the heavens turn from eirenic tribunes to turbulent, swirling spaces where gravity has been suspended in the church ceilings of Tiepolo or Rubens.

The transformation is so thoroughgoing, Harbison argues, that it overflows questions of subject-matter or perspective and floods into physical substance:

If one tracks Baroque movement to its smallest units, psychological or physical, the gesturing arm, the fold of drapery or curl of plaster, one finds sentiment and material interfused, gestures become abstract, froth of stucco become instinct with emotion, both vehicles of similarly elemental energy. (16)

There is a two-way process at work here, in which on the one hand religious experience becomes an individual undertaking – witness St Teresa lost in rapture, or St Ignatius of Loyola’s ‘spiritual exercises’, a set of devotional meditations to be undertaken in seclusion – with an increasingly secular set of references; and on the other hand, secular imagery increasingly becomes imbued with religious intensity. But the latter tendency has no institutional moorings, ‘the encasing structure which justifies the emotion is missing... [T]he loss of a context for feeling... sets all this emotional energy loose to attach itself to the most unlikely objects – old beggars, sentimental priests, children.’ (17) Harbison makes this last observation discussing the work of Laurence Sterne, but the point about emotional energy holds for baroque sculpture in general, and atlantes in particular: more than mere symbols of strength, these contorted bodies are invested with an immense affective charge, which is arguably all the more powerful for their lack of readily identifiable meaning. For narratives provide sense, stability, the possibility of conclusion; here we have only the agonised expressions of figures lost in an all-consuming instant – to borrow Harbison’s description of George Frederick Handel’s operas, ‘characters who thrash about within a single moment of emotion’ (18). The culture that could cram so much intensity into an instant is long gone, and its sculptures often look hysterical or kitsch to modern eyes, its buildings overblown and melodramatic. The atlantes adorning baroque facades, meanwhile, look like allegorical figures in search of meaning, and I often find myself trying to read them, to uncover a narrative like that behind the caryatids, or the atlantes of Agrigento. But there is no story here, only gestures; no text, only limitless passions straining to be released from form.

* * *

The baroque, like so many other western styles, was introduced to Russia by Peter the Great, who hired architects such as Domenico Trezzini and Jean-Baptiste-Alexandre Leblond to plan and build his new capital. He also invited the sculptor Bartolomeo Carlo Rastrelli, who arrived in 1715 with his 15-year-old son, Bartolomeo Francesco. It was the latter who made the most spectacular impact on Russian architecture, his most significant work the sumptuous palaces he built from the 1740s to the 1760s in and around St Petersburg: the Summer Palace at Peterhof (1745-52), the Ekaterinskii Palace at Tsarskoe Selo (1749-56), the fourth Winter Palace in St Petersburg (1754-62). All of them were saturated with gilt and elaborately carved plaster, filled with acres of intricate decor on the inside and bedecked with a profusion of capitals, columns, pilasters and statues on the outside. To the western eye it was simply too much: the English traveller and man of letters Nathanael Wraxall saw the palace at Tsarskoe Selo in 1775 and called it ‘the Completest triumph of a barbarous taste I have seen in these northern kingdoms.’ (19)

The architectural historian William Brumfield describes Rastrelli’s major works as ‘extravagant in design and execution, yet ordered by the rhythmic insistence of massed columns and baroque statuary.’ (20) The facade of the Ekaterinskii Palace at Tsarskoe Selo is a good example of this, with its long line of columns seemingly propped up by a regiment of atlantes. Rastrelli’s father had been the first to use caryatids and atlantes in Russia, in the interiors of the Monplaisir Palace at Peterhof (1714-23) (21) . Their appearance on the outside of the son’s buildings – not only at Tsarskoe Selo, but also flanking the central window of the Stroganov Palace (1752-54) – is part of a general tendency in Rastrelli’s work, in which he ‘applied the order system to his interiors, and transferred the effusive mannerisms of the rococo to the exterior, thus converting a decorative style into a monumental expression of architecture.’ (22) But in this monumental idiom, baroque forms take on a more martial air – clearing away the ‘mystical fog and emotional exaltation’ the architectural historian Boris Vipper sees as characterising German and Austrian baroque (23) . The result is that Rastrelli’s atlantes are altogether more composed than their tormented central European cousins, stoically bearing a weight where their counterparts seemed burdened not only by vaults or balconies, but also by an angst that might bring forth a titanic howl at any moment. Rastrelli’s atlantes would never be so undisciplined.

