The Domain of Water. To the 300th anniversary of the Peterhof fountain system

In August 1723, Emperor Peter the Great showed his guests Peterhof for the first time. The fountains impressed the audience the most: the entire ensemble of the “playing waters” of the imperial residence worked without a single pump and with no interruptions. Peterhof, as the fountain capital, retains its exceptional character to this day. It is not for nothing that in 1990, as part of the object Historic Center of Saint Petersburg and Related Groups of Monuments, it was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List.

The first drop 

Peterhof is the only royal residence on the seashore in the world. Its history is closely connected with the name of the first Russian emperor. With the construction of Peterhof, Peter the Great wanted to consolidate his claims on the Baltic Sea coast. At the same time, palaces and parks had to meet his personal ideas of beauty and grandeur. One of the emperor’s ideas from the very beginning was the desire to surpass Versailles. The water in the fountains of Versailles was supplied with pumps working on and off to save it. When the French monarch went into the garden, the pump started working. As soon as the king turned into another alley and lost sight of the fountain, the pump was stopped, and the fountain drained. When designing the “water plan” for Peterhof, French architect Jean-Baptiste Alexandre Le Blond offered Peter the Great a traditional pumping system, but the Russian emperor was adamant: the fountains of Peterhof should always work. Back then, another option to “revive” fountains was to supply water by gravity due to the height difference. Italy was famous for such fountains, but they were much smaller than the project conceived by Peter.

However, geography itself was on the side of the emperor. Legend has it that Peter the Great personally discovered numerous springs on the Ropsha Heights 20 km from Peterhof. They became the supply for fountains and ponds of the residence. Vasily Tuvolkov, a talented hydraulic engineer, designed a fountain conduit that was fed from underground springs and absorbed water from many streams and creeks on its way to Peterhof. The natural slope guaranteed a sufficient volume of water and the power of the flow. Soldiers of the adjacent garrisons — more than two thousand people — worked on the construction of the canal. Although the water pipeline was laid in very difficult conditions of a swampy area, it was managed in a year.

The trial start of the water took place in 1721, and in the summer of 1723 Peter the Great solemnly opened his residence for guests. The visitors were so surprised that they were ready to spend the night in the park to see where the cunning tsar hid the pumps.

The Peterhof fountain aqueduct is a unique monument of the 18th–19th centuries. It is estimated that 20% of pipes belong to the 18th century; 70%, to the 19th; and only 10% of pipes were laid in the 20th century. The water feeding the fountains goes into the Gulf of Finland.

Reading the fountains

The Peterhof fountain system is not only an engineering masterpiece but also a real encyclopedia of symbols. The Grand Cascade, the grandest fountain structure of the Peterhof ensemble, is decorated with bronze gilded statues and bas-reliefs, which in the 18th century were read as allegories. The victory over the Swedes is glorified by the sculpture Perseus with the Head of Medusa: if you look closely, then in the face of the defeated Medusa you can guess the portrait resemblance to Charles XII of Sweden. The allegory of Russia’s triumph in the struggle for the Baltic Sea is also represented by the fountain A Triton Tearing Apart the Jaws of a Sea-Monster: Triton personifies the young Russian navy, the sea monster means the fleet of Charles XII, and four turtles, scattering in fear in different directions, are reminiscent of the Swedish king’s infidel allies. The most famous fountain of Peterhof Samson Tearing Apart the Jaws of the Lion appeared after Peter’s death in honor of the 25th anniversary of the Battle of Poltava. The biblical character was not chosen by chance — the decisive battle of the Great Northern War took place on June 27, 1709, on the memorial day of Sampsonius the Pilgrim. The Pyramid fountain is nothing but a foaming obelisk in honor of the victory in the Great Northern War. This is the most high-water fountain in Peterhof — it jets out 100 liters of water per second. The magnificent fountain Sheaf in the language of allegories of the 18th century speaks of the power and prosperity of the Russian Empire. There is evidence that Italian architect Nicola Michetti built the Sheaf according to a drawing of Peter the Great himself that has not reached us. No wonder this fountain rises up in front of Monplaisir Palace — the emperor’s favorite summer palace.

The Peterhof fountain maintenance team consists of 32 employees: repairmen, inspectors, and technicians. They carefully monitor that the water jets in each fountain do not deviate from the specified power and height parameters. Such an approach is a must since the fountains of Peterhof are one of the most photographed objects in the world.

Peter’s Yard

Some fountains of Peterhof really remember the hand of Peter the Great. For example, the emperor designed nozzles for the Menager fountains at the foot of the Golden Hill cascade. Inside the 30 cm diameter pipe, at the outlet of the water jet, an inverted copper cone is embedded. The water, by flowing around the cone, emerges under a high pressure through a narrow circular gap, forming a hollow column, producing an impression of extraordinary power. Trick-fountains are also part of Peter’s plan. For example, the trick-fountain Water Road was first tested already in 1721: part of the alley was suddenly blocked by a water arch of three hundred jets, and all the walkers turned out to be wet from head to toe. Many found the fun “grossly offensive,” and the fountain was closed. However, in 2001, the Water Road was restored according to the preserved drawings. However, now, it is turned on strictly according to the schedule. An echo of the Petrine era is the funny fountain Favorite. The emperor wanted to create a series of “fable” fountains based on the plots of Aesop’s fables, but only one managed to be realized: the four ducks are moving in a circle in a deep pool, and the dog Favoritka (Favorite) is trying to catch them. In the chamber under the fountain pool, there is a water wheel that rotates under the action of falling water and sets the figures in motion.

From dust to eternity

The Peterhof ensemble grew and gained brilliance thanks to the successors of Peter the Great: sculptures originally cast from lead were replaced with bronze gilded copies, the surface of the cascades was covered with marble, and new objects appeared instead of the dilapidated ones. The water-bearing system grew together with the park: wooden pipes of Peter’s time were replaced with pipes made of cast iron. The carefully guarded Peterhof was threatened only once — during the Great Patriotic War of 1941–1945. The museum property was evacuated in 1941, but it was not so easy to take out large sculptures. The Peterhof employees buried many objects in the ground in the territory of the park. This desperate decision helped save the fountain sculptures. For example, although only one duck survived from the fountain Favorite, the original coloring remained on it, which allowed restorers to recreate the fountain in its original appearance.

The invaders took the most valuable exhibits to Germany. The fate of the fountain Neptune is amazing: it was made in the 17th century in Nuremberg, bought by Emperor Paul I for Peterhof in 1797, taken back to Nuremberg with the German echelon in 1941, and finally safely returned to Peterhof after the war. But not every fountain was so lucky. The famous Samson was lost during the war. Sculptor Vasily Simonov and his assistant Nikolay Mikhaylov recreated the monument based on archival data and pre-war photographs. On September 7, 1947, a 5-ton giant solemnly drove through the streets of Saint Petersburg and returned to its place. A week later, the fountain was launched to the sound of fanfare and illumination with fireworks. Today, Samson attracts visitors even in the winter season when the fountains “sleep.” The museum staff came up with the idea to equip the Grand Cascade with illumination, and the figure of the hero shines in the winter twilight with golden light, like the eternally living heart of Peterhof.

From century to century, Peterhof embodies the audacious idea of the Russian paradise, for the creation of which man tamed the element of water. As noted by famous artist Alexandre Benois: “Peterhof seemed to be born from the foam of the sea, as if brought to life by the command of a powerful sea king…”

Tatiana Borisova