The Demidov Legacy
When researching this mansion and its owners, I was surprised to find out that the Demidovs are connected not only to Russia, but also to France, Italy and Finland. They are known worldwide for their work with iron and cast iron along with their generosity and relation to Napoleon Bonaparte.
Let’s go back to the beginning of the Demidov dynasty which began in 1702 when Peter the Great met Nikita Demidov, the energetic and enterprising son of a blacksmith from Tula. Peter loved all who were passionate about something, so he immediately jumped on the idea to support Nikita’s idea to open an iron factory in the Urals. With low interest rates from the government, Nikita got a loan and took off to the Urals and eventually became the main weapon supplier to the Russian army. His factory grew from one to six and by 1745 his sons had expanded his empire to 32 factories. In the 1800s, they began mining gold and platinum as well.
Peter the Great
The story behind the mansion at 43 Bolshaya Morskaya began in 1836 when Pavel Nikolaevich Demidov (grandson of the great Nikita Demidov) bought the existing property for 240,000₽. Recently married to one of the most beautiful women of the 19th C in Saint Petersburg, Aurora Shernval, Pavel wanted to build a home worthy of his young wife.
The Demidov Mansion at 43 Bolshaya Morskaya
Music and Choral Room (the center of the far room is accoustic)
They didn’t marry because of love and passion, it was simply a good deal. Pavel was one of the city’s most eligible bachelors – a millionaire with a passion of collecting rare beauties. Some of the items in his collection were silverware from Louis XIV, the Sancy diamond he bought to give to Aurora on their wedding.
Acquiring the Sancy diamond was no easy feat. It took quite some negotiating to get the French government to sell it to Pavel. He bought it for 80,000£ and it remained in the Demidov family until 1865 when it sold for 100,000£ to an Indian prince. The diamond is said to bring misfortune to its owners and has passed through the hands of many famous nobility: Charles of Burgundy, Henry III and Henry IV of France as well as James I of Scotland/England, the Demidovs, and William Waldorf Astor to name a few.
Before they could move into their new home, Pavel asked a family friend to redesign the house. The Demidov’s family friend just so happened to be one of the city’s most famous and beloved architects, August de Montferrand. The architect is famous for some of St. Petersburg’s most recognizable landmarks: St. Isaac’s Cathedral, Alexander Column, and the Monument to Nicholas I in St. Isaac’s Square. Montferrand was busy working on St. Isaac’s Cathedral at the time Pavel asked him to design his home, but he could not refuse his friend and agreed to the task.
He designed a beautiful mansion for them with its most notorious feature, the Malachite Hall. Never before had malachite been used as room decoration for more than just vases and other small decorative details, but Montferrand designed a room with malachite columns and malachite details all over the room in massive proportions. Another interesting fact about the Malachite Hall is that the malachite was mined from the Demidov’s plant in the Urals.
Malachite Hall before
Malachite Hall after
Beautiful parquet floors, malachite adornments on the walls and malachite columns and fireplace are among a long list of beautiful design long gone from the mansion.
The room was such a success that a new room was later designed in the Hermitage in the same style (also known as the Malachite Hall) and also on the iconostasis at St. Isaac’s Cathedral as pictured to the left. If you are at the Demidov Mansion today, you won’t be able to see any of that thanks to the Italians. No seriously, the Italian Embassy has spoiled it for us all but more on that to come!
It seems that the tale of the misfortune the Sancy diamond brings must be true. Tragedy struck the Demidov Mansion for the first time in 1840 when Pavel died of lung disease just a few months after the birth of their only child, Pavel Jr.
The Demidov fortune and business was split between Aurora and his brother Anatoly. However, Anatoly lived in Italy as Prince of San Donato and was married to Napoleon Bonaparte’s niece, Matilda Bonaparte. Due to this, he was considered an enemy to the crown and could not come back to manage the business. Aurora left for the Urals to manage the business and make improvements for the workers and the villagers near the plant.
Years after her husband’s death, she was visiting with friends when she met her second husband, Andrei Karamzin. She was 40 and he was 8 years younger. For this reason, many thought he only wanted her wealth. The couple was slow and skeptical to enter into a relationship, but they fell in love and got married in 1846. Andrei moved in with Aurora at the Demidov Mansion and took over managing the factories and started helping her raise her son. The next 8 years were the happiest of her life until tragedy struck once again. Karamzin was killed in war against the Turks in 1853.
In 1850, the Demidov Mansion was given to Pavel Jr, but they say he lost a game of cards and had to rent it out to the Italian embassy in 1864 for 10,000₽ a year.
In 1885, Pavel Jr. passed away from fever at age 30, and Aurora moved to Finland and spent the last of her days at her home there, helping the Finnish people. Many Finns believe that it was due to her influence over Alexander II that Finland received freedom from Russia. In Helsinki, you can find lingering traces of her in the names of streets, hospitals, etc. They say that even the Cruiser Aurora in St. Petersburg is named after her.
When asked about her tragic life she commented, “I wasn’t so unhappy. 4 men loved me on this earth. They said goodbye to life in the belief that I loved them just as much as they loved me. To love so many and to have been loved by them is a gift from God.” Until her death at age 94, she carried the names of both of her husbands always signing herself as Aurora Demidova – Karamzina.
Family Rooms at the Demidov Mansion
In 1874, the house was sold to Princess Natalia Fedorovna who was deeply religious. She opened a community center where anyone could come for spiritual discussion and prayer. It was the first center for Baptist religion in St. Petersburg.
She left Russia in the 1900s and the mansion was emptied until 1910 when the King of Italy bought the mansion for the Italian embassy. This is when the mansion was spoiled for us all! Sadly the Italians removed the malachite from the mansion in 1925 and then replaced the Demidov coat of arms with the Italian (understandable but the malachite?!).
In the 2000s, the mansion was given back to Russia and the Baltic Bank was housed in the Demidov mansion for many years. It now sits empty waiting for its next renters.
Entryway at the Demidov Mansion