Giacomo Quarenghi

Born: 1744, Rota d’Imagna (Lombardy)
Died: 1817, St Petersburg

Giacomo Quarenghi was born in the small town of Rota d’Imagna near Bergamo in 1744. His fate was decided when he visited and fell in love with Rome in 1763. Inspired by the majestic ruins and ancient monuments, Quarenghi decided to become an artist – and then, after discovering Andrea Palladio’s Quattro Libri d’archittetura, an architect. Calling himself “Palladio’s shadow,” he had already made a name for himself by the time he turned thirty-five. After designing a magnificent church for the monastery of Santa Scholastica at Subiaco, his fame spread far and wide, and he was invited to work in Russia.

Quarenghi arrived in St Petersburg in 1779, and stayed there forever. He created an enormous number of buildings, and it is now impossible to imagine the city without them. Quarenghi designed the Hermitage Theatre (1787) and the Imperial Academy of Sciences on Vasilyevsky Island (1789). The Hermitage Theatre offered him the chance to fulfil his dream of building an ancient theatre, in which the most important element is not the stage, but the auditorium. The outside walls also seem to suggest an amphitheatre. Other creations in St Petersburg were the Raphael Loggia in the New Hermitage, St George’s Hall in the Winter Palace, the Assignation Bank on Sadovaya Street, the Maltese Chapel in the Vorontsov Palace, the Horse Guards Manège, and several magnificent mansions, including the Yussupov Palace on the River Fontanka.

Quarenghi designed numerous buildings in the Neoclassical style in Tsarskoe Selo, Moscow and the Ukraine. It seemed impossible for one person to create so many masterpieces. The architect himself regarded the Smolny Institute (1806–08) as the summit of his career. Walking round St Petersburg, in any part of the city, he could point to a building that he had either built, rebuilt or planned.

In 1810, towards the end of his life, Quarenghi returned to Italy. Now a sixty-four year-old widower, he stepped onto his native soil for the first time in thirty years. In Bergamo, Quarenghi’s fellow citizens gave him a rapturous welcome, including a reception on the town’s main square. Back in Italy, the years seemed to slip away. The architect remarried and decided to return to St Petersburg.

In 1813, Quarenghi was stripped of his Italian citizenship. This was the punishment of Eugène de Beauharnais, the viceroy under Napoleon, for refusing to return home from Russia when commanded. Quarenghi’s property was confiscated and his portrait was removed from Bergamo town hall.

A year later, Italy was liberated and the decision was overturned. Quarenghi died in St Petersburg in 1817 and was buried at the Volkovo Lutheran Cemetery.

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