The steeple-roofed towers of the Moscow KremlinRussian: Кремль and its walls with swallow-tailed crenellations are irreplaceable elements of Moscow’s panoramic metropolis. The settlement where the Kremlin is now dates back to ancient times. The place was a very convenient one as it is located high on Borovitsky Hillone of the seven hills of Moscow, at the confluence of the rivers MoskvaRussian: Москва and NeglinnayaRussian: Неглинная. The first fortifications erected there were made of wood, and the first Kremlin of white stone was built by prince Dmitry Donskoythe first prince of Moscow to openly challenge Mongol authority in Russia in 1366. The walls and towers we see today are basically the fortifications built in 1485‒1495 by Italian architects to replace the dilapidated white-stone walls.
THE technology used in construction AND THE FORTRESS’ LAYOUT
Twenty Kremlin towers connected by walls form an irregular triangle enclosing an area of 28 ha. The fortifications were constructed using technologies developed in the 15th century. The towers projected from the wall so that guards could not only fire from above but also control the situation below. The corner towers (VodovzvodnayaRussian: Водовзводная, MoskvoretskayaRussian: Москворецкая and ArsenalnayaАрсенальная) were built in a round shape to ensure better resistance and allow for 360-degree fire. The design of these three towers also enabled the construction of secret wells. The rest of the towers are square in shape, but they differ quite a lot depending on their intended purpose. The towers with through-passages (SpasskayaRussian: Спасская, BorovitskayaRussian: Боровицкая, TroitskayaRussian: Троицкая and others) built on the axes of roads leading to the Kremlin were the most robust and well-fortified. The towers were also perceived as a symbol of defense, turning evil and demons away from the Kremlin. For this reason, icons still crown some of the gateways.
Most towers were accompanied by barbicans, fortified outposts enclosing the gateways or even the moats to increase defensive power. These types of fortifications were quite adequate for the late 15th century. Only one barbican tower has survived—the Kutafya TowerRussian: Kutafia bashnya or Кутафья башня, which protects the bridge leading to the Troitskaya TowerRussian: Troitskaya bashnya or Троицкая башня and marks the main public entrance to the Kremlin. Various defensive measures were undertaken during its construction, like secret underground tunnels leading to the other side of the wall to protect the city from enemy tunneling. A through-passage tunnel was built inside the wall to allow defendants to move around faster.
The overall length of the Kremlin wall is 2,235 m, the wall’s thickness is between 3.5 to 6.5 m, and the height ranges from 8 to 19 m. The highest part of the wall is near the Red Square, where no natural water barrier was available. The wall was not constructed all at once; construction began from the southeastern part (overlooking the Moskva River), continued to the east and west and was completed in 1516. The Taynitskaya TowerRussian: Taynitskaya bashnya or Тайницкая башня, the oldest one, was also built on the southern side.
The technology used in the construction of the fortress was very interesting, too. The architects used the foundations of the original white-stone walls, large red bricks to construct the façade wall, and the remains of the destroyed Dmitry Donskoy’s structure to seal the gaps. This is how the recognisable color of the Kremlin wall came to be in 1485. The towers were constructed by Italian architects (fryaziRussian: фрязи, as they were called at the time): Pietro Antonio Solari, Marco Ruffo, Aloisio da Carcano, etc. This explains the physical appearance of the towers, which are unlike other constructions built in Moscow at the time. The famous swallow-tailed crenellations were characteristic of North Italian architecture, typical of cities governed by the Ghibellines, who supported the Emperor (rivaled by the Guelphs, proponents of the Pope, who decorated their city walls with square battlements). Apart from their decorative function, the crenellations encased upper platforms used in combat.
