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Giacomo Quarenghi

(1744 Valle Imagna – 1817 St. Petersburg)

Churchgoers at a Mass in the Cathedral of the Dormition in Moscow. Pen and black ink over a preliminary drawing in graphite, reddish-brown and grey wash, white heightening. Circa 1800.

Giacomo Quarenghi is known primarily as an architect, although he was originally trained as a painter by Anton Raphael Mengs in Rome at a very early age. He soon discovered his gift for architecture, however, and engaged in an intensive study of the works of his great predecessor, Andrea Palladio. Quarenghi rapidly gained considerable renown as a master builder and was invited to the court at St. Petersburg by Catherine II of Russia in 1779. He became the Empress’s favourite architect, retaining this prominent position under the emperors Paul I and Alexander I. His rigorous classicism in the style of Palladio exerted a far-reaching influence on architecture in the Russian royal capital of the time.

The highly versatile Quarenghi was also an experienced and prolific draughtsman who produced an extensive oeuvre, most of which is to be found in Venice, St. Petersburg and his native Bergamo. His succinct portrayal of everyday life gives his topographically precise depictions of towns and villages in Russia a cultural value no less significant than that of his architectural designs. The present drawing shows the interior of the Cathedral of the Dormition (Uspensky sobor) situated at the highest point of the Kremlin Hill on the northern side of Cathedral Square. This venerable sacred building, whose foundation stone was laid in the 15th century, was the court and coronation church of the Russian tsars and emperors, a function it con­tinued to fulfil after the seat of government was transferred to St. Petersburg in the 18th century. The main church of Russian Orthodoxy, it was where metropolitans and patriarchs were consecrated and buried. Quarenghi has observed the inside of the church from a position near the entrance portal. The low vantage point he adopts underlines the majestic spatial effect of this imposing building. Mighty columns decorated with frescoes soar upwards, reducing the assembled congregation almost to nil, while the towering iconostasis in front of the central eastern apse contributes to the display of splendour in the mystical, dimly lit interior of the church. Quarenghi’s keen eye enables him to characterise the dress and gestures of the individual churchgoers with lively penwork, thus introducing an almost light-hearted note into the solemn ceremony.

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