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Foreigners in Russia: Aristotele Fioravanti

Born around 1415 - died not earlier than 1486
Dormition Cathedral (RT Photo / Irina Vasilevitskaya)Dormition Cathedral (RT Photo / Irina Vasilevitskaya)

Aristotele Fioravanti was an Italian engineer and architect who travelled to Russia in 1475 at the request of Ivan III. His major contribution to Russian architecture is the magnificent Dormition (or Assumption) Cathedral built in the Moscow Kremlin (1475-1479).  He also participated in Ivan III’s military marches on Novgorod (1477-1478), Kazan (1482), and Tver (1485) as an artillery commander and war engineer.  While responsible for only one building in Russia, his work on the Dormition Cathedral proved so successful and innovative that it earned him a place in the annals of Russian architecture for centuries to come. 

Italian origins

Aristotele was born around 1415 in the Italian city of Bologna into a family of architects whose family can be traced back to the middle of the 14th century in the city’s chronicle.  Aristotele apprenticed under his father, who was responsible for a number of famous architectural designs and restoration projects around Bologna. Aristotele is first mentioned in the city chronicle in 1436, when he collaborated with the metalworker Gaspar Nadi to make a bell for the city tower in Aringo. Aristotele’s expertise as an engineer was necessary to lift the bell into the tower.  The two worked together again on another bell, which was completed in 1453. Aristotele used his experience from the previous partnership to design a special device to lift the bell into place.

As Aristotele continued developing as an innovative engineer and architect, so too did his career blossom.  In 1447, he took over his father’s projects, and together with his uncle he worked on a number of difficult engineering construction projects.  One of the most stunning of these was the relocation of the bell tower in St. Marks in 1455, after which the city of St. Marks rewarded him with a lifetime pension and privileges. Fioravanti later straightened the bell tower in Cento, and at the church of St. Angela in Venice.  However, the former only stood for two days before it collapsed, suffocating two people.  This would be one of Fioravanti’s few failings, but nevertheless, Aristotele left Venice immediately after the incident and never returned. 

False accusations and a Russian opportunity

Fioravanti continued his work in Rome and in Bologna, but an event occurred which would change his life forever, derailing his Italian career and playing a part in his eventual decision to relocate to Russia.  In June of 1473, Aristotele was unexpectedly accused of counterfeiting false coins.  The shocked Italian was promptly arrested and relieved of all his previous privileges and titles, even though the accusations would eventually prove false.  It was at this pivotal moment, however, in 1474 that he met the Russian ambassador Semyon Tolbuzin, who had been sent to Italy to search for architects to work in Moscow.

Ivan III needed talented and experienced specialists in short order, as in 1474 in a catastrophe in the Kremlin had occurred; Ivan III had commissioned two Russian architects to build a new Dormition Cathedral within the Kremlin walls, replacing the ancient one that had stood in its place.  The Cathedral was almost completed when disaster struck, and the Cathedral collapsed.  It is not clear whether the collapse was because of structural instability and mistakes on the part of the architects or, as some accounts say, because an earthquake that shook the site, but the building had to be constructed anew, and Ivan III was not pleased.  The Pskov architects, upon examining the destroyed building, came to the conclusion that “it would seem that neither mortar, nor the stones were solid enough”, but would not take the job of building a new cathedral themselves.  Semyon Tolbuzin, the Russian ambassador, was sent abroad to Italy to find a suitable specialist for the job.

 The meeting between Fioravanti and Tolbuzin most likely occurred in Rome, and after signing a contract in 1475, the 60 year old architect left for the Principality of Moscow with his son Andrey and his servant Pietro.  Fioravanti’s work in Moscow began with removing the remains of the previous Dormition Cathedral.  Astoundingly, cleaning the site for the new cathedral took one week – everything that had taken three years to build was completely removed in a mere seven days.  The remaining parts of the building were demolished by a suspension battering ram custom designed by Fioravanti.  When the battering ram was insufficient, the remaining parts of the wall were stuffed with tinder and lit on fire.  The remaining walls would have been completely removed even faster if the workers had been able to keep up with Fioravanti’s efficiency.  Once the site was cleared, however, Fioravanti did not rush to begin construction on the new cathedral.  Fioravanti knew how important it was that his new cathedral should blend the traditions of ancient Russian architecture with modern innovations from Europe and he was categorically opposed to simply transplanting tastes and styles from Western Europe that might not resound with the Tsar.  For that reason, as soon as the foundation was finished, Aristotele travelled throughout Russia in order to acquaint himself with the ancient Russian culture of architecture. 

After his travels, Aristotele decided to use the Dormition Cathedral in Vladimir as his model.  In order to construct the new cathedral, new material was necessary in addition to the white stone that was left over from the previous project.  Ancient white stone from the Moscow suburb of Myachkov was found suitable, and Aristotele began drawing material from there. Bricks were also necessary.  The bricks that had been made for the previous cathedral were deemed of poor quality, and Fioravanti built a new brick factory on the banks of the Moscow River to make new bricks that were of higher quality and held to a single standard. 

Fioravante introduced a number of innovations and new architectural designs when construction finally began.  The foundation of the cathedral was set about 4.5 meters deep, and oak was pounded into the foundation itself, a method never before seen in Moscow.  The building itself was completed in 1477; additions would be made to the interior later, taking another two years.  On August 15th, 1479, a ceremony was held commemorating the opening.  In another first for Russian architectural history, the cathedral interior was not separated into smaller enclaves, but rather presented its entire volume in one single space.  Finally, the elaborate and magnificent artwork inside the church was completed during Fioravanti’s lifetime, and by 1515, the cathedral was complete. 

Assaults on Novgorod and Tver

In 1482, Fioravanti was assigned to lead the artillery in Ivan III’s military approach against Novgorod, and during the march, Fioravanti devised a pontoon bridge to allow the artillery to cross the Volkhov River.  Afterwards, the architect wanted to return to Italy, but Ivan III had already seen Fioravanti’s worth to him, and did everything in his power to keep the Italian in Russia. Fioravanti was even placed under arrest for attempting to return to Italy in secret.  However, Fioravanti would not be held for long, as in 1485 Ivan III marched on Tver, where the engineer was once again necessary.  After that march, Aristotele’s name is no longer found in historical writings or archives, nor is there any evidence that he returned to his country.  He is most likely to have died during this time. 

Aristotele Fioravanti was a master architect who claimed glory in Russia by constructing one building, but a piece of art nevertheless worthy of comparison to many others.  However, it is impossible to claim that the Dormition Cathedral was his only outstanding contribution to Russia.  A multitude of engineering concepts attributed to him had a great effect on further construction projects in both Russia and his native Italy, where similarly only one of his projects has survived as well.

Written by Adam Muskin, RT

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