In the 1820s, Russian noblemen commissioned a number of Palladian residences in Novorossiya, primarily in Odessa.
In the period following the Napoleonic wars, the new city of Odessa emerged as Russia's southern capital with a vibrant cosmopolitan society centred on a handful of Russian aristocrats and Polish ladies such as Zofia Potocka and Karolina Rzewuska. According to Filipp Vigel, the viceroy's court in Odessa looked like a "small capital of an imperial fürst". While many Neoclassical buildings appeared in Odessa, the Crimea (or Taurica, as it was then better known) was still perceived as a wild, exotic hinterland. The mid-1820s saw the appearance of highly popular Romantic works celebrating its rugged beauty, such as Alexander Pushkin's poem The Fountain of Bakhchisaray and Adam Mickiewicz's Crimean Sonnets. Both poets were fascinated with Lord Byron's Oriental romances and pictured the Crimea as an exotic land of Tartar Muslim traditions which had flourished in the Khanate of Crimea until its demise in 1783.
Mikhail Vorontsov was appointed Viceroy of Novorossiya in May 1823. Even before their arrival in Odessa, the Vorontsovs started buying up lands in the southwest of Crimea, which was sparsely populated and little known at the time. Alupka was bought in 1824 from colonel Theodosios Reveliotis, the owner of Livadia and Oreanda. By that time, the Vorontsovs also had property in Gurzuf, Massandra,
Ai-Danil, and Cape Martian.
Original design and ethos
Prince Mikhail Vorontsov
(1782–1856) commissioned the palace for use as his own summer residence.
The Vorontsov Palace was commissioned as a summer residence for the Governor-General of Novorossiya, Prince Mikhail Semyonovich Vorontsov (born 1782 – died 1856). The Prince was a dedicated Anglophile. His father, Semyon Vorontsov, had been Catherine the Great's ambassador to England, and the Prince had been educated in London. His sister, Catherine, had married an English aristocrat and become the châtelaine of one of England's grandest country houses, Wilton House. On the accession of Paul I, in 1796, Semyon Vorontsov fell from favour and his estates confiscated and not returned until 1801, after the accession of Alexander 1. It is therefore unsurprising that he chose to reside with his daughter in England until his death and that Mikhail Vorontsov was a frequent visitor to that country.
Vorontsov had been purchasing land from the local Tartars for the site of his new palace at Alupka from 1823; however, the acquisition had been part of a deal which necessitated Vorontsov to build a new mosque. Part of the site had already been planted with fine trees in 1787 for Prince Potemkin by the English landscape gardener
William Gould as part of Potemkin's "improvements" to the area in perpetration of a visitation by Catherine the Great following Potemkin's bloodless annexation of the Crimea to Russia. On acquiring ownership of the site, Vorontsov immediately employed the German gardener
Karl Kebach to further improve the site and layout the grounds and gardens for the proposed new palace.
Thomas Harrison's abandoned classical design for the garden facade centred on an exedra; this feature was to be retained in the new plan.
In 1824, the architect
Philip Elson was commissioned to build a small house for the Vorontsov family to inhabit while the new palace was under construction. Now much altered in form, and known as the Asiatic Pavilion, this building still stands.
Originally, the prince wanted a strictly Classical design, and plans for such a design were executed, in Chester by architect Thomas Harrison and modified, on site, by Odessa architect Francesco Boffo. The two architects had previously worked together on the design for Vorontsov's official residence in Odessa. Harrison's plans for he palace at Alupka show a classical villa on the site of the present palace's corps de logis with bedroom floors below, on what are now the lower terraces of the present palace. On the garden front, facing the sea, the plans show a large double height classical exedra; Vorontsov must have approved of this concept as it was the only feature (albeit transformed to an Islamic style), to be incorporated from Harrison's plans into the new plans.
Construction began in 1828, however, it was suspended in June 1831 before the building has risen from its foundations. This may have been because the principal architect Harrison had died the previous year and Boffo working alone may not have been an option – his alterations to Harrison's plans for the Governor's residence in Odessa had been unfavourably received.
Change of plan
Architecturally at odds with the northern entrance facade, Blore's Islamic southern garden façade has a massive central exedra which forms an open mosque-like vestibule
The Jama Masjid
) was the inspiration for Blore's new design.
Vorontsov had traveled widely in England, and had doubtless seen the newly emerging, but retrospective, Jacobethan style of architecture – a hybrid revival styles based on the English buildings of the late 16th and early 17th centuries, which, in turn, had been influenced by the English Renaissance style which had belatedly evolved from the Italian Renaissance style of a century earlier. Vorontsov decided to review the design in order to incorporate these new trends from Western European architecture.
This major change from a Classical design to a far more complex revival style, little known in Russia, meant Vorontsov had to find an alternative architect to execute a new design. This was further complicated by Vorontsov's desire to not only have a loose Jacobean style, but also to incorporate motifs from Islamic architecture so as to highlight the oriental strain evident in the Khan's Palace, Enikale Fort, and other local Tatar architecture. The resulting design was to highlight the Crimea's position as a place where the East and West meet. It was a radical departure from the Neoclassical strain that dominated the Russian architecture of the period.
As a result of the expansion of the British Empire, a similar approach was also gaining popularity in Britain. An Anglicised interpretation of Islamic architecture is exemplified by the Brighton Royal Pavilion, completed in 1823, and the Sezincote House, completed a few years earlier. Both these buildings drew heavily on the Islamic motifs, which were later to be evident at the Vorontsov Palace and were new and novel designs at the time of the Prince's visit to England.
