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Prominent Russians: Vasily Bazhenov

March 1, 1737 or 1738 – August 2, 1799

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Vasily Ivanovich Bazhenov was a famous Russian architect, graphic artist, architectural theorist and teacher. In 18th century Russia, architecture was probably the most prosperous art. It was especially brightly embodied in Bazhenov's ingenuity, though he managed to carry out only a small part of his grandiose plans.

Nobody knows exactly when (in 1737 or 1738) and where (Moscow or Kaluga region) the architect was born. He came from the family of a poor clergyman - a junior deacon in one of numerous Kremlin churches. As a child, he was made choirboy at the Strastnoy Monastery in Moscow and, according to tradition, was destined to follow his father's path. But he liked drawing better. "I mentally put saints on walls and made them a part of my composition, and I was often flogged for it," he wrote later in his autobiography. Besides drawing, he was also fond of modeling various Kremlin buildings from timber splinters.

At 15 he managed to find a drawing teacher, a run-down painter, who took the boy 'for God's sake', (i.e. free of charge) and taught him some elementary techniques. Soon they both found themselves participants of an enormous and urgent construction project. The wooden imperial palace in the Moscow suburb of Lefortovo had suddenly burned down and Empress Elizabeth ordered that it be re-built immediately. It was erected as in a fairy tale –within just a single month. It was probably during this time that the young Vasily, whose job was to paint ovens in imitation of marble, started to think of becoming an architect.

His abilities were noticed at the construction site and Prince Dmitry Ukhtomsky, the chief Moscow architect, began to give him some creative tasks. In 1755 Vasily was accepted to the newly established Moscow University. The next year he was transferred to the Academy of Arts gymnasium in St. Petersburg and in 1758 - 1760, he attended architectural classes at the Academy of Arts.

He was introduced to the empress Elisabeth and underwent training in the workshop of the architect Savva Chevakinsky. Here Bazhenov studied French and mathematics and diligently copied drawings of antique columns and flooring (the ABC of architecture education in those days). In summer he worked at construction sites in St. Petersburg that were supervised by his vigorous and industrious tutor, including the St. Nicholas Naval Cathedral.

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In 1760 - 1764, Vasily Bazhenov continued his studies in France and Italy. He became one of the first two recipients of a travel scholarship from the Academy of Arts (the other one was awarded to Ivan Starov who also later developed into a prominent architect).

In France Bazhenov saw for the first time the emerging architectural style that until then he had only heard talked about in St. Petersburg by his academic tutors - Alexander Kokorinov and Jean-Baptiste Vallin de la Mothe: festive and at the same time strict buildings of simple rectilinear outline with uniform, precise lines of elegant columns. This style would later be called Classicism. The brilliant French architect Charles de Wailly taught him the basic values of Baroque and Classicism in its early version called the "Goût grec" (Greek taste). King Louis XV asked Bazhenov to become the royal court artist but Bazhenov turned down the offer preferring to work in his own country.

Bazhenov then travelled to Italy (1762 – 1764), the native land of the Baroque and, even more important, the country of ancient ruins; original antiquity, which so captivated architects and artists. In 1764, he became a professor of the Academy of St. Lucas (Rome) and a member of art academies in Bologna and Florence. Actually, Bazhenov got stuck in Italy, because the Russian Academy of Arts was too slow and reluctant in paying for his debts and his way home.

Bazhenov brought to Russia not only amazing scale models of famous buildings, including the Louvre and St. Peter's Cathedral and the collected works by Roman architect Vitruvius (which he later translated into Russian and published), but also daring ideas on architecture and urban planning. Bazhenov surely shared the Vitruvian concepts of architecture as an essential element in the education of a gentleman and of the architect as the master of all the arts central to human knowledge, thus embodying the Renaissance ideal of the Universal Man.

Bazhenov returned to St. Petersburg exactly for the big celebration in honor of a new charter of the Academy of Arts. But the Academy snubbed Bazhenov. A smart uniform was tailored for him in 1765 - one of an academician, but he was not given a long-promised professorship. In addition, Bazhenov had to undergo a test to confirm his academic rank - to create a small architectural design. He executed it beautifully, far exceeding the modest test requirements, but nevertheless had to look for employment on his own.

Bazhenov worked for Count Grigory Orlov, the minion of Catherine II and the commander of artillery and fortifications, and for Paul Petrovich, the juvenile successor to the throne (the future Emperor Pavel I) whose support he enjoyed until the end of his life. At last Orlov introduced Bazhenov to the empress’s court, unusual for an architect with the rank of artillery captain. Together with the patron and all the court, Bazhenov left St. Petersburg and in early 1767 returned to Moscow, where he found work according to his talent and aspirations. He was appointed architect in charge of the reconstruction of the Moscow Kremlin, the team including his apprentice Matvey Kazakov (who later also become a famous architect). The task meant preserving esteemed relics and clearing away the Kremlin, giving it symmetry and balance, peculiar to Classicism.

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The project of the Grand Kremlin Palace to occupy the whole southern part of the Kremlin turned into a bold plan of total Kremlin reconstruction and the creation of Moscow's new centre. Bazhenov produced a bombastic Classicist design of heroic size, which involved the demolition of several ancient churches and palaces, as well as a portion of the Kremlin wall. Bazhenov planned direct streets, fanning from the ancient Trinity Gates, and new squares.

