The Russian Empress Maria Alexandrovna: “Upbringing by roses”

Text: Yuta Arbatskaya, Konstantyn Vikhlyayev

       It is known, that the Empress Maria Alexandrovna, who was the former owner of Livadia, was deeply involved in the park construction, advised to the gardeners, sent plants. Her recommendations and suggestions were the key factors that influenced on the landscape design of the royal residence in the Crimea. Let’s try to analyze briefly, where Maria derived knowledge of landscape gardening art, and how her attitude to gardening transformed in general over time.

       The future Russian Empress was born on July 27, 1824 in Darmstadt, in the family of the Grand Duke of Hesse Louis II. Mary’s mother was Wilhelmina of Baden, the Grand Duchess of Hesse.

Maria’s mother Wilhelmina of Baden. The Lithography. The Beginning of the XIX century.

Ludwig II of Hesse. The Lithography. The beginning of the XIX century

       Despite the fact that Mary spent her childhood in the castle in Jugenheime, that was 18 km from Darmstadt residence of his father, however, she had the status of a princess and used all the privileges according to her role in society. She was often taken out to the theater, for a walk and to do other activities, and impressionable girl absorbed the spirit of the time and the German way of life.

       The land of Hesse, and its capital of Darmstadt in particular, were the entire carpet of gardens and parks at the beginning of the XIX century. Back in 1814, ten years before the birth of Mary, the botanical garden was established at the University of Darmstadt, by the court architect of the Duke, Johann Hess. This botanical garden is still used today as a living manual of biology for students at the local university.

The corner of the botanical garden is in Darmstadt. The photo was taken in 2011

       Two English parks were located near Jugenheim: Schönbusch is one around the castle in Aschaffenburg, the other is near the castle of Oylbah. Both of them were full of marvelous beauty of the landscape constructions and park buildings. The gardens at the Benedictine Monastery in Seligenstadt didn’t remain behind from them. The monastery was famous for the Apothecary Garden, the complex included a garden of the Virgin Mary, the garden of the Abbey and the Baroque ornamental garden, which was the most interesting for us, as the rose garden existed in it.

English park is in the Castle of Schönbusch. The photo was taken in 2010

Monastery gardens of Seligenstadt . The photo was taken in 2010

       But the best landscaping work is still associated with the name of Mary’s mother, Wilhelmina of Baden. In 1810 she founded the first flower landscape garden in English style – Rosenhöhe, where the main decoration was an extensive rose garden; it was on the place of former vineyards, belonging to the Grand Duke. Thus, Mary’s mother certainly had a huge influence on her daughter by her gardening hobbies. Now the antique rose garden is restored here, in which there are more than 10,000 bushes.

The rose garden in Rosenhöhe park (Darmstadt, Germany). The photo was taken in 2009

A round wooden pergola is in the rose garden of Rosenhöhe

       We should mention two parks in the residences, belonging to both Mary’s grandmothers among these wonderful gardens of Hesse land, which existed in the days of her childhood. Mother of Ludwig II, Louise of Hesse- Darmstadt, owned a summer residence

The mansion of Louise of Hesse- Darmstadt in Furstenlager, 2011

Louise of Hesse- Darmstadt, Mary’s grandmother. Unknown author, 1790

       The other grandmother on mother’s line owned the Rohrbach castle (Heidelberg), around which the English park was constructed with hunting grounds. Finally, the castle in Jugenheime, the home of Princess Mary, was surrounded by the park too.

The castle in Jugenheime, where the future Empress Maria Alexandrovna spent her childhood.
The postcard was taken in the late XIX century.

       Thus, flowers and, especially, roses have surrounded Mary since childhood. However, not only parks and gardens filled her life. The beginning of the XIX century is the period of romanticism prosperity in literature, art, music and architecture. Hundreds, if not thousands of verses and poems were dedicated to the rose. In the early German Romanticism a flower becomes an expression of the romantic ideal to which the romantic hero constantly addresses. F. Novalis,
E. T. A. Gofman, I. Gete have left a vast poetic heritage. The sculpture on the subject of one of I.Gete’s poems was later accomplished and installed in the world’s largest rose garden - a garden of “European Rosarium” in Sangerhausen (Germany).

The composition of “The Boy and the Rose” in the "European Rosarium" garden.
The photo was taken in 2011

       The first third of the XIX century was marked by the unprecedented rise of solvent public interest in collecting of picturesque canvas. A magnificent collection of paintings and porcelain was assembled in the castle of Mary’s father, in Darmstadt. A floral still life genre valued among other works of art that had arisen in the Netherlands in the early XVII century. Somewhat later, it has become fashionable to depict genre scenes from the life of florists and flower markets.

Ya. F. Van Del. The Still. 1820s

Zh. E. Senten. The Flower Shop. 1870s.

