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Foreigners in Russia: Gaetano Chiaveri

1689 – March 5, 1770
Kunstkamera Kunstkamer, St. Petersburg

Gaetano Chiaveriwas an Italian architect who worked across Europe and in Russia under Peter the Great and Catherine I.Highly educated, he is best known in Russia for his work on the Kunstkamera, Russia’s first anthropological museum of natural history.The museum is famous throughout the world for its massive collection of various preserved natural aberrations and ‘freaks of nature’, which Peter collected in the name of science in attempt to dispel persisting Russian beliefs in various devils and evil spirits.Chiaveri was responsible for the construction of the tower in the now famous museum, as well as for the design of its interior. 

Origins and travel to Russia

Not much is known about Gaetano Chiaveri’s origins, other than that he was born near Rome in 1689.  It is not known where he studied, but it is known that he was already working in Europe on various commissions in the Baroque style.  It is most likely his work in that led him to be hired by Peter the Great to work in St. Petersburg and Russia. 

Chiaveri arrived in Russia in 1718, and it is possible that travelling with him was another Italian architect, Niccolo Michetti, who would work together with Chiaveri.The two would become some of the larger contributors to the Petrine Baroque style of architecture that was popular and unique to St. Petersburg at the time. Chiaveri’s first projects included many churches, such as the Ekaterina Alekseyevna Church in the village of Korostyn in 1721, and a model copy of the Church of St. Peter in Rome in 1723. 

The Kunstkamera project

Meanwhile, in St. Petersburg, Peter the Great was in the midst of building Russia’s first scientific and anthropological museum, called the Kunstkamera.  The inspiration for the building most likely came to Peter while he was abroad, seeing the museums and scientific collections of Frederick Ruysch and Levinus Vincent in Amsterdam in 1697.  Peter developed an obsession with birth defects and strange occurrences in nature, and issued an order across Russia that any deformed still born babies from across Russia be transported to Petersburg to be preserved and displayed in the Museum.  Peter’s objective was to demonstrate to the peasant masses that these deformities were completely natural in origin, and had nothing to do with ‘evil spirits’ or ‘demons’. 

The Kunstkamera building itself, however, had a difficult story in terms of its construction. The project was originally designed by the architect Georg Johann Mattarnovi, who died in 1719 before the project could be completed.  Taking over the project after Matternovi was the architect Nikolay Gerbel, who also died before being able to complete construction in 1724.  The project was then passed to Chiaveri, who redesigned the famous tower atop the building and completed designs for the interior, including the museum’s famous staircase, colonnade, and two-tiered main hall.  Even Chiaveri, however, would not be fortunate enough to complete the Kunstkamera.  His designs were eventually completed by the noted Russian architect Mikhail Zemtsov in 1734. 

Departure and legacy

Gaetano Chiaveri’s name can still be found in the records of St. Petersburg until 1727.  Afterwards, it is most likely that he left Russia and returned to Europe where he would continue his work, becoming famous for his contributions to the Royal Castle in Warsaw and the construction of the Catholic Church of the Royal Court of Saxony in Dresden.  He eventually returned to his homeland of Italy and died there on March 5, 1770 at the age of 81 as one of Europe and Russia’s foremost baroque architects.
Written by Adam Muskin, RT

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