One of the World’s Great Museums Is Also the Czar’s Attic

Winter Palace, home of much of the Hermitage’s collection

Two recent events — one mundane, the other calamitous — came together in my mind and prompted me to write this short piece about one of the world’s greatest museums, the Hermitage, in St. Petersburg, Russia.

The mundane event is my recently begun exploration of the extensive collection of slides, long gathering dust in a closet, that I took beginning in my college years and extending through my time in India, Brazil and the USSR as well as most of my travels elsewhere in Europe and Asia, from the early 1960s through the late 1970s.

The calamity, half a world away, was the loss in Rio de Janeiro, a few days ago, of Brazil’s National Museum to a disastrous fire that consumed thousands of irreplaceable cultural, archeological and paleontological artifacts. I confess that in the nearly four years I lived and worked in Brazil (1971-75), I never thought to visit the museum. What a shame. I would have learned a lot.

My several experiences in Leningrad/St. Petersburg (living and working at the U.S. consulate-general there, 1976-78; studying Russian at Leningrad State University in the summer of 1967; and visiting there briefly with Sandra in spring 2006) were a different story, however. I visited the Hermitage on various occasions. I’d have profited from additional visits, of course, but I did take in not only one of the world’s greatest collections of art — rivaling those of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York), the Louvre (Paris) and the British Museum (London) — but also the astonishing home of the czars.

Yes, the Hermitage is not just a museum. The largest of its six connected buildings on the bank of the Neva River is the Winter Palace, the home of Russia’s ruling Romanov family until the revolution in 1917.

Winter Palace viewed from Palace Square (Dvortsovaya Ploshchad) [Photo: HEDaniel]

Walking through its enormous halls and rooms, you can see the utter extravagance in which the czars lived — gilded walls and ceilings, magnificent parquet floors incorporating wood of many kinds and hues. (See photos at the end of this piece.) I’ll never forget one room in which Sandra pointed to a small patch of undecorated ceiling plaster in a corner and said, “Look! They forgot that spot!”

Two aspects of the Hermitage as the home of Russia’s imperial family stand out in my mind. One is the phenomenal collection of royal bric-a-brac on display — splendiferous tchotchkes — presumably just a fraction of the czars’ treasure-filled “attic.” Not just the Fabergé eggs. No, over the centuries, the czars received lavish gifts from many other monarchs, not to mention from Russia’s own wealthy nobles and merchants, including those “eggs.” In the photo below is a tea set in a display case, presumably representative of the china on which the imperial family dined.

Tea set [Photo: HEDaniel]

Another gift fit for an emperor (official title: Autocrat of all the Russias – and in Russian, autocrat is samoderzhavets, or “one who holds/grips it all himself”) is what I like to think of as the czar’s birdbath, displayed, as I recall, on the building’s ground floor. On my first visit to the Hermitage, the guide told our group of American students that this gargantuan piece (compare its size to the chair beneath it in the photo below) was a gift to the czar from some merchants in Siberia. As I recall, the guide said it was created in the 1600s, long before the era of railroads, and delivered to St. Petersburg over several thousand of miles of unpaved road by sled, presumably in winter. It is made from a single piece of polished stone (not, presumably, including the pedestal). Just thinking about this piece and its transport across the vastness of Russia still takes my breath away.

Czar’s “birdbath”  [Photo: HEDaniel]

So, while humanity has lost Rio’s National Museum, we still have the Hermitage. Next time you’re in the neighborhood, go see it. It will take your breath away too.

Winter Palace, seen through the arch of the General Staff Building, on the far side of Palace Square, with the Alexander Column in its center, a memorial to the defeat of Napoleon under Czar Alexander I  [Photo: HEDaniel]

Throne – portrait is of Peter the Great, who founded St. Petersburg in 1703. [Photo: HEDaniel]

Parquet floor [Photo: HEDaniel]

Small portion of the Grand Staircase [Photo: HEDaniel]

Interior room – the mirror reflects a fresco on another wall — and yes, those urns and the column at left are made of (or, more likely, clad in) malachite! [Photo: HEDaniel]

Ceiling [Photo: HEDaniel]

The czar’s study [Photo: HEDaniel]

More of the czar’s bric-a-brac [Photo: HEDaniel]

Somebody had refined taste, don’t you think? [Photo: HEDaniel] 

More tchotchkes [Photo: HEDaniel] 


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