With its 1,001 rooms swathed in malachite, jasper, agate, and gilded mirrors, the residence of Russia's rulers from Catherine the Great (1762) to Nicholas II (1917) is the grandest monument of Russian rococo, that eye-popping mix of the old-fashioned 17th-century baroque and the newfangled 18th-century neoclassical style. The palace is now part of the State Hermitage Museum, and the only parts you may tour are the relatively few rooms open to museumgoers. Among these are three of the most celebrated rooms in the palace: the Gallery of the 1812 War, where portraits of Russian commanders who served against Napoléon are on display; the Great Throne Room, richly decorated in marble and bronze; and the Malachite Room, designed by the architect Alexander Bryullov and decorated with columns and pilasters of malachite.
The exterior—adorned with rows of columns and outfitted with 2,000 heavily decorated windows—is particularly successful and pleasing; note the way the enormous horizontal
expanses of outer wall are broken up by vertical lines and variations of lines, pediments, and porches, all topped with a roof balustrade of statues and vases.
The palace was created by the Italian architect Bartolomeo Francesco Rastrelli and stretches from Palace Square to the Neva River embankment. It was the fourth royal residence on this site, the first having been a wooden palace for Peter the Great (today, a remnant of this palace exists and has been restored; it can be visited separately within the State Hermitage Museum). Oddly enough, the all-powerful tsar had to observe some bureaucratic fine print himself. Because it was forbidden to grant land from this site to anyone not bearing naval rank, Peter had to obtain a shipbuilder's license before building his palace. The current palace was commissioned in 1754 by Peter the Great's daughter Elizabeth. By the time it was completed, in 1762, Elizabeth had died and the craze for the Russian rococo style had waned. Catherine the Great left the exterior unaltered but had the interiors redesigned in the neoclassical style of her day. In 1837, after the palace was gutted by fire, the interiors were revamped once again.