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Of St. Petersburg's Italian Heart

Palace Square St. Petersburg
Palace Square St. Petersburg via our partners at Gelio Vostok

The most famous Italian among Russians, he is one of the least known men in his homeland. The architect whose genius was realized in Saint-Petersburg's most significant signature buildings, helped Russia's image as a powerful empire reverberate through the centuries. It’s fair to proclaim today, that the capital of the Russian Empire has an Italian soul.

It was exactly one year ago that I stood on the bridge that crosses the Neva River, right in front of the majestic incarnation of Russian imperial power – the Winter Palace. As I stood there, I remembered my grandmother, whose birth house overlooked the Palace, and whose last wish to come back and see it again was never fulfilled. It was a peaceful starry winter night, and I quickly seized upon the city’s legendary and mysterious enchantment. Sublime and graceful, built in a long strip along the embankment, the palace seemed to be painted on water by the hand of a one of the masters. Even the gloomy northern weather could not make it less attractive – even under clouds it would reflect the light, giving an impression of being sun-drenched at all times of the day.

Main (Jordan) Staircase in the Winter Palace
The Main (Jordan) Staircase in the Winter Palace. Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli. 1754-62. Restored 1837-39 (after the fire) under the direction of V.P. Stasov. - Courtesy Big Think

It was here, on the other side of the river Neva, that Italian architect Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli visualized with an arithmetic precision the new face of the Russian empire. It would be the fifth Winter Palace on the Neva embankment. The ones that preceded had always been destroyed and rebuilt according to the taste of each new monarch. But this time, the Winter Palace would outlive its requester, Empress Elizabeth. Lasting until the end of the Romanov Empire, it would become  the main residence of all reigning monarchs and the most distinctive landmark of Russia, the symbol of its power and greatness, and what Rastrelli would never know – on of the greatest architectural achievements of all time.

When Francesco was still a little boy, his father, Bartolomeo Carlo Rastrelli, who served at the court of King of France, Louis XIV, departed from the French capital ready for a new adventure. Born in Florence, home of the Italian Renaissance and timeless world-class art, Rastrelli's father had a natural taste and sense of perspective. Italy couldn’t satisfy the growing needs of the architect who strived for fame and money. And even though his talents were highly appreciated in the French capital, Rastrelli was ready to gamble his safe present for the exciting and unpredictable future in a country he knew very little about.

The Winter Palace
Looking across the river at the Winter Palace - the author

As their carriage traversed Europe, they would pass by Paris, Strasbourg, Berlin, Königsberg and Riga, cities which would be left far behind. You see it is difficult to say whether Rastrelli realized he was seeing Europe for the last time, for he would never come back to the sunny peninsula and would spend the rest of his life in, and eventually die on Russian soil. But the 41- year old elder Rastrelli wasn’t doubting his decision. Even after 16 years spent in Paris he still felt he hadn’t created anything “significant”, in other words, anything that would carry his name through the centuries. Ambitious and prudent, Bartolomeo Rastrelli saw no risk in moving to an unknown country.

Winter Palace aerial view
The Winter Palace was built in 1754-1762 by the Italian architect BF Rastrelli, its magnificent Elizabethan style with elements of Baroque French rococo interiors famous the world round - Courtesy our partners at Gelio Vostok

Invited by Peter the Great, he arrived in Saint-Petersburg in the winter of 1716. The city looked nothing like today’s sophisticated and proud Saint-Petersburg – it was a mere swamp, a blank canvas to be filled with masterful architecture. Peter the Great dreamt of it as “a window to Europe”. It would result in a new architectural style: nothing even remotely resembling the old-looking timbered Moscow would be admitted. The new capital would represent the pinnacle of baroque exuberance.

Speaking not a word of Russian, the Italian architect didn’t let fears take over him and immediately commenced work. He was thrilled as never before: he was bursting with ideas ready to be realized in stone. All the while, his son, Francesco was growing up, surrounded by his father’s drafts and the wooden models of future palaces. Young, ambitious and extremely talented, Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli was highly appreciated at the court.

