My own little tour of the Hermitage, Winter Palace of Wonders…
(All information, of course, subjected to scrupulous Wikipedia fact-checking….)
Katherine the Great’s Winter Palace was actually commissioned by another Empress who died the year it was finished, 1762–bad timing. Katherine ascended the throne that year–awesome timing. She called one room of the palace the “Hermitage” as a joke. This was Kat’s idea of being funny (oh, this old thing?), calling to mind images of the ascetic, pious type in a cabin somewhere praying and pondering life. Although it may not have been so much a joke, as Katherine once wrote in a letter to a friend, “I have the greatest European art collection, and only me and the mice to enjoy it.”
I joined up with a group of American study abroad-ers for a guided tour of the Hermitage (and already made it for a second visit, with a Russian friend from work). Don’t be surprised if you get more Hermitage posts in the coming months. I will definitely be returning on a cold winter’s day, when hopefully I’ll be braver than the rest of the tourists.
Sergey, our Most Excellent Guide
This is Sergey, our most excellent guide, who had a twinkle of excitement in his eye as he told us anecdote upon anecdote. Apparently he is just as knowledgeable about everything you can point to inside (and outside) the city. I wish I had a little pocket-sized Sergey to carry around with to enrich all my promenades around the city.
The museum’s permanent collection includes two da Vinci paintings (out of the twelve in the world), an excellent collection of Rembrandts including the Return of the Prodigal Son, an Italian Renaissance collection with works by Titian, Raphael, and those other Italians, Flemish masters van Dyck (who had a close epistolary relationship with Ms. Great) and Rubens, and a huge collection of Impressionists. They also host temporary exhibits and frequently rotate others, like examples of Katherine’s porcelain and silver (all made especially for her), and other treasures from their enormous basement.
They say that stopping in each room for five minutes, it would take you something like five years to get through the whole museum; stop by each work for one minute, and you’re not getting out for twelve. And that’s just what they show.
The Winter Palace is one of four buildings open to the public that comprise the State Hermitage. The place has lived through wars, fires, generations of royalty, and centuries of turbulent history.
Apparently during one particularly bad fire, servants threw furniture and valuables out the windows in an attempt to save them. In those days, of course, one spark and a building was toast. Katherine couldn’t find one of her earrings–how she event noticed, I can’t imagine– but she did, eventually, once the snow melted.
Katherine collected porcelain and men, who were called her “favorites”–one of them the British clockmaker who made this fanciful timepiece.
She needed two hundred servants for the chandeliers alone…
The Hermitage is like a huge Fabergé egg, intricate and delightfully overwrought at every turn. Unlike the traditional museum, where paintings are placed on the walls in a particularly museum-y fashion, here the rooms rival the artwork. The floors, ceilings, mosaic tables, and every little detail in each room is different and exquisite. You could easily spend a few days in here not even looking at the paintings.
Katherine kept 200 servants to take care of the chandeliers alone, as they had to be taken down, polished, and re-lit with new candles so frequently.
During World War II, they took the chandeliers down, stored, them, and then reassembled them, piece by piece. That’s not a job I would volunteer for.
She reportedly owned something to the tune of 15,000 dresses– she never wore the same one twice. No surprise that when they cracked open the coffers after her death, they found the grand sum of six rubles. Katherine’s baroque luxury bankrupted the country.
One of the museum’s wonders is World’s Largest Vase, made of one single piece of jasper. How did they get it in the room? They didn’t. After a two year journey from Kolyvan (no expedited shipping for 19 ton vases), they plopped it down and built the room around it.
An attack on art
One day in 1985, a man from a small town in Lithuania walked to the Hermitage, and asked one of the guards what the most important painting was. The guard said, oh, maybe Rembrandt’s Danaë. So the Lithuanian proceeded to pour acid over one third of the painting and stab it twice with a knife. Such was his anger over the USSR’s annexation of his country. Funny that the painting wasn’t even Russian.
Interestingly, when art restorers went to work on restoring the painting–a twelve-year project– they found that below the finished work, Rembrandt had painted Danaë with an ambiguous turn of her hand- was she inviting Gold Zeus, or shunning him? In the final version, Rembrandt chose a decidedly salutatory open palm.
That Rembrandt. He just couldn’t help himself.
Katherine’s rococo boudoir– where she rested before going to bed. Bigger than my entire apartment.
Actually, it’s an interesting point about the Hermitage– it contains very little Russian art, relative to the size of the collection. That’s a dilemma that’s explored in the beautiful film Russian Ark.
Imagine filming a movie in the Hermitage. You can’t ask them to close the Hermitage for weeks or months for you to have free reign. So, you get one day. And one shot.
The movie is the first and only full-length film to be shot in one continuous take. It’s an incredible feat of choreography, complete with live orchestras, as the film follows a misplaced “European” through a fantastical tour of Russian history in 33 rooms of the Hermitage.
Here’s the trailer, to give you an idea:*
The Hermitage is also a prime example of how hard it is to determine who “owns” art. Between world wars, the state “nationalized” huge private art collections, and during World War II, the Red Army stole many chef d’oeuvres from private German collections, some of which are still on display the Hermitage. And that doesn’t even begin with the art and antiquities that made their way into the state collection through some means or another. What is their true provenance? Who do they belong to? Who has the right to decide to display them, or to lock them in a basement? All questions worth pondering during your twelve years in the Hermitage.
*Actually, you can watch the whole movie here on YouTube, but I’d recommend actually giving it what it’s worth and watching it in good quality.