Odesa around 1850.
Odesa around 1850. Library of Congress

Ticino architects in Odesa

Some of the most important buildings in the Black Sea city were designed by architects from Ticino. From its founding in 1794, the work of these Swiss architects has given the city a Mediterranean flair.

Nicola Navone

Nicola Navone

Nicola Navone is Deputy Director of the Archivio del Moderno and lecturer at the Accademia di architettura in Mendrisio, Università della Svizzera italiana.

The story of the Ticino architects and craftsmen in Odesa is deeply interwoven with their migration in Russia and Ukraine, which picked up pace especially from the 18th century onwards; one has only to think of Domenico Trezzini and his role in the building of Saint Petersburg. The phenomenon covered a broad geographical area and lasted until the very early years of the 20th century. These builders looked for work wherever it was known to be plentiful and in the first decades of the 19th century, the recently founded and cosmopolitan city of Odesa was a huge building site with excellent job prospects. Architects from Ticino were able to take advantage of such opportunities for a variety of reasons. They had both technical skills and flexibility, because they were accustomed to migrate and had learned at a young age to operate in unfamiliar surroundings. Added to this was their ability to establish networks of contacts to secure orders. The Ticino architects also benefited from the prestige that Italian architectural culture continued to radiate even into the 19th century.
Map of Odesa and environs, 1809.
Map of Odesa and environs, 1809. Bibliothèque Nationale de France
Conditions in Odesa were very favourable for Ticino architects and craftsmen, thanks in part to the large Italian community and the even larger Greek community. This resulted not only in a number of practical advantages, such as the spread of Italian as a “lingua franca”, but also in further job opportunities. On the shores of the Black Sea these architects deployed a strategy similar to that applied, for example, in St Petersburg: they endeavoured first to gain access to the authorities that oversaw the construction of public buildings, and later expanded their work with private commissions. The “Italian” character of Odesa, which the city owed to its climate and the large population originating from the Mediterranean region, became a kind of leitmotif in travel literature in the 19th century. The city’s first governor, in the years immediately following its founding in 1794, also came from the Mediterranean. José de Ribas y Boyons – Italianized as Giuseppe de Ribas – was born in Naples as the son of an Irish woman and a Catalan soldier in the service of the Spanish crown, and was therefore a Catholic, just like the architects from Ticino – a fact that should not be disregarded in this context.
Vorontsov Palace and the Belvedere Pavilion in Odesa, built by Francesco Boffa, in a lithograph from the first half of the 19th century.
Vorontsov Palace and the Belvedere Pavilion in Odesa, built by Francesco Boffa, in a lithograph from the first half of the 19th century. Private collection
According to sources, the first Ticino architects were the brothers Francesco and Giovanni Battista Frapolli, although they are invariably identified in Ukrainian and Russian studies as coming from Naples. Not only did they bear the name of a family originally from Scareglia in the Val Colla, but there is also documentary evidence of the family being resident in Ticino in 1827, when “Maria Frapolli di Massagno” received the tragic news of the murder of her brother Giovanni Battista, “architect of the city of Odesa”, by a domestic servant and an accomplice.
The trading port of Odesa around 1900.
The trading port of Odesa around 1900. Library of Congress
