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Loved at last - An Italian who gave Russia Red Square

View of Red Square looking northwest from St. Basil's Cathedral
View of Red Square looking northwest from St. Basil's Cathedral

Right at the spiritual centre of Russia, in the heart of Moscow, home for the clash of old and new, an Italian architect with a Russian name will build a theatre to define and set the tone for the whole city. It will be the Bolshoi Theatre, recognized worldwide for its excellence as a keeper of some of ballet traditions. The Bolshoi, a product of Italo-Russian love, which now reigns over a country, over the world.

Performance in the Bolshoi Theatre (1856)

Russians will remember him as Osip Ivanovich Bove, but the world remmebers architect Giuseppe Bove for performing the unthinkable, for rebuilding the centre of Moscow after the tragice fire of the 1812 war with Napoleon.

Bove, born in Saint-Petersburg, where according to the existing tradition his father was invited to work (at the Hermitage Museum), didn't remain there for long. Soon after his birth, the family resettled in Moscow, the historic capital of Russia. The soon to be architect was educated at the Moscow Architectural Institute, the oldest of the existing architectural schools in the country. It was there that he studied under other famous Italians masters in Russia, Carlo Rossi and Francesco Camporesi. However impactful this trainting with those famous architects may have been though, it would be inaccurate to say Bove enjoyed much success at first. But his apparent talents do open to him the doors of the Imperial Academy of Arts, where he was granted an honourable rank of the Academy architect.  

Le Jardin Anime. Photo by Damir Yusupov/Bolshoi Theatre.

Following this, Bove reaches professional recognition, when he marries a widowed princess, Avdotya Trubetskaya. The misalliance produces a tumultuous reaction in what was considered the crème de la crème of Russian society. For most Western readers the name Trubetskaya will ring a bell. An aristocrat himself, writer Leo Tolstoy will include the Trubetskoy family in his “War and Peace”, along with other existing families such as Rostovy and Bolkonskie. In keeping with his new position, and being familiar with Orthodox traditions, Giuseppe Bove is compelled to be baptized as an Orthodox and to accept the Russian name Osip. But the public furor and gossip continues, and he is still not welcomed anywhere. 

Bove's life is a tumult, an aggravated sore, but the real tragedy surrounding he and his contemporaries comes in the form of war, and Moscow burns. Afterward, it is Bove who is commissioned to reconstruct what every Russian considers a spiritual Mecca – the Red (“Beautiful”) Square. Commemorating Russia’s victory over Napoleon, Bove designs the Triumphal Arch in Moscow. One of the most significant of Bove’s creations, the Arch is demolished in 1935 under the Soviet regime, but brought back to life in 1965, following Yuri Gagarin’s famous speech. “The Triumphal Arch of the 1812 was demolished in Moscow. I could go on with the list of other victims of our barbarian attitude to the monuments of the past. Sadly, there are many of such examples”. Noone, including Brezhnev, can ignore what Gagarin has to say. And the Triumphal Arch is finally brought back to life on the Kutuzovsky Prospect.

As for Bove's other momentous creations, the architect's style is best signified in his designing the Kremlin gardens, Theatre Square, and most importantly the Bolshoi Theatre. And his Italian nostalgia expressed in stone will translate as “romantic”.

Bove's House in Moscow - Russian AIFBove's final project of the Theatre Square is approved in Saint-Petersburg in 1821. It also includes the reconstruction of the drama theatre, Malyi Theatre. Four years later, the Bolshoi celebrates its rebirth with an opera, but no one pays attention to what’s happening on stage. As soon as Bove appears in his box, people jump up from their seats impatiently, applauding to him. The architect whose name has been previously neglected by the aristocratic society, finally receives his imutable respect. As the Moscow “Vedomosti” write on the 6th of January, 1825:

“At the solemn opening the public didn’t call for actors, but for the architect. There was much noise before the overture. Everyone was calling for the architect: “Bove, Bove!” Then he appeared in the main box and was deafened by applauses”.

Today, in rememberance of Giuseppe Bove, let us have a stroll in the historic centre of Moscow and glance at the place where he was happy. Here in Petrovsky Lane, 6, after having rebuilt the house to his taste, he lives together with his beloved wife, Avdotya Trubetskaya, and their four children. One of the oldest buildings in Moscow, dating back to 1690, the house still remembers the horrors of the 1812 war and the death of its former owner, Prince Trubetskoy, who lost his life near Leipzig in 1813.

For me, as I wonder whether countless tourists coming to Moscow from the most distant parts of the Earth, know its secret. I wonder too, if they know that what they are insatiably trying to encapsulate in photographs, is Italian. Just like the architect who designed it: Italian in its elegant expression, and Russian in its essence.