After another fire in the 17th century, the corner and through-passage towers were topped with stone tent roofs crowned by weather vanes. The tents served as watchtowers and alarm bell towers. In the second half of the 18th century, the famous Russian architect Vasily Bazhenov made a design of the Kremlin Palace, a monumental classical structure resembling the patterns of French palaces. The project’s design included covering the hill leading to the cathedrals with turf to make one of the first “ambulatories” in Europe. One third of the Kremlin wall had to be knocked down to construct a building of that size. Some of the fortifications were dismantled at the section overlooking the Moskva River, but the project was soon curtailed due to snowballing costs. Napoleon’s invasion of Moscow in the 19th century left the Kremlin palaces, cathedrals and walls severely damaged. Restoration of the towers was entrusted to Joseph Bovéa neoclassical architect who supervised reconstruction of Moscow after the Fire of 1812 (also an Italian).
THE SPASSKAYA TOWER AND THE KREMLIN CHIMES
Special mention should be made of the Spasskaya TowerRussian: Spasskaya bashnya or Спасская башня, the most famous of all, built in 1491 by Pietro Antonio Solari. It once served as the entrance for monarchs and processions. Only white-stone dedicatory plaques have come down to us from the 15th century, explaining how the tower was ordered and constructed in Russian (from the Kremlin side) and in Latin (from the side of Red Square). Back then, its overall appearance and decorations were much more humble; it was nearly half the size and was initially named the Frolovskaya TowerRussian: Frolovskaya bashnya or Фроловская башня after the Church of Frol and LavrRussian: tserkov Flora i Lavra or церковь Фрола и Лавра in Myasnitskaya StreetRussian: ulitsa Myasnitskaya or улица Мясницкая. The tower’s modern name comes from the widely popular icon of Spas Smolensky placed above the entrance in the mid-17th century. The icon was believed to be lost until 2010, when it turned out that it had been plastered over in the Soviet era. The tower was among the first to be crowned with an elaborate hipped roof in the 17th century. As for the clock on it, its history deserves a separate mention.
The first clocks on the still white-stone Kremlin towers were installed by Lazar Serbina Serbian monk in 1404. The Spasskaya Tower obtained a very unusual clock in the 17th century thanks to Christopher Galloway, a man of English origin. There was a solar image, which encircled a motionless arrow, and a rotating face with 17 hours marked. The famous Kremlin ChimesRussian: Kremlevskiye kuranty or Кремлёвские куранты that we can see today date back to the mid-19th century. They were designed by the Butenop brothers, founders of a company by the same name. The chimes produced different tunes at different epochs: Oh, you dear Augustin (O du lieber Augustin) from 1770, The glory of our Lord from the mid-19th century, The Internationale (L’Internationale) after the October Revolution, and a well-known fragment of Glinkaoften regarded as the fountainhead of Russian classical music’s A Life for the Tsar since 1996. The clock mechanism occupies three floors nowadays. However, it used to be wound up manually, using a cast iron key before 1937.
If the Russian history is a subject of your interest and you want to know, for example, what is the oldest church in Moscow, what are the famous monasteries around Moscow, which style of Moscow architecture you can see only in this town, you can read about it on our website page “History and Architecture Moscow”.
THE FAMOUS KREMLIN TOWERS AND THE HISTORY OF THEIR NAMES
Let’s dwell a little bit on the history of some of the towers. As mentioned above, the corner towers were crucial for defense and their composition reflects their function. The Vodovzvodnaya TowerRussian: Vodovzvodnaya bashnya or Водовзводная башня was built by Anton Fryazinthe architect and diplomat of Italian origin, who worked in Russia. A water-supplying machine was installed in the 17th century, giving the tower its name. Its former name—the Sviblova TowerRussian: Sviblova bashnya or Свиблова башня—came from the Sviblov boyara member of the highest rank of the feudal society in Russia family who had a house in the Kremlin territory. The tower was blown up by the French army in 1812 and restored by Joseph Bové. As a result, it looks expressly classical with its rustic lower section, pillars, roof window decorations, etc. The supremacy of decorative value over functionality reveals the hand of an architect of the early 19th century.
