The Alexander Column – Russian Travel

There are few squares in St. Petersburg; where all the streets are wide and airy, they are less wanted than among the narrow alleys of other capitals. It contains, however, many open spaces, surrounded with fine buildings; but they scarcely correspond with the usual ideas of a square. The most beautiful of these is that which divides the Winter Palace, etc., from the Nevsky quarter. It is adorned with what we do not hesitate to pronounce the finest monument in the world.

In no part of Europe have we seen any thing worthy of being compared with the remarkable pillar lately erected here, in honor of the Emperor Alexander. If we admire Napoleon’s column in Paris, or the Melville column in Edinburgh, composed of separate stones put together in the usual way, what shall we say of this stupendous work, which consists of only one stone, and yet is considerably larger than those monuments? Its height, if we are correctly informed, including the figure on the top, is exactly 154 feet, and its diameter 15 feet. It is a round column, of mottled red granite, from the quarries of Pytterlax, in Finland, 140 miles from St. Petersburg. The stone is very like the beautiful granite of Peterhead, in Scotland, but darker, and susceptible of even a higher polish.

We have never seen any thing that attracted us so much. It is the perfection of monumental architecture. There is no frippery; there is something sublimc in its simplicity. It is impossible to gaze on it without emotion. You never think of asking to whom it is raised; it has an interest quite distinct from any association with him whose memory it honors. You view it merely as a triumph of human power, which could tear such a mass from the reluctant rock, transport it so great a distance, and, under so many difficulties, carve, and mold, and polish it into one smooth shaft, then poise the huge weight as lightly as a feather, and plant it here, to be the admiration of ages.

This pillar is founded on massive blocks of granite, and has a pedestal and capital of bronze, made from the cannon taken in the recent wars with the Turks. It is the largest stone ever cut, either in ancient or modern times. The shaft alone is eighty-four feet high. On its top stands a bronze statue of Religion, in the act of blessing the surrounding city. The head of this figure stoops so ungracefully below the higher part of the half-expanded wings, that, in some positions, it looks a headless trunk. The usual practise of placing on the top the statue of the hero to whom the monument is dedicated, has been here departed from, out of deference to a word uttered by Alexander, when passing the column of the Place Vendome, before the now-restored statue of Napoleon had been removed from its giddy eminence. “God forbid,” said he, “that ever I should occupy such a post! There is something of profanity in thus exalting any human being, to be worshiped, as it were, by his fellow-creatures.”

This unrivalled monument is a remarkable proof of the bold and original taste of the present emperor;* for the idea of it began solely with him. But if it excite our admiration so strongly, even as it now is, what would have been thought of it had it been raised here of the full height in which it was cut from the quarry? The history is enough to drive one mad; and it did very nearly drive the emperor that length. Orders had been given to the director of the quarries, to try and extract one solid mass, fit to be hewn into a column of a certain length. The operation was begun with slight hopes of success. It was deemed impossible ever to obtain one stone of such a size. Ministers, generals, princes, the whole court, were in anxiety about what the mountain should bring forth; when, at last—who shall describe their joy?—a courier arrives with the happy tidings, that, for once, the labors of the mountain had not ended in disappointment. Expectation was even surpassed; for, in place of eighty-four feet, a mass had been separated nearly one hundred feet long. There were no bounds to the delight inspired by the news. St. Petersburg would now boast of a monument that might challenge the world.

But, alas ! there was a postscript to this famous letter. The director had been ordered to get a stone eighty-four feet long; and as in Russia they are not in the habit of giving a man much credit for departing from the very letter of an imperial mandate—and it being a bad precedent to allow any functionary to think for himself—the zealous man of stones added, that he was now busy sawing away the superfluous fourteen feet. Here was a pleasant piece of implicit obedience ! The emperor was in despair; but as it is not his custom to commission others to do things which may be better done by himself. he posted away immediately, in hopes of still saving his unexpected treasure; and, as good luck would have it, arrived just in time—to see the fair fragment tumble off.

The expense of this monument was very great. To say nothing of the cost of transport, one hundred men labored on it for some years after its arrival. Not the least expensive part was the raising of it, when finished, into its present position. As a specimen of the great skill which the Russians have acquired in applying mechanical powers, it is worth mentioning that it was swung into its place in the short space of fifty-four minutes. The whole population of the capital were present (August, 1832) to see the ceremony. M. de Montferrand, the architect, is a native of France, but must have had some lessons in mechanics from his adopted countrymen; for in Paris, the other day, they took several hours to raise the poor little obelisk of Luxor, which would not make a little finger to this Russian giant.