The Petrine Revolution in Russian Architecture
18 July, 2017
I was walking down Nevsky prospect with a hostel mate early one morning. He couldn’t get over the number of columns there were everywhere, remarking that is was like being in Rome or something.
So how is it that a city in Russia came to be influenced by Italian design?
It starts with the transition from the dark ages to Renaissance, which can be greatly attributed to the discovery of Vitruvius’s De Archetictura in Italy. It’s an architecture textbook from 25 B.C, containing instructions on how to season timber, burn lime, etc. in order to erect the great structures characteristic of ancient Roman times. Hence the columns. This also entails, arches, barrel vaults, flat ceilings as well as many structures which are more decorative than functional. This textbook circulated all over Europe in numerous editions and translations and was the basis of the Petrine Revolution in Russia.
This coincided with the political climate at the time, during which Russia had been being pressed by European expansion for a century already. After a successful, albeit nearly disastrous campaign against Sweden, allegiance with Russia became sought after by numerous European countries. This resulted in Russia’s inclusion in the European state in 1728 and secured Peter the 1st as a prominent power. This gave Peter the 1st the ability to apply drastic reform across Russia and to cooperate with European designers to transform Russia’s architecture.
Peter the 1st seemed to prefer the style of Amsterdam in particular which, like St Petersburg required canals and sluice work. Drawing as well from his four-month stay in London resulted in wide streets, brick/stone exteriors with decorative detail, ‘gadgety’ gardens and concentric street planning based around canals.
Street in St Petersburg Russia Street in London UK
The transition required thousands of European experts to be imported to meet the demands of rulers and began the differentiation between builders and architects. This also introduced vocabulary into the Russian language, stemming from Italian, French, German, Dutch and Latin. For example, the word Architect has become practically synonymous with the word for Builder, reflecting the ingraining of Petrine influence.
When you walk around St Petersburg, it does feel reminiscent of cities like London, protruding Bay windows and Victorian looking apartment blocks. That’s until you come to buildings like the Church of the Savior on Split Blood, which jumps out as distinct from everything else in its surroundings. The design of the Church was intended to differentiate it from what Alexander the 3rd deemed to be ‘contaminating western influence’. As you can see, it resembles the structure of early, pre-Petrine style buildings.
From Roman columns to colourful mosaics, St Petersburg presents a remarkable mix of European and uniquely Russian characteristics. It’s definitely something to take note of next time you’re walking around the city.