The Marvelous Treasures Of The New Palace
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
Classic architecture, with its grand, cold out-lines, is more wearisomely solemn than ever amid these grotesque, high-colored palaces, and this tumultuous crowd of churches, darting toward heaven a gilded forest of cupolas, domes, pyramidal towers, and bulbous belfries. You might believe yourself, at sight of this Muscovite architecture, in some chimerical Asiatic city—you could easily take the cathedrals for mosques, the belfries for minarets; but the rational facade of the new palace would bring you back to the very heart of the West and of civilization; a sad thing for a romantic savage like myself !
We enter the new palace by a stately flight of stairs, closed at the top by a magnificent grating of polished iron, which is opened a little way to admit the visitor. You then find yourself beneath the lofty vault of a domed hall, where sentinels, never relieved of their duty, are on guard; four figures, clad from head to foot in antique and curious Slavonic armor. These knights are really grand; they actually seem to be alive; you feel as if a heart were beating under their coats of mail. These medieval suits of armor set up in this way always cause me an involuntary shiver, so faithfully do they preserve the external semblance of the man who is gone forever!
From this rotunda two galleries lead, which contain inestimable treasures; the store-houses of the Kaliph Haroun al Raschid, the wells of Aboul-Kasem, the Green Vaults at Dresden, all together, could present no such accumulation of wonders; and here historic value is added to that merely material. In these galleries scintillate and flash, and dart forth prismitic rays, diamonds and sapphires, rubies, emeralds, all those precious stones that avaricious nature hides deep in her mines, are here to be seen in as lavish abundance as tho they were but glass. They are in constellations upon the crowns; they tip with light the points of the scepters; they run down in dazzling rain over the insignia of empire, forming arabesques and ciphers till they almost conceal the gold of their setting. The eye is dazzled, and the reason scarcely dares conjecture the sums which this magnificence must represent. To essay to describe this prodigious jewel-box were folly. A book would not suffice for it. We must be content with a description of a few of the most remarkable pieces.
One of the most ancient crowns is that of Vladimir Monomaque. It was a present from the Emperor Alexis Commenes, and was brought from Constantinople to Kief by a Greek embassy in 1116, Besides its value as a historic memento, it is a work of exquisite taste. Upon a foundation of gold filigree work are set pearls and precious stones, arranged with an admirable understanding of ornamentation. The crowns of Kazan and Astrakan, or oriental style, one sown with turquoises, the other surmounted by an enormous uncut emerald, are jewels to drive a modern goldsmith to despair! The Siberian crown is made of cloth of gold ; like all the rest, it has a Greek cross upon its summit, and, like them, is starred with diamonds, pearls and sapphires. The golden scepter of Vladimir Monomaque, about three feet long, contains two hundred and sixty-eight diamonds, three hundred and sixty rubies and fifteen emeralds. The enamel which covers the rest of the surface represents religious subjects treated in the Byzantine style. This also was a present from the Emperor Alexis Commenes, as well as the reliquary in the shape of a cross, containing a fragment of stone from the tomb of Christ and a bit of wood from the cross. A golden casket rough with gems contains this treasure. A curious jewel is the chain of the first of the Romanoffs, of which every link bears engraved, following a prayer, one of the titles of the czar. There are ninety-nine. It is impossible to speak particularly of the thrones, the globes, scepters, and crowns of different reigns; but I observe that, tho the value remains as great, the purity of taste and beauty of workmanship diminish, as we approach the modern epoch.
Another thing not less wonderful, but more accessible to description, is the hall devoted to gold and silver plate. Around pillars are arranged circular credence-tables, rising in many stages like a dresser supporting a world of vases, tankards, flagons, mugs, goblets, jugs, decanters, pitchers, ladles, tiny casks, cups, beer-mugs, tumblers, pints, flasks, gourds, amphorae—everything relating to Beuverie, as says Master Rabelais, in his Pantagruelic language! Behind these vessels of gold and silver, gleam platters of gold and of gilded silver, as large as those of which Victor Hugo's Burgraves were served with oxen roasted whole. Each jar is coiffed with its nimbus. And what jars ! Some of them are as much as three or four feet in height, and could only be lifted by the hand of a Titan. What enormous expense of imagination in this variety of plate! All forms capable of containing any beverage—wine, hydromel, beer, kwas, brandy, seem to be represented here. And how rich, fantastic, grotesque, the taste shown in the ornamentation of these vases of gold, of silver-gilt, and of silver!
Sometimes there are bacchanals, with merry, chubby faces dancing around the vessel's paunch; now, leafage with animals and hunting scenes appearing through it; at other times, dragons curling round the ears, or antique medallions set into the sides of a jug; a Roman triumph de-filing by, with its trumpets and standards; He-brews in the costume of Dutchmen bearing the bunch of grapes from the Promised Land; some mythological nudity contemplated by Satyrs through the tufted arabesques. In accordance with the artist's whim, the vases take on the form of animals; spread out wide in bears; run up tall and slim in storks; flap great wings as eagles; puff themselves out in frogs; or throw back horns of stags. Farther on, I noticed a comfit-box shaped like a ship with swelling sails and carved poop, the dainties within to be taken out through the hatchways. Every possible whim of gold-smith's work is to be found realized upon this wondrous sideboard.
The hall of armor contains treasures to weary the pen of the most intrepid nomeclator. Circassian casques and coats of mail inscribed with verses from the Koran; bucklers with bosses of filigree; cimetars and kandjars with nephrite handles and scabbards set with gems; all those Eastern weapons, which are jewels as well as arms, gleam amid Western weapons of a simplicity the most severe. At sight of all this gathered magnificence, your head whirls, and you cry for mercy to the guide, too civil or too exact, who will not wrong you of a single piece!
One may imagine without detailed description the sumptuous elegance with which the state apartments are furnished. Everything richest that modern luxury can furnish is here; and amid all the splendor, not the very faintest suggestion of the charming Muscovite taste. it was, perhaps, inevitable, considering the style of the building. But I must own I was indeed surprized, in the last room of the suite, to find myself face to face with a pale fantom of white marble, clad as for apotheosis, who fixt upon me his great motionless eyes, and bent, with meditative air, his Roman Caesar's head—Napoleon in Moscow, in the palace of the czars! This was something I should never have expected to see.