- - Thursday, October 4, 2012

By Emmanuel Ducamp
Photographs by Marc Walter
Thames & Hudson, $100, 360 pages, illustrated

Emmanuel Ducamp, a distinguished historian of 18th- and 19th-century Russian history, prefaces his magnificently illustrated study of the Romanov dynasty’s version of the celebrated Trianon of the Palace of Versailles with a poignant memory of a past visit. Finding himself in Leningrad on an icy winter day when the thermometer was plunging past 13 degrees below zero, he writes, “I had a flash of inspiration: I would go to Pushkin. Russia was still in the Soviet era, St. Petersburg had not yet had its imperial name restored, and the palaces of Tsarskoye Selo were still known by the name of the great Russian poet, a name they had been given by the Soviet government in 1937 in an attempt to wipe away memories of their close links with the Russian imperial family. Tsarskoye Selo — it need hardly be said — means village of the tsar.”

So Mr. Ducamp found himself transported from the gray reality of the Soviet Union into a relic of a different time, a breathtaking collection of beautiful architecture equaled or perhaps even surpassed by the plethora of beauteous objects contained therein. “Who could remain unmoved by treasures such as these,” he writes, “by their magnificent defiance of all measure and reason?”

It is indeed hard to imagine anyone lucky enough to visit this enchanted place coming away unmoved by what might prosaically be described as the statement it is making. Of course, as architecture has rightly been called frozen music and is in any case one of the highest of the fine arts, the prosaic doesn’t really come into it. Mr. Ducamp associates this splendid effusion not only with Catherine the Great and her fellow monarchs, but with a much deeper slice of Russian society:

“Too often, art history is reduced to a collection of buildings, styles, and objects. The people are forgotten. Yet, without the imagination, hard work and vision of men and women, how would these buildings and objets d’art ever come into being? Ever since I was lucky enough to go to Russia for the first time, I have been struck by one thing: the importance of visions and dreams in Russian daily life, as though it were vital to stretch reality to its furthest extremes. The facade of the Catherine Palace at Tsarskoye Selo stretches 1,000 ft. in length, while the parks together cover some 790 acres. That is why Catherine the Great felt compelled to fill the parks with more pavilions, follies and monuments than any rational architect could possibly have planned”

There is no danger that a work by an art historian like Mr. Ducamp would be a mere catalog. His deep engagement with Russian history and his sensitivity to the unique qualities of its culture is evident in the myriad insights strewn throughout his text. He really can make you understand how such a project can reflect both autocrats and the people they rule.

If Mr. Ducamp’s text bristles with the electricity of his intellect, the illustrations are a match for it. Seldom does one encounter photographs of such stunning high definition, so evocative that one can practically feel the texture of the surfaces as one admires form, shape and decoration. If still photography can ever come close to replicating an up-close and personal visit, this book’s illustrations do so.

In a remarkable study many years ago of decadent societies, that perspicacious critic, Robert M. Adams, rated czarist Russia as perhaps the ne plus ultra of that phenomenon. Encountering the manifold splendors of this Russian Trianon in “Summer Palaces of the Romanovs” makes one have to rethink the very nature of decadence. For perhaps only the flowering of decadence could have produced such rococo magnificence in the bleak northern climes of Baltic Russia. After all, even the 18th-century France that gave us Versailles and all its attendant graces was another decadent society. The puritan in us may make us tut-tut, but surely we must be grateful for the magnificent excess — or perhaps excessive magnificence is closer to the mark — that we continue to enjoy even after such societies came to their demise.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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