Russian Grandeur Pays Visit To the American South

Exhibit of rooms from czars' palaces is fruit of Mississippi's generous aid

It's a nondescript modern building in Jackson, Miss., but inside the rooms are fit for a Russian czar or czarina.

Walls are upholstered in fine silk, floors are inlaid with precious woods, and ceilings and doors are sculpted in intricate designs. Lavish furnishings include 15th-century masterpiece paintings, delicate oriental porcelains, exquisite French embroidered tapestries, and even a gilded red-velvet throne. It's not hard to imagine Peter the Great, Empress Elizabeth, or Grand Duchess Maria Fyodorovna strolling across the floors in their satins and jewels as they once did two centuries ago thousands of miles away in St. Petersburg.

Welcome to the "Palaces of St. Petersburg: Russian Imperial Style," an exhibition that showcases five re-created rooms from "the string of pearls" - four palaces that circle the Russian city. With more than 600 objects, organizers say it's the largest exhibition of Russian imperial treasures ever in the United States. Billed as the preeminent cultural event in the Southeast this year, it's quite a coup for Jackson, a city of 420,000 in the middle of the Magnolia State.

"It's been incredible for us," says Pat Fordice, wife of Gov. Kirk Fordice (R). "Everyone - merchants, hotels, restaurants - mentions that their business is up.... I think we've got our best foot forward and we're finally sharing with the rest of the world what Mississippi is all about."

The idea for the exhibit was hatched when a group of church members visiting from the then-Soviet Union in 1992 asked for help in getting medicine. Mississippi's medical community responded, donating millions of dollars in medical supplies to St. Petersburg and forming Mississippians Reaching Out, a humanitarian organization.

A St. Petersburg doctor suggested that a cultural project be developed to express appreciation to Jackson, and Mrs. Fordice suggested an art exhibit.

In 1994, citizens throughout the state organized the Mississippi Commission for International Cultural Exchange. They hired Jack Kyle, a native Mississippian involved in staging the Memphis-based Wonders Series, to develop an exhibition.

When Mr. Kyle first approached the St. Petersburg palaces, one of his first jobs was as a salesman. "Their general impression of Mississippi was Mark Twain and Huckleberry Finn and the Mississippi River," Kyle says. "Jackson is not a large city, and there was no firm identity carved out on the order of a Tokyo or Paris or Chicago. It was a process of confidence building with the Russian museum officials that Mississippi could indeed be capable of realizing a project of this magnitude."

Kyle came to the bargaining table with lots of financial support. The Mississippi Legislature appropriated $1.5 million; the Metro Jackson Convention and Visitor's Bureau gave $1 million for marketing; and various businesses wrote large checks. The project cost about $9 million; so far about 275,000 tickets have been sold, and organizers hope to sell between 450,000 and 500,000 by the closing date of Aug. 31.

The exhibit, housed in the Mississippi Arts Pavilion, consists of five re-created rooms with their original furnishings from four palaces: Peterhof Palace, Catherine Palace, Gatchina Palace, and Pavlovsk Palace. Five adjoining galleries display collections from the czars. The period encompasses the reign of Peter the Great through the last czar, Nicholas II.

The exhibit is a sumptuous feast for the senses. The czars lived lives of uparalleled wealth and luxury, and even the most simple objects are dazzling works of art. Two cups that belonged to Peter the Great are lacy designs of silver studded with garnets. Maria Fyodorovna's paperweight features two elaborately carved silver lizards on a rectangular base of lapis lazuli, an opaque blue stone.

The rooms themselves are the exact size of their counterparts in St. Petersburg and provide an inside glimpse of the grandeur of the four palaces. From the Catherine Palace, a mammoth residence with white columns and gold onion domes, organizers here have replicated the Blue Formal Drawing Room, one of the largest rooms in the apartment of Grand Duke Paul Petrovich. Walls are upholstered in white silk adorned with blue flowers, and gilded chairs are decorated in the same pattern. The stunning ceiling shows a variety of mythological scenes and is framed by 80 oval medallions lined with gold. Palm, rosewood, walnut, and other light and dark-toned woods cover the floral-patterned parquet floor.

The Yellow Banquet Hall, re-created from the Peterhof Palace, once held elaborate receptions. Its splendid architectural details include 16 pairs of Corinthian pilasters and white bas-relief sculptures over the four doors.

The long table displays settings of crystal and hand-painted Russian imperial porcelain.

To replicate the rooms to almost the exact detail of their original, hundreds of plasterers, gilders, wood carvers, embroiderers, and other artisans in Russia and the United States were employed to create the parquet floors, cast the caryatid figures, and replicate other parts of the interiors.

In many cases the Russian artisans who worked on the project are the same ones who have been restoring the rooms in the St. Petersburg palaces since World War II, when much was destroyed.

Besides the grand rooms, many objects in the galleries are eye-stopping as well. A "Mount of the Gospels" book cover for the Bible is made of gold and silver and encrusted with chunks of sapphires, aquamarines, and other semiprecious stones. A Faberg egg, the only item on loan from the US, contains an exact miniature replica of Gatchina Palace inside its pearl-framed shell. Magnificent pieces of furniture, silver, clocks, paintings, and other objects round out the exhibition.

*'Palaces of St. Petersburg' continues in Jackson, Miss., through Aug. 31. There are no plans for the exhibit to travel.

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