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Peter and Paul Cathedral, St Petersburg, South Façade

Peter and Paul Cathedral, St Petersburg, South Façade; ink and water colour by Arseny Korenev© Historical State Archives St Petersburg

St Petersburg is justly famous for its imposing architecture, the magnificent buildings stretching along the river Neva and the city's numerous canals. The city sprang up on a land of marshes and islands in the Neva delta, an astonishing feat of organisation, engineering and artistry.

Russia had the manpower to build the city - and the ruthlessness not to count the human cost. It has been estimated that 300,000 labourers (prisoners and conscripted peasants) were involved: those who died of disease, drowning, exhaustion or ill treatment could soon be replaced. But it lacked the technical skills. Peter's agents scoured Europe for the best specialists to put his ambitious plans into action.

Domenico Trezzini

Among the first to be recruited for the construction of Petersburg was Domenico Trezzini, born around 1670 in the village of Astano, in the Malcantone area of present-day Ticino. He is thought to have studied architecture in Rome, and had just completed the stock exchange in Copenhagen for the Danish king Frederick IV when he was offered a contract by the Russians. His experience in building for a harsh northern climate probably made him particularly attractive.

He arrived in Moscow in August 1703, bringing with him a group of Ticinese and Italian craftsmen. Peter gave him an audience and was evidently favourably impressed, since he appointed him head of the building service.

It was the beginning of a long collaboration. Trezzini worked for four Russian rulers, until his death in 1736.

His job was no sinecure. Not only did he face the enormous challenge of building a modern city in an inhospitable bog, where the nearest quarry was over 300 km (200 miles) away, he also had to feed and house huge numbers of workers and coordinate their work, train future specialists and attend numerous religious and secular ceremonies. For the first 10 years he had to carry out these tasks with practically no assistance.

Many of Trezzini's early buildings - churches, palaces and mansions - no longer exist. His most famous works include the Peter and Paul Fortress cathedral (the burial place of the Russian tsars) and the Collegium building of the Twelve Ministries.

Even the greatest and most ambitious city needs ordinary housing as well as palaces. Faced with the need to build a lot quickly, Trezzini designed some standard models of housing that could be constantly repeated: one-storey for the less well off, two-storey with a wrought-iron balcony for the upper classes.

Other architects with Ticinese roots worked in Petersburg during the 18th century, but it was only at the end of the century that two of them achieved great prominence.

Luigi Rusca

Luigi Rusca (1762 -1822) was born in Agno-Mondonico, and arrived in Petersburg in 1783 where he designed or restored numerous buildings and was appointed court architect in 1802. His works include the Manege and Cavalry Guard Barracks, the Ismailovsky Barracks and the Barracks of the Belozersky regiment. He also constructed buildings at the out-of-town palaces of Peterhof and Tsarskoye Selo. He left Russia in 1818 and emigrated to France where he died.

Carlo Rossi

Perhaps even more important was Carlo Rossi (1775 - 1849) of Lugano. He worked on a number of projects in Petersburg and its surrounding palaces, but he is probably best remembered for the huge square behind the Winter Palace with its long unbroken façade and triumphal arch. The square was a favourite parade ground of the Russian tsars - and also played an important part in two revolutions. It was here that the tsarist police opened fire on peaceful demonstrators in 1905, giving the lie to the tsar's image as the "little father" of his people, and it was from here that Red Guards launched their successful attack on the Winter Palace at the outset of the 1917 revolution.

Rossi also built the district around the Alexandrovsky Theatre, which at the start of the 19th century was still a marshland. A street was named in his honour in the area. The ensemble, with its classical proportions, shows Rossi's skill not simply as an architect, but as a planner.

Exhausted, Rossi asked permission to retire in 1832, and he died in poverty in 1849.

The focal point of Rossi's square is today Alexander's Column, erected in 1834 to commemorate the defeat of Napoleon by the Tsar Alexander I. The main body of the column, some 30 meters (more than 100 feet) high and weighing 600 tonnes, is a single piece of granite, which had to be brought from a quarry over 300 km (over 200 miles) away. It stands on a base 8 meters (26 feet) high, and is topped with the bronze statue of an angel. The column was designed by a French artist, Auguste de Montferrand, but the engineer in charge of erecting it was another Ticinese, Antonio Adamini (1794 - 1846). Adamini copied the method used by his compatriot Domenico Fontana more than 200 years before, to raise the - rather smaller - Egyptian obelisk in St Peter's Square in Rome, with a system of ramps and a huge framework with pulley blocks and winches. It took more than 2,000 men to carry out the task, which was completed in under two hours in front of Tsar Nicholas II and cheering crowds. Adamini was awarded the Order of Vladimir for his achievement.

Later architects

Jakob Wyrsch (1883 - 1940), of Nidwalden went to Petersburg in 1908. His best known building there is the 400-room Hotel Astoria. Along with a Russian colleague he established an office and worked for both the state and for the private sector, specializing in factories and civil engineering projects. He returned to Switzerland in 1918, although he always hoped to return to Russia despite the revolution.

Today, one of Switzerland's most prominent architects, Mario Botta (1943 -), has kept up the Ticinese tradition of contact with St Petersburg by designing an office block and a hotel for the city.

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