       The opera was still the most influential of all the arts on the minds of educated people of that time. Opera dictated political views, attitudes and fashion.

The Opera house in Darmstadt. The Lithography of 1840

       The operas of Mozart, Rossini, Donizetti and Wagner were performed on the stage of the Municipal Theatre in Darmstadt. Dramatic art and opera in particular had a significant impact on various aspects of daily life of the citizens of Darmstadt as well as throughout Europe. It was about clothing and household accessories for women – a fan, a posy holder, a hat and an umbrella - and the floral motifs were used very often in the decoration of these items.

A fan with a picture of a rose in the middle of the XIX century



Posy holders of the beginning of the XIX century

       All those cute little things in all ages meant a lot for girls who dreamt of a beautiful love and a happy family life. And Princess Mary was not an exception. A variety of dresses were fashionable according to the aim of the entry among the girls and women of noble birth and just city dwellers. It was one style for the prom, and the other one for breakfast in the morning, it was the third style for the trip. In the presented water-colors of Rudolph Ackermann, the famous German publisher and inventor of the fashion, the silhouettes of dresses were depicted, that were worn in Germany in times of Princess Mary’s youth.

Dress for trips in the beginning of the XIX century

Prom dress in the beginning of the XIX century

Dress for the opera in the beginning of the XIX century

Evening dress in the early XIX century

       Finally, different kinds of diaries, albums, dried flowers, cards were always present in the fantasy world of young creatures. And that was not without roses. This is clearly demonstrated by paper lace cards, which were issued at that time and now costing a fortune in antique shops.



Lace postcards in the middle of the XIX century

       In the XIX century the Biedermeier style was formed in Germany and Austria (1818-1848), reflecting the lifestyle of the middle class of that epoch. The main attribute of the style was an abundance of floral motifs everywhere: flowers were in the tissues, paintings and accessories, as well as flowers in vases and pots have become an integral part of the dweller’s home interior of that time. The carpets with bright floral or ornamental patterns were put on the floors. There were pictures of a genre plan or a floral composition. The flowers in vases and luxury stands were obligatory attributes of the festively laid table. Upholstery fabric for chairs, armchairs, sofas and numerous bizarre settees also reflected a floral pattern. Jardinieres became widespread; these are skillfully made wooden stands for flowers. The bouquet in Biedermeier style (a small round bouquet) is relevant up to the present day, it is often used for wedding ceremonies.

Modern wedding bouquet in the Biedermeier style

       Let’s back to the Darmstadt opera. The heir, Grand Duke Alexander, while travelling around Europe, saw his future wife exactly here, on the performance of “Vestal” to the music by Gaspare Spontini on the 13th of March, 1839. [1] Maria, who was only 15 years old then, struck Alexander by beauty and grace. The wedding ceremony and the wedding itself took place on the 16 of April, 1841 in St. Petersburg. Princess Marie of Hesse took Orthodox faith and became the Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna. In this way the “adult” life of a girl from Darmstadt began.

C.Robertson. Portrait of Grand Duchess Maria Alexandrovna. 1850

      From the first days the Empress Alexandra Feodorovna, who was the wife of Nicholas I, began to take care of Maria Alexandrovna. While being German by nationality, they quickly found a common language. As far back at her homeland Princess Mary had heard that the Russian tsarina had the nickname “White Flower” or “White Rose”, which was given in her childhood. Picturesque, silver, porcelain and live roses surrounded Alexandra Feodorovna everywhere and always. Thousands of roses grew in Peterhof, at the Alexandria dacha, on the Empress Island and on the Olga Island, at the Rose Pavilion “Ozerki” in Peterhof, built specifically for the Empress Alexandra Feodorovna by the project of A. Shtakenshneyder in 1845-1848.

L.Premazzi. This is the Rose Pavilion in Peterhof. 1850

L.Premazzi. This is the Rose Pavilion in Peterhof. 1850

       But Maria was not inclined to vivid life. Anna Tyutcheva, who was the maid of honor wrote about her restraint: “She could be well imagined under a monastic veil, kneeling in the shadow of the high Gothic arches”. However, necessary visits to the balls, concerts and performances, constant visits, audiences, presentations of new faces, congratulations of royal personages - all of this was a mandatory court etiquette that was required to keep strictly.

       From her first days in St. Petersburg, Maria, whether she wanted it or not, saw all the Petersburg society in all its beauty, its pomposity and narcissism. The passion for pomp in the grand salons hit her at every turn. The number of flowers, required for design, was merely fantastic.

