THE ICE RENAISSANCE
Empress Anna’s frozen palace revisited.
St. Petersburg was a bog on the Gulf of Finland until, in 1703, Peter the Great decided to transform it into an imperial capital, and conscripted more than seven hundred thousand Russian subjects to clear the forests, level the hills, drain the swamps, and dig canals. The city’s emblem is the Bronze Horseman, an eerie statue of Peter astride a rearing steed, apparently about to leap off a cliff and into the Neva. A century after Peter’s death, the statue inspired Alexander Pushkin’s “The Bronze Horseman,” a poem that dramatizes the great flood of 1824 as the revenge of “the elements” against the Tsar and his city. That’s the myth of St. Petersburg in a nutshell: Peter, the Bronze Horseman, and Pushkin’s poem.
But in 1740 Peter’s niece Anna commissioned a sculpture that was bigger, stranger, and more terrifying than the Bronze Horseman: a fully furnished palace made entirely of ice. Igloos had existed for centuries, but Anna’s palace was the world’s first piece of purely aesthetic ice architecture. Just as the Bronze Horseman catalyzed a celebrated poem by Pushkin, so Anna’s monstrous monument fuelled its own literary work: “The House of Ice,” a novel by Pushkin’s contemporary Ivan Lazhechnikov. “The House of Ice,” which enjoyed widespread popularity upon its publication, in 1835, is a cloak-and-dagger romance in which the ice palace serves as the hub of a vast political conspiracy linking various historical and fictional personages, including a diminutive black secretary who reads aloud from his translation of Machiavelli.
This year, a local company, the Ice Studio, built a five-hundred-ton, hundred-and-fifty-thousand-dollar replica of Anna’s palace in downtown Petersburg. The aim, the company’s directors said, was to remind the world that “Petersburg is the birthplace of ice sculpture.” The Ice Studio, which is privately run, was backed by several corporate sponsors, and the project was publicized by White Days, a program initiated by six luxury hotels in order to boost tourism in the winter off-season.
The replica was constructed according to the “Description and Exact Representation of the House of Ice,” published in 1741 by the German-born physicist Georg Wolfgang Krafft, of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Krafft designed some components of the original palace, including several cannons made of ice—loaded with real gunpowder, they fired ice cannonballs a distance of sixty paces—and a sculpted Persian soldier mounted on a giant hollow ice elephant. Connected by pipes to the Admiralty Canal, the elephant had a trunk that spouted water twenty- four feet in the air; at night the water was replaced by flaming oil. The elephant could trumpet just like a real one, by means of a man sitting inside, blow ing into a pipe.
The palace, designed by the Italian-
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