The two monumental red-painted columns in front of the Naval Museum symbolized the naval power of the Russian Empire. The columns were built in the early nineteenth century as beacons.
The Rostral Columns are situated on Strelka, the eastern tip of Vasilievsky island. In 1733 the port of St. Petersburg was set up here. The port grew quickly as trade with Western Europe increased. The columns were built as beacons to guide the constantly growing number of ships during St. Petersburg’s long dark nights.
The columns were erected in front of the neoclassical facade of the stock exchange building – now a naval museum, which was constructed at around the same time. After sunset, oil lamps at the top of the columns guided ships to the port. The seven-meter-high (23 ft.) oil lamps were later replaced by gas lit lamps.
In 1885 the port moved to the Gulf of Finland to accommodate larger vessels and increased traffic, and the beacons were decommissioned. The lamps are still lit on public holidays and during ceremonies.
Design of the Rostral Columns
The thirty-two-meter (105 ft.) tall columns were designed by the French architect Thomas de Thomon and constructed in 1811. The brick columns were finished with dark red stucco and sit on a large granite plinth. At the foot of each column are pairs of imposing marbles sculptures, allegorical figures of mythical gods representing four major rivers in Russia: the Neva, Dnieper, Volga and Volkhov.
Metal models of prows, decorated with nautical themes, adorn the columns. They symbolize naval supremacy and follow the example of the Romans who used prows of conquered ships to decorate their monuments, most notably the Rostra at the Forum Romanum. The name of the Rostral Columns is derived from the Latin word for a ship’s beak: rostrum.