The Priory Palace in Gatchina is the unique building in Russia, the only surviving example of the rammed earth construction of the 18th century. The palace also was the witness to one of the most astonishing projects in Russian history. This structure was built on the orders of Emperor Paul I to host the Knights of Malta and their Prior in Gatchina town. How did it happen that Roman Catholic Holy Order was given such privileges in Russian Empire, the strictly Orthodox country?
The first Russian ruler to show interest in establishing relationship with the Knights of Malta, was definitely Peter the Great. Malta is the Mediterranean island, and Peter was interested the most in the Knights’ famous Navy. Catherine the Great continued this policy, setting the start of the official diplomatic relations with Malta. When son of Catherine, Paul, came to power, he did the extraordinary thing. Napoleon captured Malta Island in 1798 during his Egyptian campaign, and the Hospitallers were expelled from the island. Paul gave them shelter in Russia, and, being grateful to him, the Knights of Malta made Paul I their Grand Master.
History of the Priory Palace
Paul’s relationship with the Maltese Roman Catholic Knights has shocked both Russia and Europe. The Supreme head of Russian Orthodox Church, twice married sovereign of Russian Empire, has accepted the Catholic lay order top position. Such bizarre was the high politics of swiftly forming and dissolving alliances in Europe during Napoleonic wars. Interest in Malta as the possible Mediterranean naval base for Russia was the practical reason. Paul’s childhood infatuations with the brave knights’ legends probably were also the grounds for this risky political decision. Nevertheless, the Prior of the Order, Prince of Conde, was supposed to arrive to Russia with his knights. Paul had his official summer residence in Gatchina and the summer Priory had to be built there. For this reason in 1797 Paul gave orders to the architect Lvov to construct the Priory Palace in Gatchina. Construction works were completed wery quckly. But political situation has changed and nobody from the Knights of Malta ever visited this unique architectural ensemble in Gatchina.
Interior of the Priory Palace
Interior of the Priory Palace was initially rather modest, as the shelter of lay order knights should be. Gothic windows and wooden ceilings reminded of a medieval castle. Architect Lvov himself designed the interiors. Nothing from the original interior survived, no images either. During the 19th century structure was used for the short visits of the royals, so there was no luxury here as well. Today these interiors look classical rather than medieval. There is a concert hall and exhibitions space on the ground floor. The first floor has exhibition dedicated to the Priory Palace construction history, Lvov creative activity and rammed earth building technology. History of the Maltese Knights is also represented. Priory Palace tours attract up to 40 000 visitors each year. Priory Palace history is especially appreciated by the local children who learn about knighthood, crusades and Emperor Paul, who desperately wanted to be chivalrous and brave just like the medieval knight.
Location of the Priory Palace
The palace is located a little bit away from the beaten path, just like the real monastery. The structure is styled both like the castle and like the medieval monastery. Priory Palace is standing amidst the marshy area on the shore of the Black lake in the outskirts of Gatchina town. Idyllic corner of the countryside is well protected, for there is water at one side and thick forest at the other. The palace is surrounded by the wall of Pudost limestone. Pudost is the willage 15 minutes drive from Gatchina, where the stone mine was situated. This thick wall, due to the porous rough surface of the stone, has the look of the ancient fortification. The tower reminds of the monastery bell tower.
It has taken just one year to construct the palace. The active works began in 1798 and edifice was completed in 1799. Lvov was very talented and brilliantly educated gentleman and he used the brand new technology. Buildings constructed from the rammed earth are quick to build, cheap and long-lasting. Priory palace is the only structure in Russia made with rammed earth technology. Emperor Paul I gave order to his courtiers to put rammed earth blocks to the test: ladies tried to run through it with their umbrellas and cavaliers with their swords. Nothing worked: the blocks remained intact. Much later the palace has survived a greater calamity: Priory Palace withstood the Nazi bombardments. Renovation lasted from 1970s and was completed in 2004. The legend tells there used to be the underground passage connecting Priory Palace with the Gatchina Palace, but, alas, most likely the tube was the remnant of the sewerage system.