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Construction of the Kunstkammer

"Expressed their special admiration..."

Many of Peter's contemporaries did not realize that Peter was laying the foundations of museum studies and the domestic sciences in Russia. Even fewer people understood the tsar's wish to build a special edifice to accommodate the Kunstkammer's collections on the spit of Vasilievsky Island (at that time it was called Preobrazhensky Island).

This island was of great significance to the tsar. It was here that he intended to place the center of his new capital. He also intended to place the Academy, the Library and the Museum next to the government buildings.

Once, while walking along a wild bank of the Neva River covered with trees, Peter noticed an unusual pine-tree. Its trunk was deformed by a semicircular branch, which had grown into it like the handle of a huge barn lock. "What a monster of a tree!" exclaimed Peter in amazement. He then ordered the tree cut down, the part of the trunk with the ingrown branch preserved, and that a new building for the future museum be constructed in its place. The size of the planned building was enormous: it was to be about one hundred meters long and fifteen meters wide. This was the first monumental construction to be erected on the spit of Vasilievsky Island, which in those days was quite deserted. Even now it is one of the rare examples of Russian architecture of the first quarter of the18th century to have survived in a comparatively good state.

The name Kunstkammer, so well-known and customary to the modern ear, was not the building's original name. First it was called the "Chambers of the St. Petersburg Academy of Sciences, Library and Kunstkammer". Many designs, cross-section drawings and blue-prints of the building bearing that name and dating back to 1737-1741, have survived to our day. Later the Library and the Observatory split off, followed by several other museums, while most of the space was filled with ethnographic objects.

The general architectural design of the building was quite in line with the baroque style popular in Peter's day. A slim and well-proportioned central tower accommodated an anatomical theater (located on the first floor) and an observatory (the second floor). The tower joined two symmetrical wings: the western wing which housed the Library, and the eastern one intended for the Kunstkammer.

The halls were mainly arranged according to the fashionable principle of enfilades or suites of rooms. The interior halls were linked together by stairways and surrounding galleries on all floors. On the second and third floors spacious and well-illuminated halls occupied most of the space; the side wings accommodated various offices. New and quite fashionable kinds of interior decoration widely used in the building included sculptures, bas-reliefs, and medallions depicting Roman emperors and ancient philosophers. Thus history and the other sciences made their way to Russian society with the help of the artistic idiom. Peter wanted the "ancient Greek men of science" to be known in Russia; he wanted his fellow-citizens to learn the classical heritage.

According to Peter's plan, the chambers were to symbolize ideas of a universal all-embracing knowledge. This meant a diversion from the previous orientation toward the cosmological approach typical for rarity cabinets of the Renaissance period.

Building started in 1718. Construction was supervised by the architect Mattarnovy, who has always been considered the building's author. However, well-known historian Igor Grabar doubted his authorship and this opinion has been echoed by other historical researchers. In fact, Mattarnovy had worked for the talented architect Andreas Schluter, who was quite experienced in constructing similar buildings in Berlin, and could have used his ideas. After Mattarnovy died and until 1734 construction work was directed by other architects, including Nicolaus-Friedrich Harbel, Gaetano Chiaveri and Mikhail Zemtsov.

The building was constructed slowly, with long breaks. Peter rushed the builders, went into the smallest details and often paid for construction out of his own pocket. But he was not destined to see the completion of the Kunstkammer. By the beginning of 1725, when Peter died, only the walls had been erected. The tower and the interior decoration of the Kunstkammer were completed only after his death. By 1726 this work had not yet been finished, but the collection was taken from the Kikin Mansion and moved into the building. This monumental building entirely serving the purposes of enlightenment and was unique in its way. Europe had never seen anything of the kind. So it is not surprising that in the year 1726 a French visitor called it "one of the most excellent edifices of its type in Europe". Indeed, it was so thoroughly designed and meticulously built that it has survived to the present day without requiring any serious reconstruction or renovation work.

The opening of the Kunstkammer together with the Library was a great event in the life of both the city and the country as a whole. This event was celebrated in an appropriately ceremonial manner. Important guests were invited over to the museum, critically inspected it and passed their verdict: that everything there was in perfect order, after which they "expressed their special admiration" for the work done.

Soon the Kunstkammer became one of the greatest attractions of the new capital and of all Russia. Both foreign and Russian nobles, diplomats, honored guests and visitors to the capital thought it mandatory to pay a visit to the first Russian museum, where, according to testimonies of contemporaries, there were always many people "of all ranks and titles". A special ferry was set up to bring high ranking guests to the island, complete with boats and a good pier, while ordinary people crossed the river as best they could. All were amazed and fascinated by the "rare natural and artistic objects", which were displayed in great abundance at the Kunstkammer. The guests were captivated by skillfully manufactured gold ornaments found in burial mounds of "wild Siberia"; iron ore and sand gold; the peculiar costumes of inhabitants of the far-away Kuril islands, not to mention other far reaches of the planet, and many other rare or wondrous things.