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Peter the Great’s visit to France to be marked by exhibition at Versailles

From 30 May – 24 September 2017, Versailles will mark 300 years since the Russian Tsar Peter I’s trip to France, with an exhibition in the Palace’s Grand Trianon. It will be the tercentenary of the Tsar’s visit to Paris, where he was received at the court of the seven-year-old Louis XV. To be hosted in partnership with the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg and the Palace of Versailles, it will contain an array of objects, including paintings, sculpture, books and engravings, some of which are from the Tsar’s personal collection.

Portrait of Tsar Peter I of Russia, Jean-Marc Nattier [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Tsar was touring Europe and was a man known for being inquisitive – his famous ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ (today’s Kunstkamera, or Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography in St Petersburg) is proof of this particular characteristic – and whilst he was in Paris, he sought out appropriate places to satisfy his scientific interests, including watching dental and ocular demonstrations and operations. He was himself already forming his own ideas about the imperial westernization of Russia, famously building the city of St Petersburg on swampy marshland, imposing his absolutist will in wanting to raise a city in a place that was geographically unsuitable – much as the young Louis XIV did when he chose the site for his Palace of Versailles – to literally rule over nature and open ‘a window’ onto Europe and onto the sea.

Perhaps it is noteworthy that he visited Paris a mere two years after the death of Louis XIV. From around 1714, work had already begun on the building of his early baroque residence at Peterhof outside St Petersburg, a notable feature being its famous water jets, fountains and sculptures – water being a key feature in Le Notre’s gardens at Versailles, although there was never enough of it, so that fountains had to be turned on and off for the French King’s walks. Indeed, the famous ‘Machine of Marly’ was proof of how Louis XIV tried to get around this hydraulic problem by pumping water from the Seine to Versailles; in fact, the Grand Cascade at Peterhof is based on the one built for Louis XIV at Marly – likewise, the grounds at Peterhof have a separate little palace also called Marly, constructed for the Tsar’s guests. Peter’s palace at Peterhof [Peter’s Court] already contained the little summer palace of Monplaisir [My Pleasure] begun in 1714, and Peterhof would come to be called the ‘Russian Versailles’ in its own right. Fittingly, Peterhof was designed by the French architect Jean-Baptiste Le Blond, and although Peter’s daughter Tsarina Elizabeth added to her father’s palace in her own reign, it is still recognised primarily as Peter’s palace. Peterhof has a distinctly maritime feel about it, something which the Tsar deliberately cultivated in the design and decoration of the palace, as well as with the aptly-named Marine Canal that opened out onto to the Gulf of Finland.

The Tsar landed at Dunkirk and first spent time in Calais, moving onto Amiens and finally arriving in Paris on 7 May 1717. He was supposed to stay in the Louvre, where one of Louis XIV’s beds had been prepared there for him. The meeting with the child Louis XV was both familiar and remarkable, with the Russian Tsar picking up the boy king in his arms. Peter would appear to have been able to understand French, although he came with an interpreter. Whilst in Paris, he set the trail for many modern tourists, visiting the Tuileries gardens, the Gobelin manufacture as well as the Observatory.

Fittingly, both Peterhof and Versailles are designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites and the relationships, histories and inspirations which link the two residences will no doubt be explored in the objects that will feature in this exhibition. It will be held in the Grand Trianon, which Peter himself visited whilst at Versailles.

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