5 Italian Architects of Saint Petersburg

5 Italian Architects of Saint Petersburg
27 May 2016

5 Italian Architects of Saint Petersburg

On the occasion of Saint Petersburg’s 313th birthday (May 27th, 2016), I wanted to write you about some of the most important Italian architects involved in building this amazing city!
Italy and Russia have entertained excellent cultural relations throughout the centuries: countless Italian artists moved to Russia and were able to make their fortune at the court of the tsars, especially in the 18th century, starting from the reign of Peter the Great.

It was a perfect exchange for the two countries: Italy had the talent but lacked the resources to support it, Russia had the resources but lacked the knowledge. Thus, starting from Peter I’s reign, the Russian court imported its artists, architects, and other skilled individuals from the West, bringing European culture straight to Saint Petersburg and using their skill and inventiveness to raise the city up as an example of how Russia was to be “acculturated.”


First and foremost among the Italian architects who would fashion Saint Petersburg was Domenico Trezzini (c. 1670 – 1734). This Swiss Italian architect was the first to work with Peter the Great in 1703, and indeed he set the tone for the city’s distinctive style: the “Petrine Baroque,” an eclectic mix of Italian, Neoclassical and Rococo shutterstock_280699202French, Dutch urban architecture and pretty much any other stylistic idea or whim the architect wished to include in his project.
Trezzini designed countless structures and in the city and contributed to the planning of many of the surrounding areas: the first buildings in the newly-designed Petropavlovskaya Krepost, the Alexander Nevsky Monastery, both of the first Summer and Winter Palaces of Peter the Great, and the much of the layout of Kronshtadt and of Vasilyevsky Ostrov.
Trezzini and Peter the Great became so close throughout the years that later on the tsar would be godfather to the architect’s son (who would later also work as an architect in Saint Petersburg!) Together with French “General Architect” Jean-Baptiste-Alexandre Le Blond, Trezzini and Peter I designed a grandiosely rational layout for the city – the project, however, would not be completed before all three men died.


After Peter’s death in 1725, the nascent city fell rapidly into decline: the nobility and merchants moved back to shutterstock_277858352Moscow, even though it was no longer the official capital of the Empire, but was preferable for its more convenient location and amicable climate. Grass grew between the pavement stones, and wolves ran rampant through the streets in winter. Some people, however, remained – including several foreign architects committed to completing their projects. One of these was the Italian Bartolomeo Carlo Rastrelli (1675-1744), father of the more famous Bartolomeo Francesco Rastrelli. Rastrelli Sr. was invited by Peter I in 1716 and remained in Saint Petersburg until his death, and sculpted several important statues such as the equestrian statue of Peter in front of Mikhailovsky castle and the Peterhof fountains inspired by Aesop’s Fables.


With tsarina Anna Ioannovna’s decision to move the court back to Saint Petersburg there was a revival of the city, coinciding with the beginning of Bartolomeo Francesco Rastrelli’s shutterstock_279604571(1700-1771) career as court architect. Rastrelli Jr.’s star would reach apotheosis under the reign of tsarina Elizaveta Petrovna, during which time he worked on the reconstruction of the Peterhof Grand Palace, of the Catherine Palace in Tsarskoe Selo, and of the Winter Palace (the 4th version) on Dvortsovaya Ploshchad’ in Saint Petersburg. Rastrelli would also design the Cathedral of the Resurrection in the Smolny Convent complex, though he could not see it completed before his death.


The ascent of tsarina Catherine II the Great coincided with a new phase in the architectural development of the city, moving from the caprices of the Baroque to strict, rational neoclassical architecture. Giacomo Quarenghi (1744-1817) would design countless buildings, some of the most famous buildings of Saint Petersburg, including the Smolny Institute, in the course of his long career. Quarenghi would return briefly to Italy in his old age, but soon would move back to his beloved Saint Petersburg (and was even stripped of his Italian citizenship by the Napoleonic Viceroy, during the French occupation of Italy, for refusing to return from Russia!) where he died in 1817.


Besides Quarenghi, we should mention Antonio Rinaldi (1710-1794), who was commissioned by Catherine to redesign what would be the third of four remakes of the Izaakevskiy Cathedral (built by Russian architect Alexander Vist and the Italian Vincenzo Brenna); Copy of Copy of shutterstock_127944065but by and far the most well-known nineteenth-century Italian architect to work in Russia was Carlo Rossi (1775-1849), the greatest exponent of the Empire-style architecture of Saint Petersburg. Some of his most famous designs include the Yelagin Palace, the Mikhailovskiy Palace (home to the Russian Museum), the General Staff Building on Dvortsovaya Ploshchad’, and the Alexandrinsky Theatre. Carlo Rossi redesigned many of Saint Petersburg’s most famous streets and squares, including parts of Fontanka and the buildings near Izaakevskiy Ploshchad’.


After the 1850s the creative drive and the will to harmony which had characterized the past one-and-a-half century of Saint Petersburg’s city planners was largely lost, as the capitalist logic advanced, the population grew and new Italian architects were  replaced by architects who built with more speed and cost efficiency. Some among them dabbled in the styles of the past, with little success or acclaim. The city center was soon surrounded by an eclectic urban and industrial sprawl which would be bitterly criticized by contemporaries, such as Fyodor Dostoevskij, for its incoherence and lack of taste.

By the end of the 19th century no projects of the style and grandeur original to Italian architects were to be seen – but their legacy still remains, surprisingly intact considering the time passed.
Here in central Saint Petersburg we walk around every day and constantly find ourselves in awe at the breadth of the imagination of these great architects of the 18th and 19th century – of course not only Italian, but from all over Europe. What makes the city so beautiful, to me, is the peculiar mixture of Western and Russian visions into one unifying project, to which these architects dedicated their hearts and minds to (and, some, their lives): Sankt Peterburg, Russia’s window to the West.


С днём рождения, мой любимый город!


Esther, currently studying Russian at Liden & Denz St. Petersburg

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