A long-time resident at the Grand Master’s Palace in Valletta will soon be making a temporary return to her country of origin: Russia.
The resident in question is Empress Catherine II of Russia, more popularly known as Catherine the Great (1729-1796), or rather her magnificent portrait in oils painted by one of Russia’s greatest artists, Dimitri Grigorievic Levitzky (1735-1822). The portrait will be displayed in one of Moscow’s premier museums ‒ the Tsaritsyno Palace Museum – for five months before returning to Malta.
To prepare for this journey, Catherine the Great’s portrait has been carefully conserved and restored to its original impressive magnificence.
The conservation, which was sponsored by Corinthia Hotels, is part of a comprehensive conservation programme being undertaken at the Grand Master’s Palace by Heritage Malta and the Restoration Directorate in connection with a €10 million project co-funded by the European Regional Development Fund. The conservation and restoration of the portrait and frame was carried out by Amy Sciberras on behalf of Heritage Malta.
Although the painting was generally in a fair condition it was decided that it would undergo a holistic conservation and restoration treatment to improve its legibility and reinstate Levitzky’s vibrant palette in preparation for its display in Moscow.
This meant the removal of previous interventions, comprising old retouched infills which had been applied directly onto the original paint layer by past restorers, possibly to conceal the much textured surface of the original painting in this area. Significant areas of the original paint were, in fact, recovered through the removal of old gesso and past retouchings.
Additionally, the oxidised varnish coatings had severely obscured the hues applied by Levitzky and many details of this exquisite painting could not be appreciated prior to the latest conservation/ restoration treatments.
Localised gilding of the original decorative frame, using traditional techniques, was also carried out to integrate the lower member of the decorative frame in which the original gold leaf was nearly completely lost.
The restoration has returned the portrait to its original splendour, revealing in the process, many fascinating details.
Royal portraits are seldom lacking in symbolism; in fact, symbolism is generally their raison d’être. Glorified portraits offer opportunities for celebrating or possibly reinforcing achievements during a monarch’s reign: examples of what today we would term ‘spin’. This was no less the case with Levitzky’s portrait of Catherine II, Empress of Russia. The following is an attempt at deciphering the symbolism embodied in this portrait.
The first thing to note about the depiction of Catherine is that she calls to mind the Greek goddess Athena (patron and protectress of many cities across ancient Greece, principal among them, Athens) associated with wisdom, handicraft and warfare. She stands in a landscape setting in front of a laurel tree behind which billows a backdrop of crimson fabric.
Glorified portraits offer opportunities for what today we would term ‘spin’
The laurel, symbol of victory, refers generally to her successful reign; however when read in conjunction with other symbols on this canvas may allude to her annexation of the Crimea in 1783.
The sheathed sword emphasises the fact that Catherine did not resort to violence; however, the laurel indicates that she was nevertheless victorious and was to be considered the protectress of the Crimea.
Catherine is dressed in rich silks with a broad ribbon (orange with three black stripes) worn from right shoulder to left hip; this is the riband of the Russian Order of St George. She also appears to be wearing the breast star of the same order.
The Order of St George was established by Catherine herself in 1769 as the highest military decoration of the Russian Empire, so the fact that she has chosen to be depicted wearing this order reinforces her military conquests.
The ornate collar worn around her neck is that of the Order of St Andrew, patron saint of Russia. The cross of St Andrew can be seen in one of the medallions in the collar as well as the double headed imperial eagle. The eagle motif is also repeated in the embroidery on her cloak.
The story behind this portrait is still being unravelled and there is little doubt that as a result of the exposure garnered by the forthcoming exhibition, still more information may come to light from sources both in Malta and in Russia. What can be pieced together at this point runs along the following lines.
Russia’s principal maritime ports were traditionally located in the Baltic Sea; however, these were not accessible during the winter months when ice rendered them unusable; hence, Russia always hankered after warm water ports that could be accessed throughout the year.
For many years, during Catherine the Great’s reign, Russia respected French and British hegemony in the Mediterranean and was wary of entering these warmer waters. Eventually, however, during the Russo-Turkish War of 1768-1784 the Russian fleet sailed from the Baltic ports and entered the Mediterranean to deliver a crushing blow to the Turks.
According to Henry Seddal, writing in 1870, the Russians had, from the earliest days of the Russo-Turkish War of 1768-1784, desired to take hold of Malta and had, in fact, sent agents to the island to investigate Maltese reaction to a takeover. The agents’ conclusion was that the Maltese, being fervently Catholic, would not accept a sovereign of the Russo-Greek faith, and so the mission was dropped. Seddal believed that the Grand Master was never aware of these Russian soundings.
It seems that relations between Russia and the Order remained strained until Grand Master Emmanuel de Rohan took the initiative when he sent Captain Antonio Psaro, a Greek soldier acting as Russian chargé d’affairs in Malta, to deliver diplomatic gifts to Empress Catherine.
When Psaro reached the Empress in 1787 she was visiting the Crimea. Among the Grand Master’s gifts was an arrangement of artificial flowers, which has been interpreted as being a fine display of ganutel. It has been suggested that the arrangement incorporated symbols of peace – thus suggesting some form of rapprochement between Russia and the Order of St John.
Catherine was so impressed by the Grand Master’s magnanimity that she commissioned the artist, Dimitri Levitzky, to paint a portrait that she could send to the Grand Master.
The Palace portrait is dated 1787; however, it seems it did not arrive in Malta until early 1790. Grand Master de Rohan’s letter of thanks is still preserved in the Archive of Foreign Policy of the Russian Empire in Moscow.
It is entirely fitting that 230 years after the original exchange of diplomatic gifts that Catherine the Great’s portrait should be making a return visit, albeit brief, to Moscow in a gesture that recalls the deep appreciation of the arts of two influential individuals and the artistic patrimony that they created.
The authors wish to thank Emmanuel Magro Conti and his colleagues at Heritage Malta for their valued assistance in writing this article.