The Skating Minister.
Henry Raeburn, circa 1795.
Courtesy of the Scottish
National Gallery, Edinburgh.

Words by Tiago Lorga

The temperatures go down and the spirits go high. The white surroundings set the stage for an elegant, extravagant and spectacular congress. Furs and rare velvets, gold and silver, men and women... They all concur to draw a magnificent sight, a true winter wonder.

The Four Elements: Water.
Claude Deruet, 1637-42.
Courtesy of the Musée
des Beaux-Arts, Orléans.

A hazy, incense-filled, early morning hides a shimmering sun high above the clouds. The tremulous light is shyly enhanced by a bright whiteness. Snow reigns supreme. The cold, quiet hours of dawn gradually wake up from their candid dreams. The landscape is blurred and only gentle noises can be heard. The fountains are still and the lawns covered with a thick layer of snow. In the labyrinthine bosquets, the classical statuary is frozen in mid-action. These marble blocks sculpted by human hand stand petrified in the glacial setting. Their naked bodies, covered with snow, are subtlety mesmerized by the wonders of winter. Only marble and snow.

Gradually, the fog brightens up and the gardens become the concretization of an indefinite and blurred reverie, where white in its purest form can be silently admired. Winter holds a mysterious mood—almost as a slowdown in the rhythm of the natural order. Time is conquered by a dark and damp temperament and nostalgic sighs of an unconscious despair can be heard, savagely claiming for rose-gold evening skies as a promise of Spring. A sense of inner reflection prevails over the enthralling variety of life in summertime.

Although the sacred importance of Winter, which can bring unhappy thoughts and anhedonic feelings, this season can be blissfully celebrated. Winter is also a time of liberation, the so needed recovery of the excesses from Summer and the ripening of the deciduous soul of Autumn. Cold, snow and frost are only the lacquer covering the cocoon of a glorious metamorphosis—the joyful beginning of Spring, spreading its wings after a latent, hibernated state.

Motion and Speed

In the 17th Century, Vienna and Versailles spent these niveous months entertained with magnificent sledge parties. After lunch, courtiers would gather in the frozen gardens and courtyards to perform this elegant amusement, an inheritance from the Scandinavian Courts. The absolute tranquillity of the season would be ravaged by the sudden sounds of horse-drawn sledges rapidly ripping through the snowy fields. Horses wore warm outfits and colourful harnesses, crampon shoes and silver bells. Sledges were authentic masterpieces, some of them gilded as royal thrones, as if a divine carriage had descended from heaven. Other sledges were fashionably designed similar to animals so it wouldn’t be uncommon to gaze a movable menagerie playing around, blessed by other mythological creatures, pagan gods and goddesses.

Courtiers would feel as if they were in the Hippodrome of Constantinople or in the Circus Maximus, enthralled and glorified by the grandiosity of those long gone races. These earthly Phaetons held the horses’ reins tight, delighted by the power of these sliding bigas. A nobleman would be seen conducting a magnificent chariot, between the sky and the waters of the frozen lake, carrying a lady wrapped in ermine mantles and stoat coats enthusiastically savouring the ecstasy of speed. Scarves, feathers and light silky tissues reproduced the inconstant beams of this wavy, dancing thrust.

Portrait of Madame François Tronchin.
Jean-Étienne Liotard, 1758.
Courtesy of the Musée
d’Art et d’Histoire, Geneva.

These parties were brighter at dusk as they were composed by reflexes. Snow, silver and diamonds. The horses’ argentine bridles captured the essence of the moonlight. The selenic rays performed an illusionistic trick between the tiaras and the silver bells, reflecting irregular flares in the soft snow. Even though the passing hours brought colder winds with them, these parties couldn’t surrender to such banal evidence. Frost and low temperatures wouldn’t frighten these brave knights that weren’t heading for a battlefield, but rather to a marvellous parade of beauty and joie de vivre. Uncountable servants with hot chocolate, cake and pastry provided the delicatessen needed to fuel this courageous entourage.

The sledge races freed the courtesans from the melancholic and lethargic feeling of the maladie of Winter, with these glorious barges facing oceans of ice. The sound of horses breaking the hollow silence of the snow created a jolly tune together with the inconstant rhythm of dozens of little tinkling bells. Under soft snowflakes descending from the sky, like particles of celestial dust, the fortunate crowd was blessed—almost as a magic powder that in some months would turn these exciting rides into vivacious dances under the warm breezes of Spring.

From far away, these superb gatherings evoked the image of huge swans sliding above the surface of a frozen lake, proudly showing off an unimaginable explosion of silk bows, powdered wings, silver bells and ice-white diamonds, with all its grace and glory, exhaling the last breaths of an apotheotic age where even the toughest season was celebrated in a ravishing and thrilling flush of speed and elegance.

Although snow could mean a break from the usual routine, other places saw it more like a circumstance to which they had to adapt to... Russia and Northern European kingdoms had to count on arduous frosty months and play according to the rules dictated by the falling snowflakes. For the occasion of her coronation, Catherine the Great had to travel from Saint Petersburg to Moscow and, like an immense candlelit procession, her entourage impressed by the characteristic pomp of the Romanovs as a flock of magnificent sleighs crossed the frozen plains of Russia. Escorted by innumerable horsemen, the Empress, along with dozens of large sleighs carrying the royal court in this harsh journey of thirteen days, suffered the effects of this rather uncomfortable marathon.