German and Austrian baroque seems to have been less fascinated with the graceful but comparatively static korai than with atlantes, in large part because the former offer less opportunities for warping sculptural form for emotive effect. Russian baroque picked up this inclination – minus much of its content – with the result that female figures are a relatively rare presence, until the onset of a more measured classical style under Catherine the Great in the late eighteenth century revived interest in less dramatic sculptural solutions. Rastrelli’s caryatids on the Stroganov Palace, half-wreathed in folds of fabric, precede this reversion to austerity, and seem to be sulking in advance – giving a sideways glance as they cover themselves up again, inwardly seething at the triumph of an upstart decency.

* * *

The second half of the 18th century and first decades of the nineteenth were a period in which neoclassicism was in the ascendant across Europe: Etienne-Louis Boullée and Claude-Nicolas Ledoux in France, Karl Friedrich Schinkel and Leo von Klenze in what is now Germany, Sir John Soane in England – these were the key figures of the general turn away from the effusions of baroque and rococo to classical simplicity. The desire to evoke the clarity of line of antiquity often involved quotation of its most famous monuments – Soane, for instance, installed caryatids modelled on those of the Erechtheion in the Lothbury Court of the Bank of England (1798-99) and Pitshanger Place, Ealing (1800-03); Henry William Inwood borrowed almost the entire Erechtheion for St Pancras New Church (1819-22), from beneath the porticos of which caryatids still contemplate the Euston Road. In 1838 Schinkel submitted a project – never built – for Orianda Castle in the Crimea, with a portico overlooking the Black Sea that was to be propped up, like the Erechtheion, by six caryatids.

Russia, too, had been swept by the neoclassical tide, but by the late 1830s was beginning to shift out of this register. Part of the reason for this surely lay in Russia’s inward turn under Nikolai I, whose education minister Sergei Uvarov had in 1833 declared the anti-enlightenment trio of ‘autocracy, orthodoxy and nationality’ to be the Empire’s official state philosophy. Western antiquity was an unsuitable idiom for such a regime, which supported such attempts to monumentalise traditional Russian church architecture as Konstantin Ton’s Church of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, a vast pile of a building that took forty years to build, was demolished by the Soviets, and rebuilt in the 1990s. St Isaac’s Cathedral in St Petersburg also took several decades to build, and is also a hulking presence in the city’s heart, but its vast golden dome is more Pantheon than onion. If its immense pillars and regular rectangular plan suggest a neoclassical parentage, its array of statuary – including angels sobbing at each of the building’s corners, seemingly readying to throw themselves off – marks the arrival of a more cumbersome imperial idiom.

This is what we would expect from its chronology, since it was built between 1817 and 1858 by Auguste Montferrand, a Frenchman who had served in Napoleon’s armies and briefly worked as an architect in Paris before emigrating to Russia in 1816. Here he rapidly became the star of the court, winning the prestigious commission for St Isaac’s, and later building the Aleksandrovskii column (1829-34), which Vladimir Nabokov described as ‘that enormous column with a black angel on its summit that obsessed, rather than adorned, the moon-flooded Palace Square’ (24) . Among Montferrand’s other significant works was the Demidov house at 43, Bolshaia Morskaia Street – two doors down from where the Nabokovs lived until 1917. Built from 1836 to 1840 for a wealthy industrialist, the Demidov house is remarkable above all for the caryatids and atlantes on its facade – two pairs of one male and one female figure, and two single male figures. There is a surprising degree of variety in their facial expressions and bearing, as the St Petersburg local historian Pavel Matveev observes (25) . A bearded elder bows his head pensively, while next to him a young woman gazes wanly at the street, seemingly oblivious of the weight she is carrying; the young man to the right of the coach entrance is similarly unfazed by his situation.

