Prominent Russians: Karl Rossi
Karl Rossi, an outstanding Russian architect of Italian origin, designed quite a number of building and architectural ensembles in Saint Petersburg. We owe him the beauty and originality of the city.
Karl Rossi was born on 18 December 1775 in Naples, Italy. His mother, Gertruda Rossi, was a famous ballet dancer. She was well known far beyond the borders of Italy and was invited to dance in Saint Petersburg. Her art of dance was highly acclaimed: Gertruda Rossi ranged among the best ballerinas of the Imperial stage. Her little son, Karl, lived a happy and fortunate life. Karl spent his childhood in the atmosphere of luxury and leisure. Brought up in an artistic environment, the boy became interested in the arts. Architecture attracted him above all, and Karl Rossi chose his future profession at a young age.
Vincenzo Brenna became Rossi’s first teacher of architecture. Karl attended the master’s studio and learnt the essential principles of the art of building.
Later, in 1795, Rossi entered the service of the admiralty board of architecture and
continued his studies. Vincenzo Brenna trusted young Rossi enough to make him his assistant in the construction of the Mikhailovsky Palace that was intended for Russian Emperor Paul I. The experience was very useful for the young architect. Rossi wanted to become acquainted with the greatest examples of world architecture, so in 1802-1803 he went to Italy. He admired the classical architectural constructions in Rome, Florence, Venice and other great cities. Karl Rossi was of Italian origin, but since he grew up in Russia he always considered the Russian Empire to be his homeland. He was happy to return to Saint Petersburg after the long journey.
In Saint Petersburg Rossi elaborated a plan to remodel the central
Admiralteiskaya embankment. But the plan was not approved: moreover, architects condemned it as “light and unimportant.” Karl Rossi was sent to a porcelain factory where he had to decorate plates and dishes with flowers and ornaments. The young architect was completely unsatisfied with such a job and kept working on his architectural projects. In 1806 Rossi’s talent was finally recognized: together with other architects he was sent with the so-called “Kremlin Expedition” to Moscow. The goal of the expedition was to renovate the governmental buildings of the Kremlin and to design new complexes in Moscow and its suburbs. Rossi’s first work in the expedition was the construction of the Church of Saint Catherine in the Ascension Convent. It was founded on 4 July 1809. Karl Rossi also restored the wooden building of the theater on the Arbatskaya Square. According to the memoirs of his contemporaries it featured perfect acoustics. Unfortunately, the theater did not survive until today: it burnt down in the great fire of Moscow during Napoleon’s invasion in 1812. Karl Rossi also worked in the city of Tver, northwest of Moscow, where he put up a number of buildings. For his achievements Rossi was awarded with the Saint Vladimir 4th Degree Order.
In 1815 Karl Rossi returned to Saint Petersburg and a year after he was appointed to a position on the committee of structures and hydraulic works. Rossi’s architectural talent flourished during this period.
Karl Rossi is considered an adherent of the late classicism architectural style: his works combine grandiosity with noble simplicity. His creations feature expressiveness, resplendence of order compositions, innovative methods and harmonious combinations of architecture and sculpture.
Rossi constructed not only individual buildings but large architectural complexes as well. For example, in 1818-1822 he created the palace ensemble on Elagin Island in Saint Petersburg, a beloved recreational complex for the nobility, with an exquisite stone palace, beautiful gardens with ponds, conservatories and dwellings for servants. With construction of the Elagin ensemble over, Rossi had earned the reputation of a skilled and gifted architect.
Rossi created a large number of Saint Petersburg monumental architectural ensembles. He was among those trusted to form the center of Saint Petersburg. Thanks to his works, the city became one of the most beautiful in the world. Monumental and elegant ensembles by Rossi range among the greatest masterpieces of world architecture. It was Rossi who constructed the Square of Arts in the heart of the city, which still serves as an example of perfect proportions and irreproachable taste. Karl Rossi also worked on the ensembles that adjoin the field of Mars in Saint Petersburg: the architect created the palace for the Grand Duke Mikhail, the forth son of Emperor Paul I, which currently houses the collections of the Russian museum, and created the Mikhailovsky garden, which is still a very nice promenade location.
The next task was the most difficult and important for Karl Rossi. He was ordered to form the central square of Saint Petersburg – the Palace Square, the one that the windows of the Winter Palace, the Emperor’s residence, overlooked. It was a great challenge for the architect as he had to create the triumphal entrance gate to the main city square. The architect was brave and innovative enough to change the original direction of the Morskaya Street and to point it towards the center of the Winter Palace. On the square Rossi also put up two grandeur buildings of the General Staff Headquarters and the ministries, joining them with a large arch. The arch is famous all over the world. It was through this gate that the Bolsheviks came to overthrow the Provisional Government in October 1917. It was the turning point of the October Revolution and the arch was one of its symbols.
Rossi had a remarkable capacity for work. Along with reconstructing the Palace Square he managed to decorate the interiors of the Pavlovsk Palace – the royal summer residence located in the suburbs of Saint Petersburg. Rossi also adorned the Winter Palace interiors. For example, the gem of the Palace, the gallery dedicated to the heroes of the 1812 war with Napoleon was skillfully constructed and decorated by Karl Rossi. The gallery, as well as many other constructions by Rossi, symbolized the patriotic ideas of the Russian Empire’s grandeur and praised the victory in the 1812 war. The gallery was badly damaged in the fire of 1837, but later it was restored by architect Vasily Stasov.
Another large project by Rossi was the Senate Square, one of the main sights of Saint Petersburg. He won the contest for the best look of the square. The architect constructed two buildings – the Senate and the Synod, the council of the Russian Orthodox Church. Rossi repeated the method he used while decorating the Palace Square, connecting two large buildings by an arch.
The peak of Rossi’s creative work was the construction of the Aleksandrinsky Theater. It still ranges among the most beautiful classical constructions in Saint Petersburg. However, some of the architect’s colleagues pointed out errors and disadvantages in Rossi’s project. He was insulted, and even asked the Emperor Nicholas I for support. The Emperor confirmed his faith in the architect, and Rossi finished the project. But still his reputation was hurt. Karl Rossi was not considered for any serious projects again. He was forced to resign on 25 October 1832.
Karl Rossi’s personality was not an ordinary one. Aside from being a brilliant architect, he was a very honest and generous man. The Imperial treasury gave him enormous sums of money for major construction works, but still, Rossi didn’t make a fortune. He returned all the excess money and asked that his workers be rewarded. Once he was the highest-paid architect in the Russian Empire, but nevertheless he lived a relatively modest life. He donated all his money to poor people and charity organizations. When Rossi resigned he lived almost in poverty: his pension was not very large.
In the last years of his life Rossi created only one significant architectural construction: the belfry of Yuriev Monastery in Novgorod (1838-1841). Karl Rossi died in oblivion on 6 April 1849. He was buried at the Volkovskoe Cemetery in Saint Petersburg, but in the 1930s his remains were transferred to the Lazarevskoe Cemetery at the Aleksandr Nevsky Monastery. A high stele of grey polished granite marks Rossi’s grave.
Rossi’s name has been given to one of the most beautiful streets of Saint Petersburg. It runs from the Aleksandrinsky Theater and consists of two large buildings decorated with Dorian columns. The proportions of the street conform to the antique canons: the width of the street is equal to the height of its buildings (22 meters), and the length of the street is ten times larger and equals 220 meters.
Written by Alyona Kipreyeva for RT