Baltic cruise aboard Windstar Cruises’ Wind Surf: St. Petersburg, Russia

Created in 1764 by Empress Catherine the Great, St. Petersburg's Hermitage Museum remains one of the world's great art museums.
Created in 1764 by Empress Catherine the Great, St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum remains one of the world’s great art museums.

ONBOARD WIND SURF- ­ Just to set the stage, this is day 2 for Melinda and me in St. Petersburg.  As I related yesterday, I’ve stayed onboard today while Mel is undertaking two tours. So to begin, I’ll tell you about our visit yesterday to the magnificent Hermitage Museum, and I will later report on Mel’s whirlwind day.

Lace up your cross-trainers, grab a bottle of water, and join us for a brief but rewarding visit to the Hermitage. We were among the first in line for the museum’s 10:30 a.m. opening, and that was a good thing because by the time we left at a little before 3:00 p.m., the place was absolutely packed. We had to push our way out through a swarm of mostly Chinese tourists.  It’s apparent that rising incomes in China mean that more of its nearly 1.5 billion people are able travel ­ and it seemed to us that most of them turned up yesterday at the Hermitage.

St. George Hall was the venue for all major state ceremonies at the Winter Palace, Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.
St. George Hall was the venue for all major state ceremonies at the Winter Palace, Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.

Before I speak to our visit, here¹s some background poop on the Hermitage. The museum’s story is a very long and complex one, but I’ll try to tell it as briefly as I can.  Formally it is known as The State Hermitage, making it understood that it is owned and run by the Russian state.  That’s not all bad, as they appear to be doing a pretty good job at it.  Most experts agree that it houses the largest and finest art collection in the world, said to number about three million items.

The Hermitage’s glory stems equally from its majestic architectural ensemble, based around the Winter Palace, and its outstanding collections. Both of those elements are directly linked to the creative enterprise of the Russian emperors, beginning with the reign of Peter the Great (1682-1725), who moved the first Imperial art collection into the newly constructed Winter Palace in the 1720s.

Throughout the first half of the 18th century the Russian hierarchy bought up collection after collection of art from around the world and it was through the determined efforts of Catherine the Great, who ascended to the Imperial throne in 1762, that the Hermitage Museum came to be in 1764. Catherine purchased a major collection of 225 paintings by Dutch and Flemish masters from Frederick II of Prussia that laid the foundation for the modern-day Hermitage. It also was Catherine who began expanding the museum into a multi-building complex that somewhat resembles what we see today.

Descendants of Catherine the Great continued to enrich the Hermitage collections.  Particularly valuable acquisitions were made in the early 20th century, including the collection of Empress Josephine, Napoleon’s first wife, bought by Emperor Alexander I, and a collection of King William II of the Netherlands, purchased by Nicholas I.

The 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, of course, brought about a change of ownership, and the tumult created by the First World War resulted in most the Hermitage collections being evacuated to Moscow for safe keeping.  A similar plight befell the museum during World War II and the 900-day siege of Leningrad when, once again, most of the collections were moved into hiding in the Urals.  The museum was badly damaged during the war, but was restored and reopened to the public in late 1945.

The museum has since suffered no major trauma, but the government’s Department of Scientific Restoration and Conservation has had its hands full catching up on the science involved in preserving and restoring the immense collection.

The 1812 War Gallery at the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.
The 1812 War Gallery at the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.

We were disappointed at first when our guide informed us that the collections of 19th and early 20th century French art (Monet, Renoir, Degas, Cezzane, Matisse, et al) had been moved to the General Staff Building and would not be seen on our tour.  I spent all of my time viewing those collections during a previous visit, but I felt sorry for Mel not getting to see them.  We both love the Impressionists.  Believe me, however, there was plenty else to see, displayed in the museum¹s most impressive halls.

For starters, the Baroque grandeur of the entry, The State (or Jordan) Staircase, is enough to take your breath away.  Nearly as spectacular are some the rooms we’d next encounter, including Peter the Great Hall, Armorial Hall and St. George’s Hall, a gorgeous room that served as the venue for all major state ceremonies in the Winter Palace.  The adjacent Gallery of 1812 was fascinating to me, with its portraits of 332 generals deemed heroes of Russian victories in the Napoleonic Wars.

Our tour focused largely on the works of Italian, Spanish, Dutch and Flemish masters.  On display were paintings by nearly all of the great artists of those schools.  In the Spanish Skylight Hall, for example, we admired the works of El Greco, Ribera, Murillo, Velazquez and others.  Curiously, however, there was but one painting from Goya, the lovely Portrait of the Actress Antonia Zirate.

The museum¹s extensive collection of Italian painting encompasses its development from the 13th to the beginning of the 19th century.  Featured in the collection, are works by the great masters of the Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Giorgione and Titian. Of the twelve original works by da Vinci known in the world today, the Hermitage possesses two, Madonna with a Flower, and Madonna Litta. We were surprised to find that there is but one work by Michelangelo in the museum¹s collection, an unfinished sculpture named The Crouching Boy.

Of all the Hermitage’s vast holdings, the paintings of 17th century Holland and Flanders are perhaps the best-represented school in terms of quality and variety. Housed in six rooms, they comprise one of the museum’s largest exhibitions.  There are splendid works by Rembrandt, Rubens and Van Dyck in particular.  A few of the paintings that really stood out to me included Van Dyke’s Self Portrait 1622-23; Ruben’s Bacchus, unusually represented in this painting as rather corpulent and repulsive, and a couple of Rembrandt portraits, Portrait of a Scholar, and Portrait of an Old Jew.

The unfinished sculpture, "The Crouching Boy," is the sole sculpture from Michelangelo in the collections of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.
The unfinished sculpture, “The Crouching Boy,” is the sole sculpture from Michelangelo in the collections of the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Although I could go on forever, that’s the essence of our Hermitage tour. After more than four hours on our feet, and facing a crushing crowd at the end, it was enlightening to be sure, but more than enough for both of us.

Melinda has returned from day spent touring some of the city’s major attractions and, from what she tells me, the highlights included a visit to Peter the Great’s fabulous Summer Palace at Peterhof with its breathtaking fountains and gardens, followed by a hydrofoil ride back to the city; a visit to the battleship Aurora, a Russian navy vessel that fired the first shot of the Bolshevik Revolution, and a visit to one of the city’s most noted landmarks, the Church of the Resurrection (Church on the Spilled Blood), a massive and ornate Russian Orthodox Cathedral that was the scene in 1881 of the assassination of Emperor Alexander II.

We must dress now for our evening at the opera, a staging of Swan Lake, performed exclusively for Wind Surf passengers at the Musical Comedy Theatre ­ an event I’ll report on in tomorrow¹s blog as we take to the high seas, bound for Stockholm.

August 31, 2016

Photos by Dave Houser

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