Corinthia and Catherine the Great


It was recently announced that Corinthia is contributing towards the restoration of a painting by the Russian artist Dimitri Grigoryevich Levitsky. What enticed Corinthia to do this? What is the history and allegorical meaning of this painting?

This oils on canvas painting is a full-length portrait of Empress Catherine the Great of Russia and left for Moscow in early August to be the prime  artefact of an exhibition at the Tsaritsyno Palace, where it will remain on show  for five months.

Portrait of Catherine II of Russia also known as Catherine the Great, by  Dimitri Grigoryevich Levitsky.

Corinthia is delighted to be associated with this venture in Russia where it already prides itself with a successful Corinthia Hotel in St Petersburg with the adjoining Nevskij Plaza Retail and Commercial Centre, together with an ongoing project for a new Moscow Corinthia Hotel and Residences, which is planned to open in 2022. This would be a gesture to further strengthen its commercial and cultural ties with this great country.

This large full-length portrait (257x176cm) is found in the Ambassadors Room in the President’s Palace (formerly the Grand Master’s Palace) in Valletta, Malta. From visual documentation we know that it hung there at least as early as the 1850s, though one can venture an earlier date, namely its arrival in Malta. 

How and why did this portrait of the Russian Empress find itself in Malta? Is there a hidden meaning or message behind this work?

The story takes us back to the times of Grand Master Emmanuel de Rohan who ruled Malta during 1775-1797. Empress Catherine of Russia concentrated on peace with the major Western powers but showed an opposite attitude towards the Black Sea. The Russians had won two wars against the Ottomans, conquering the Crimean peninsula and a large part of the northern coast of the Black Sea. Catherine strongly believed in the importance of a Russian fleet in the Mediterranean, which also attracted economic benefits. The Order of Malta, which was then ruling that island in the centre of the Mediterranean was certainly an attraction. Russia appointed several consuls in the Mediterranean to develop political, military and commercial ties. Antonio Psaro, a decorated Russian naval officer of Greek origin, arrived in Malta as consul on 2 May 1784. There was some good chemistry with the Grand Master de Rohan. We know that in May-June 1787, Psaro travelled from Malta to Crimea where the Empress was visiting, and there obtained a royal audience. He presented her with some gifts from the Grand Master and she was most appreciative. Probably, the idea of this portrait sprouted during this visit. 

In order to reciprocate and show her interest in retaining excellent Russia-Malta relations, the Empress sent the Grand Master her own full-length oils on canvas portrait by the renowned portraitist, Dimitri Levitsky (1735 – 1822).

           Levitsky: Self-portrait 

Catherine did not like being portrayed by certain artists who had failed to avoid showing some wrinkles or made her look too rough. So she actually ordered painters to follow the portraiture of a particular artist, Rokotov. Almost certainly, Levitsky followed this manner, otherwise the Empress would not have donated it to the Grand Master. We know that the painting was completed in 1787 since this date has been inserted by the artist near his signature.   

The artist’s signature and the date 1787 inserted on the bottom right corner of the painting.

We are equally sure it arrived in Malta in early 1790 since there is a letter of thanks written in French by Grand Master de Rohan, dated 20 February 1790 and addressed to the Empress, thanking her for the recently received gift. This letter is still conserved in the Archive of Foreign Policy of the Russian Empire ( AVPRI) in Moscow.

Letter of thanks by Grand Master de Rohan to Empress Catherine of Russia ( 20 February 1790)

Let us look closely at this painting.

The Empress is shown as a Russian Minerva and a protectress of her kingdom. It is an allegorical work of art. In the landscape behind the vast background curtain, one notices a rainbow which symbolises peace and security. This idea of peace is echoed in the abundant olive tree. Catherine wears an antique costume with a golden mantle trimmed with ermine. She wears a sandal, which is a typical Minerva sandal, and carries a laurel crown on her head, signifying status or victory. 

(Detail) Catherine II wears a laurel crown on her head

She wears a light cuirass and carries a plumed helmet behind her back  which is only slightly visible on her left.  Across her chest is the St George’s brown and black sash and around her neck she wears the golden chain of the Order of St Andrew the First-Called .

On her left side,  just above the sash,  she wears the diamond-shaped star of the Order of St George, which was the highest decoration of Russia.

The sword which she holds with her right hand, points downwards, is sheathed and is also decorated with laurel leaves. All these details symbolise peace.

  On the lowermost part is a shield with the words ‘And thy sword, entwined with laurels, and sheathed, halted the war”, whilst on the opposite right corner there is Levitsky’s signature and the date 1787. The message is one of power and glory with which she ruled the Russian nation and wanted to be revered by others.  

Catherine II (1729-1796), widely referred to as Catherine the Great, has been portrayed by artists many times. It is estimated that some 500 portraits have survived, from grand ones to miniatures. This empress is indeed a major personality in Russian history. And yet she was not Russian. She was a German princess, Sophie Auguste Friederike von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg. She came to power after a coup d’état which she herself had organised, overthrowing her own husband Peter III. She revitalized Russia which she boosted into one of the great European powers. Definitely an exceptional character to read about! 

The group from Heritage Malta who contributed towards the conservation, together with Mr Jean-Pierre Schembri, Senior Executive & Company Secretary of Corinthia Group ( second from right) . 

This painting by Levitsky has been very recently restored by Heritage Malta and much of its glory and colour have revived.  

Ms Amy Sciberras, the conservator of Heritage Malta who worked directly on the painting.

This painting is so much admired in Russia that Russian authorities have requested that it should grace an exhibition in the Tsaritsyno Palace Museum in the south of Moscow. This palace too has a connection with Catherine the Great because it was she who in 1775 bought the estate where the palace was later built. After the palace was completed, the empress, who visited Tsaritsyno to inspect it, did not consider it livable so she ordered the palace to be demolished and rebuilt. But Catherine died before it was completed and it remained unfinished and abandoned for more than 200 years. The city of Moscow completed it in 2007.

This is only the second time this painting is leaving Malta since its arrival in 1790. In 1935 it was sent to London for an exhibition of Russian art. This time it will return temporarily to its country of origin. The Malta Levitsky painting will be the only painting on display in this much-awaited exhibition and will remain on show for five months to then return to Malta and continue to embellish the Valletta Palace. 

Corinthia is proud to be part of this exciting story.