Authors: Catherine Merridale
The whole place seemed to need repair, but under Yona there was also pressure to imbue it with a godly splendour. In 1450, the metropolitan commissioned a stone palace for himself – the first such building in the citadel – and though its use was ceremonial (the metropolitan lived, like almost everyone else, in cosily built wooden chambers), the residence was a landmark in the Kremlin’s architectural development. Adjoining it, Yona added a new church, dedicated to the Deposition of the Robe, in honour of Moscow’s allegedly miraculous preservation from the Mongols.
The building-work was supervised by Vladimir Khovrin, a wealthy businessman of Greek extraction whose family had moved to Moscow from the Crimea only a generation earlier. Khovrin became one of the age’s most prolific master-builders, a man so influential that, despite his status as a mere merchant, he was permitted to build a church of his own in the Kremlin. Though long gone now, it once stood in his opulent palace compound behind the Frolov (Saviour) gates, and it was notable because it was probably the first religious structure in Moscow to combine the traditional limestone with brick.
The other Kremlin builder of this time was an entrepreneur called Vasily Ermolin. Like Khovrin, he had long-standing connections to the culture of the Black Sea region, and his masons had worked in a string of provincial Russian cities. He was often in demand for large projects, including a new cathedral for the Kremlin’s Ascension Convent, but the shabby Kremlin walls were his most urgent concern, and in 1462 he began to renovate them in the name of the new prince, Ivan III. He personally commissioned a giant bas-relief to face the city from the Frolov gates. Its subject was not the Virgin and Child, but a mounted St George spearing a dragon in a crude but eye-catchingly three-dimensional style. A second sculpture, on the inward-facing side, honoured Dmitry Solunsky, the saint most closely linked to Dmitry Donskoi.
These innovations hinted that the Kremlin might be set to change, but the real turning-point came with the rebuilding of Ivan Kalita’s Dormition Cathedral. The catalyst was yet another fire. In August 1470, much of the Kremlin was destroyed by flames that blew across the compound from the south and east. Some accounts claim that only three households escaped, and at least one stone cathedral was certainly gutted.
Moscow’s metropolitan was now a deeply pious man called Filipp, and he saw the destruction as an opportunity to rebuild the Kremlin’s holiest shrine on a magnificent scale. By this stage, only scaffolding and prayer were keeping Ivan Kalita’s church upright; the fire was providential (and Filipp certainly saw it as an act of God), but rebuilding was already overdue.
The metropolitan began by trying to raise funds – extorting silver from his bishops, taxing the monasteries, and skimming off the coins the faithful offered to their local saints. He also tried to recruit the grand prince to his cause by hinting that the cathedral would be a true memorial to Moscow’s military victories. But Ivan never saw the need to contribute, and even after the fall of Novgorod (and Moscow’s 15,000-ruble windfall) Filipp was left to raise the cash alone. It was an epic labour worthy of the sort of man who wore iron chains under his robes to remind himself of the mortality of flesh.
The team Filipp assembled was a Russian one. His builders were Ivan Krivtsov and Myshkin, whose main distinction, historically speaking, is probably the fact that we know their names at all.
Working with them was an army of slaves, some drawn from the church’s own reserve of captive manpower (slave-labour was ubiquitous in Russia at this time) and others purchased from the Tatars of the steppe.
Many were already skilled, and some of these looked on the work as a chance to bargain for their freedom. Because its Greek-derived design was said to have been laid down, in the earliest days of Christianity, by God himself, the pious Filipp’s principal goal was to build a cathedral in the exact style of Vladimir’s. This was a real challenge, for the great building had originally owed much to the skills of the foreign masons who had worked at Andrei Bogoliubsky’s court. Impressive enough at the time of its construction, too, the cathedral had been enlarged after a serious fire, and now boasted five breathtaking cupolas at the top of its improbably high walls.
Nothing daunted, in the winter of 1471–2, Filipp sent his master-builders to the older city to draw and measure the twelfth-century prototype, not least to ensure that Moscow’s version would be yet more splendid, more beautiful, and larger.