“Winter is the so
needed recovery of
the excesses from
Summer and the ripening
of the deciduous
soul of Autumn”

A massive pearl amongst smaller ones, the imperial sleigh was said to be an authentic miniature palace as it was warmed by porcelain stoves and endowed with a salon, a small library and a bedroom. Like elaborate carriages deprived from their wheels, these sleighs were a necessity in an Empire where rigorous winters and snowy months were a certainty. These fabulous terrestrial barges moved with surprising agility, exhibiting, between mythological and artistic motifs, the coat of arms of their masters. The royal entourage passed through forgotten villages and immense forests, where wolves and bears roamed, endlessly lost in this wintry landscape, apart from the warmth of humankind, facing a desert of a desolated white matter.

Although rigorous conditions imposed by the severe climate, Russia in winter wasn’t by all means dull. This season involved moving from the summer residences of Peterhof and Tsarskoye Selo in the beginning of Autumn to the vast Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg, replacing the bucolic peace of the countryside with the bohemian city lifestyle. Snow could be seen either as problem, devastating crops and reason of grief and suffering, or as endless possibilities of entertainment for the privileged. In the outskirts of the cities, massive piles of ice served as hills where sled rides were held. These were reinforced by wooden supports and composed of two or three slopes, providing an opportunity to achieve brief seconds of great speed.

At the gardens of Oranienbaum, a palace west of Saint Petersburg, Catherine the Great is said to have ordered a pavilion with a sledding hill (Katalnaya Gorka) for wheeled carts to be built, recreating the traditional piles of ice. The popularity of these “Russian mountains” was such that it spread to Europe, arriving in Paris as ‘montagnes russes’, thus the primitive roller coasters.

Serenity and Stillness

Albeit speed lures innumerable fans, stillness has a charm of its own. Snow provided not only a sliding surface as well as a building material: ice. As a matter of fact, during the winter of 1739-40, the Empress of Russia, Anna Ivanova, commissioned an ice palace on the frozen Neva river as a part of the celebration of Russia’s victory over the Ottoman Empire. A palatial construction made entirely out of ice!

Huge blocks were gathered and held together with a substantial amount of water. The outer walls were lined with ice sculptures (including an elephant!) and the garden was composed of ice trees nesting ice birds. There was even half a dozen cannons that could actually fire. Inside, chambers, rooms and a bridal suite with furniture made of ice, where an actual marriage was celebrated under these frigid temperatures. Ironically, this whimsical, flamboyant affair began to melt away in March, until gradually, what were previously imposing walls, turned to drops of water, fading away an incoherent reverie—disappearing in streams—leaving behind not even the slightest of traces, buried deep down in the unceasing flow of time.

Sleighride of the Imperial Court, Detail.
Franz Michael Augustin von Purgau, 1766.
Courtesy of the Kaiserliche Wagenburg Wien.

Not only can snow be a building material as it can also provide the creation of a whole new setting, carving mountain peaks and enchanting forests. Combining the sacred and historical influences of both German pagan mysticism and an incommensurate taste for the frivolous excesses of French baroque, king Ludwig II achieved an unparalleled world of fantasy.

He lived as the protagonist of diverse whims and fables. His aesthetic ideals were the product of a bewitched mind, prisoner of a constant phlegmatic hypnosis, like a moth drawn by a light of wonder, moved by an impetuous yet unexplainable need of consecration. Beauty and greatness were the aim of his extravagant and colossal legacy. Ludwig would arrive at his cherished Linderhof Palace where two life-scale Meissen peacocks were serenely waiting for him, guarding the entrance of the building. Inside, in the sumptuous yet rather private atmosphere of the Hall of Mirrors, the King spent his nights reading, surrounded by the materialization of his wildest dreams—palaces, works of art and music.

“An apotheotic
age where even the
toughest season was
celebrated in a ravishing
and thrilling flush of
speed and elegance”

Although eccentric and prone to a life of seclusion, Winter brought him happiness. His palaces gained a whole new impact when surrounded by the high, snowy mountains. At that time of the year, Linderhof would become a frozen nymphaeum, a small universe isolated from the rest of the world. A place of peace and tranquillity, where tales conquered a physical dimension and thoughts sled in silence.

A magic energy could be felt as the static stone waterfall resembled a thin silver chain embracing the great fountain as a tarnished mirror. For Ludwig, Winter brought him blessed solitude and a nostalgic tenderness. The snow-covered lawns and lakes would achieve a new level of existence, as well as the forests and the hills. Regular landscapes would look more appealing, inspiring verses and arousing an inner sense of balance, where everything was ravishing and serene. Music, poetry and dreams.

Even today such silence and allure can be admired. From the peaks of the highest mountains, where one can be alone, hearing solely one’s own breath and the cold winds passing by, while facing the slopes to be skied. The world stands as if frozen underneath the skier’s feet. And silence, endless silence, turning the skier to a spectator of his own world. Snow is, in fact, a heavenly matter as only heavens can cover the earth with such charm and fondness.

scala regia magazine

Opening spread of the paper version.