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Better than Versailles: Peterhof fountains are 300 years old

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Better than Versailles: Peterhof fountains are 300 years old

21.08.2021

Svetlana Smetanina

Peterhof, Lower Park. Photo credit: Florstein / commons.wikimedia.org

On August 19, 1721, the fountains and cascades in the Peterhof Palace and Park Ensemble were set to work. This unique monument of water-engineering art has been globally considered unsurpassed for 300 years: 40 kilometers of water channels, 147 running fountains that operate without a single pump due to the natural flow of water. The entire system is so perfect that it has been preserved virtually intact, and 70% of the pipes have been in operation since the 19th century.

Even those who have never been to Peterhof probably know its main symbol - the famous cascading fountains in the park in front of the palace. It is no coincidence that this complex is included in the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage List - there is definitely no other such place in the world.

The end of August will mark the 300th anniversary since the fountains were set to operate for the first time. And shortly before the remarkable event - August 19 (August 8, O.S.) - Peter the Great received the news that the fountain water pipe with a length of 24 kilometers was completed. The Tsar personally went to Peterhof and opened the water flow in the new pipeline with a gavelock. And the next day there was a grand opening of the fountains. Peter the Great invited many foreign guests for that occasion.

Foreigners could not believe their eyes - such a water-engineering miracle was possible in Russia. Furthermore, it was created under the supervision of the Russian engineer Vasily Tuvolkov. Some of the guests even stayed up all night waiting for the water in the fountains to stop flowing. But the water wouldn't run out. The reason behind that was simple: there was not a single water pump in the unique complex. The water extravaganza happened naturally due to the water flowing under gravity as a result of the elevation difference.

And this whole story began seven years earlier. In 1714, to celebrate the victory of the Russian fleet over the Swedes at the Battle of Gangut, Peter the Great decided to build a summer residence that would surpass in scale and that existed at that time in Europe. Back then, the palace of the French king in Versailles was considered the most luxurious residence. It had a huge park decorated with many fountains. At that time, the fountains were an incredible luxury that only the crowned heads could afford – it was extremely expensive to install and maintain them. Nevertheless, the nobility had entertainment in great style: what could be more beautiful and romantic than a walk in the park with fountains on a summer day?

Versailles. Photo credit: artmaki.su

Peter the Great went down in history as a tsar who wanted to learn and experience foreign wisdom by himself. So he went abroad to learn the fountain business and took young but educated Tuvolkov with him. The latter would become the first Russian hydraulic engineer. Over the course of several years, the high-ranking delegation visited the most diverse European parks with fountains. In 1717 they came to the famous Versailles. Back then the Versailles Park featured 1,400 fountains - an incredible number! However, only 14 of them could operate at the same time and not very long because the water in the reservoir finished, and it was necessary to pump it up.

Peter the Great appreciated this French trick and decided to surpass Louis XIV by arranging 140 fountains that could operate simultaneously in his park. At first, Strelna was chosen for this purpose. Soon it became clear that the water had to be elevated by 10 meters to ensure round-the-clock operation of fountains. But then the closest neighboring locations with the area of dozens of square kilometers would be flooded. And the construction would have been unreasonably expensive.

Peterhof. Photo credit: juliacasado1 / pixabay.com

Then it was decided to build the Russian Versailles in Peterhof (meaning the Peter's Court), where there was a natural elevation difference of 36 meters. Peter the Great was the one who made drawings of the first channels through which water was to flow to the palace and even designed an underground passage from the Grotto of the Grand Cascade to the palace (this underground passage still exists). However, it was necessary to invite foreign specialists from France, for instance, to finalize this idea. It was required to dig a channel 23 kilometers long and 3 meters deep - an incredibly challenging task for those times. 2,000 people were engaged in its performance.

Peter the Great was also the one who contemplated symbolic figures to decorate the fountains. For example, originally it was planned to install the statue of Hercules defeating the Lernaean Hydra instead of Samson tearing the jaws of the lion. But that fountain was not installed during the life of Peter the Great. Empress Anna Ioannovna got her hands on it. In 1734 the country was preparing to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Battle of Poltava, in which Russia had defeated the Swedes. And the best gift for the memorable date was a new fountain in Peterhof Park. The statue of Samson appeared in honor of Christian saint Samson (the Battle of Poltava had taken place on his commemoration day). And the lion was a well-known symbol of Sweden.

Photo credit: piqsels.com

This famous fountain, which became a symbol of Peterhof, was damaged the most during the German occupation. The Grand Cascade turned into a pile of ruins, and the statue of Samson and three other statues were stolen by Nazi troops. Nevertheless, as soon as the Great Patriotic War ended, the restoration works started. The archival documents and photographs were used, and the magnificent ensemble of the Grand Cascade was brought back to life by the efforts of restorers by 1956.

It is kind of amazing that 70% of the pipes that supply water to the fountains have been preserved almost since the time of Catherine the Great. The first pipes for fountains were made of oak and larch. The joints were sealed with leather and resin, but they required regular repairs. And Catherine the Great, following the advice of engineers, instructed the factories in the Urals to cast pipes for fountains rather than cannons, as they used to. Experts assure that most of those pipes are still in service. This year, some of the pipes approaching the Grand Cascade and the Samson Fountain have been restored with accurate application of historical technology.

Today, the Peterhof Park Ensemble is one of the magnets for tourists in Russia. Just look at the list of the names of the fountains, which alone says a lot: Adam and Eve, Neptune, Sun, Triton, Favorite, Roman Fountains, Chess Mountain, Lion Cascade, Crackers. Every year, the fountains season opening in Peterhof Park becomes a real cultural and festive event bringing together many people from around the world.

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