- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 20, 2004


By Alexander M. Schenker

Yale University Press, $65, 398 pages, illus.


No visitor to St. Petersburg can miss the monument to Peter the Great commissioned by Catherine II, which took French sculptor Etienne-Maurice Falconet 12 years to complete.

Dominating the Senate Square overlooking the Neva River, the giant Peter (he was 6 feet 6 inches tall in real life) sits on a bearskin erect, with no stirrups, astride a horse standing on its hind legs, apparently about to leap over a precipice. Peter extends his right hand in a benevolent gesture toward the land over which he gallops.

This book is the best advertisement I can think of for alumni tours, for it began as a lecture by the author — professor emeritus of Slavic linguistics at Yale — for Yale alumni accompanying him on a river cruise from St. Petersburg to Moscow in 1996. Who would have thought that Alexander Schenker could write an entire book about a single monument and keep his readers with him on almost every page?

The reason the book succeeds is that Mr. Schenker manages to encapsulate engagingly the history of St. Petersburg, of the Enlightenment in France, of equestrian sculpture from the Romans on, and of the engineering and casting of bronze figures, while telling the very human story of two sculptors (Falconet gave much credit for modeling Peter’s head to his young protegee/collaborator, Marie-Anne Collet, who accompanied him to Russia).

If there is any point at which the author loses his reader, it’s when he gets into the details of Falconet’s feuds with malicious bureaucrats and carping philosophes. But then the story picks up again, with the incredible search for the perfect rock on which to mount the equestrian statue.

“Thunder Rock,” estimated to weigh 1,800 metric tons, was found in a forest only a few miles from St. Petersburg. The reader gasps at the feats involved in extracting the boulder, flipping it over (per Falconet’s request), transporting it over land and water to the city, and carving it to the sculptor’s specifications.

When Falconet won the commission for the Peter the Great monument in 1766, he was not the best-known French sculptor, but one, Mr. Schenker says, recognized by his longtime friend Diderot as “a rare phenomenon among artists, a well-educated [in fact, he was largely self-taught] man with a feel for a felicitous turn of phrase, a penchant for unorthodox views, and a pugnacious readiness to defend his positions in a literate and articulate way.”

Falconet was also a misanthropic egotist with a short temper, prone to quick judgments and professional jealousy. Mr. Schenker describes his deepest flaw as “his inability to sustain a deep personal relationship in which a mutual commitment is required.”

His unhappy wife died after nine years of marriage, and his son moved to London to get away from his father. The sculptor’s personal flaws complicated his life and work.

As soon as Catherine II ascended the throne of her unpopular late husband, Peter III, whose death she had helped engineer, she conceived of a new monument to Peter the Great that would both “impress the viewer with the scale of Peter the Great’s vision and at the same time bear the stamp of her efforts to further that vision.”

Russian artists were not deemed up to the challenge; moreover, Catherine thought that encouraging a renowned Western artist to spend a fairly long time in Russia creating the monument could become her link with the West.

She was right — she stuck with Falconet, who in turn enhanced Russia’s image in Europe. And by inscribing the pedestal “To Peter the First from Catherine the Second” in Russian and Latin, she associated herself forever with St. Petersburg’s Western-oriented founder.

Falconet was sorely tried by critics who wanted more symbolism in his monument — Diderot wanted it turned into a fountain — but Falconet stuck to his vision:

“Barbarity, Peoples’ Love, a symbol of the Nation will not be there at all … Peter the Great is his own subject and his own attribute. All one has to do is show it. I insist, therefore, on my conception of this hero, whom I do not envision as a great military leader or a conqueror, even though he certainly was one, but more importantly, as a builder, a legislator, a benefactor of his country.”

The real hero of this story is Marie-Anne Collet, the lovely, selfless, talented collaborator who assisted Falconet with his work and lived with him throughout his years in Russia, eventually agreeing to marry his son, who proved to be abusive. She even devoted herself to caring for the ailing sculptor during the last eight years of his life following a stroke.

Mr. Schenker’s text is enriched with illustrations of sculptures by Falconet, Collet, and others, plus engineering sketches of how one moves a great rock and casts bronze statues. (Falconet’s first casting was only partially successful, and it took him two more years to complete the job.)

There’s even a picture of the Bronze Horseman — Pushkin’s name for the statue — being dug out of its protective cover of planks and earth at the end of World War II.

In Falconet’s masterwork, Mr. Schenker says, “Russia got its most consequential work of visual art and a symbol of its historical and political identity.”

Priscilla S. Taylor is the former editor of Phi Beta Kappa’s quarterly Key Reporter. She lives in McLean, Va.

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