M. Zichi. Ceremonial dinner in the Concert Hall of the Winter Palace on the occasion of a visit of German Emperor Wilhelm I to St. Petersburg. 1873.
Tall vases with flowers are on the table

       Flower “rivers”, “lakes” and “waterfalls” were arranged at dinner parties and banquets; garlands of flowers, laid out on a table or hanging on the edges were widely used. In the XIX century an art of decorative flower arrangement appeared, when the bouquets began to compile for the first time by the laws of harmony of color, shape, composition and size of the bouquet. These first in the modern sense floral arrangements are characterized by large size, grandeur and symmetry, most had either a round or flat shape, decorated with bows, ruches, ribbons and lace.

       Initially, the abundance of fruits that was available to the Russian aristocracy even in the midst of the fiercest winter, extremely surprised Grand Duchess. However, in the course of time, having got acquainted with the parks and gardens of Peterhof, Tsarskoye Selo, Gatchina, Oranienbaum, and mainly with the royal greenhouses, she was not surprised any more. Moreover, she ordered rare exotic fruit and flowers, while arranging dinner parties or balls, and an apple tree with fruits, which great princess herself picked from the tree, was placed in the tub by her order in fall in Tsarskoye Selo, in Catherine’s bedroom, which served as a dining room for Maria Alexandrovna, there were baskets of strawberries in spring.

       Flowers played a special role at balls. Ballroom floral fashion has changed with the development of gardening and improved methods of flower delivery from abroad. Making the ballroom was an obligatory element of the holiday. Garlands and bouquets of flowers were produced very dense at the time of Maria Alexandrovna. But the most important things at the ball were floral decorations on ladies’ ballroom dresses. Oh, how much tears and delight, how many wonderful words were devoted to this science! The beginning of the ballroom season led the female part of society in terrible commotion each time. All the conversations were discussions of fashion toilets and preparation for the forthcoming entry. As for accessories for ballroom dresses, the roses have always been preferred in the floral diversity, although other flowers are not forgotten. The roses were in decoration of dresses, hair, ball bags, painting of fans and carne de bal, artificial roses attached to the shoes.

       Posy holder (porte- bouquet) was also required for the lady at the ball, the case where the bouquet of flowers could be put. A dancing lady had to have fresh flowers in her hands or in a corsage. Sometimes this bouquet was a kind of invitation card to a dance.

M. Zichi. The ball in honor of Alexander II, organized by Helsingfors city
in September, 1863, in the building of the railway station. 1864

The ball-dress Maria Alexandrovna. 1855-1859

       There were certain rules in the flower ballroom etiquette; especially strict requirements were to the floral decorations of ladies’ toilets at the official court events. Straw hats, included in vogue in the XVIII century for the first time, were always decorated by flowers, and fashion magazines were beginning to appear regularly since the beginning of the XIX century in Russia, the floral decorations of hats changed actually every month. During 1823-1833 there were white, green and pink hats in fashion alternately, the branch of roses in tone served as a main addition to them.

       In 1830 gift “ladies botany”, which is called “Selam, or the Language of Flowers”, written by the poet and translator D.P. Oznobishin in St. Petersburg, was printed. But the novel “Sabina Gerfeld or dangers of the imagination” became the real encyclopedia of etiquette language of flowers and detailed “instructions” for its use. It was edited in Paris in 1798, and in 1802 it was translated from French and was offered to Russian reader.

       The simplicity and accessibility of flowers’ language was evident. Some word or phrase corresponded to each plant or flower with the help of which it was possible to express romantic feelings, doubts and other amorous feelings, which were inadmissible for open expression. Almost every floral embroidery or a bouquet of flowers represented a message, compliment or a puzzle. Declaration of love, heart feelings and accusations of excessive coldness were read by the colour and shape of flowers. The type and shape of flowers, their combination with each other or the color shade of each of them allowed forming entire monologues and lengthy explanations.

Postcard series “The Language of Flowers”. The beginning of the XIX century

       A rose took the first place in flower “alphabet of love”. For instance, a red rose stands for “you have won my heart, and yellow rose expressed doubts: “Is your love sincere?”; white rose called to silence. Even rose petals, thorns (or intentional lack of it), unblown buds had their own lines: “yes” was a petal, “no” was a rose branch, red bud was “hope”, white one was “I save old feelings”.

       The first rule of this language “grammar” consisted of the location of flowers, stood out for three particularly important areas: on the head, chest and directly at the heart. For example, the language of calendula flowers meant sadness, grief, anguish, anxiety. If they were fastened on the chest, it showed that its owner missed somebody and was sad, but calendula, coupled with a rose, talked about the sweet agony of love. The second rule of flowers’ language was to create a negative, negatory or opposite meaning by “turning” the flower. So, pansies attached (or pictured in a letter, note) in the normal, upright position, asked: “remember me”. The same upside down flowers urged not to remember, but rather forget.

