The ancient friendship between Naples and Russia

by Federico Quagliuolo

The Russian steppe and the flowery bank of Posillipo seem to be two worlds that are inaccessible to each other. Yet between Naples and Russia there is a special friendship that has lasted for more than three centuries and which has left numerous traces still visible today on the streets. (and also in surnames: it tells you something Papoff?)

In fact, it is enough to walk in the heart of Naples, through Piazza Trieste and Trento, and a plaque written in Cyrillic appears in the corner of a balcony: it tells the story of the first contact between the Russians and the Neapolitans. And in St. Petersburg it is enough to go in front of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan to have a strange feeling of deja vu: isn't it something you've already seen?

Nicola I Romanov Russia
Nicholas I Romanov

The Neapolitan who designed St. Petersburg

The name of a man Karl Ivanovich it probably doesn't wake up any memory. For the Russians, however, he is a fundamental character in the history of St. Petersburg: the Neapolitan architect literally designed the former Russian capital. In fact, it was he who traced streets, buildings and neighborhoods with the neoclassical style so dear to Bourbon Naples.

The architect's real name was Carlo Rossi, Neapolitan and the son of a former Russian ballerina. He moved to Russia and lived there until his death.
It is said that the Neapolitans carry their city in their hearts throughout their lives and, in fact, the case of the architect Rossi \ Ivanovich is proof of this: there are many buildings in St. Petersburg more or less inspired by Neapolitan architecture: above all the Aleksandrinskij Theater, with the facade very similar to the San Carlo.
The Cathedral of Our Lady of Kazan, the one in the photograph, has notable similarities with the Basilica San Francesco di Paola, but in this case the Russian church was built before the Neapolitan one and there is no certain evidence of reciprocal architectural influences.

Yuri Gagarin

The music of Naples on Sputnik 

Rossi, however, was not the only Neapolitan to move to St. Petersburg: in fact, musicians such as Giovanni Paisiello also thought about it, who spent most of his career at the court of Tsarina Catherine I of Russia, at the beginning of the 19th century. And even the most famous song in the world, 'O my sun, was born in Odessa: it was composed by Edoardo Capurro in a moment of nostalgia during a tour in Ukraine (which was controlled by Russia), since Neapolitan musicians were in great demand in all the theaters of the Empire.

The song was also sung off planet Earth in 1961: the astronaut Juri Gagarin, during the first voyage of Man into Space, in the silence of his spaceship he hummed the verses of 'O Sole Mio. And Naples, in November 2017, paid homage to Gagarin's feat with a statue in the Capodimonte Astronomical Observatory.
Then in Moscow, in 2019, the Neapolitan artist Jorit he painted a giant mural of the Soviet cosmonaut.

Napoli Russia Ambasciatore Razunovsky
Razumovsky's tombstone in Via Toledo

Razumovsky, the first Russian ambassador to Italy

It sounds like the surname of a Russian pianist or theater artist. And instead Razumovsky was one of the most influential diplomats of his time, the man who redrawed all the borders of Eastern Europe during the Restoration of 1816, leading Russia to become a political power interested in the affairs of Europe.

L'antichissima amicizia fra Napoli e la Russia
The portrait of Razumovsky

Meanwhile, in Naples, the Bourbon dynasty was notorious for not being a lover of foreign policy. The only alliance to which the various Francesco and Ferdinando never gave up was precisely that with the Russian people, first with the Empress Catherine, with Peter and then with Nicholas I.

The alliance between Naples and Russia was born with Ferdinand IV of Bourbon who, in 1779, invited Russian diplomats to Naples. The newborn Kingdom, in fact, still depended completely on Spanish diplomacy and was trying to acquire its diplomatic dignity. Razumovsky was the first dignitary sent by the court of St. Petersburg to Italy and it was no coincidence that Naples was the city chosen for the seat of the embassy. The year was 1779 and, from that moment on, ever closer cultural exchanges began between Southern Italy and the deep north.

As if that were not enough, it was probably the friendship between Naples and the Northern Empire that marked the fate of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies: in 1853 Ferdinand II refused to fight against his ally during the Crimean War carried out by the British and French. According to many historians, this decision entailed the breaking of all diplomatic relations with the European powers and, inevitably, the acceleration of all those intertwining that led to the unification of Italy.

L'antichissima amicizia fra Napoli e la Russia

The Bronze Horses, Pietrarsa and the friendship between Nicola I and Ferdinando II

Nicola I was a regular on the streets of Naples, it is said that he was in love with the southern lands of Italy and that his friend Ferdinand II gladly welcomed him even for very long holidays.
As a good guest, the Tsar of Russia brought gifts for every visit: among normal people usually a cake is brought when you go to someone's house, Nicholas I wanted to overdo it and brought two gigantic bronze horses, the exact copy of two statues placed on the Anickov Bridge on the Nevski Prospect.

The very delicate transport of the bronze materials, produced by the expert sculptor, was entrusted to an anonymous sailor from Procida known for his skill in navigation: he was called from Naples to St. Petersburg with the sole purpose of crossing the northern seas and bringing the statues in Naples by sea.

Nicholas I did not leave the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies without bringing with him the example of Pietrarsa, the railway workshop that in the nineteenth century was among the most advanced in the world: he sent Russian technicians and scientists to study Bourbon economic models and perfectly replicate the Neapolitan industry in the city of Kronstadt.

It seems that Ferdinand II's admiration for his "colleague" Nicholas I was so profound that the king of Naples had a painting made with the portrait of the Russian king. It is still exhibited today inside the Royal Palace.

Funiculì Funicolà at the court of Nicola II

Russians have always had a soft spot for classical music. They could not therefore not love the many Neapolitan tenors, which often went to perform in the countries of the ancient Empire, as often happened to Odessa, a Neapolitan city in Ukraine, or with the birth of 'O my sun, also on the Black Sea.
This story, on the other hand, concerns the tenor Francesco Marconi and dates back to 1890, as Giovanni De Caro recounts in his book “Napoli Racconta”. The Tsar was Nicholas II and invited the Neapolitan artist to court for an exhibition. At one point the ruler asked the Neapolitan to sing him the most famous song in Naples.
Marconi did not ask to be prayed twice and, in front of the satisfied gaze of the Tsar, he sang the refrain of Funiculì Funicolà.

"The boy from Naples" 

A hundred years have passed since the last official contact between Naples and Russia. The world is in the cold of the Cold War and Russia is a world that does not want to know anything more about the West. But Naples remains a cultural bridge that also crosses the Iron Curtain: in 1958 the cartoon "The boy from Naples" was born, completely produced by Soviet authors and "inspired by the works of Gianni Rodari". It tells the story of a certain Ciccio who, after taking a magical globe in the streets of Naples, embarks on a journey full of dangers to be able to repair it and save the world.

 -Federico Quagliuolo

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