Behind the facades of Tiflis

In 1856 the wealthy Armenian merchant of Tiflis, Vardan Arshakuni gave commission to the architect G. Ivanov for a small building that had to be both intimate and original: the palace Arshakuni. Really original, he specified. And intimate. An architect worthy of the name, who receives such a commission and is also given carte blanche, cannot but give the best of himself – and create something really intimate and original. As to the interior, Ivanov made use of the services of Qajar Persian masters, who, on their part, also wanted to give the best of themselves – and create something truly intimate and original. The result was beyond the expectations of Arsrhakuni. But neither intimacy, nor originality prevented him from passing away within a few years, in 1862.

At this time, Prince Golovin, Viceroy of the Caucasus, was tired of his palace in Tiflis, so white, cold, impersonal, symmetrical – in a word, so classic.

In turn, he desired something really intimate and original. He set his eyes on the Arshakuni palace. However, its decoration was so terribly Persian, in a word, “Asian”. Around 1860 a viceroy, even when looking for an intimate and original decoration, would have not degraded himself to move into a Persian interior. After all, the Persians massacred Griboyedov in a disgusting way (well, it was an old story, but there are stories you never forget), and the Shah of Persia also showed a good deal of depravity in the double game he led with England (well, the Tsar of all Russia also played a double game, but it was absolutely not the same thing). In addition, the Arshakuni palace stood directly on the Griboyedov street, and the sad remains of Griboyedov himself were buried in the Georgian pantheon of Mtatsminda, mid-height of the cliff overlooking the street.

Prince Golovin thus went to look elsewhere, and after all, in Tiflis at this time it must have been not so difficult to find a small palace, intimate, original and “European” at that.

The fate of the house remained undefined for a long time. First, between 1869 and 1886 it was the seat of a club, the Circle of Tiflis, with its library, billiard room, salons and lounges. In 1913 it became an institution of education for young girls. Before 1914, the Society for the protection of artists and a drawing school also worked in the building. A war, a revolution, an independent and Menshevik republic, and a civil war later, in 1922, the building became the headquarters of the Academy of Fine Arts – and still it is.

Forget about the decrepit façade, and be surprised by the lobby, climb the wonderful stairs of a faded decor, where students pass by each other: the Academy is a house full of life. A piano is sounding on the first floor, the former winter garden is now a rehearsal hall.

In the Persian rooms, on the top floor, with a Qadjar decoration, the Academy stores hundreds of paintings, most probably the graduation works of its students (such as this Kutuzov crossing the Alps). Sometimes, at the time of a ceremony, the rooms regain their prestige: they clear them, and they serve up а ла фуршет, or more elegantly, in French orthography, à la fourchette, that is, as we would call it in the French of France, a cocktail.

For now, in this afternoon, the fourchettes were dozing in the semi-darkness of their stained glass windows.

But the Arshakuni palace is not the only survivor from a time when the sponsors expected their architects to mingle with the European façades a sumptuous interior decoration, sometimes of a Nordic white, and often some unbridled Orientalism.

Thus, the streets of the Sololaki neighborhood, the elegant quarer of Tiflis was aligned from the 1840s on with these characteric buildings of the Russified city, built by Armenian, Georgian, Russian or Italian architects until the eve of the revolution. Behind the classical façades decorated with stucco, behind the large carved doors of peeling varnish, in the dark halls oozing moisture and populated with stray cats, frescoes, columns, marbles and bronzes are hidden. You climb the stairs, to the first floor, to the second floor, and in the semi-darkness you feel as if you plunged into an underground, sleeping world.

These first houses along the Galaktion street date from the years before the war of 1914: in 1911 was built the house of Mrs. Ter-Akopan with its decoration of oriental landscapes and battle scenes. In Matchabeli street, between Assatiani and Lermontov streets, the architectural complex is much more dilapidated. A house now under construction, possibly from before 1880, covered by scaffolding, conceals a lavish Qajar decoration coupled with stars of David on the windows. Damaged as it is, the house is still inhabited – at least I have heard voices there.

This interior reveals the fascination of the wealthy Georgians of the 19th century for the neighboring Persia. They were the first (and probably the most important) collectors of Qajar paintings, created between the late 18th and the early 20th century, whose bending dancers with long eyebrows and effeminate musicians strangely evoke the pictures of the Douanier Rousseau.

Moreover, not far away, on a street going uphill, a Persian door has survived, that of the house of the Consul of Persia, Mirza Riza Khan.

On the other side of the street, a little less old, silent and still asleep large house, built in 1914-15 at the side of the cliff, in the green, for the Bozardjiant family, tobacco producers, next to the Catholic cemetery which would be destroyed in 1927. Rather than a house, it is an investment property which has retained almost intact its luxurious decoration. The largest part of this family emigrated after 1917 (or at least after the fall of the independent Georgia in 1921), but one of the Bozardjiants continued to live in the building after the capture of the city (and of the house) by the Bolsheviks. Beria also lived here in 1928. You can still admire the beautiful glossy tiles of the hall and of the staircase, the stained glass windows, and the still intact Venetian glass, integrated with the woodwork on each floor.

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