Montferrand was instrumental in Russia’s shift from neoclassicism to a more expressive but less coherent eclecticism at mid century. The Demidov house is an early example of this, since it borrows shamelessly from renaissance, neoclassical and baroque styles – with a bold flourish that just about holds the building’s various parts together. But as with Rastrelli, the atlantes and caryatids here lack the emotional charge of their central European sources. Indeed, the fact that indifference or equanimity could have crept into the expressions of these support figures testifies to an attenuation of the baroque’s intensity, its contortions of form seemingly softened by the fact of quotation, like a sharp remark losing its acerbity in the retelling.

The same process can be seen in the caryatids and atlantes that recur in the work of Montferrand’s pupil, Andrei Shtakenshneider, who executed a number of commissions in Petersburg the 1840s and 50s that were important exponents of Russian eclecticism – such as the Mariinskii Palace (1839-44), the Beloselskii-Belozerskii Palace (1846-48) and the Novomikhailovskii Palace (1857-61). Caryatids and atlantes feature both in interiors and on facades, perhaps nowhere more stridently than the Beloselskii-Belozerskii Palace, where enormous bearded atlantes survey Nevskii Prospekt and the Fontanka embankment perpendicular to it. But despite their imposing proportions, there is a certain decorative nonchalance to these atlantes, in contrast to the muscular seriousness of those guarding the portico of the New Hermitage, built by Leo von Klenze in 1844-49. (Lest anyone should be tempted by national stereotypes here, I should point out that the former were the work of a Danish sculptor, David Jensen, and the latter of a Russian, Aleksandr Terebenev.) There is a corresponding shift in the opposite direction for Shtakenshneider’s caryatids, since in his work they move from being rare decorative features of a sparse classicism to members of an ornamental army. They patrol the richly decorated upper tier of the facade of the Novo-Mikhailovskii Palace, their intimations of Greek or Roman orderliness subverted by the flurry of activity around them.

* * *

Shtakenshneider exemplifies a trend in Russian eclecticism that has been labelled neo-baroque, or a ‘second baroque’. Much of its momentum derived from a desire among St Petersburg’s elite patrons for palaces and mansions that would introduce more variety to the city – it had been described as a barracks town, the uniformity previously admired as expressing harmony and order now decried as being too rigid. But Montferrand’s client for the house at Bolshaia Morskaia was to become much more typical of Russian architectural patrons: Pavel Demidov was a member of the new elite that was being forged by the development of industrial capitalism in Russia.

The end of serfdom in 1861 gave a massive boost to social and economic processes already at work, loosening peasant ties to the land and creating a vast mobile workforce that was the human fuel for Russian industrial growth in the final third of the 19th century. Frantic urban growth accompanied industrial expansion, and St Petersburg, as the imperial capital and an important centre of industry, doubled in size between 1858 and 1890, when its population reached 954,000 (26) . The concomitant of this was, naturally, a vast increase in the need for housing, but there was also a rising demand for buildings with an unprecedented range of commercial functions. The new prominence of private capital, meanwhile, meant that the state and the nobility no longer commissioned the bulk of the city’s architecture. Striving to meet the requirements of an increasingly complicated society, and the demands of a whole new stratum of patrons, St Petersburg’s architects produced a rash of buildings in a bewildering array of styles.

In an early instalment of his Writer’s Diary, initially a column but from 1876 to 1881 a monthly publication in its own right, Dostoevsky gives a wonderful sketch of this stylistic confusion and its patrons, which I think is worth quoting at length:

...truly, I don’t know how to define our current architecture. We have some sort of disorderly style here which, however, entirely corresponds to the disorder of the present moment. We have a vast number of very tall (and above all, they must be tall) buildings for tenants, buildings with very thin walls, so they say, and cheaply built, with an amazing variety of styles of facades: we see Rastrelli and late rococo, doge balconies and windows which absolutely must be oeils-de-boeuf and absolutely must have five stories – and all this in one single facade. ‘Now then, my friend, you’ve got to put in a doge window for me; I’m no worse than one of them raggedy doges, am I? And you’ve got to built me five stories so’s I can take in tenants: a window is one thing, but I’ve got to have five stories; I can’t go wasting all my money on playthings.’ (27)

