Foreigners in Russia: Niccolo Michetti
Niccolo Michetti was an Italian architect who worked in Rome and in shortly St. Petersburg as the head architect of the royal court. Though his tenure in Russia was short, he was responsible for completing a number of magnificent royal palaces that remain standing to this day; a tribute to the lasting art of Italian-inspired Petrine Baroque of architecture in St. Petersburg.
Origins and travel to Russia
Niccolo Michetti was born on December 7th 1675 in Italy. He would eventually choose architecture as his calling, and study in the studio of the famous Italian architect Carlo Fontana as his pupil. Michetti was such a respected and promising disciple that he was placed in charge of the completion of several of Fontana’s own projects after he died, including the church of San Michele a Ripa in Rome.
In 1718, Michetti was invited to Russia by Yury Kologrivov, an emissary from Peter the Great. At that time, Peter was in constant search of the brightest talent in Europe in order to construct his capital city of St. Petersburg. Peter, enamored with many things European, was on a personal mission to modernize Russia by bringing it as close as possible to Europe, and to this end enticed as many philosophers, scientists, and artists as he could to the royal court in St. Petersburg. Kologrivov was impressed with Michetti’s own work while continuing the work on the projects he had inherited from his master teacher. Kologrivov wrote Peter personally to recommend the Italian for Peter’s court.
Upon arriving in St. Petersburg in 1718, Michetti was given the task of completing several of Peter’s royal palaces. Peter had commissioned several projects and palaces to make the city of St. Petersburg his dream capital of the north. In keeping with his insatiable desire for all trends and styles European, he named French architect Jean Baptiste Alexandre Le Blond master architect of St. Petersburg, gave him a wealthy salary, and placed him in charge of several royal projects in 1716. However, Le Blond unexpectedly died in 1719, and a new architect was needed to complete the Tsar’s royal residences in Strelna and Peterhof. Michetti inherited all of Le Blond’s projects, his official title of Royal Court Architect, and his salary of 5000 rubles a month, which at that time was an immense sum of money to be paid.
The village of Strelna
The village of Strelna outside of St. Petersburg had been picked by Peter for his potential summer residence, and Peter had ordered Le Blond to create a palace for him there that would be equal in grandeur to the French king’s residence at Versailles. After Michetti took over project in 1719, he attempted to reinforce the foundations of the buildings that had either already been constructed or were already under construction. However, the ground proved unsuitable for the magnitude of the designs for the estate. The project was delayed, and Peter instead focused on developing Peterhof as his official summer residence. Michetti would assist on some aspects of Peterhof, but was ultimately disappointed by the developments at Strelna; it is possible that this disappointment played a part in his decision to leave Russia shortly thereafter.
Other projects and abrupt departure
Michetti’s fate as designer of his own projects in Russia was a strange one. Since he was only in the service of the court for a short time, most of the projects he was responsible for overseeing were those he inherited, much like the project in Strelna; abandoned by other architects only to be completed by Michetti. Michetti would finish constructing the grotto in the summer garden in St. Petersburg, another project left unfinished by Le Blond. The grotto would later be transformed into the Tsar’s Coffee House by the architect Rossi. In the Tsar’s summer palace of Peterhof, he would complete the work on the Monplaisir palace, and would build several fountains, including the Adam, Eve, The Pyramid, and the Sun Fountains. He would also aid in the continuing construction of the Hermitage. Michetti’s sole surviving project designed by the Italian himself is ‘Catherine’s Valley Palace’ in Kadriorg, outside of what is current day Tallinn. However, in a twist of fate, Michetti himself would not complete his own project, leaving it to one of his Russian disciples of Italian architecture, the famous Mikhail Zemtsov, to finish after Michetti would return to St. Petersburg.
Michetti would leave Russia abruptly in 1723, after only having spent five years in the service of the Tsar. Upon returning to Rome, he would successfully continue his career in baroque architecture for several years. The reasons for Michetti’s sudden decision to depart Russia and return to his native Italy are not fully known, but it is likely that Michetti felt much of his creativity was left unrealized in Russia. Michetti would leave behind him, however, several Russian students and disciples of baroque architecture who would have a great influence on the future development of St. Petersburg.