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Legends of Alexander’s Column
Back in Soviet times Moscow and Leningrad published very similar book series in terms of subject matter, volume, size and low prices. The Moscow series was titled The Biography of the Moscow House (later supplemented with The Biography of the Moscow Monument) and I don’t remember the title of the Leningrad series. Connoisseurs described it as “black” by the color of the cover. Both were full with most curious facts related to this or that house, but only facts, with mystique or legends being then in disfavor. So why not making up for this deficiency with small books telling some bizarre stories related to various manors or monuments?
Nature abhors a vacuum
The book about one of St. Petersburg’s emblems – Alexander’s Column in the Palace square – could be rather absorbing. The monument was unveiled 180 years ago, on September 11, 1834 (August 30, according to the Julian calendar), on the day of carrying over the relic of saint and faithful Prince Alexander Nevsky.
Guides routinely inform tourists that the height of the landmark designed by Auguste Montferrand is 47.5 meters, the height of the column itself is 25.6 meters and the Angel’s figure is 4.5-meter high. The weight of the entire edifice is 704 tons, the column being the world’s tallest among monolithic pillars, etc. They add in the end: “And set up on the column’s summit is the life-sized figure of the Angel…”
This is one of the most well-known jokes about the edifice that immortalized the victory in the Patriotic War of 1812. Initially they planned a monument to Peter the Great by Rastrelli Senior on this spot, with foundation piles for that monument discovered during the preparatory works. As for the Angel, it was sculpted by Orlovsky.
Yet inclusion of the new edifice in the city folklore began straight away. It’s quite natural that someone, contemplating the tall figure of Nicholas I at the column’s inauguration ceremony, dropped a short phrase: “Pillar’s pillar to the pillar”. In other words, a monument erected by Nicholas I in honor of Alexander I. Let’s note in passing, how the two capitals honored the memory of “the Blessed”: the northern capital – via a sheer military monument, the First capital – by a public garden near the Kremlin walls.
What is Rosneft going to do about it?
And certainly among the first to appear was the legend that the granite colossus would tumble down beaten by the first strong blast of wind. The column is known to be held in place under its own 600-ton weight. Many great sculptors had to beat off similar temptations: Filippo Brunelleschi and Matvey Kazakov had to personally prove the durability of the domes they designed and wrought. Montferrand had no need to climb to the top: he just walked his little dog right under the column every morning till the day of his death…
Among the first was also the version that Alexander’s Column was made of waste, so to say, that is, it was ostensibly one of the “redundant” columns of St. Isaac Cathedral, placed on the pedestal. It did not even occur to anybody, what was apparent even to the naked eye: that the maximum height of the Cathedral’s columns is only 17 meters and they weigh five times less.
It is a known fact that a chest with 105 coins minted in commemoration of the victory in the Patriotic War of 1812 was placed under the foundation, as well as a platinum medal depicting Alexander’s Column, the project original, so to say. Did Montferrand foresee the revolutionary storm? True, nobody in the Northern Palmira wanted to repeat the experience of Gustave Courbet, at whose suggestion La Colonne Vendome was destroyed in Paris. In the “fiercest years” the Angel was just covered with veneer sheets. In times of perestroika a lot was written in St. Petersburg press that originally it was proposed to install either Lenin’s statue or Stalin’s bust on the acme of the Column, but these versions should rather be considered as latest legends.
… As for the casket with coins, the imagination of local men of the street immediately transformed it into a box of choicest champagne. Again nobody recalled a simple truth that in accordance with the wine-making rules, champagne should not be stored too long. At the end of the XX century, pursuant to technological progress, a legend was born that a huge oil field ostensibly lies under the Palace square (!), with Alexander’s Column being nothing else than a huge stop-gap and no sooner than the column is removed, than a hydrocarbon fountain would gush forth right in front of the Winter Palace. What is Rosneft going to do about it?
Up the winding stairs
In the recollections of the French ambassador stationed in the Petersburg of those days there is a mention of the alleged original intention of Montferrand to carve out narrow winding stairs within the column to assure access to its top tier. This gave rise to the rumor that the columns is hollow. This folklore is mere anecdotal: both Montferrand who was a talented architect and good engineer, and the Emperor, also an engineer by education, were well aware of the fact that in this case the column’s lifetime would be short, especially in St. Petersburg’s climate…
The most popular legend, though, was that the facial features of the four-meter angel on top of the column were made resembling those of Emperor Alexander I. What can we say to that? Unlike many other viewing sites of the northern capital, there are no look-sees or spyglasses in the Palace square. Once I used a strong German optical device to examine the Angel and could see that, contrary to the church canons, a female breast can be discerned under its garments (doubters should better see respective Internet sites with magnified images). And secondly, the Angel’s features have no resemblance of Alexander’s features. It comes out that more correct is the version that Orlovsky sculpted the face of the heavenly messenger using as a model the face of poetess Elizaveta Kulman who was very young at the time of her death…
New times give birth to new songs. Quite preposterous was the hypothesis that flashed in the news reel of the late 20th century that instead of being carved out of a whole lump of Finnish granite that caught the eye of Montferrand at one of the quarries, Alexander’s Column was pieced together from close-fitted stone blocks.
And the recently developed custom should be taken more seriously. The bridegroom should carry his bride in his hands round the Column as many times as the number of children they would like to have. This would be a curious case for Dr. Freud and his disciples.
In the meantime all those legends and traditions, however irresistible, are not binding to anything serious action, unlike the austere reality that probably lacks fascination, with painstaking efforts to restore the monument’s fence being part of it: however hard the vigilant guards of the Hermitage (with the Column being on its balance sheet) watched over the bronze eagles on the fence, these go on vanishing. Most of the eagles disappeared in the years, when the square was turned into an ice rink.
Many chapters of the column’s real history are as exciting as the legends. Thus, its hoisting took less than a couple of hours owing to a special mechanism devised by Agustin Betancourt. Curiously enough, the monument created by the French architect to commemorate the victory of the Russian army over his compatriots was lifted, courtesy to the design genius of his namesake, the Russified Spaniard…
And when the Column was recently restored, almost 200 years after it had been erected, the architect’s original intent was realized, as the cracked brick abacus was replaced with a granite one.
No doubt this restoration will one day become a legend as well.
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