Vorontsov decided upon the British architect Edward Blore to redesign and complete the building. Blore was a curious choice of architect; though able his work has often been often considered bland and uninspired. The eminent architectural historian Howard Colvin claimed that "a dull competence pervaded all his work", while the country house architectural expert Mark Girouard has described Blore as "a bit of a bore."  However, Blore's stolid and conventional designs were admired by the English Tory aristocracy – a class to which Vorontsov's sister belonged and for whom Blore had worked at Wilton. The Anglophile Vorontsov was also a great admirer and friend of Sir Walter Scott for whom Blore had worked at the great Scottish baronial country house Abbotsford; therefore it seems likely that these latter connections led Vorontsov to Blore.
Blore had already worked on many grand British buildings and a couple of buildings in colonial Australia. Blore himself did not visit the town of Alupka, however, he was well informed about the area's mountainous landscape and terrain. Construction restarted in 1830, under the supervision of Blore's fellow architect William Hunt.
The Western Gatehouse gives access to the warren of secondary wings. On the right, to the Shuvalov Passage and main entrance, and on the left, to the stables and staff wings.
Designed to resemble a medieval street, the Shuvalov Passage leads from the Western Gatehouse, through the secondary wings, to the forecourt before the principal entrance in the northern facade
Blore's new plan for the corps de logis of house was constrained by Vorontsov's wish to use the footings and foundations which had been built for Harrison's original design; this severely restricted the shape, size and layout of the palaces principal rooms. However, rather than erect a compact and low classical villa, as Harrison had designed, Blore's plan was radically different, with strong English Tudor Renaissance features on the northern side, and an eclectic medley of western and Islamic features on the southern. The central bay of the southern facade was inspired by Delhi's Jummah Masjid mosque, which enabled the classical exedra of Harrison's design to be incorporated, once given an Islamic makeover, harmoniously into the design.
In places, the seemingly at odds architectural styles can be viewed simultaneously; this is particularly so in the chimney stacks which resemble Islamic minarets. These coupled with the castellated parapets add what appears to be an almost Moorish element to the late English Renaissance air of the northern facade.
However, it is the southern garden facade which displays the strongest of the building's Islamic influences; it has a flat roof and is topped by two minaret-style towers at its centre. These minarets flank the massive, central bay, this takes the form of a projecting double height porch entered through a high Islamic horseshoe arch. The interior of the porch takes the form of an exedra, which is really an elaborately decorated open vestibule; it has an inscribed Shahada stating "There is no God but Allah" in Arabic. The porch is flanked by two short wings, each of two bays and adorned with cast iron balconies and verandahs overlooking over the terraces and their statuary.
While the designs for the corps de logis were confined by the foundations of Harrison's earlier plan, the secondary wings and precincts were not. Abandoning completely Harrisons concept of bedrooms set in terraces beneath the corp de logis, Blore's assistant architect, Hunt, opted for the typical vast sprawling wings and servants' quarters of the 19th century English country house. These took full advantage of the gradients and topography of the site, and with their courtyards came to resemble a small medieval, fortified town of towers and high castellated walls. Nowhere is this more evident than the Shuvalov Passage, an enclosed carriage drive squeezed between the high walls of two wings, leading from the castellated Western Gatehouse to the forecourt before the northern facade. The passage, which twists and turn beneath high wall and towers and even passes under a bridge, resembles the street of a medieval town, rather than the approach to a country house.
The North Forecourt, accessed from the Shuvalov Passage which emerges from the lefthand arch, serves as a cour d'honneur
to the corps de logis
(to the left). To the right, can be seens part of the vast service wings and stables
Vorotsov imported thousands of his serfs from the Moscow, Vladimir, and Voronezh governorates of the Russian Empire to construct the palace. These unpaid workers performed all the labour by hand, aided only by primitive hand tools. Masons were also brought in to help with the construction. The palace's ashlar blocks were made from a local greenish-gray tinge diabase, chosen for its unique colour to match the colours of the surrounding mountainous landscape and forest greenery. All other building materials were imported from outside the Empire.
One of the first of the palace's many rooms to be completed was the main dining room, built from 1830 to 1834. The principal central wing of the mansion was constructed from 1831 to 1837. Between 1841 and 1842, a billiard room was constructed adjoining the dining room. From 1838 through to 1844, the guest wing, the east wing, towers, the service wing, and the front entrance were completed. The final wing built of the mansion was the library wing; this was under construction from 1842 to 1844. The remaining four years of building works were spent on the palace's interior decoration.
William Hunt, the onsite architect employed to oversee Blore's design, while remaining faithful to Blore's overall plans, was not afraid to alter them. Most notably, the Western Gatehouse, the main approach to the palace, was intended to have octagonal towers, but Hunt redesigned the gatehouse in an English 14th-century castle style, with solid round towers and machicolations, nearly identical to the towers at Bodiam Castle, East Sussex.
After completion of the palace, Hunt remained at Alupka working on an assortment of projects in and around the estate building long carriage drives, roads and structural improvements to the gardens surrounding the palace. One of his largest projects was an extension to the palace itself, the Shuvalov wing, which was to be the summer retreat of the Vorontsov's daughter Countess Sofia Shuvalova and her children, the countess was estranged from her husband This wing linked the palace to the western gatehouse, and created the enclosed Shuvalov Passage leading to the main entrance. Hunt remained in the Prince's employ until his retirement in 1852.