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The Italians who revamped Russia

The Italians who revamped Russia
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Several centuries ago, the Renaissance changed the face of Moscow forever.

Having built up a prestigious and powerful state, Prince Ivan III decided to decorate his city with new buildings to reflect its grandeur. He wanted the most beautiful buildings, the latest designs and the most cutting-edge technology. So the prince sent his servants to Italy to hire the best architects of the Renaissance era to design buildings for the Kremlin complex in the center of Moscow.

“At the turn of the 15th and 16th centuries, like most European countries, Russia’s architecture experienced the Renaissance,” Moscow Architectural Institute Rector, Dmitry Shvidkovsky explained.

“Here in the Kremlin we can see the characteristics of different facets of the Italian renaissance: Venetian, Bolognese, and Milanese. It was completed with Russian ideas, giving birth to a very interesting new style that generated a revolution in Russian architecture.”

The Kremlin’s Dormition Cathedral was built by Bolognese architect Aristotel Fioravanti. Some researchers believe he was chosen by Princess Zoe Sophia Palaiologina, the second wife of Ivan III. She was the niece of the last Byzantine emperor and she had lived in Italy before marrying Ivan.

“When Sophia arrived in Moscow, she was not alone – she brought with her a grand entourage. We know that the main Kremlin cathedral was in a very bad state and nobody knew how to reconstruct it. It was likely Sophia’s idea to search for an architect in Italy,” said architectural historian Federica Rossi.

Italian architect Aristotel Fiorovanti refused to reconstruct the dilapidated cathedral. Instead, he opened a brick factory and used the new materials for a new building. The Orthodox demands of the client were skillfully combined with the latest Renaissance innovations and in just four years a masterpiece was born.

“Some scholars believe that he not only created the Dormition Cathedral, but also began the construction of the Kremlin walls,” Rossi said.

Most of the Kremlin walls and towers were built by Pietro Antonio Solari and Marco Ruffo from Milan. Solari and Ruffo constructed the Palace of Facets – a small part of the grand palace that has not been preserved. Both architects are known in history under the common last name ‘Fryazin’, which is how the Moscovites called those who came from Italy.

Ivan III would never see this masterpiece of the Venetian school: the Cathedral of the Archangel. Its creator, Aloisio de Montagnano, came to Russia a year before the death of the ruler.

Shvidkovsky said that the Italian influence transformed Russian architecture: “After Italian architects worked in the Kremlin, Russian architecture became more joyful, more bright, more picturesque.”

But the work of Italian architects in Moscow extends beyond the Kremlin. The first so-called ‘tent-roof’ stone church in Russia was constructed in the summer residence of the Russian rulers, at Kolomenskoe, which is now part of Moscow. Little is known about its creator, Pietro Annibale, who, like many other Italian architects, never left Russia.

Rossi said: “He tried to escape Russia but he was stopped at the border. He was questioned and the documentation from that interrogation has survived, which gives us some insights into him. [He helped to create a new style here in Russia], and when a new style appears in architecture everyone starts to work with it.”

Like many researchers, Federica believes that the new style inspired the creator of Russia’s most famous cathedral, located in Red Square. Saint Basil’s Cathedral is composed of nine churches, and the central one has the same ‘tent-roof’ form. The name of the architect is still unknown.

“We see the dialogue of the Russian and European cultures in this cathedral; those cultures talk and listen to each other,” said Saint Basil’s Cathedral guide Maria Galkina.

There were dozens of Italian architects who came to Russia from Renaissance Italy.

Could one of them perhaps have been the creator of the masterpiece of Saint Basil?

This secret remains a mystery – one that may never be solved.


  • More than 60 Italian architects were invited to Moscow in the 15th and16th centuries
  • There are more than 600 churches in Moscow. Among them, a number were either built or strongly influenced by Italian architects
  • The five-domed Cathedral of the Kremlin’s Assumption Cathedral (1475–1479) was built by Italian architect Aristotele Fioravanti
  • The five-domed Archangel Cathedral (1505-1508) was built by another Italian architect Aloisio de Montagnano
  • The Faceted Chamber (1487–1491) was built by Italian architects Pietro Antonio Solari and Marco Ruffo as a stateroom for major ceremonial events. The chamber was part of a palace, only a small fragment of which remains standing today
  • The Great Bell Tower (82 m): (1505-1508) located near the Archangel Cathedral, was built by Italian architect Bon Friazin. It was the highest construction in Russia at the time, and became a composition center of the whole Kremlin ensemble
  • Kolomenskoye is a former royal estate situated several kilometers southeast of Moscow. Its exceptional Church of the Ascencion (1532) is believed to have been built by Italian architect Pietro Annibale. Commissioned by Vasily III to commemorate the birth of his son, the future Ivan the Terrible, it is one of the oldest architectural monuments of the 16th century and is believed to be the first tent-roof stone church in Russia. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site

Read also our blog: The renaissance in Moscow

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