The Summer Garden (Letnii sad) and its Social and Cultural Function (Jamie Fletcher)

The Summer Garden is located on an island surrounded by the Neva, Fontanka, and Moika rivers and the artificially made Swan Channel and is one of the first gardens in St. Petersburg to mimic the large formal gardens of Europe. Peter I started the construction of the Summer Garden in 1704 and by 1716 the plans and boundaries of the garden were defined. (1) When Peter I moved the capital of Russia from Moscow to St. Petersburg, there was nothing there more than swamps and a few Swedish farms and fishing villages. Peter I’s decision stemmed from his travels to Europe where he fell in love with Western culture. He wanted to ‘modernize’, or more aptly put, ‘Europeanize’ Russia so that it would more resemble the West. By moving the capital from Moscow to St. Petersburg, Peter I had a brand new place to bring his ideas to life.

walkwaysIn his desire to ‘Europeanize’ Russia, Peter I sought to create a garden unlike any other in Russia at the time; one that mirrored those in Europe: the Summer Garden (Letnii sad). Before the Summer Garden, there were very few similarities between the formal gardens that were affiliated with European Courts and the more functional gardens of Muscovite Russia. There was an emphasis on the usefulness and practicality of formal gardens in Russia. They were less focused on the pleasing visual qualities and more on what the garden could produce in terms of food and providing the resources people needed to live. (2) The Summer Garden was the first Russian garden to adopt the European principles of garden art. (3) The modern-day garden is a lot smaller and organized differently than the original Summer Garden.

The Summer Garden was developed over a number of periods, with two being during Peter I’s reign: 1704-1710 and 1711-1716. (4) The first two periods showed Dutch influence, in particular a baroque style garden. While he was growing up in Moscow and while he was on his Grand Tour of Europe, Peter immersed himself in foreign customs and styles, and became acquainted with the formal Dutch style of gardens. After his trip to France in 1716, where he was exposed to the expansive formal gardens of Versailles and surrounding palaces, he knew that he wanted gardens in Russia to mirror them. (5) This baroque style of garden was developed in Italy and France in the early seventeenth century. These gardens were typically very large and

Minerva - Goddess of Wisdom and Warfare
Minerva – Goddess of Wisdom and Warfare

“dominated by formal parterres” (6), which are ornamental gardens that have borders which are typically made out of hedge-like plants surrounding intricate patterns made of cut turf and flowers. (7) In addition to this, baroque style gardens typically had long allées, namely pathways “bordered by trees or hedges.” (8) During the first two periods, “the garden was also decorated with marble sculpture from Venice and Rome” (9) along its pathways. Later periods saw more Italian influence with the addition of an amphitheatre, grotto, and even more statues and fountains.

Unfortunately the next period started with the great flood of 1777. This flood completely destroyed most of the marble statues as well as the grotto and most of the fountain systems, and many of the trees and plants in the garden either disappeared or were completely destroyed. By this time the garden design had changed as well. What were once finely manicured plots and parterres became more “natural” looking. They were no longer groomed and were allowed to have a natural appearance similar to European romantic style gardens. (10)

Roman Emperor
Roman Emperor

With the garden being designed like those in Europe, the role that the Summer Garden had in society was very similar to the roles they played in European society. This was accomplished through the creation of specific spaces that were intended for social interactions. One such space was the creation of a labyrinth which featured sculptures and fountains inspired by Aesop’s fables designed by the architect M. G. Zemtsov. (11) Because of its use of Aesop, the garden echoed the labyrinth at Versailles. Another space specifically designed for social interactions was the Hall of Glorious Celebrations. This hall was built in 1725 to host some of the celebrations for the wedding of Anna Petrovna and Karl Friedrich. (12) Another example can be found in Friedrich-Wilhelm von Bergholz’s diary. A member of the Duke of Holstein’s retinue, he wrote about both the layout of the gardens and the events that took place there. In June 1721 he describes an evening’s events which includes mention of his strolling along the garden’s alleys and conducting polite conversation with women by the garden’s fountains. He also notes these sociable activities, and some others (like smoking), taking place amongst the invited guests, including the Imperial family, members of the Russian elite and foreign dignitaries.” (13)

Accessibility to the garden over time is highly revealing. Most of these social events in the garden happened during Peter I’s lifetime. However even after his death, the Summer Garden still played a role in the happenings of the Court. During the reign of Anna Ioannovna, the empress lived in the Summer Palace of Peter I during the months between May and October, and continued to use the gardens for social events. (14) With the Court using the gardens for certain events, it brings into question who could enter the thumbnail_Image6Summer Garden when it was not in use. For the most part no one aside from the Imperial family and their guests had access. However, during the 1750s a conscious attempt was undertaken to create a wider access through legislation called the ukazy. These decrees allowed regular access only for Court personnel who had official business requiring them to pass through the gardens. They were given a ticket or a small seal that they showed to the guards who then let them pass through the garden. Even servants of the Imperial family were barred from the gardens. (15) Eventually, access to the garden was extended beyond the Court and the Russian elite in late May 1752 by a decree from Empress Elizaveta Petrovna in another ukaz: “subjects of the Empress, foreign dignitaries and certain other groups should be allowed access, with their families, to the first and second Summer Gardens by the Neva river on Sundays and festive days in order to ‘stroll’.” (16) Another step towards opening the garden to the public happened in May 1755 when the empress ordered the Court Office to allow everyone regardless of their social rank or status access to the garden on Thursdays if they were dressed well – in a clean and tidy manor. (17) Interestingly, for those varying categories of people who gained access to the garden over time, a specific dress code was required of certain members of certain social statuses: “Women [for example] were not permitted if they wore clothing that was considered inappropriate such as caps. Merchantry were not allowed to have beards or untidy hair.” (18) The two ukazy provided templates for later development on who could enter the summer garden and when.

Unlike the vast amounts of scholarship written about European gardens, very little is written about the social functions of gardens in Russia from the late seventeenth century to the early eighteenth. Paul Keenan points out that “whilst the Summer Gardens have thumbnail_Image5been discussed by historians of the reign of Peter I, the period from his death in 1725 to the death of his daughter, Elizaveta Petrovna has been largely neglected.” (19) He goes on to say that this was one of the most important periods in regards to the role the garden played in the social lives of people. Interestingly, the few writings that exist emanated not from the Court, the Imperial family, or other Russians, but rather from foreign dignitaries and other guests of the Imperial family who visited and wrote about events in the garden in their personal diaries.

thumbnail_Image4This summer, the Summer Garden accommodated a celebration of the 315th anniversary of the founding of the gardens. The festival took place right after we arrived so I had the opportunity to experience some of it. There were theatrical spectacles as well as orchestras and local musicians. It seemed as if everyone in the city from many different backgrounds attended. I saw families walking along the paths, old couples sitting and enjoying a play, and children playing in a section of the garden that had little play areas. Even going later in the summer when the festival was over, the garden was just as full of people as it was then. This garden really is a place where everyone can come and enjoy a nice warm sunny afternoon without restrictions. The fact that even 315 years later people are still celebrating the creation of the summer gardens shows just how much of an impact the gardens had on the people of St. Petersburg.

Works cited