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The Earliest Printed Plan of St. Petersburg

St. Petersburg/ Russia. DE FER, Nicholas [Paris, 1717]
Plan De La Nouvelle Ville De Petersbourg… . 15 x 18 ½ inches
Original copperplate engraving with fine hand color; very slight fold wear, else excellent.

   $3,500


This rare and finely engraved work, the first of St. Petersburg in printed form, was likely based directly on a drawing furnished directly to De Fer by Jean-Baptiste Alexandre Le Blonde, the Frenchman who supervised the building of the city from 1716 to 1719. Published while construction of the city was still far from complete, this work embodies the initial conception for the city that was subsequently considerably altered, as is explained below.
In 1703 Czar Peter the Great selected the site for his grand capital of the Russian Empire at the head of the Gulf of Finland. Clearly his intention from the beginning was to erect a city that rivaled if not surpassed the great European capitals. Peter pressed a massive labor force of serfs to build the city, and no expense was spared. Leading architects and artisans from across Europe were paid enormous fees to dedicate themselves to the task. The city was designed by the Swiss architect, Dominico Trezzini (1670-1734), and the construction was overseen by the French landscape architect, the aforementioned Le Blonde, who had previously served Louis XIV.
Seeking to have an island be the center of the city, Peter’s first choice, Kotkin Island, in the western part of the Gulf of Finland and subsequently home to the Kronstadt naval base, soon proved impractical. Vasilevsky Island within the mouth of the Neva River was his next choice, as is shown on De Fer’s plan. As depicted here, the island was to be bisected by a series of canals and streets that were to follow a regular grid interspersed with large squares. On the south bank was the Admiralty district, and on an island on the north bank, above Vasilevsky Island, was the St. Peter & Paul Fortress. Several gardens were a part of the design, largely due to Le Blonde’s signature passion for designing gardens. A key in the lower left of the map identifies 13 sites of interest.
In spite of the massive resources thrown at the project, the original plan was greatly altered as work progressed. Vasilyevsky Island proved to be too low-lying and prone to flooding to permit the creation of the canals, thus not appropriate for the site for the center of the city. While the area would eventually be built up later in the 18th century with streets largely following the lines of the proposed grid of canals, the main part of the city came to be built in the area that lay to the south of the Neva.
Nicolas de Fer (1646-1720) served as the official cartographer to the King of France. Based in Paris, his highly prolific firm was the most successful in France at the end of the 17th and the beginning of the 18th centuries.


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