It’s in one of these thin-walled apartment buildings that Raskolnikov, the protagonist of Crime and Punishment (1865-6) lives – ‘all small apartments inside, and... inhabited by all sorts of working people – tailors, locksmiths, cooks, various Germans, girls living on their own, petty clerkdom, and so on.’ (28) Though not given a precise address in the novel, the description of the building’s location seems to fit either number 63 or 73 on the Griboedov Canal embankment; in sociological terms, pretty much any of the buildings along this stretch of the Canal, swerving too close to the seedy Haymarket district for respectability, could have housed dozens of Raskolnikovs. Between 1886 and 1888 the architect Pavel Siuzor built a five-storey apartment block on the embankment, at number 71. Looming over the passing pedestrian under each of the balconies that extend, for the width of a room, from the third to the fourth floors are a pair of atlantes, their necks bowed less under the weight of stone above them than out of perpetual nosiness; the slight angle at which their heads are turned gives you the impression they’re following passers-by with their eyes, approving or disapproving, sorting humanity into categories as it shuffles beneath them.

Pavel Siuzor was a prolific architect who specialised in the construction of large residential buildings, but is also known for some major commercial premises in central St Petersburg – notably the Singer building (1902-4) and the building of the Mutual Credit Society (1888-90). Around 80 of his buildings survive, itself a testament to his workrate; but he is also unusual in having been commissioned to build almost entire streets – of which Pushkinskaia Street (1874-78) is a significant example. Stretching perpendicular to Nevskii Prospekt, the city’s main artery, the street terminates in two buildings with balconies overlooking Nevskii; these are propped up by stern, bare-chested female atlantes, with decorative plasterwork taking over where their torsos finish. Male atlantes, preoccupied with passersby in much the same way as those at 71 Griboedov Canal embankment, hover each side of the two entrances to the Mutual Credit Society building. A pair of winged caryatids, Valkyrie variations on Rastrelli’s work on the Stroganov palace, stand either side of the large corner window of the Singer building, which is crowned by female figures propping up a globe. (29)

Male and female support figures recur with such frequency in Siuzor’s work that I initially wondered if the profusion I had remarked on could be put down to one man alone. But Matveev provides a chronological chart of the occurrence of caryatids and atlantes on the city’s facades that both dispels this idea, and suggests others. The vast bulk of these figures form a striking cluster in the late 1800s, peaking in the 1870s and 1880s (30). Siuzor was simply the most productive of a whole range of architects deploying these same devices: Liudvig Fontana, Aleksandr Erber, Vasilii Fomichev, Aleksandr V. Ivanov, Viktor Shreter, Aleskandr Kolb, Karl Rachau, Aleksandr E. Ivanov – all built structures featuring caryatids or atlantes in the 1870s and 1880s, and there are numerous occurrences in the decades that followed (31). The obvious question that arises is why such motifs should feature so insistently – what were the compulsions behind these decorative choices; what did they respond to, what demand did they meet in late imperial Russia’s economy of signs?

* * *

If Shtakenshneider represented a ‘second baroque’, by the 1870s Russian architecture had moved into another realm of eclecticism that Matveev labels a ‘third baroque’, characterised by the increasingly fragmentary and superficial nature of its ornamental devices (32). But where the frills of ‘second baroque’ were applied, with a cavalierish retro-chic, to buildings of three storeys at most, the ‘third baroque’ had to be stretched out across facades now five storeys in height and dozens of metres long. The change in decorative effect to which Matveev refers is underpinned by a fundamental shift in Russian architecture, which had since the 1860s begun to adopt industrial modes of production – standardisation, use of iron girders. These were quantitative developments that, following Marx’s dictum, became qualitative transformations in the decades that followed.

As Dostoevsky noted in his Diary, Russian architects of the 1870s responded to the demands of the new social conditions by recycling the styles of earlier epochs. But scrolls of plasterwork or urns were little more than token efforts at prettification now that the buildings they adorned were dramatically larger; these architects then increasingly turned to sculptural devices such as atlantes and caryatids, which would complement the new, enlarged urban scale. The use of elements from the stylistic vocabulary of the past is not peculiar to Russia – the late 19th century was one of a confused eclecticism across Europe, as architecture sought a formal means with which to respond to industrialising societies. The key difference between Russia and the rest of Europe lies in the fact that by the turn of the century, the latter had developed a set of responses to the industrial condition that would enable them to break out of previous artistic paradigms – Impressionism in painting, art nouveau in fine and applied arts – a process of formal liberation accelerated with the arrival of modernism. Russia joined in with this latter, vertiginous stage of Europe’s trajectory, but modernism in architecture didn’t arrive in fully fledged form until after the revolutions of 1917. Prior to that, the brief flowering of something like style moderne in St Petersburg had been submerged by a wave of retrospectivism, as architects recycled, again and again, the recyclings of the 1870s and 80s.

