Italian Rossica

Founded by Peter the Great in 1703 as Russia’s “window on Europe,” St Petersburg has always been a town of international culture. German, French and Dutch architects, sculptors, painters, draughtsmen and theatrical designers all worked alongside their Russian counterparts in the new capital. The most prominent nationality, however, was Italians.

The outer appearance of the imperial Russian capital was itself shaped by the efforts of Italian architects. Bartolomeo Francesco Rastrelli, Giacomo Quarenghi and Carlo Rossi (1775–1849) erected stunning palaces and majestic churches on the banks of the River Neva, guaranteeing their places in the annals of Russian artistic culture.

Beginning in the 1740s, many Italian artists visited Russia, working primarily in the new capital of St Petersburg. They painted plafonds and decorative murals in the palaces and mansions, portraits, allegorical pictures and history canvases, designed stage sets for court theatrical performances and taught at the Imperial Academy of Arts and the drawing classes of the Imperial Academy of Sciences.

The decorative murals inside the palaces of the Russian Museum are synonymous with the names of Italian artists. Stefano Torelli worked at the Marble Palace. Giuseppe Valeriani painted multi-figure plafond compositions in the Stroganov Palace and St Michael’s Castle. The latter building is also home to the decorative painting of Giovanni Scotti.

One of the first Italians to work in St Petersburg was the perspective artist and theatrical designer Giuseppe Valeriani (1690–1762). Besides painting plafonds and stage sets, he also taught drawing at the Imperial Academy of Sciences. Valeriani was equally famous for his drawings and his realistic and fantastic perspective views. He came to St Petersburg at the same time as Antonio Giambattista Peresinotti (1708–1778), a painter of “landscape and perspective ornaments” who also taught at the Imperial Academy of Arts.

Pietro Antonio de Rotari, Francesco Fontebasso (1709–1768(69?)), Pietro Gradizzi (1700–c. 1770) and Stefano Torelli (1712–1780) arrived in St Petersburg from various regions of Italy virtually simultaneously, in the late 1750s and early 1760s. Previously distinguished primarily for his history paintings, Pietro Antonio Rotari painted a series of portraits of such contemporaries as Empress Elizabeth Petrovna, the future Catherine the Great and Bartolomeo Francesco Rastrelli. The Veronese painter was also famous as the father of the “small head” genre in Russian art. Stefano Torelli, master of the “grand decorative style” in Russia, also frequently worked in portraiture. Torelli was commissioned to paint the coronation and allegorical portraits of Catherine the Great.

Italian artists continued to work in Russia in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Salvatore Tonci and Alessandro Molinari painted official and romantic portraits. Vincenzo Briosci (1786–1843) produced history paintings and portraits of contemporaries. Antonio Vighi was a church and history painter. Many of the artists of Italian origin were either born in Russia or lived there for many years, acquiring Russian names. Antonio Baroffio and Antonio Vighi were known as Anton; Salvatore Tonci was christened Nikolai; Fidelio Bruni became Fyodor.

The golden age of Italian rossica was the eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth centuries. Many Italian masters lived and worked in Russia in the second quarter and middle of the nineteenth century, including Fidelio Bruni, Michele Scotti, Cosroe Dusi and Luigi Premazzi. The latter was particularly famous for his landscapes and watercolour studies of interiors. Like many of their predecessors, these Italian artists were distinguished for their masterful command of both oil painting and drawing.

Italian artists felt that they were both needed and appreciated in Russia. They produced many outstanding masterpieces in St Petersburg, making a unique contribution to Russian artistic culture, without ever losing touch with the traditions of their former homeland – Italy.

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