Rossi’s Architecture – A Hymn to Russia

The Yelagin Palace, St. Petersburg. Architect: Carlo Rossi, 1818-1822

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Architect: Carlo Rossi, 1775-1849

Among the grand historical buildings of St. Petersburg, many were designed by architect Carlo Rossi – the Yelagin Palace, the Mikhailosky Palace, the Alexandrinsky Theater, the buildings of the Senate and the Holy Synod, and – probably, Rossi’s best known work – the General Staff Building which stands opposite the Hermitage. On December 29, it’s 235 years since Carlo Rossi’s birth.

“St. Petersburg owes very much of its splendor and beauty to Rossi,” an expert on architecture Dmitry Shvidkovskiy believes.

“Rossi dreamed of making St. Petersburg a city of grandeur – and he did it. In a letter to the Russian Emperor Nicholas I, Rossi wrote: “Are we still not daring to surpass the art of ancient Romans?” And, Rossi managed to create an architecture which, if not surpasses the best samples of ancient Greek and Roman architecture, can undoubtedly be compared with them. True, we can name several architectural ensembles by Rossi’s predecessors in European cities which are probably no less impressing than his works – but, usually, they were made by big teams of architects over a rather long period of time. Rossi managed to put his vision of St. Petersburg into life in a rather short time, practically alone – only because he loved St. Petersburg with all his heart.”

Carlo Rossi was a son of an Italian dancer. He came to Russia when he was a child and stayed here for the rest of his life.

“Rossi is, undoubtedly, a Russian architect,” says Dmitry Shvidkovskiy, “not only because he studied at the Russian Academy of Fine Arts.”

“Some people connect Rossi with the Italian tradition. But if we look at the Italian architecture of the 18th century, we’ll see that Rossi’s works have little to do with it. It would be more correct to say that Rossi was the heir of the great Russian architects of the 18th century – Vasily Bazhenov, Matvey Kazakov, Charles Cameron and Giacomo Quarenghi.”

However, the life of a genius is often full with hardships. At the end of his life, Rossi fall into disfavor. He wrote an appeal to Emperor Nicholas I, asking for retirement, and the Emperor agreed to it.

“However, I think that Nicholas is not to blame that at the end of his life, Rossi built practically nothing,” Dmitry Shvidkovskiy says.

“In fact, architecture reflects history. For Russia, the early 19th century was an epoch of military victories – over Napoleon and in the wars which Russia held in the East in the 1820s, and Rossi’s architectural style supported the image of Russia as a country of military glory. Then, a period came when Russia couldn’t boast of similar victories. Rossi’s art was no longer in demand.”

The unique historical architectural ensemble in St. Petersburg is included in UNESCO’s World Heritage List. And, of course, the construction of a huge skyscraper, which was planned in St. Petersburg’s very center, would have drastically spoiled the whole impression from this city of classical culture.

“I was very glad when I heard that the skyscraper’s construction was finally banned,” says Dmitry Shvidkovskiy.

“I think that Rossi wouldn’t have been happy to see this gigantic building in the very heart of St. Petersburg,” he continues. “Rossi always believed that all the buildings in a city must harmonize with each other, must form one whole. Probably, his main achievement is that he united 12 squares and 13 streets of St. Petersburg into one ensemble which is really impressive. Moreover, in Rossi’s time, such a skyscraper would have been unthinkable – no one was allowed to build anything taller than the Emperor’s palace in St. Petersburg.”

There is a saying that architecture is frozen music. If this is true, then, Rossi’s buildings are hymns which glorify St. Petersburg and Russia.

Source: The Voice of Russia
29 December, 2010

Mikhailovsky Palace, St. Petersburg. Architect: Carlo Rossi, 1819-25