St Petersburg’s profusion of caryatids and atlantes is part of this stylistic dead-end, this inability to give new architectural form to a changing social structure. These larger than life-size human figures are a late 19th-century redeployment of a mid 19th-century revival of baroque forms, which were themselves a rephrasing of antiquity. And like images copied from copies of copies, the atlantes and caryatids of St Petersburg seem to have undergone a loss of tension compared to their sources; though they vary in posture and degree of contortion, they all reprise the curious detachment of Shtakenshneider’s bearded titans, and Montferrand’s ponderous figures on the Demidov house. But more than this, they have suffered a loss of signifying function, moving from epitomes of emotional torsion to wry quotations, and from there to increasingly empty repetitions. By the end of the 19th century, St Petersburg’s caryatids and atlantes embody neither paroxysms of passion nor antiquity’s narratives of punishment; they simply stand, eternally propping up balconies, servants of no master-metaphor.

* * *

St Petersburg’s caryatids and atlantes meet your gaze with blank, apathetic stares or stern expressions of seeming concentration. They lack the ideological impetus of the Peter the Great statue by Falconet or, later, Soviet images of Lenin or Stalin; and they lack the mythological resonance of the Greek deities scattered elsewhere in the city – from figures of Neptune signifying naval power to statues of Mercury totemically adorning the city’s late 19th-century banks. They seem to me to be above all the products of a culture that lacks the coherence, the consensus as to the meaning of signs and symbols, to produce allegory. One of their crucial features for me is the total lack of clarity as to what they are supposed to be looking at, or thinking about, and I think this stems from the fact that neither they, nor passers-by, inhabit the same semiotic universe. Trafalgar Square, for instance, is a network of monumental statements – here is Nelson, there the heroes of Indian campaigns, there and there the high commissions of overseas dominions – that would have reaffirmed to the average London pedestrian of the 19th century the solidity of the British empire. No such common cultural standpoint was available in Russia, however, which was marked not only by much more dramatic social stratification than other European societies of the time, but by much less cultural cohesion. The elite conversed in French but barely spoke Russian, while most of the peasantry could not read the only language they spoke. The country was being pulled in opposed directions by unflinching autocratic reaction and the vast rumblings of popular discontent.

Indeed, late imperial Russia was a country on the brink. The years prior to the First World War were filled with ominous portents: defeat in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5, revolution and peasant insurrection from 1905-6, one political assassination after another. Andrei Belyi’s novel Peterburg (1913) is saturated with these millennial tensions. Set during the unrest of 1905, the novel tracks a plot by the son of a government official to deliver a bomb to his father – the ticking of the bomb a literal incarnation of social and cultural pressures that build inexorably until they must erupt into revolution or apocalypse. Like Gogol’s and Dostoevsky’s, Belyi’s Petersburg is a place of phantasmagoric encounters and deceptions, drifting in and out of material existence, and like Thomas Mann’s Venice, it is a diseased city, with bacilli seething in the waters of its canals (33). Disease, bombs, fog and revolution have all staked their claim to St Petersburg, and constantly seem to be about to tear its very fabric apart between them.

But the city also seems willing to participate in its own destruction – its buildings dissipating into a cobweb of lines as soon as fog descends – or even bring it about. The narrator describes the atlantes and caryatids above its streets looking at the pedestrians with endless contempt, despairing of the monotony of the crowd below; they wish they had the strength to tear themselves from the buildings and, with an almighty roar, tumble to the ground in a cascade of stone shards (34). Prisoners of a society unable either to forestall or escape its disintegration, Belyi’s caryatids and atlantes have finally become part of a narrative; but is one of terminal decline, in which life is reduced to a deadening captivity, and liberation means annihilation.

