Levitating a Monolith, Russian Style

The LACMA-bound boulder, to be the focal point of Michael Heizer’s Levitated Mass, will be the largest moved monolith in the Western Hemisphere. But it’s not the biggest humanly moved rock by a long shot. Consider the 1250-ton Thunder Stone in St. Petersburg, Russia. It’s the base for the famous Bronze Horseman, Étienne Maurice Falconet’s equestrian statue of Peter the Great (1782). Besides being over three times heavier, the Thunder Stone has a green credential the Heizer Rock lacks: It was moved by human power only.

Catherine the Great had married into the royal line and grabbed the reins of power before her late husband’s body was cold. She decided she needed a heroic statue of Peter the Great to legitimize her rule. Her art-advisor friend, Denis Diderot, suggested Falconet. The project came to encompass a red granite boulder as pedestal. The chosen boulder had to be moved four miles and then carried by barge up the Neva River. A 1770 color engraving by I.F. Schley after a drawing by Y. M. Felten (top of post; via the Observatoire du Land Art), gives the basic method.

The first thing you notice about the print is that there are people riding on the rock. A lot of people. Falconet wanted to shape the rock to emphasize its resemblance to a cliff. Since the shaping would reduce the weight, the sculptor figured it would make sense to do it before the move. Catherine was too impatient for that. She decreed a fast-track plan in which stone cutters would work the rock even as it was being pulled by Russian muscle.

The transport method, devised by Greek-Russian engineer Marinos Carburis, had the boulder resting on ball bearings—bronze spheres about 6 inches in diameter—that sat in metal tracks. The bottom part of the track had to be continually torn up from behind and rebuilt in front of the slowing advancing rock. To pull the rock forward, two teams of 32 strong men rotated a spool that wound up cables attached to the boulder. The move began in Russian winter, lest the boulder and apparatus sink into the marshy soil. The Thunder Stone took nine months to get to St. Petersburg.

A few comparatives:

Weight of granite boulder: Maybe 1500 tons or more, originally, and 1250 as reduced (St. Petersburg) v. 340 tons (Los Angeles)

Length of transport apparatus: 330 ft. of track (St. Petersburg) v. 200 ft. transporter (Los Angeles)

Length of route: 14 miles, of which 4 were on land (St. Petersburg) v. 105 miles on surface streets (Los Angeles)

Daily progress: 1/10 mile per day (St. Petersburg) v. 9.5 miles per night (Los Angeles)

Cost of the move: a claimed 70,000 rubles (St. Petersburg) v. an alleged $10 million (Los Angeles). I don’t know what a ruble was worth in 1769-70. Today 70,000 rubles is only $2385.

Artist’s visibility: Zero (St. Petersburg and Los Angeles). Reported the L.A. Times: “Noticeably missing from Tuesday night’s festivities marking the beginning of the rock’s trip was the reclusive artist, who lives in Nevada. ‘There’s nothing he can really do to help now,’ said LACMA Director Michael Govan. ‘But he’s excited.'”

Falconet was not present at the completion of the Bronze Horseman (below, Vasily Ivanovich Surikov’s painting of the monument). He’d had a falling out with Catherine. In later years, Catherine spoke of the Bronze Horseman as a creation of her own incomparable genius, and Falconet’s name was not to be spoken.