As the early snow began to fall, Filipp watched as carters started unloading his fresh limestone from Moscow’s frozen wharf (transport was always easier in winter). They were still working at Christmas, and again at Epiphany, when comets of exceptional brilliance appeared above the Kremlin, surely portents of a prodigy to come.
The following April, as the ground started to thaw, the metropolitan’s men were ready to dig foundations and to start laying the drains. To the clanging of the Kremlin bells, a thankful company of priests joined Filipp and the icons in a procession around the site, accompanied by Ivan III and his entire court.
Filipp’s new building was to stand over the outline of Ivan Kalita’s, but though the old walls had to go, there were important rituals to complete first. By this stage, the tomb of Metropolitan Peter the Wonder-Worker was not the only shrine in the Dormition Cathedral. Filipp’s builders had to down tools several times between May and early July, each time to allow prayers and processions and the discreet relocation of bones. Those of Yona, who had died in 1461, were said to smell so sweet that the whole site was perfumed by them. When Peter’s coffin was opened, a white dove flew into the air, vanishing only when the lid was resealed. Clearly, these remains were not mere corpses. Orthodoxy took things literally (it still does), which meant that the saints were truly present in their dust. Their bones were holy relics, miraculous, and a wooden chapel was constructed to protect them. For eighteen months, it was here that services continued while the old building was knocked away and the new walls went up.
But Filipp was never to see his cathedral. In April 1473, another fire swept through the Kremlin. The shock, following months of strain, proved too much for the metropolitan, and he died of a stroke. His greatest work continued without him, and by the summer of 1474 the vaults of the enormous structure were almost complete. As promised, it was grander than its ancestor in Vladimir, and seemed set to become the citadel’s most awe-inspiring sight. The shell, as it was being built, became an attraction for the locals, who scrambled up the wooden scaffolding to marvel at the view, so it was fortunate that when the next disaster struck, in May, it was already evening. The last mason had bustled home at sunset, and even the most determined sightseers had climbed down from the rafters as the light began to fade. Only one lad remained, and he was nimble enough to escape. Some say there was another earthquake, others that the massive building was doomed from the start. Either way, that evening the north wall suddenly collapsed, crushing the wooden church inside and leaving the whole project in ruins.
Recriminations started instantly. Ivan III consulted masters from Pskov, a city that had preserved its long-standing Baltic links and where the local stone-masons still talked occasionally with passing experts from north German towns. The Pskovians prudently refused to rebuild Filipp’s church, but suggested that the problem lay with the poor quality of the lime that had been used in the builders’ mortar. The question now was what to do about the ruin. It had been centuries since any mason in the Russian world had attempted to out-build the masters of pre-Mongol Vladimir, and some claimed that the skills had been entirely lost. But Ermolin (who acted as a consultant for Filipp’s church) and the Khovrins (the old man had a son who continued the family interest in architecture) might well have succeeded with the project once the lessons had been learned. It was not so unusual, after all, for large structures to collapse in the medieval and renaissance world. The Cathedral of St Pierre at Beauvais was so disaster-prone that at one point the only person who dared to attempt its rescue was a condemned criminal, who accepted the job in order to escape the hangman’s rope.
The Muscovites were still a long way from desperation of that order.
What no-one in Ivan’s Moscow could do, however, was to match the skills that were now taking European courts by storm. The Russians knew how to cut stone, and the Khovrins had experience with brick, but none had mastered the new precision, the passion for exact proportion and persistent measurement. In Italy by the 1470s, however, there were builders who could manage veritable miracles. Their fame had spread so widely that even the Turkish sultan was interested. Some Russian bishops would have seen the cathedral dome in Brunelleschi’s Florence for themselves (the lantern was still under construction at the time of the ecumenical council in 1439), and there were rumours of a plan for the wholesale transformation of the Papal capital at Rome. Further east, on the Danube, the king of Hungary had employed Italians to build a range of walls that had proved so fearsome that he was already said to be after more. What finally persuaded Ivan to hire an Italian engineer, however, was probably the influence of his new wife. Misogynists in the historical profession used to claim that she nagged him twice a week.
