In the centre of the oldest part of the palace, extending between its northern and southern walls, is a hall lit by two tiers of windows. This room was the main interior in Peter's Upper Mansion and was then named just the Hall. Being the largest apartment in the Palace, over seven metres high, and lighted by two tiers of windows, it was impressive even when first built; but it reached its full magnificence with a ceiling painting added in 1726, following the original decorative scheme worked out by Le Blond and Michetti.
The room takes up the whole of the central section of the main facade, three of its six French windows looking over the Upper Gardens, and the opposite three over the Lower Park. Lying as it does on the main axis of the ensemble, it commands a view of the parterre of the Upper Gardens on the south side, and that of the Great Canal on the north side. The walls are surmounted by a frieze of stucco reliefs with symbols of War, Peace, Sciences, Arts, and Navigation, each subject flanked by corbels with male or female heads, symbolising Summer and Winter.
The coving is painted in tempera with a variety of figures and compositions. Here curved lines predominate, stressing the structural form. The corbels are marked by medallions with the heads of Neptune, Mars, Apollo, and Bellona; the medallions are decorated with banners and flanked by groups of seated fauns, each with an arm upraised to support the ceiling. Vases with garlands issuing from them, and richly draped male and female figures representing Glory, Power, Time, Truth, Patriotism, Wealth, and Virtue, alternate with mythological scenes in cartouches and medallions, all painted in monochrome. The combination of the blue and olive-green of the monochrome paintings, and the gold and brown of the medallions, figures of fauns, and ornamental details imitating antique bronze prepare the eye for the deep colours of the polychrome ceiling, painted to create an illusion of infinite space. The ceiling painting shows the Apotheosis of the Victor Crowned with a Wreath, under whose Aegis Flourish Justice, Agriculture, Trade, Industry, and Science. The Victor is at the left of the composition. Before him are Themis, the goddess of justice, with her attributes, the scales and the sword; Ceres, the goddess of agriculture, with fruits at her feet; Athena, the protectress of armies, with a spear in her hand; and Mercury, the god of commerce, with a purse. On the right-hand side of the painting is the figure of a woman with a halo, an allegory of Knowledge; she is striking Ignorance with her spear. The plafond was created by Bartolomeo Tarsia (1726); the present version, reproducing the lost original, was painted by Yakov Kazakov, Vladimir Korban, Vitaly Zhuravliov, and Boris Lebedev.
The windows, mirrors, and the four doors of the Portrait Room were adorned with ornate wood carving, to designs by Bartolomeo Francesco Rastrelli (the architect), of female heads, birds, and hounds, set amidst splendid gilt plant and rocaille motifs. The over-doors, with sculptured female busts enframed in luxuriant foliage and flanked by two birds with extended wings, are unrivalled in their originality and great dynamic expressiveness. All carved and sculptural decorations in the apartment, as well as those in the Palace generally, were executed by Claude Stephane Girardon, Joseph Stahlmayr, Louis Rolland, Andre Carlofskij, and Russian carvers. They were re-created between 1961 and 1964.
In 1764 Jean-Baptiste Michel Vallin de la Mothe, using 368 female portraits painted by Pietro Rotari, covered the walls from top to bottom with canvases separated only by thin strips of gilded frame. The Italian Salon was then renamed the Rotari Gallery; the Picture, or Portrait Room; later it came to be known as the Room of Fashions and Graces, from the character of the models and the painter's manner of presenting them.
The architect Andrei Stackenschneider was responsible for the minor alterations made in the decor of the hall in the 1840s. On the whole, however, the interior retained its original appearance for about 180 years.
After the restoration of the hall ruined during World War II, all of its 368 paintings were brought back and the 18th-century bronze clock made by French craftsmen took its former place on the mantelpiece. The two fireplace decorations, fire-dogs, portraying Venus and her husband Volcano, are a true masterpiece of French bronzework.
The Picture Hall, restored in 1964, is the compositional centre of the Great Palace. Two sets of apartments unfold from here: halls to the west, and drawing-rooms and private suites to the east.