Great Italians in St. Petersburg

In the 18th century, the Italian states produced an excess of extraordinary creative talent. Impoverished and politically weak, however, they lacked the resources to support the work of their artistic citizens. Russia from the reign of Peter the Great onwards increased its power and the immense wealth of its ruling class with incredible rapidity, becoming in less than a century one of the great empires of Europe. In culture, however, it lagged far behind its rivals to the west. Lacking the necessary educational institutions to develop native talent in all fields of the arts, for a century Russia imported its artists. Thus developed an almost perfect symbiotic relationship, with scores of Italians finding fame and fortune at the Russian court in St. Petersburg, and leaving an indelible mark on the country's nascent high culture.

Chariot of Victory on the arch of the General Staff Building built by Carlo Rossi in Saint-Petersburg, Russia
Chariot of Victory on the arch of the General Staff Building built by Carlo Rossi

Foremost among them were the great architects of the Imperial capital, including Francesco Rastrelli, designer of the Winter Palace, and Carlo Rossi, whose grand Empire-style designs gave the city its formal face. Not far behind them in terms of significance were painters and sculptors, many of whom taught at the newly established Imperial Academy of Fine Arts, and composers who introduced musical theatre to St. Petersburg, laying the groundwork for the great flowering of Russian national ballet and opera in the 19th century.

While some of these figures have never achieved the international fame that perhaps they deserve, their contribution to the establishment of St. Petersburg as a cultural capital is inestimable, and to them first and foremost can be laid the responsibility of creating this extraordinarily hybrid city, nurturing the classical ideals of the Enlightenment in the cold flat lands of northern Russia.