* * *

My earlier explanation for the profusion of caryatids and atlantes in St Petersburg characterised them as the stylistic response to momentous social and economic shifts of a culture that was as yet unable to develop a new set of forms. But I think this still falls short of explaining their compulsive reappearance on the city’s facades. It’s true that these figures don’t embody any narrative that would have been immediately comprehensible to the city’s inhabitants, that there was no coherent ideological or allegorical set of meanings for them to refer to. But what about hidden or buried narratives, the repressed memories of the city?

I think an answer of sorts lies in St Petersburg’s origins. Like countless other major cities, St Petersburg has a mythical moment of birth – Peter the Great decreeing the foundation of his new capital as he surveyed the mouth of the Neva – and like several others, it has a myth linking its people with destiny: the city was designed, so the story goes, to drag a backward nation into the front rank of history. But what distinguishes St Petersburg from other cities is that where the latter point to a moment from which a single narrative thread unfurls, Petersburg’s myth of origins is inescapably dual. The sheer force by which Peter imposed his will on reality bore impressive results; but it also had horrific human consequences that have permanently shadowed Russians’ awareness of the city.

Peter’s project required an army of human labour ‘to drive piles into the marshes, hew and haul the timbers, drag the stones, clear the forests, level the hills, lay out the streets, build docks and wharves, erect the fortress, houses and shipyards, dig the canals’ (35). Some of the Swedish soldiers taken prisoner during the Great Northern War of 1700-1721 were put to work on the city, alongside Russian soldiers. But the overwhelming bulk of the workforce – stonecutters, carpenters and above all unskilled peasants – were drafted in every year from 1707 to 1725 in two shifts of 20,000 men each. These were not volunteers: they were conscripted from towns and rural areas across Russia and beyond, from Siberia and Finland and the Tatar realms, and taken to St Petersburg under armed guard (36). There they were supposed to be given a subsistence wage for six months, but often went unpaid. Moreover, since the city had no agricultural hinterland, and was far removed from the usual supply routes for commerce, basic goods and food were prohibitively expensive. ‘The hardships were frightful’, notes the historian Robert Massie:

Workers lived on damp ground in rough, crowded, filthy huts. Scurvy, dysentery, malaria and other diseases scythed them down in droves... The actual number who died building the city will never be known; in Peter’s day, it was estimated at 100,000. Later figures are much lower, perhaps 25,000 or 30,000, but no one disputes the grim saying that St Petersburg was ‘a city built on bones’. (37)

Massie gives no source for any of these figures, and I’ve been unable to track down a serious scholarly estimate of the casualties of St Petersburg’s construction – the lack of which is perhaps not surprising, given that those responsible for keeping records placed little value on the lives of peasants. Neither Tsarist nor Soviet authorities had much interest in shedding light on horrors long past – they had ongoing cruelties of their own to attend to, and besides, Peter had attained the sort of mythical status around which a benumbed silence gathers. The result is that assessments of the fatalities involved have tended to rely more on folkloric tradition than documentary sources; the notion of the ‘city built on bones’ may have significantly amplified the numbers involved.

But for now, let me venture a barely educated guess. According to the historian Richard Pipes, ‘Peter in no one year secured more than 20,000 men’ out of the 40,000 he had requested; desertion rates were, moreover, notoriously high (38). If we take this lower figure of 20,000 up to 1725, the year of Peter’s death, we get a conservative estimate of a total workforce of 360,000. The casualty rate for the diseases Massie mentions would obviously have been high at the outset of the 18th century, and all the more so in cramped conditions. This was certainly the case in the boats that were ferrying slaves across the Atlantic from the west coast of Africa at this time, and for which scholars have given death rates among slaves varying between 9 and 18 per cent in the early part of the 18th century (39). St Petersburg’s forced-labour construction sites pale into insignificance beside the airless slave-ships into which human beings were time and again pitilessly crammed, and I would never suggest that deaths occurred here at anything like the same frequency or genocidal magnitude. But the mortality rate for the crews of slave-ships – around 5 to 6 per cent – might be comparable (40). The historian Lindsey Hughes has observed that construction work only occurred during the spring and summer months, and that deaths from exposure would therefore have been unlikely (41). But we should also bear in mind that these were largely unskilled workers, so the number of accidents would have been much higher than for construction projects elsewhere. So, factoring in disease, ill-health due to malnutrition and workplace accidents, a casualty rate of between 3 and 5 per cent, or 1 in 33 and 1 in 20 respectively, wouldn’t be completely implausible. This makes for a total of between 10,800 and 18,000 deaths.

