Russians in Florence and the Orthodox Church

Florence: Snow, loads of snow, frozen river and towering up towards a dark sky are the five golden cupolas with the unmistakable onion shape.

No, it is not an image of Petersburg, nor is it Moscow, it is indeed Florence and this imagine represents the great snow of 1895.

Never has there been a better set to describe the Russian Orthodox Church, in Via Leone X, in the areas near the boulevards. An historical building, it was inaugurated in 1903 thanks to the protection of the royal-like family, Demidov, or better, Demidoff. The latter was an ancient Russian lineage.

They were entrepreneurs and philanthropists even though, as an out of tune note, the business from which they earned most of their wealth was that of weapons.

They fell in love with Florence and the harmonious charm of the city. Thus, they spent much time in the villas, which they had bought. They had a very big estate in San Donato in Polverosa, where they had a private chapel built; moreover, they had the Medicean estate of Vaglia Pratolino, a treasure chest of beauty and with an immense park. Lastly, they had many palazzi in the center of the city.

During the 1800’s, the Russian community in Florence, was composed of noble families that were looking for a milder and healthier climate. Furthermore, there were entrepreneurs who were interested in the commercial opportunities that were offered by the port city of Livorno.

The community showed a grown way of life that made the Florentines curious and charmed. Most especially, the Russian community’s way of life, attracted the attention of the aristocrats, which, by comparison to the luxuries and richness that were shining in these palazzi, were living a very Spartan life.

For their prayers, the ceremonies and the Orthodox Easter, the Demidoff’s had a private chapel with precious icons and illustrious historical artifacts.

This entire splendor attracted Florence and soon enough, as it happened for the Anglo-American guests, also the Russians became integrated in the city. They were in fact, promotors of various cultural events. As a proof of this, it will be enough to read the list of members of the Vieusseux Cabinet.

Amongst all of the properties the Demidoff’s had in Florence, the one that was most notable was that of Vaglia Pratolino, which became their only “home” by the end of the 1800’s.

It was Francesco I dei Medici in the 1500’s that wanted to create and idyllic place where he could celebrate his love for the bautiful Bianca Capello.

For this purpose, Villa di Delizie, was designed for a “country” life where the wild life was transformed into an ordered Renaissance garden, filled with grotesque wonders, a stone giant, a hero, the protective Appennino god created by Buontalenti.

Tragically, the love story between Francesco and Bianca was interrupted. Consequently, as in a fairytale, the villa was left to its fate, enchanted and silent. The Lorena restored it and in 1872, it was sold to the Prince Paolo Demidoff. 

The old Paggeria, miraculously still standing was restored.  In short, it became the VILLA par excellence in the Florentine area.  It was then a sort of Florentine belle epoque, with concerts, balls, carriages, loves, beautiful women, Slavic princesses, but a noise that initially was mute, later resounded as violently as a shot. The hereditary Augsburg prince was killed and the fairytale violently turned into reality.

Over the gardens, the circles, the thirst, and the good life, the war destroyed that world forever, and, as we very well know, that noise became evermore deafening and revolutionary for our Russian friends.

The 1900’s came with new lifestyles and heavy distresses. Once again, the Appennino giant was the only custodian of the park and the villa, which were later sold in 1963 to a real estate firm and later to the Province of Florence – but this is another story.

What about the Demidoff’s? The royal-like family became extinct. The traces of that life of splendor can be found in the Russian Church in the examples of the Iconostasis, Saint Nicholas miracle worker that is decorated with precious stones and the main and side doors that were donated by Paolo Demidoff in 1876.

It can be visited during visiting hours and it represents an unusual image in the city’s landscape, enriching the cosmopolitan character of the city.


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