       Finally, let’s say a word about the ball hairstyles. They were also decorated with flowers. At the turn of 1830-1840’s the wreath “a la Taglioni” was the most spectacular floral decoration, which was made of Japanese roses. By the way, the tour of Italian dancer Marie Taglioni in St. Petersburg in 1837-1842 spawned fashion craze for floral bouquets for actors. There was even the term “flower madness”, which meant enthusiastic praise of artists with flowers in the 1840s. It was connected with the revival of Italian opera in Russia after a 20-year break. There was disturbance, bordering on insanity under the influence of Italian actors’ performances in a society. Bouquets and wreaths flew to the scene, the audience moaned with delight. Adoration turned into a craze of flower bouquets, flowers were bought from sellers outright before the show, and some of the fans even began to design the floral arrangements on their own to attract somehow favorite singers’ attention. Heir himself, Grand Duke Alexander, and his wife often came to the opera.

The wreath “a la Taglioni”. The postcard of the middle of the XIX century

Marie Taglioni. The Lithography. The first half of the XIX century

       There had been many gardens and parks, both imperial and private, in the Russian Empire by arrival time of Princess Mary in St. Petersburg, although the systems of national development and promotion of horticultural affair had not existed. Botanical Gardens functioned in some large cities and the most important agricultural areas. These were: Imperial garden in St. Petersburg and the Crimea, Botanical Gardens under Moscow, Warsaw, Kiev and Dorpat universities as well as in Kremenetz, Kharkov, military and botanical garden in Sukhum. All of the imperial palaces had conservatories and greenhouses with exotic heat-loving plants.

       On the 18 of February, 1855, Nicholas I died, and the coronation of Alexander II and Maria Alexandrovna took place the following year. The ceremony happened in the Assumption Cathedral of Moscow Kremlin, and the celebrations lasted from 14 to 26 of August, 1856.

M.Zichi. The coronation of Alexander II in the Dormition Cathedral in August, 26, 1856. 1856

       Autumn exhibition was timed to this event by Moscow Society of Horticulture lovers. It was opened at the Great Hall of the Fourth Moscow gymnasium on the 18 of August. A full index of the exhibition with French translation came into the market on the second day. Empress Maria Alexandrovna could not attend gardeners, but Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna and Prince P. G. Oldenburgsky examined in detail all of the exhibits, and as indicated in the report, “deigned to express full pleasure and write their names in memory of their visit”.

       Imperial Russian Society of Horticulture, arising in 1858 in St. Petersburg, caused real revolution in dissemination of advanced knowledge about the culture of flowers, produced in Russia. It can be argued, that with the birth of the capital community of professional gardeners-practitioners and scientists-botanists under the guardianship of the highest Russian aristocracy began the craze of flowers in Russia. The Empress Maria Alexandrovna, the Dowager Empress Alexandra Feodorovna (the year before death), Grand Duchess Alexandra, Elena Pavlovna, Maria Nikolaevna, Prince Peter G. of Oldenburg became the honorary members of the Society in 1859. Patron of the Society - the Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolaevich the older, Chairman of the Board of Trustees - State Chancellor, Count Karl Nesselrode.

       Since the first day of the Society foundation, one of the main tasks had been to popularize floriculture through annual public exhibitions of gardening. Typically, they were held in Manezh.

View from the stairs at the entrance to the “building in Moorish style”. The picture of the journal “Bulletin of the Russian Society of Horticulture”. 1860

       The leaders of the Society of Horticulture in Moscow also had a grand spring exhibition in 1861 against the background of successfully carried out exhibitions in the previous three years in St. Petersburg.

L.Premazzi. Flower Exhibition in Moscow in 1861

       Such a general picture, described above, had represented the horticulture and floriculture in Imperial Russia by 1861. Maria initially only watched increasing day by day interest of floricultural hobby of the capital nobility; her possible activity limited three things in this case, these were: noted name of Dowager Empress Alexandra Feodorovna as the patron of all Russian Agriculture and Horticulture Societies, the need to educate her own children and, finally, poor health, undermined by frequent births (the eighth child was born in 1860). Doctors would discover tuberculosis later, in the early 1870s.

       Maria, being the Grand Duchess, took trips to the water resorts in Germany almost every year, as it was accepted at the imperial court. In Europe she had an opportunity to compare the situation in floriculture in St. Petersburg and Moscow.

       Thus, she had had innumerable examples concerning to the possible future structure of Livadia by the time of arrival of the Empress Maria Alexandrovna in the Crimea. The memory of the “rose” predilections of mother in Darmstadt, “rose mania” of mother-in-law Alexandra Feodorovna, the whole flower entourage of ballroom and formal presentations, as well as frequent public flower exhibitions in St. Petersburg, undoubtedly served as awakening of the sovereign’s interest in horticulture and floriculture. Therefore, an unexpected gift from her husband - Livadia - was very helpful. In other words, good coincidence of circumstances and dormant for the time being desire to own cozy nook fully appeared, when the Empress first stepped by her foot on the blessed land of Livadia...