Visitors arriving at Tsarskoe Selo in the mid-eighteenth century during the reign of Elizabeth Petrovna would find themselves first in the Antechambers adjoining the main staircase in the southern wing of the palace. These rooms were located before the Great Hall and were intended as places for people to wait before audiences and the public appearances of the empress. Reconstruction later in the century turned two of the antechambers into the Arabesque and Lyons Halls, leaving only three of the original five.
The antechambers were lit by windows on both sides and finished to Rastrelli’s designs. Their architecture echoed that of the throne room of the palace: the main element in their decoration was gilded woodcarving, the portals around the doors being given especially opulent treatment with three-dimensional sculpture, cartouches and garlands. Further notes were added to the resonant Baroque chord by ceilings incorporating huge painted canvases and a geometrical-pattern parquet floor of precious types of wood.
The ceiling paintings had subjects from ancient mythology: in the First and Second Antechambers there was The Triumph of Bacchus and Ariadne by Pietro and Aloiso Gradizzi and Antonio Peresinotti, in the Third Mount Olympus. There are different opinions on who painted this last work. Alexander Benois attributed it to Peresinotti; some present-day researchers name Ivan Belsky, while archive documents state that the idea and composition of the painting belonged to Pietro Gradizzi, with Belsky only assisting him in the execution of his conception. During the occupation the painting was lost and the image we have of it today is based on a watercolour by Alexander Kolbe and pre-1941 photographs that provided a basis for the recreation of Mount Olympus after the war.
The Third Antechamber was finished in a manner different from the others: in the later eighteenth century, when the whole southern part of the palace was reconstructed on the orders of Catherine II, fluted columns and four marble fireplaces were installed here.
In Catherine II’s time the Third Antechamber was known as the Billiards Room because it contained a table for the game that came into fashion towards the end of the century. In the evenings the Empress might permit herself a spell of à la guerre – a variety of billiards with two balls for two or more players.
Through the doorway of the Third Antechamber there is a splendid vista of the gold-embellished apartments of the Catherine Palace that extend for some 300 metres. This sight particularly impressed visitors. It was not without reason that this creation of Rastrelli’s was already known as “the Golden Enfilade” in the eighteenth century.
Like the other state rooms, the Antechambers served for official functions but could be used for other purposes as well. In the First Antechamber, the French comic opera Les troquers (The Barterers) by Antoine Dauvergne was performed on Catherine II’s birthday in 1765 and the Russian comedy The Brigadier-General by Denis Fonvizin on 19 August 1772.
The southern part of the palace that contains the Antechambers suffered particularly badly during the Second World War. Of all the splendid décor of the halls only a few smoke-blackened fragments of woodcarving could be found in the ashes: among them were two gilded putti that have now been restored and installed above the window of the First Antechamber.
Restoration work in the Antechambers began in the late 1990s. The painting and parquet was recreated; the woodcarving was restored, replenished and gilded. Today the Antechambers have regained their former splendour and have assumed a fitting place among the state rooms of the Golden Enfilade.