“Petersburg kaleidoscope” from home: Wawelberg House

26 June 2020

St. Petersburg is famously compared to Venice not only because of its rivers and canals or the silhouettes of large and small bridges. There are certain features in the architectural appearance of the city that reflect the direct influence of Italian traditions. There are houses which look like they have miraculously come off the Renaissance landscapes.

One of the examples is the Wawelberg House (7-9 Nevsky pr.). Its façade is so peculiar that it attracts attention of literally every person passing along Nevsky Prospect. And those who ride on sightseeing buses tend to cling to the panoramic windows, trying to make out the numerous details carved from dark granite.

The house was built in 1911-1912 upon the project of architect Marian Peretyatkovich for the banker Mikhail Ippolitovich Wawelberg. Initially, it housed the premises of the Wawelberg Bank, the owner’s apartment, as well as offices and apartments of wealthy tenants. However, it was not simply a tenement house. It stood out on Nevsky Prospect so much that the townspeople immediately nicknamed it “Money Palazzo” and “Doge’s Palace”.

This spot-on definition, given to the house by the local wisecrackers, is not accidental. Architect Peretyatkovich could work in different styles, but preferred the Neo-Renaissance. This style allowed to build monumental and, at the same time, elegant buildings. The large size of the building was balanced by ingenuity and diversity of decorative design. The enormous funds, provided by the ordering customer, made it possible to use the most expensive materials, for example, Serdobol granite from Karelia, which lines the entirety of the walls of the Wawelberg House.

According to an urban legend, when Mikhail Wawelberg accepted the work, he was satisfied with everything in the new building, except for the sign on the front door with an inscription “Push away from yourself”. The banker said that this went against his principles; therefore, it was necessary to make sure that the sign read “Pull towards yourself” instead. The door, of course, was redone and the owner was pleased.

The house became the most well-known creation of M.M. Peretyatkovich. Its design is heavily inspired by the Florentine monuments, in particular the Palazzo Medici Riccardi. The corner part of the house with false arches, pairs of columns and pilasters resembles the building of the Bank of the Holy Spirit in Rome, built in the 16th century. The two-storey arcade on the side of the Nevsky Prospect does have some similarities with the medieval Doge’s Palace in Venice. However, these are just some techniques that the architect used to create a completely original building, which is rightfully considered one of the most interesting sights of St. Petersburg.

A variety of ornamentation was added by L.A. Dietrich and V.V. Kozlov. The sculptural decoration of the Wawelberg House is truly impressive. Here you can count a total of 135 masks, and these are not only different versions of the lion mascarons, which are quite traditional for the St. Petersburg architecture of the classicism period. Human faces and floral ornaments, military armor and medieval coats of arms cover the granite façade abundantly. Especially interesting are the images of the skulls of the sacrificial bulls and rams – the “bucrania”. In ancient Rome, they were hung on the walls of temples and public

buildings in order to attract the capricious fortune and to ensure the protection of wayward pagan gods. They give the Wawelberg House the air of even greater exoticism and mystery.