This reckoning is all the more grisly when the size of St Petersburg is borne in mind: by 1714, the Hanoverian ambassador to Russia reported the city as consisting of 50,000 homes, ‘ranging from palaces to hovels’ (42). The Russian historian Vasilii Kliuchevskii, writing in the late 19th century, observed that ‘it would be difficult to find anywhere in military history, a massacre which accounted for more men than St Petersburg’. If the 20th century rendered this comparison catastrophically obsolete, there can be no doubting the accuracy of Kliuchevskii’s pithy judgement: ‘Peter called his new capital “paradise”, but for the people it was a mass grave.’ (43)

I mentioned at the outset of this article St Petersburg’s peculiar capacity for shuttling between concretion and abstraction, which I implied was the result of the enormous symbolic charge the city carries, as the focal point of questions that continue to beset Russian culture – Russia’s relation to the west, human artifice versus nature, autocratic fiat versus organic development, and so on. But perhaps I ceded too much to literary mythologies of the city; perhaps what I took as a poignant ambiguity is something more akin to a traumatic disorder, through which St Petersburg’s inhabitants have sought to paper over the city’s origins in a Petrine Gulag. The cultural historian Katerina Clark has remarked that those who got entangled in the literary myth of the city’s material precarity chose to ignore the fact that St Petersburg was the heart of a thoroughly real empire – ‘the most insistent reality of a highly centralized state. To see it as a phantom-like mirage is to deny the kingdom of necessity.’ (44) Might a parallel denial of the vast death-toll of the city’s construction be responsible for the repeated motif of the city as a mathematical abstraction, a geometric tracery floating free of the bones on which it was built?

The dual myth of St Petersburg as a heroic achievement made at tragic cost suggests that the denial has never been successful – there has always been a tremor of unease behind every celebration of the city’s beauty. But what if this terrible knowledge not only lurked in the minds of the city’s inhabitants as myth, but also found formal expression in its very physical fabric? I’ve given a functional explanation for the recurrence of caryatids and atlantes in St Petersburg, rooted in architectural trends and social developments; but I’m not sure this could entirely explain the repetition of specifically these devices. It’s tempting to see the upraised arms of the atlantes of St Petersburg as symbolic reminders of the fact that the city was raised from a swamp. But there is also the possibility that these statues, these compulsive iterations of the human form, could provide an unacknowledged memorial to the scores of conscripted labourers who paid for Peter’s vision with their lives. The phantasmagoric city of Gogol and Dostoevsky was in touch with the uncanny not because of the fog or the white nights, but because it had always been inhabited by ghosts, its physical streets paralleled by an architecture of loss.

It’s this hidden narrative that I think St Petersburg’s atlantes and caryatids are part of, their recurrence not solely an inadequate stylistic response to social upheaval, but the formal figure through which the city’s architectonic unconscious expressed an enormous, irrevocable loss. They are a sculpturally encrypted memory or dream-image, guilt-laden, persistent, unshakeable. From Montferrand to Shtakenshneider to Siuzor, and on and on until the cataclysmic awakening of 1917, St Petersburg had the same recurrent dream, in which the unnumbered and unnamed victims of its birth-agonies wore the masks of ancient strongmen and dancers.

Tony Wood lives in London and works for the New Left Review.