The Beklemishevskaya TowerRussian: Beklemishevskaya bashnya or Беклемишевская башня with a secret well built by Marco Ruffo in 1487 was named after boyar Ivan Beklemishev, who fell into disgrace of Vasili IIIthe Grand Prince of Moscow from 1505 to 1533 and was put to death. The name alludes to one of the tower’s functions: it served as a prison for rebels. The tower is also known as Moskvoretskaya, because it occupies a strategic position on the Moskva River. That was the side from which the Tatarlived in a variety of Turco-Mongol semi-nomadic empires who controlled the vast region known as Tartary raiders would come most of the time. In 1707, the openings in the battlement were widened to install a new type of weapon because the government feared a Swedish invasion. This fact proves that the tower preserved its defensive function up to the 18th century.
The Corner Arsenalnaya TowerRussian: Arsenal'naya bashnya or Арсенальная башня situated north of the Kremlin Complex was built by Pietro Antonio Solari circa 1492. It used to be called the SobakinRussian: Собакина Tower after the Sobakin boyar family who lived nearby. The tower received its current name after the construction of the Arsenal. It creates an impression of ultimate robustness and endurance due to the facets that make it look bigger and to the foot widening at the bottom. The tower had a couple of strategic secrets as well; an inside well and an underground tunnel leading to the Neglinnaya Rivera 7.5-km long underground river in the central part of Moscow.
The Borovitskaya TowerRussian: Borovitskaya bashnya or Боровицкая башня was named after Borovitsky Hill, which was once covered with a pine forest (from Russian bor meaning “pine forest”). The tower was constructed by Pietro Antonio Solari in 1490. Its main design feature is a barbican connected on the side. This is also a corner tower; however, it is not round but rather resembles a pyramid of quadrangles topped by an octagon. Although the tower was built far from the main roads and was used for economic needs, it has preserved its importance up until today, being the only permanent vehicle passageway to the Kremlin.
Troitskaya and Kutafya Towers
The Troitskaya and Kutafya Towers were built by Aleviz Fryazinthe Italian architect, who worked in Russia in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. The Kutafya Tower dates back to 1516 and the Troitskaya Tower to 1495. Connected by a bridge, the towers both had through passages and Kutafya had only one gate with heavy wrought iron lattices. Today, this is the main entrance to the Kremlin’s architectural and museum complex. The Troitskaya Tower is the tallest one, reaching 76.35 m high. It has a complex structure, consisting of six tiers, of which two are underground. The tower received its name from the nearby Troitskaya Coaching InnRussian: Troitskoe podvore or Троицкое подворье in 1658 and served as a prison for rebels in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The Taynitskaya Towerfrom Russian tayna meaning “secret” had not only a secret well but also an underground tunnel leading to the Moskva River, hence its name. It was the very first tower built to protect the city from Tatar raids in 1495.
Tsarskaya and Nikolskaya Tower
Another two ornate towers look more typical of recent times. The Tsarskaya TowerRussian: Tsarskaya bashnya or Царская башня was built in the 1680s to replace the small wooden turret, from which, according to legend, tsar Ivan the Terribleruled from 1533 to 1584 liked to observe what was happening in the Red Square. The Nikolskaya TowerRussian: Nikol'skaya bashnya or Никольская башня was built by Pietro Antonio Solari in 1491 and rebuilt by Luigi Rusca in a pseudo-Gothic style at the beginning of the 18th century. These two towers lend a wonderful ambiance of diversity to the Kremlin architectural complex.
Two memorials of the 19th and 20th centuries can be seen near the Kremlin walls. Joseph Bosé’s Grotto, located at the side of Alexander GardenRussian: Aleksandrovskiy sad or Александровский сад, was built in the 1820s. The ancient columns, as if not completely excavated, indicate the Kremlin’s value as a genuine Russian antiquity. The Red Square side is neighboured by Lenin’s MausoleumRussian: mavzoley Lenina or мавзолей Ленина, erected one century after the Grotto, in the late 1920s.
THE KREMLIN TOWERS (COUNTERCLOCKWISE, BEGINNING FROM THE KUTAFYA AND TROITSKAYA TOWERS)
Corner Arsenalnaya (Sobakina)
Middle Arsenalnaya (Granenaya)