Peterhof: The Versailles of the North

The Russian Tsar Peter the Great was very impressed after visiting Versailles, the suburban residence of Louis XVI, King of France. He practically fell in love with the luxurious palace surrounded by a large garden á la français, with gazebos and marble monuments. However, what he adored the most at Versailles was the system of fountains.

This is why Peter the Great decided to build his own version of Versailles near the newly founded capital of the Russian Empire, St. Petersburg. The Tsar chose the southern coast of the Gulf of Finland for his residence Peterhof, meaning “Peter’s Court” in Dutch. Peter made the sketches for his future residence and gave it to the Architect-General, Johann Friedrich Braunstein, who used them to plot the layout of the complex.

There would have been nothing unique in Peterhof, had it simply been a palace surrounded by a garden and ponds. However, in 1720 Peter decided to create a system of fountains there.

Construction was almost completed in two years, by the fall of 1722. This was quite a pace for the 18th century: to make it possible, up to 4,000 people worked at the site at once. The fountain system began operating in the summer of 1723.

Number of fountains at the Peterhof residence varied from year to year. Several of them were made of wood and were inoperable by 1726. These were later copied in lead and gilded.

Nowadays, there are five fountains in the Upper Park and over 150 in the Lower Park of Peterhof.

The most amazing feature of Peterhof is the construction of the fountain system. There are no pumps or mechanisms of any kind, and the water flows freely due to the difference in elevation of the parks. 

To provide the system with water, the Ropsha Canal was built. It is 6.4 meters wide and 2.13 meters deep, with a length of 40 km. The main feature in the construction of the fountains is the use of connected vessels, which is why the fountains are always filled with water, even during the driest summers.

Versailles was constructed 50 years earlier than Peterhof, and features almost 1,500 fountains. However, the fountain system at Versailles operates using a large pumping station built between the Palace and Paris. This means that, from an engineering point of view, the Peterhof fountains are clearly superior to those of their “elder brother”.

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