In the Kremlin the demolition of old buildings and walls started and the internal squares of the Kremlin became visible even from afar. However, in the spring of 1771 the work had to be stopped because of a plague. The following summer the ground was dug out for the foundation pit of the palace, which would be laid a year later. However, time passed, but the construction did not rise above the foundation pit due to lack of money. In the spring of 1775 the empress ordered the work be stopped. Insulted, Bazhenov refused to supervise the earth backing. Several years later, Kazakov restored the dismantled sections of the Kremlin wall.

Meanwhile, Bazhenov was employed by Catherine II for another remarkable project - Tsaritsyno, a manor near Moscow which had just been bought by the empress. On 20 November 1775 she issued a decree allocating 30 thousand rubles for construction work at Tsaritsyno “according to the plans and under the supervision of the architect Bazhenov.” Bahenov’s plans specified a park with pavilions and adjoining palaces for the Empress and her son Paul in pseudo-gothic style with polychrome lace-like details.

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Construction work at Tsaritsyno began in May 1776. Bazhenov worked diligently on the project for ten years. Here, in contrast to the Kremlin, he controlled everything himself, including accounting, materials, purchasing and labor. However, bills were irregularly paid from St. Petersburg so the job proved too hard on Bazhenov. Under stress and with his health impaired, he ran into debts and had to sell one of his wife's properties to help finance the work. He was tired and at 40 felt like an old man. In the damp environment of Tsaritsyno his children suffered and his younger son died.

In the summer of 1785 the empress, who had not been to Moscow for ten years, finally arrived and visited the nearly finished manor, familiar to her only from drawings. Beautiful houses seemed to her small and too close to each other while on paper everything had looked more impressive. Besides, Catherine found freemason symbols in the decor details (living in Moscow, Bazhenov enthusiastically participated in local Masonic lodges' activities). The problem was that by that time, she had already begun to believe the Russian throne was being threatened by liberal ideas and the secrecy associated with the Freemasonry. She needed a residence that expressed the stability and power of the throne.

As a result, Bazhenov was fired, and in 1786 Matvey Kazakov was ordered to remake the palace. Kazakov devoted over a decade to the project until its abrupt termination in 1797 after the Empress's death. Other buildings remained unfinished and uninhabited.

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Bazhenov, of course, carried out a lot of private orders as well, but much less is known about these as papers of the architect and the majority of his clients have not been preserved. Probably the most renowned building of the kind is the Pashkov House in Moscow - a mansion built in 1784 - 1786 for Peter Pashkov, the lieutenant commander of the Semenovsky Life Guards Regiment and the son of Peter the Great’s batman. A combination of antique austerity and solemnity with a traditional Moscow design makes it look like a pure masterpiece of original Russian Classicism. The residence was set at the slope of the Vagankovsky Hill, on an open corner of two descending streets, facing the Borovitsky gates of the Moscow Kremlin. A legend says that Pashkov received a military demotion, so in anger he had his mansion built right across from the Kremlin, but formally standing with its back façade (not the front one as one would expect) towards that ancient embodiment of Russian statehood. Bazhenov who was also offended by Catherine II seemed to eagerly support the idea in his design and layout of the Pashkov House.

In 1792 Bazhenov moved to St. Petersburg to fill the relatively modest post of chief architect at Admiralty. In 1796 Catherine II died and Paul, the old patron of Bazhenov, became emperor. Having ascended the throne, Paul I charged Bazhenov with designing the Mikhailovsky Palace with its golden fleche and detached pavilions.

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In the beginning of 1799 he appointed the architect vice-president of the Academy of Fine Arts - a post specially created for Bazhenov. So he returned to the Academy which had rejected him more than 30 years before as a winner. The 60-year-old vice-president burnt with the desire to renovate the decrepit Academy, to improve the education of young artists and to find new talents. Various art critics believed Bazhenov participated in designing such architectural pearls of St. Petersburg as the Kamennoostrovsky Palace, the building of the Arsenal on Liteiny Avenue, the mansion of Ivan Betskoy (a Russian school reformer and Catherine II's advisor on education and President of the Academy of Arts), the summer residence of Grigory Teplov (statesman and writer, President of the Russian Academy of Sciences) and even the Kazan Cathedral, but all these attributions are unconfirmed.

Some documents testify that Bazhenov was the author of the scheme for the Galley Harbor (1796) and the biscuit mill in Kronstadt (1796 - 1797). He also participated in the remodeling of the palace in Gatchina. From 1798, he lived in his own house in St. Petersburg (currently, 37 Rimsky-Korsakov Avenue).

On the eve of the 19th century Bazhenov was full of great plans, but, as it turned out, he would not have time to realize them. The architect was destined to die at the age of 62. In the summer of 1799 he was stricken by paralysis and died on August 2.

Bazhenov's name proved to be one of the brightest in the history of Russian architecture, closely associated with the development and triumph of Classicism in Russia. He was also the first Russian architect to be acknowledged in the West for his severe Classicism which has much in common with the works of other known Freemason architects throughout Europe (Algarotti, Lodoli, Laugier, Ledoux, Boullée, etc.).

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