|Princes of San Donato
As a young man of twenty-four Anatole raised a twenty-two man strong scientific expedition to explore in detail Russia’s new territorial acquisitions in the South. The imminent French sociologist, Frederic Le Play, headed the scientific part of the expedition, while Jules Janin chronicled the voyage, and Auguste Raffet maintained the pictorial history. Frederic Le Play was later appointed by Anatole to apply his sociological and scientific methods to manage the Demidoff Mining and Arms Empire in Russia. The outcome of the expedition was an important and richly decorated multi-volume study published in 1840 that covered the geographical, zoological, geological, botanical, and sociological findings of these new lands of Moldavia, Crimea, and Southern Russia.
Anatole further controlled one of the most important mining and arms industrial empires in Russia, albeit from afar, since most of his time was spent in Paris or at his Villa di San Donato in Florence. Having lost both parents when only sixteen, Anatole and his much older brother Paul assumed the control of the business empire located in the Ural Mountains of Russia in 1828. The empire consisted of fifteen villages and nine munitions and mining factories that generated an immense fortune of 5 million roubles each year to Anatole.
Anatole’s keen and studied artistic taste led him while in his early 20’s to commission masterpieces of art from the leading painters of the Romantic movement. These included the ‘Last Day of Pompeii’ by Karl Briullov (currently at the Russian Museum in St. Petersburg), ‘The Execution of Lady Jane Grey’ by Paul Delaroche (currently at the National Gallery in London), and scenes in the life of Christopher Columbus by Eugene Delacroix. Anatole was the most generous and active benefactor to Eugene Delacroix, Eugene Lami, and Auguste Raffet, among many other leading Romantic artists. During this same decade Anatole became the most active customer of the French jeweller, Chaumet, drawing and commissioning beautiful and rare gold boxes, objets d’art, and jewellery.
In 1840 Anatole married Princess Mathilde Bonaparte following a two-year period of negotiations with Princess Mathilde’s father, King Jerome Bonaparte. This proved a tempestuous and unsustainable marriage that lasted only six years and led to hard recriminations from both sides. It was Jules Janin who originally suggested the union since he was aware of Anatole’s strong interest in the Napoleonic heritage. Anatole’s life-long interest in all-things Napoleonic was inspired by his mother, Baronne Elisabeth Stroganoff, who lived in Paris during the early days of the Empire and often recounted stories of the Emperor and his court to her young boy. Even after the separation from Mathilde, Anatole’s fondness for the Napoleonic heritage never wavered and he acquired the former home in exile of Napoleon Bonaparte on the island of Elba from members of the Bonaparte family where he had erected a Museum dedicated to the Emperor in 1859. This museum stands to this day although most of its contents were sold at auction in 1880.
Background of the Demidoff Empire
By the middle of the 18th Century the Demidoff mining empire played the central role in positioning Russia as the leading exporter of high-grade iron ore in the world with England accounting for 60% of the Demidoff production. Many of the techniques were indigenous to Russia, however, the Demidoffs studied first-hand the leading metallurgical methods employed in England and Germany and posted their leading scientists and managers in those countries over extended training periods. By 1750 the high quality and production of the Demidoff mines accounted for 40% of national production in Russia.
After a squandered youth running up tremendous debts, Anatole’s father, Nicholas N. Demidoff (1773 – 1828), who inherited the family empire when only fifteen, returned to Russia following an intensive work-study programme in Germany and England. On his return Nicholas assumed control of the family mining empire from Stroganoff family members and importantly increased its wealth. Nicholas further distinguished himself by financing and raising a battalion that fought with distinction at the battle of Borodino. In 1819 Nicholas was appointed the Russian Ambassador to the Court of Tuscany and brought his two boys, Paul and Anatole, to Florence in 1822. This followed the death of Elisabeth Stroganoff in 1818 while she was living in Paris.
In Florence, Nicholas commissioned to have Villa di San Donato built after acquiring a large swamp-infested tract of land north of Florence from the Catholic Church. Her further initiated a series of schools, hospitals, and public charities throughout Tuscany.
Anatole’s older brother, Paul N. Demidoff (1798 – 1840) married a lady in waiting to the Russian Court, the Finnish beauty, Aurore Sjernwell in 1836. Paul surprised his new wife on the morning following the wedding with the gift of the Grand Sancy, the world’s seventh largest diamond that is now housed in the Louvre at the Gallerie d’Apollon as part of the Crown Jewels of the State of France with a weight of 55.23 metric carats. The few widely scattered descendants of Paul and Aurore are the last living relations of the Princes of San Donato.
