by Roderick Conway Morris

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Hermitage, St. Petersburg
The Empress Elizabeth Petrovna's Summer Palace
designed by Bartolomeo Rastrelli, 1741-44, by an unknown artist, c. 1756

The Making of Peter's 'Window on the West'

By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 24 May 2003


Three hundred years ago this month, Peter the Great founded St. Petersburg, sited on the desolate, marshy delta of the River Neva on the Gulf of Finland. Not only was it to be Peter's 'window on the West,' but it was also to be constructed in Western architectural styles, using stone and brick instead of the traditional Russian building material, wood.

These stipulations required the mass recruitment of West European architects, artists and artisans. One of the first to answer the call was Domenico Trezzini, a Swiss-Italian, who stayed on for 23 years until his death in 1734. He was the first of a succession of Italians, who more than any other single group put their stamp on the metropolis, Russia's capital from 1712 to 1917.

Within this period, the era of the most intense Italian influence in architecture and the arts was between the mid-18th and mid-19th centuries. How pervasive it was is demonstrated by 'St. Petersburg and Italy: 1750-1850,' an exhibition of more than a hundred paintings, plans and drawings from the Hermitage and the St. Petersburg History Museum, which continues at the Complesso Vittoriano here until June 15.

Putting into effect Peter's grandiose but ill-defined enterprise was a hit and miss affair at first. Trezzini was the first to come up with a practical and coherent town plan and he designed several buildings, including Peter's Summer Palace, the Peter and Paul Cathedral and the 'Twelve Colleges,' destined for government ministries, but later housing the university. The baroque, which had originated in Italy and was the dominant style of the era, initially predominated in St. Petersburg, too, lending the city from the start an inescapably Italian flavor. And Peter's strict building regulations, established during this first phase, tended to enshrine these Italianate features.

After Peter's death in 1725, the progress of his pet project lost impetus. But the creation in 1737 of a 'Commission on the Building of St. Petersburg' vigorously reanimated the enterprise. A primary force on this committee was the Russian intellectual and architect Pyotr Mikhailovich Yeropkin, who had trained in Italy with a former pupil of the great baroque architect Francesco Borromini.

Yeropkin's ideas did much to pave the way for Bartolomeo Francesco Rastrelli, a brilliant young practitioner, who was to spend 48 years in St. Petersburg creating numerous monuments in his distinctive 'Rastrellian baroque,' which was to have resonances far beyond the Gulf of Finland. Italy also provided a leading exponent of the late rococo in Antonio Rinaldi, a disciple of that giant of the 18th-century Italian baroque, Filippo Juvarra.

Russia being the absolute autocracy that it was, even architectural taste was a matter of imperial decree, and soon after her succession in 1762, Catherine the Great declared the baroque old hat, and insisted on the imposition of a more up-to-date style. So a new Italian architect, Giacomo Quarenghi, whose designs perfectly fulfilled the empress's concept of the modern, was invited to the city, where he built scores of buildings in a highly accomplished neo-classical style, remaining there for nearly 40 years until his death in 1817.

By then, yet another architect of Italian origin had arrived - Karl Rossi (1775-1849). He was eclectic and innovative, drawing on Imperial Roman, Renaissance, Gothic and local Russian sources. An inspired town planner, he had a decisive effect on the layout of central St. Petersburg.

Given the insatiable appetite for Italian old masters over the previous 200 years in every other court in Europe, it is an index of how out of the mainstream the czars had been until Peter that the first Italian Renaissance painting, a 'Deposition' then attributed to Raphael (now assigned to Garofalo), did not arrive in Russia until 1719. Peter's successors brought a considerable number of Italian painters to the city, especially to paint portraits and decorate interiors, but did little to bring the state's historical collections up to the level of Russia's European rivals.

Catherine made up the lost ground by paying out enormous sums for a series of superlative private collections, laying the foundations for the magnificent Hermitage Museum, which was first opened to the public in 1825.

Italian music, musicians and dancers were, of course, in continual demand throughout Europe at this time (Rossi's mother was an Italian ballerina), and one of the most interesting revelations of this show is how often Italian music and visual arts arrived hand-in-hand in St. Petersburg. The need for theaters for visiting and local musicians provided major commissions for resident Italian architects: Quarenghi and Rossi, for example, were the respective builders of the Hermitage and Alexandrinsky (now Pushkin) theaters. Other sumptuous interiors were created as spaces suitable for private recitals and balls. The great reception room in the Stroganov palace designed by Rastrelli was the scene of the first Russian performance of Pergolesi's 'Stabat Mater,' in honor of the Empress Elizabeth, performed by a visiting Italian ensemble.

Musicians served as a conduit for bringing artworks to St. Petersburg. The brothers Domenico (a lead violinist) and Giuseppe (a cellist) dall'Oglio from Padua arrived on tour in 1735, and stayed on for 25 years. They imported regular consignments of pictures from home to sell to local collectors, and acted as intermediaries in commissioning ceiling paintings by the Tiepolos. Two canvases by Giovanni Battista Pittoni, handled by the brothers and now in the Hermitage, have made the return trip to Italy for the show.

St. Petersburg was also able to attract some of Italy's most outstanding theatrical designers. They clearly blossomed here, as witnessed by the drawings and sketches by Giuseppe Valeriani, Carlo Galli Bibiena and Pietro Gonzaga. The last is the least well-known in the West, but is worthy of attention. He was born in the foothills of the Alps north of Venice in 1751, and having made a name for himself in Italy, was invited by Quarenghi to join him in Russia.

In his autobiography, Gonzaga attributed his very considerable theatrical successes 'to my restless mind and tenacity of character,' and he proved himself a Stakhanovite avant la lettre. In eight years he designed 36 operas, 23 ballets and 10 other dramas, while training up an entire generation of young Russians.

Outside his regular work, he painted frescoes, designed pavilions and gardens - his laying out of the park of the Pavlovsk palace was universally praised - and wrote practical and theoretical books on stage design, music and optics. His drawings in the exhibition, some of which may well have been done as imaginative flights of fancy rather than for specific projects, are a delight.

When compared with the Madrid of this period, that graveyard of Italian genius where, poorly rewarded and sadly neglected the likes of Boccherini, Juvarra and Giambattista Tiepolo met their unhappy ends, it is striking how valued Italian artists were in St. Petersburg - as confirmed by their extended stays there. It is unfortunate to find that Pietro Gonzaga ended his career a disappointed man because his patrons would never grant his wish to realize theaters and churches of his own. On the evidence of his talents revealed here, we can sympathize with his regrets.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023