* * *
The princess in this story was the niece of the last emperor of Christian Constantinople, Constantine XI Palaeologus. Her parents called her Zoe, and she spent her infancy in the Byzantine province of the Morea (today’s Peloponnese). When that fell to the Turks in 1460, seven years after the capture of Constantinople, her family fled to Italy, taking as much as they could carry from the last imperial court, including books and icons, jewels and chestfuls of holy relics. Her father used some of the treasure to secure his children’s future. In Zoe’s case, a casket containing the head of the Apostle Andrew eased the negotiations to make her a ward of the pope, Paul II. Zoe grew up at his court among the most sophisticated thinkers of the age, maturing into an accomplished, ambitious and self-confident woman. She was raised as a Catholic (naturally), but as the heir of Constantinople she was also open to more ecumenical ideas.
When her immediate guardian, Cardinal Bessarion of Nicea, proposed a marriage to the grand prince of Orthodox Muscovy, the plan had a certain poetry.
Bessarion had already tried and failed several times to find his protégée a royal husband. Moscow was not the ideal choice – it was too far, too dangerous and too cold – but rumours of its growing wealth were beginning to spark Europe’s interest. The evidence, in the shape of magnificent diplomatic gifts of sable, was starting to spill out of packing-crates more frequently as Moscow’s isolation from the Catholic world drew to an end. The Papal court was also keen to forge a closer link with Ivan III for strategic reasons, as optimists still nursed a hope that the prince might be induced to support the European struggle against the Turks. As an incentive, Zoe’s dowry was the Morea itself, which, the negotiators promised, would be Ivan’s as soon as Mehmet II could be driven out. In the event, the Turks held on to Greece for another three hundred and fifty years.
It turned out that the bait that really worked with Ivan was the promise of European prestige. It was Zoe’s name, and not her charm (or the Morea), that counted at the diplomatic stage. The Italians provided a portrait for Ivan’s approval, but negotiators back in Moscow were so unaccustomed to drawings from life that they mistook the picture for an icon (it has since been lost). Zoe’s Catholic religion was a problem, too, since Moscow had become the stronghold of the very Orthodoxy that her family had failed to protect. Ivan’s marriage plans stalled for some months while the theological dangers were debated; Metropolitan Filipp, predictably, was the most sceptical of all. It was only in January 1472 that Ivan’s envoy (and sometime mint-master), Gian-Battista della Volpe, finally embarked on the five-month journey back to Rome. By the time he got there at the end of May, Paul II had died. Nimbly, Volpe altered the pope’s name on the documents he was carrying and created a cheerful gloss for the withering commentary on Catholicism that Filipp had inserted into the contract. On 1 June 1472, Zoe, now named Sofiya in honour of her new allegiance to Moscow, was symbolically married to an absent Ivan III. The Italian poet Luigi Pulci left a description of the princess at the time of her wedding. ‘A mountain of fat,’ he pronounced after an evening audience. ‘All I could dream about all night were mountains of butter and grease…’
It was not the kindest of assessments, but Sofiya’s future husband, as she may have known, was in turn reputed to be so terrifying that his glance alone made women faint.
Three weeks after the ceremony, and following a farewell interview with the new pope, Sixtus IV (of Sistine Chapel fame), Sofiya set out for Moscow. Her caravan included a handful of homeward-bound Russians as well as a selection of fellow-Greeks, among whom was a close associate of her father’s, Yury Trakhaniot, soon to become one of Ivan III’s most effective diplomats. Sixtus insisted that the delegation should be greeted everywhere as if the pope himself were at its head. He even sent a special representative, Cardinal Bonumbre of Ajaccio, to lead the company, which must have made a most impressive sight. At least a hundred horses were needed to carry the people and their ziggurats of freight, which included Sofiya’s belongings (and her person), gifts, and a selection of treasures from Rome and Constantinople. Relays of servants laboured with the baggage as the troupe progressed from city to city, for every stop seemed to involve more wedding gifts and more exchanges of jewels and relics. There was a lot of feasting, too.