The Great Hall or Bright Gallery, as it was called in the eighteenth century, is the largest state room in the palace. It was created to Rastrelli’s design between 1752 and 1756. The stylish hall with a floor area of over 800 square metres was intended as the venue for official receptions and celebrations, banquets, balls and masquerades.
The hall occupies the whole width of the palace and has windows on both sides. In summer the interior is filled with light that plays across the gilding throughout the day. In the evening 696 candles, framed by mirrors, illuminate the Bright Gallery. The sumptuous Baroque decoration creates an illusion of boundless space: the alternation of large windows and mirrors visually expands the hall, while the image on the ceiling, framed by a painted colonnade, extends the space upwards.
The sculptural and ornamental carving that covers the walls of the Great Hall in a single continuous pattern was produced by 130 Russian woodcarvers working from sketches by Rastrelli and models by the decorative sculptor Johann Franz Duncker. The carved décor is especially sumptuous on the end walls that are adorned by compositions featuring many figures.
The original ceiling painting was made in 1752–54 from a sketch by Giuseppe Valeriani (1708–1762), a distinguished Venetian decorative artist who came to Russia at the invitation of Rastrelli. He was assisted by Antonio Peresinotti (1708–1778) and a number of Russian artists – the Belsky and Firsov brothers, S. Ivanov, N. Afanasyev, B. Sukhodolsky, G. Kozlov, I. Vasilyev and M. Sergeyev. The painting incorporated three separate compositions: an Allegory of Russia, an Allegory of Peace and an Allegory of Victory.
In the 1790s deformation of the ceiling led to Valeriani’s painting being removed to the palace storerooms. In 1856–58 the artists Fiodor Wunderlich and Enrico Francioli produced a new composition: An Allegorical Depiction of Science, Art and Industry that praised the achievements of contemporary Russia. That painting perished by fire during the war.
In 1953–54, during restoration work on St Michael’s Castle in St Petersburg, the side parts of Valeriani’s ceiling painting – the Allegory of Peace and Allegory of Victory that had been considered lost – were rediscovered. Thanks to that find, it was decided to recreate the ceiling decoration in its original form, returning the two surviving elements to the Catherine Palace. The recreation of the central part was aided by the existence of so me rough sketches by Valeriani and his description of the composition with an interpretation of all the allegories plus a drawing made by Stakenschneider in 1857, when the ceilings in several of the state rooms were redecorated to designs by the court architect. The project was tackled by a team of restoration artists led by Ya.A. Kazakov. In both scale and complexity this task was unparalleled in world restoration practice. The patterned parquet of the light-oak and bog-oak floor that burnt during the war was recreated from Rastrelli’s original designs and a surviving fragment.