Today it is impossible to say anything certain about Francesco’s personal life. All of the remaining letters are work-related: reports, requests, and long records of "completed works". We know he got married in 1732 and had three children born between 1733 and 1735. In aristocratic circles he was known as an ambitious and even despotic Italian; all the while, no one had ever referred to him disrespectfully. He knew how to listen and negotiate with his clients, and was completely devoted to work.

Rastrelli was hard-working beyond imagination; nothing would make him abandon the construction sites. He would stay there day and night, closely examining every little detail and the general impression by trying to see the big picture from afar. Rastrelli would not let himself be convinced by the family to stay home even when his health significantly deteriorated. His Italian blood sparkled with creative energy and the insatiable hunger to achieve more. 

The Neva River and St. Petersburg
The Neva River and St. Petersburg on a hazy day - Courtesy our partners Gelio Vostok

One of the first commissioned works was the Palace in Mitava for the Empress Anna Ioannovna, who was thrilled with young man’s flow of ideas. But it wasn't until the time when Empress Elizabeth took the throne that Rastrelli was able to fully realise his creative potential. It was a wonderful creative union between an ambitious and talented architect and the exuberant Empress with an almost unlimited source of money.

While it is still widely believed that it was Elizabeth who insisted on the construction of a new Winter Palace, in reality it was Rastrelli's desire to build a new residence that would "comply with the image of the great Empire". Elizabeth was impatient to move into the Palace and demanded that Rastrelli complete the works in only two years. The architect knew better than anyone that such time restrictions were unrealistic. Doing everything to please the Empress, he altered his unwritten rule of not working in colder months and continued works even in winter.

Thousands of people would come to Saint-Petersburg from all over Russia to work on the project of his life. They lived in tents, right behind the Palace. Rastrelli introduced strict rules: they had to be up early and work until complete exhaustion at night. He himself wasn't at all squeamish when it came to hard manual work - he did the finishing touches on the ornaments adorning the Palace. And just like all great artists, he would constantly distance himself from his creation to see the Big Picture, return and make little changes, and do it again and again until he reached the level of perfection, and put in life what he had planned in his head.

Nicholas Hall
The Nicholas Hall is the principal reception room, at the centre of the Neva enfilade. This room was the setting for court balls. Painting by Konstantin Ukhtomsk

At last, in 1762 the Winter Palace was completed, but Empress Elizabeth would never live in her new Palace. She would be replaced with Empress Catherine the Great, whose progressive tastes made it impossible for Rastrelli and his Italian extravagance to exist. He was dismissed by the Empress from his post as a chief architect in 1763.

During Elizabeth's reign Rastrelli built 12 palaces, among which there are his signature works: the Palace in Peterhof, surrounded by glorious fountains and parks; the Grand Palace in Tsarskoe Selo; and his last and most ambitious project - The Smolny Convent in Saint-Petersburg. Turquoise walls and white columns, Rastrelli's signature style which gives an airy, weightless impression, here it symbolises the rebirth of Russian Orthodoxy and the power of the Russian spirit.

Rastrelli surpassed himself. The project he had in mind was so overpowering that even in its glorious beauty, the Smolny convent as we know it today is nothing but a shadow of what Rastrelli would have created if only he had unlimited funding. Smolny is considered the protector of Saint-Petersburg with its symbolic and somewhat magical number 87. It took 87 years to complete the convent; it functioned for 87 years, and it remained closed for another 87 years. Another peculiarity is the odd optical effect on approaching the Smolny Cathedral: the building "doesn't grow", but "goes deep down into the earth".

Malachite Room
The Malachite Room, seat of the Provisional Government, who were arrested in the adjoining Private Dining Room. Painting by Konstantin Ukhtomsky

It is almost impossible to say what filled his last days of life. No records or diaries, no private communication that would hint at what he did and felt. But judging by the very little (for such a great man) information that we have, we can suppose that he dwelled in deep unhappiness. To Rastrelli, to live meant to create, and his entire life was nothing but a passionate love story with stone. He certainly didn't appear passionate to people who knew him, but deep in his heart he was bursting with feelings.

To really know who he was, perhaps it is suffice to stand in front of the Winter Palace in Saint-Petersburg and watch it's gleaming reflection in the waters of Neva, and silently admire what is today the greatest creation of Russian architecture.

Additional photo credits: Aerial images via our partners at Gelio Vostok, Russia's most innovative photographic group.