Although the Frapolli brothers made a major contribution in the very earliest days after Odesa was founded, it wasn’t until the 1820s that more Ticinese arrived on the shores of the Black Sea, as the city’s construction gained further momentum. In these and the following years, Francesco Boffa from Arasio, in the present-day municipality of Collina d’Oro, played a key role. He was responsible for the design of numerous buildings and other structures, notably the old stock exchange (1828-1834, later the town hall), the Lutheran church of Saint Paul (1824-1835, demolished in 1895 to make way for the new church designed by German architect Hermann Scheurembrandt), the Palace of the governor Mikhail Vorontsov (1824-1828) with the Belvedere Pavillion (1829) and finally, perhaps the most famous of Odesa’s monuments, the imposing Stairs that connect the harbour with the city centre, which sits on a plateau (1837-1841). In Ukrainian and Russian written sources, the architect of the Stairs is given as “Boffo”: a variation resulting from the Cyrillic spelling of the surname. And Sardinia, or more specifically Orosei, is often given as his country of origin. An error that is probably also due to an inaccurate Cyrillic transliteration of Arasio. However, documentary sources (e.g. the “Registri della popolazione” of the Lugano district) give Arasio as his place of origin. The confusion surrounding Boffa’s supposedly Sardinian roots may have arisen because of his training, which he seems to have completed at the Academy of Fine Arts in Turin, and then because he lived for a time in what was then the capital of the Kingdom of Sardinia.
The stock exchange building in Odesa, now the Town Hall, built by Francesco Boffa and Giorgio Torricelli, around 1900.
The stock exchange building in Odesa, now the Town Hall, built by Francesco Boffa and Giorgio Torricelli, around 1900. Rijksmuseum Amsterdam
In contrast, Giorgio Torricelli, who together with Boffa is one of the main figures in the construction of Odesa, came from Lugano. Torricelli arrived in Odesa in 1818, and his works date mainly from the 1830s. This very intense period of work began in 1832 when he won the competition to design the city’s new market square. Like Boffa, he based his designs mainly on neoclassical architecture. The English Club, built between the old stock exchange and the theatre in the period 1841-1842 – aside from the alterations made in the late 19th century by architects Felix Gonsiorowski and Emil Vej – is evidence of this predilection.
Primorskyi Boulevard in Odesa, early 20th century.
Primorskyi Boulevard in Odesa, early 20th century. Private collection
By the end of the 19th century, Odesa had become an important European port and trading city. Aside from the architects, notable Ticinese artists also played a role – men such as Carlo Bossoli from Lugano, who spent his youth in Odesa after his father emigrated, and did his training there, or Vittore Pelli from Malcantone, who was a set designer in the Odesa theatre from 1824 to 1831.
The monumental Potemkin Stairs in Odesa, around 1900.
The monumental Potemkin Stairs in Odesa, around 1900. Library of Congress
The wealth of contributions by all these architects is exemplified in the person and oeuvre of Aleksandr Bernardazzi, born in 1831 in Pyatigorsk in the northern Caucasus. Bernadazzi was the son of Giuseppe Bernardazzi and Dorothea Wilhelmine Conradi, herself the daughter of Friedrich Conradi, a doctor from Göttingen who was senior physician in the local thermal baths at Pyatigorsk. Giuseppe Bernardazzi came from a family of architects and builders from Pambio (but with distant roots in the Verzasca Valley) and worked in Moscow and Chişinău in what is now the Republic of Moldova, as well as in Saint Petersburg. Aleksandr Bernardazzi is an example of how careful one needs to be when assigning identities: the son of a Ticino father and a German mother, he was born in the Caucasus, trained in Saint Petersburg, worked in Moldova for a long time and moved to Odesa in the 1890s. In the city on the Black Sea he planned and oversaw the construction of numerous buildings, among them the New Stock Exchange (1894–1899), now the city’s Philharmonic Theatre: an imposing building that blends details drawn from Florentine architecture, such as the large windows modelled on those of the Church of Orsanmichele, with other elements such as a monumental arch over the entrance staircase that is evocative of Middle Eastern architecture. This building, in particular, exemplarily reflects the architectural culture of Odesa at the turn of the century, and along with other Ticino natives such as sculptors Marco and Luigi Molinari, scores of local professionals were also involved in its design and construction.
The New Stock Exchange, now the Philharmonic Theatre in Odesa, built by Aleksandr Bernardazzi, around 1894-1899.
The New Stock Exchange, now the Philharmonic Theatre in Odesa, built by Aleksandr Bernardazzi, around 1894-1899. Library of Congress
This article was originally written in Italian.

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