Following the death of Nicholas in 1828 and that of his elder brother in 1840, Anatole continued where his father left off in raising production of iron at the Demidoff mines by 32% to 1.4 million ‘puds’ from 1837 to 1851. He further continued the tradition of sending the most ambitious and talented managers of the mines to work-study programmes in Germany and England and brought highly talented scholars and business people like Frederic Le Play to Russia, as earlier mentioned. Anatole showcased the talent of his staff at international forums such as the Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace in London in 1851 that was hosted by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Massive malachite blocks and delicate steel ‘butterflies’ from the mines of Nizhny Tagil were placed on display financed exclusively by Anatole.
Anatole N. Demidoff
Given his taste for luxury and cosmopolitan life, Anatole felt no inclination to assume humble Foreign Service assignments in Russia as a subject of the Russian Czar. Anatole pleaded with his brother, who was stationed in St. Petersburg, to impress upon the Czar Anatole’s delicate constitution. An assignment in Paris or Florence would be more favourable than the harsh winter conditions in St. Petersburg that the Czar requested and enable Anatole to better live up to the family credo: ‘action not words’. Unfortunately, the Czar was not impressed with his subject that preferred living in Paris to returning to Russia to be of service to the Government. Moreover, the Czar grew resentful of the young man after reading reports of his admiration of the Napoleonic Heritage, escapades at the Paris Opera with other founders of the ‘Jockey Club’, and journalistic forays in the ‘Journal des Debats’ to enlighten Parisians of the realities of life in Russia.
Anatole’s interest and appreciation of the Romantic artistic movement, however, was genuine and it is in this field where Anatole made lasting friendships. Closest among this circle of friends was Auguste Raffet, a man whose critical opinion Anatole sought in most situations. It was Raffet who advised Anatole on the thirteen Dutch and Flemish paintings to purchase at the Duchesse of Berry sale in 1837. Based on Raffet’s solid recommendations Anatole was able to assemble at Villa di San Donato an impressive collection of Dutch and Flemish paintings that included masterpieces from Meindert Hobbema, Albert Cuyp, Isaac Van Ostaade, Rembrandt, Gerard TerBoche, Jan Steen, the Ruysdaels, Paul Potter, and many more that today, following various Demidoff auctions, can be found displayed in the Art Institute of Chicago and the National Gallery in London, among other international locations. During the uprisings in Paris in 1848, Anatole invited Raffet and his family to live at Villa di San Donato with him.
Anatole was further keenly interested in promoting industry in Italy. He participated in the management of the construction of the rail system connecting Florence and Livorno at the request of Grand Duke Leopold II. Together with a business colleague, Joseph Poniatowski, Anatole further worked on construction of the railway system that connected Florence to northern boundaries of Italy. It was in connection to these industrial projects, combined with continued support of charitable undertakings that included a hospital in Lucca, a school for the poor families of Florence, and the Misericordia Charity, that Leopold II granted Anatole the Italian title Prince of San Donato on the occasion of his marriage with Princess Mathilde in 1840. The title, Prince of San Donato, however, was not recognised in Russia. It was recognised in Russia only for Anatole’s nephew and sole heir, Paul P. Demidoff and his wife, Princess Elena Petrovna Troubetskaii, the Second Prince of San Donato, by the Emperor of Russia in June 1872. Paul P. Demidoff of progressive liberal leanings in January 1872 had the title Prince and Princess of San Donato authorised by the Italian authorities to include all male, as well as, female descendants but with this title restricted to recognition in Italy.
The last Princess of San Donato was Maria P. Abamelek Lazarev who died in Florence in 1955. Like her Demidoff predecessors, Princess Maria supported various charitable institutions such as the Invalids of War, provided to the Russian Orthodox Church in Florence icons and other works of art, founded the Union des Invalides Mutiles Russe a l’etranger, and donated land for the Music School in Pratolino in 1922, among many other civic actions over a long life.
The arts and letters were further promoted that saw classical Greek
and Roman sculptures and artists such as Greuze and Boucher brought to
palaces in Russia, in addition, to assembling world-class libraries.
This tradition was fully embraced by Anatole N. Demidoff who sustained
the charitable institutions created by his forebears, created new ones,
and fostered the creation of some of the masterpieces of Romantic art that
includes the ‘Execution of Lady Jane Grey’ by Paul Delaroche, many of Eugene
Delacroix’s paintings, and to many other Romantic artists too man to list.
His library at Villa di San Donato numbered nearly 40,000 books.
The Demidoff contribution over the ages can best be characterised as fostering
a shared international cultural experience that has made Russia very much
a part of Europe.
By: Natasha Wallace
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