1. Lindsey Hughes, Russia in the Age of Peter the Great, New Haven and London 1998, pp. 211-2. ^
2. Marquis de Custine, Lettres de Russie, Paris 1975, pp. 164, 96.^
3. James Stevens Curl, Oxford Dictionary of Architecture, Oxford 1999, p. 132-3.^
4. Vitruvius, The Ten Books on Architecture, translated by Ingrid Rowland, commentary and illustrations by Thomas Noble Howe, Cambridge 1999, p. 22.^
5. Théophile Homolle, ‘L’origine des caryatides’, Revue archéologique, series 5, no. 5, January-June 1917, p. 66. The historical account in the preceding paragraph largely derives from pp. 10-14 of this text.^
6. Joseph Rykwert, The Dancing Column. On Order in Architecture, Cambridge, MA 1996, p. 135.^
7. Homolle, ‘L’origine des caryatides’, p. 8.^
8. Vitruvius, Ten Books on Architecture, p. 22; see also commentary, p. 136.^
9. Rykwert, Dancing Column, p. 131.^
10. Curl, Oxford Dictionary of Architecture, p. 714; Evamaria Schmidt, Geschichte der Karyatide, Würzburg 1982, p. 146.^
11. Schmidt, Geschichte der Karyatide, pp. 149-151. ^
12. Germain Bazin, Baroque and Rococo, London 1964, reprinted 1996, pp. 105-6.^
13. Bazin, Baroque and Rococo, p. 107.^
14. Bazin, Baroque and Rococo, p. 229.^
15. Robert Harbison, Reflections on Baroque, London 2000, p. 1.^
16. Harbison, Reflections on Baroque, pp. 23-24.^
17. Harbison, Reflections on Baroque, pp. 57.^
18. Harbison, Reflections on Baroque, pp. 34.^
19. William Brumfield, A History of Russian Architecture, Cambridge 1993, p. 239.^
20. Brumfield, History of Russian Architecture, p. 237.^
21. Pavel Matveev, Atlanty i kariatidy Peterburga, St Petersburg 2001, p. 16. I had been thinking of writing this article for a while when I found this crisp and informative book, to which I must acknowledge an enormous debt, since without it I would simply have carried on thinking indefinitely.^
22. Brumfield, History of Russian Architecture, p. 239.^
23. Boris Vipper, Arkhitektura russkogo barokko, Moscow 1978, p. 80; cited in Brumfield, History of Russian Architecture, p. 239.^
24. Vladimir Nabokov, Speak, Memory, London 1967, reprinted 2000, p. 183. ^
25. Matveev, Atlanty i kariatidy Peterburga, p. 52.^
26. Brumfield, History of Russian Architecture, p. 410.^
27. Fedor Dostoevsky, A Writer’s Diary, Volume I: 1873-1876, London 1994, p. 256.^
28. Fedor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, London 1993, p. 6.^
29. Details of Siuzor’s career are from V. G. Isachenko, ‘Pavel Siuzor (1844-1919)’, in Isachenko, Artemeva, Prokhvatilova, Zarubina, eds, Zodchie Sankt-Peterburga, XIX – nachalo XX veka, Sankt Peterburg 1998, pp. 501-17.^
30. Matveev, Atlanty i kariatidy Peterburga, p. 27.^
31. Matveev, Atlanty i kariatidy Peterburga, passim.^
32. Matveev, Atlanty i kariatidy Peterburga, p. 69.^
33. Katerina Clark, Petersburg: Crucible of Cultural Revolution, Cambridge, MA 1995, pp. 8-9.^
34. Andrei Belyi, Peterburg [1913], Paris 1994, pp. 299-300.^
35. Robert Massie, Peter the Great: His Life and World, London 1981, p. 360.^
36. Lindsey Hughes, Russia in the Age of Peter the Great, New Haven and London 1998, p. 213.^
37. Massie, Peter the Great, p. 360.^
38. Richard Pipes, Russia under the Old Regime, [second edition] London 1992, p. 127.^
39. Robin Blackburn, The Making of New World Slavery: From the Modern to the Baroque, 1492-1800, London 1997, p. 392. Blackburn gives a mortality rate of 13 per cent for French slave-ships, 17 for Dutch, and around 9 for English at mid-century.^
40. Blackburn, Making of New World Slavery, p. 441.^
41. Lindsey Hughes, personal communication, 15 April 2003.^
42. Friedrich Christian Weber, cited in Hughes, Russia in the Age of Peter the Great, p. 216.^
43. Vasily Kliuchevskii, Peter the Great, Boston 1958, reprinted 1984, pp. 154-55.^
44. Clark, Petersburg, p. 7.^


Image at top of page taken from this visual tribute to St Petersburg

things 17-18, Spring 2004

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