For centuries, Italy and Russia have led a cultural dialogue which few countries could match in mutual sympathy. Thus, a series of articles shall explore the historical and modern ties which Italy and Russia share, tributing Italians whose names are gratefully preserved in Russian memory, and honouring the Russians whose works were inspired by Italy.
In 2016, Russian TV had shown one of the most successful historical dramas of the decade, commissioned by the Ministry of Culture of Russia. The heroine is Sofia Paleologa –the last Byzantine princess– who had become the wife of Ivan III. Raised in Rome, Sofia brought an extensive Italian entourage to Moscow. The TV series features Renaissance architects, headed by the Bolognese Aristotele Fioravanti (1415-1486), the designer of the Dormition Cathedral – one of the Kremlin’s most recognizable.
Over 60 Italian architects had moved to Russia in the 15th and 16th centuries. Most of the Kremlin was designed by Italians – among them the Milanese Pietro Antonio Solari (1445-1493), the first official architect of Moscow. Together with Marco Ruffo he had completed The Palace of Facets – Moscow’s oldest preserved secular building, once used as a banquet hall by the Tsars. In 1991, UNESCO celebrated the 500-year anniversary of the Palace of Facets with Marco Ruffo’s descendant, Rufo Ruffo, attending.
Many believe that the picturesque style of the Renaissance architects had inspired the magnificent St. Basil’s Cathedral. Moscow was called “The Third Rome,” the direct successor of Rome’s and Constantinople’s religious and cultural legacy.
When Peter the Great – an adventurous reformist – resolved to modernize the country in the early 18th century, the Swiss-Italian Domenico Andrea Trezzini (1670-1734) implemented the Tsar’s vision. Trezzini was hired to build Russia’s new capital – St. Petersburg (founded in 1703) – nicknamed “the Venice of the North.” Introducing a bold, eclectic style of the Petrine baroque, Trezzini merged Italian and Russian – the western and the oriental. Over a period of 28 years he had created dozens of monumental buildings, including the Peter and Paul Fortress, whose golden spire is voted by Russians as the most recognizable image of St. Petersburg today. In gratitude to Trezzini, Peter the Great became godfather to the architect’s son, Pietro – a noteworthy architect in his own right.
With the death of Peter the Great, the new capital fell into decline. Many of the merchants and nobility relocated back to Moscow. Among those who remained was Bartolomeo Francesco Rastrelli (1700-1771), destined to become the creator of Russia’s renowned palaces: the Peterhof Grand Palace–radiant with fountains and mirrors, the turquoise-and-gold Catherine Palace, and the Winter Palace, later transformed into the Hermitage Museum, hosting some of the world’s most celebrated art, including Da Vinci’s “Madonna Litta.”
With the ascension of Peter the Great’s daughter – Elizabeth – a jovial, capricious monarch – the Elizabethan baroque emerged, blending French and Italian influences in architecture, as dictated by the Versailles court of Louis XV. The reign of Catherine the Great endorsed a strict, neoclassical style. An enlightened monarch in the age of absolutism, Catherine invited Giacomo Quarenghi (1744-1817) and Antonio Rinaldi (1710-1794) to design numerous buildings, spectacular gardens, squares and avenues of the city. Quarenghi was also the architect of the Smolny Institute – a privileged school for noble young ladies – which continued operation until 1917 when it was chosen as headquarters of the Bolshevik party by Vladimir Lenin.
The Empire style of the Napoleonic Era manifested through designs of Carlo Rossi (1775-1849). His projects included the Alexandrinsky Theatre, the General Staff Building on the Palace Square (home to the Hermitage), countless streets and mansions of St. Petersburg.
During the war with Napoleon and the burning of Moscow, the Petrovka and The New Imperial Theatres were lost in the flames. Joseph Bové – an Italian neoclassical architect – designed the world-famous Bolshoi Theatre…
Prince Alexander Gorchakov – one of Russia’s foremost 19th century statesmen – once said that Russia has two hearts: Moscow and St. Petersburg. Both beat fondly for the Italian people whose mastery and perseverance helped bring them to life.