Peter the Great (1672-1725) was heir of the Romanov dynasty and had already been governing Russia for 28 years when he visited France in 1717. A great reformer, in the first few years of his reign he had travelled across Europe looking for inspiration for his grand projects, but France had refused to receive him, for diplomatic reasons. This time, it was Versailles that inspired him.
The Tsar, who had heard enticing reports from his contemporaries and was in the middle of carrying out work on his own palace in Peterhof, wanted to see the magnificence of the French royal residences with his own eyes. The powerful monarch was welcomed with great ceremony by the French monarchy, who saw in the Russian Tsar a useful ally in the fight for power with the Habsburgs.
Peter the Great had a reputation for being indomitable and somewhat eccentric, and he flouted Court etiquette on several occasions. For example, he installed his harem in the former apartment of the prudish Mme de Maintenon, whom he insisted on meeting despite her old age. Moreover, in a spontaneous gesture that was to go down in history, he took the young Louis XV in his arms in a sign of almost father-like affection. The Tsar was won over by the child king and wanted to give him his daughter in marriage, but the project fell through.
Peter the Great’s stay in France was otherwise successful, and several of the things that had caught his attention were later emulated in Saint Petersburg shortly after his return. The Gobelins Manufacture, for example, inspired the creation of an upholstery factory, and mirrors began to be made in great numbers in Russia based on the French royal mirror Manufacture, despite the Orthodox church’s prohibition at the time from admiring one’s reflection.
At Versailles, the Tsar was more intrigued by the gardens than the palace architecture, which he considered disproportionate. He was struck by the size of the Estate, with its cleverly-designed perspectives stretching as far as the eye could see. In Peterhof, he wanted to outdo the Versailles fountains by controlling the water supply using an aqueduct, which was more efficient that the Marly machine, although he had nevertheless been impressed by the latter. He particularly liked Marly, which had been Louis XIV’s private estate, because of its smaller size and modern design. One of the palaces in Saint Petersburg was even given the same name.
It was an exceptional thing at the time for a ruling monarch to travel, and the Tsar’s visit left a lasting impact in the mind of the French, so much so that works written in the 19th century still spoke of it. A pioneer and forerunner of the Enlightenment, Peter the Great founded a strong Franco-Russian friendship which lasted for several centuries.