Florence in Moscow

In their research project, Moscow-based artist Ashot Kirakosyan and his student Sophia Shiyan attempt to solve the mystery of the images that five centuries ago might have inspired the Florentine architect, commissioned by Vasili III, Grand Duke of Muscovy, to erect Church of the Ascension in Kolomenskoye.

First, let us enjoy the poem, written in June, 1909 by the Russian Symbolist poet, Alexander Blok, who was absolutely overwhelmed by the capital of Tuscany:

Oh Florence, you’re a gentle iris;

For whom, so desperately concerned,

Of everlasting love desirous,

All day in your Cascines I yearned?

Oh sweet recall of desperation:

To your grandeval depth regress

And in its heat find renovation

For my senescent soul’s tendresse…

Close ties between us cannot perish;

So, even staying far apart,

Like dreams of youthhood, I will cherish

Your fuming iris in my heart.

The Ascension Church in Kolomenskoye, undoubtedly one of the most beautiful and unique in Moscow, follows the floral shape, known in the world of art as the “Florentine Iris.” Although nobody argues that most of the Kremlin cathedrals had been built by Italians, the Soviet scholars preferred not to recognize the fact that the Church of the Ascension in the palace complex of Kolomenskoye was the work of a foreign architect just as well.

This magnificent religious building, unparalleled in the world of historical architecture, was in 1994 recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. According to one of the art experts, for the development of Russian spiritual architecture, the Church of the Ascension in Kolomenskoye was “no less seminal than the Florence Cathedral [had been] in defining the architectural style of Italian Renaissance.”

After Vasili III, Grand Duke of Muscovy and all Russia, had to divorce his reproductively challenged consort, Solomonia Saburova, he in 1526 took a new wife. The name of his young spouse was Elena Glinski and she descended from a very prominent Lithuanian aristocratic family (the Glinskis had fled to the safety of Muscovy after the failure of their rebellion against the Polish king Sigismund I). The remarriage of Vasili III had so strongly displeased both nobility and clergy in the then Russia that, in order to give legitimacy to his future successor, the Grand Duke undertook to have several new churches built. The main church where he and his family would be praying for the birth of a male heir was to be erected close to the ducal palace in Kolomenskoye — then a picturesque suburb of Moscow.

And here begins a chain of events appearing almost mystical: in 1528 Vasili III —probably with the assistance of Michael Glinski, his wife’s uncle who was brought up at the court of Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I and then converted to Catholic faith in Italy — sends his envoys to the Vatican, asking Pope Clement VII to provide several architects experienced in the construction of churches. It is worth mentioning that such requests have never been made before, even though the fortress-grade walls of the Moscow Kremlin and its churches had been put up and later rebuilt by Italian architects. But never before had such an issue been resolved at the level of the Supreme Pontiff.

Pope Clement VII (born as Giulio de’ Medici) kindly met with the Russian ambassadors, having in conversation expressed his commitment to the unification of the Catholic and Orthodox churches. It is also worth mentioning that Pope Clement VII was nephew of Lorenzo de’ Medici the Magnificent, while his great-grandfather Cosimo de’ Medici had been one of the organizers of the Council of Florence (1439), where it had been decided to unite the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. The delegation of Eastern Orthodox priests from Muscovy then had voted in favor of unification. But when the Russian mission returned from Italy, the head of the delegation was immediately imprisoned, while the historic decision of the Council of Florence never came to be fulfilled.

Among several architects, sent by Clement VII to Muscovy, one, by all indications, can be identified as Pietro Francesco Annibale, a native of Florence, referred to as Petrok Maly Fryazin (≈ Peter Italian Jr.) in the Russian chronicles. It was he who built the Ascension Church in Kolomeskoye, creating not just an architectural masterpiece, but a building having no analogues worldwide, including Italian architecture. The hopes for religious unity of all Christians in the East and West of Europe, cherished by several generations of the Medici family; the fierce desire of a brilliant Florentine architect, overshadowed by his more successful colleagues at home, to realize his genius; and, finally, a most passionate supplication of the Russian ruling dynasty to be blessed with an heir — all this put together had resulted in the creation of a unique architectural masterpiece.

An image of the Florentine iris, embodied in the Church of the Ascension, can and may become a symbol of the intertwined historical pathways of Moscow and Florence. This is in line with the observation made in 1916 by the renowned Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, who — before mentioning in one his poems “The five-domed Moscow cathedrals // with their souls both Italian and Russian,” — refers to the Cathedral of the Dormition (the main cathedral of the Moscow Kremlin) with these words: “The delicate Dormition, [you are] a Florence in Moscow.

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