Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The Hermitage: a stunning setting for one of world's great art collections

Our buffet breakfast in the hotel was quite interesting. It had all the usual breakfast foods that you see in European hotels with one exception. There was hardly any fresh fruit, not even a banana, but instead a selection of canned fruit including some grayish looking peaches. Later I asked our guide about the effect of trade sanctions against Russia, and she noted job losses and the unavailability of some foodstuffs.

We had a short drive past St. Petersburg university and across the river to the Hermitage Museum. From the 1760s onwards the Winter Palace was the main residence of the Russian czars. Magnificently located on the bank of the Neva River, this Baroque-style palace is most impressive. 

We were well prepared for our visit having watched a 2002 Russian movie with English subtitles called, Russian Ark, which is well worth watching. The main character takes viewers on a tour of the hermitage’s many treasures as well as back in time to experience a magnificent ball. We spent quite some time with our guide in the gallery of pictures of the czars and their families. By the time we were finished I felt like I could pass a test but it was all helpful in understanding the history of the czars.

The Winter Palace was built between 1754 and 1762 for Empress Elizabeth, the daughter of Peter the Great. Unfortunately, Elizabeth died before the palace's completion and only Catherine the Great and her successors were able to enjoy its sumptuous interiors. Much of the palace has been remodeled, particularly after 1837, when a huge fire destroyed most of the building. Today the Winter Palace, together with four more buildings arranged side by side along the river embankment, house the extensive collections of the Hermitage. The Hermitage Museum is the largest art gallery in Russia and is among the largest and most respected art museums in the world. We passed through incredibly ornate ballrooms, dining rooms, throne rooms and private quarters.

The actual museum was founded in 1764 when Catherine the Great purchased a collection of 255 paintings from the German city of Berlin. Today, the Hermitage boasts over 2.7 million exhibits and displays a diverse range of art and artifacts from all over the world and from throughout history from Ancient Egypt to early 20th century Europe. The Hermitage's collections include works by Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael and Titian, a unique collection of Rembrandts and Rubens, many French Impressionist works by Renoir, Cezanne, Manet, Monet and Pissarro, numerous canvasses by Van Gogh, Matisse, Gaugin and several sculptures by Rodin. The collection is enormous. Experts say that if you were to spend a minute looking at each exhibit on display in the Hermitage, you would need 11 years to see them all. We only scratched the surface but we did see all twenty Rembrandts.

Cruise boats had not yet begun visiting St. Petersburg, so there were only moderate crowds and we could fully enjoy the beautiful exhibits in this amazing museum.

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