How would you attempt to woo a young, handsome man when you were 66 and possibly just a little past your physical prime?
Russia's 18th-century ruler, Catherine the Great, who'd once rewarded an ex-lover with, among other things, 4000 Ukrainian peasants, decided that the best way to lure Count Valerian Zubov was to give him a palace.
As the ruler of all Russia she had plenty to choose from, but she settled on a palace in the Baltic region, that she'd recently annexed from what was known as the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. This had earlier seized the territory from a patchwork of small independent duchys or kingdoms.
Rundale Palace was the work of renowned Italian architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli, who became a favourite of the Russia tsars and tsarinas and was responsible for architectural treasures such as St Petersburg's winter and summer palaces and Peter the Great's palace by the sea, Peterhof.
But, back in 1736 when he began work on Rundale, Rastrelli was working for the Duke of Courland but the palace and its ground was not completely finished until 1768. Catherine presented it to Count Valerian Zubov who was the younger brother of her last lover, Prince Platon Zubov. It was rumoured that despite the prince being the last great love of her life, Catherine had been flirting with his brother behind his back.
Wherever the truth lies, the result for Count Zubov was the gift of what today is considered the finest baroque and rococo palace in all of the Baltic States. Now in Lativa close to the border with Lithuania, the palace is one of the country's most popular tourist attractions.
After decades of neglect and a casualty of two world wars, Rundale Palace is now almost fully restored and many of the state and private rooms are now open to the public. The interior is famed especially for some spectacularly ornate stucco work in the White Hall, which includes a real stork's nest, coated in stucco and incorporated into the ceiling decorations.
But, Bartolomeo Rastrelli's work did not stop at the house. He also designed a French baroque garden for the palace grounds which over the centuries had suffered even more neglect than the house. Work restoring the garden and actually completing some of Rastrelli's projects that had never got beyond the drawingboard stage, began nearly 40 years ago and is still continuing.
However, already, Rundale Palace's gardens are considered the most important historic garden in the Baltics and, in my opinion, are on the way to becoming one of the great formal gardens of Europe.
The restoration work has carefully followed Rastrelli's original design, although this has involved cutting down hundreds of overgown trees and starting again. Today there are 10 hectares of restored garden. Immediately in front of the palace is an ornamental parterre with four large flower beds and three pools and a fountain. These water features had been designed by Rastrelli but never constructed until about 10 years ago.
Parterres with their interplay of low- clipped hedges, coloured gravels, flowers and foliage, were partly designed to be enjoyed from above; and this is true at Rundale, where the intricacies of design are best viewed from the palace itself.
On each side of the parterres are two vast rose gardens. The original owner of the palace, the Duke of Courland, had roses planted here back in 1738 including damask, English and centifolia roses. Today, part of the rose garden is devoted to the very same roses along with the earliest known varieties of roses imported into Europe after the Crusades.
Other parts of the garden are devoted to later owners of the palace, with further beds dedicated to English (mostly David Austen) and modern roses. There are more than 12,000 plants in all representing 2450 rose varieties.
Beyond the roses, the Rundale garden whirls visitors back more than 250 years ... among the avenues of limes and hedges of hornbeams it's easy to imagine ladies in vast skirts, strolling with bewigged gentlemen, protected from the sun by lace parasols or taking shelter under the pergolas. The hedges enclose at least 15 different gardens, some tiny leafy enclosures perfect no doubt for secret trysts, others almost meadowlike and studded with flowering shrubs.
Each of these gardens is known as a bosquet (an artificially created forest) which were especially popular in the 18th century.
Rastrelli's original design also called for pavilions to be sited among the bosquets and these have now been built; the one in the oriental bosquet is appropriately built in Chinese style and actually houses the gardens' toilets.
The entire palace complex and its gardens is enclosed by a canal and restoration work is now concentrating on more tree planting beyond the banks of the canal. Rastrelli never saw the full framework of his design finished, let alone reach maturity. He probably never dreamed it would take more than two and half centuries for it to do so. However, thanks to a combination of Latvian government support, European Union funds and volunteers, what might be the longest garden development project in history is definitely on the cusp of bursting into full bloom.
- The Timaru Herald
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