Two hundred and twenty years ago, on August 7, 1782, an equestrian monument to Peter the Great was unveiled at a ceremony on Senate Square in St Petersburg in the presence of the reigning empress, Catherine II, her court and the general public.
The base of the monument bore a proud inscription: to Peter I from Catherine II. This could only mean that Catherine considered herself to be his equal heiress, second after the first, with no one in between.
When Peter began building his northern capital -- St Petersburg -- those surrounding him suggested that an equestrian monument should be erected to his imperial majesty. The tsar gave his consent, and the first monument to Peter on horseback was molded by Italian sculptor Bartolomeo Rastrelli.
Initially the monument was made of lead, then of wax in life-size where Peter was portrayed in the pose of an army leader, an ancient triumpher wearing Roman armour and sitting on a majestic-looking steed striding at a measured pace into the distant future. Peter endorsed the monumental flattery, but soon died.
The finishing touches were made by Bartolomeo's son, Francesco Rastrelli, a great St Petersburg architect. But the money to cast a model was not coughed up until 40 years later, by Empress Elizabeth. The monument was cast in bronze, but was left standing in a foundry warehouse to be never reclaimed.
Catherine II did not like the monument. But she was carried away by a dynamic project of the French sculptor Etienne-Maurice Falconet, who wrote: "My monument will be simple, I will have only a statue of this hero, whom I do not treat either as a great army leader or a victor, although he was both. Far loftier is the personality of this creator and lawmaker, which must be shown to the public ... " The Frenchman hit the bull's eye -- Catherine thought herself to be a lawmaker. Falconet was given the coveted order and left for Russia.
The bronze horseman took 12 years to make. After fashioning a rearing horse and the emperor's figure in the saddle, Falconet trusted the sketching of Peter's head to his 20-year-old pupil Marie-Ann Collot, a talented portrait painter. Marie used Peter's death mask as her original. It is from this head that emanates the miraculous power with which the rider avidly sweeps the capital's panorama.
A granite stone for the pedestal was found outside St Petersburg. After the Egyptian pyramids the world did not know of the transportation of such a huge weight. The stone weighing 1,600 tons was pulled for 12 kilometres from the village of Pakhty to Senate Square on a special platform supported by copper balls.
Falconet modeled the stone like a cliff on which stood a rearing horse with the godlike hero in a laurel wreath. Falconet's masterpiece appears still to be unexcelled by anything else in the world for its artistic impression. Only a Roman statue of Marc Aurelius can vie with Peter in casting skill and virtuosity of workmanship, but it is clearly inferior in its emotional impact. Finally, Aurelius's horse rests on three legs, while Falconet's stands only on two.
The French maestro was not present at the unveiling ceremony in St Petersburg -- he had quarreled with the top brass -- nobleman Betsky -- and left for Paris. Fyodor Gordeyev, a Russian sculptor, directed the installation of the monument.