Published: June 25, 2014 (Issue # 1817)
The Bronze Horseman, the famous statue of Peter the Great immortalized by Pushkin and which stands sentinel on the southern shore of the Neva, is one of the most recognized symbols of the city. It is considered to be a masterpiece, an imposing edifice symbolizing the power of autocratic rule; a masterpiece its creator would never see finished.
In the 1760s, at the beginning of the reign of Catherine II, better known in the Western world as Catherine the Great, the Empress wanted to build a monument that physically expressed the monarch’s bond to the lineage of Russia’s great rulers, despite her German heritage. Yet she did not believe any artist in Russia was capable of taking the lead on such a project, so she asked her ambassador in Paris to find someone willing to work for the right price.
Through the Enlightment philosopher Denis Diderot, the ambassador was introduced to Etienne Maurice Falconet, the director of a sculpture workshop in a French porcelain factory who was renowned for his small figures but had never built anything on the large scale Catherine wanted. He was not a vastly talented sculptor but he was competent and, more importantly, willing to work for less than what more accomplished artists demanded. He accepted the Empress’ offer and moved to St. Petersburg in 1766 to begin his work.
After three years of work, an incomplete model of the statue was revealed to the public to mixed reactions. Some did not understand why there was a serpent beneath the horse’s hooves and they told Falconet he should remove it, not understanding that the serpent was essential to the statue’s ability to stand. A finished model was presented a year later to yet more criticism. Some claimed that Peter looked more like a Roman emperor than a Russian tsar because of the clothes he wore. Catherine had to reassure her obsequious sculptor, telling him in a letter, “…you can’t please everybody.”
Despite her initial assurances, Catherine grew more and more frustrated as the project dragged on. Once the base, a 1,500-ton boulder discovered in Finnish Karelia, was put in place, it took another four years to both find a casting master and to construct the mold for the statue. There were a series of failures during the casting and as time wore on and the cost rose, relations between Falconet and Catherine, who could not understand why there were such delays, frayed. Eventually, Catherine grew tired of her sculptor and asked for two Italian architects, telling the man in charge of hiring them that, “You will choose honest and reasonable people, not dreamers like Falconet; [I want] people who walk on the earth, not in the air.”
After 12 years, with the project still unfinished and Falconet tired of the constant criticism and the icy demeanor of the Empress, the sculptor asked Catherine for permission to leave Russia. She agreed and paid him the money he was due, but did not see him before he left. Falconet, a broken man, returned to Paris. He never sculpted again.
It would be another four years before the finished piece was unveiled on Senate Square on Aug. 7, 1782. In all, Falconet’s masterpiece, which he never saw completed, took 16 years to build. The statue of Peter atop his horse, looking out at the city he built, is now one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions.