HAL in the Baltic: The Hermitage, pride of St. Petersburg

Soviet youth on their bus in parking lot after visiting The Hermitage in Leningrad in 1974.
Soviet youth on their bus in parking lot after visiting The Hermitage in Leningrad in 1974.

ABOARD THE EURODAM – On a 1974 Pan Am tour (remember them?) our group was taken to The State Hermitage Museum in what was then Leningrad. As a novice photographer at that time I much preferred being out shooting in the street rather than being stuck inside a musty museum. So when I was told there was no photography permitted in the museum I abruptly bolted for the door. Subsequently I learned that skipping the Hermitage was like being in Paris without visiting the Louvre. Something only an uncultured barbarian might do. So when I had a second chance, in 2004, to see one of the world’s most impressive collections of fine art, I left my camera behind only to learn that photography had subsequently become allowed. This time I wasn’t making that mistake again.

Grand Stairway room of the Winter Palace, The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.
Grand Stairway room of the Winter Palace, The State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia.

Consisting of five open-to-the-public historic former residences of royalty, the Hermitage reflects the glory of the Russian Empire. The world’s second largest art museum, it can be overwhelming. Exhibiting a small permanent selection from over three million items in 350 rooms, it is also one of the oldest, taking from 1754 to 1762 to be constructed. Both the ornate architecture of the buildings and the art they contain deserve several hours of attention just to taste a morsel of the glamour of it all. Incredibly, it’s estimated that seeing it all would require seven years.

The Hermitage Museum gallery in Winter Palace dedicated to victory over Napoleon.
The Hermitage Museum gallery in Winter Palace dedicated to victory over Napoleon.

On our summer’s day visitation, with five other cruise ships in port, the galleries became quite overly crowded. I can’t imagine what it was like the day recently when eleven ships were in port. Entering early is supposed to avoid the tourist hordes and every tour operator seems to dubiously promise this exclusively for their own group, despite the fact that 2.5 million visitors per year overwhelm the site. Nevertheless, for a leisurely viewing of the art, I suspect coming in winter would be the best bet.

"The Crouching Boy" sculpture by Michelangelo, Large Hermitage building of The State Hermitage Museum.
“The Crouching Boy” sculpture by Michelangelo, Large Hermitage building of The State Hermitage Museum.

The entrance for the huge museum complex is in the Winter Palace, the former main residence of the Russian tsars. The collection initially began privately in 1764 with a purchase from a Berlin art dealer by Catherine the Second, AKA “the Great,” and included paintings by such notables as Rembrandt, Rubens, Van Dyck, Raphael, and Titian. The collection then expanded extensively through additional purchases, as well as gifts from king and queen friends of the Great One, and only a privileged few were allowed to see the collection until it became a public museum in 1852.

"Love Scene" by Romano in a Large Hermitage gallery.
“Love Scene” by Romano in a Large Hermitage gallery.

The standard tourist group tour includes only three buildings proceeding from the Winter Palace through the Small Hermitage and Big Hermitage that were Catherine’s additions. Because Catherine was the typically paranoid royal and liked staying alone somewhat like a hermit, her choice of the name Hermitage appears appropriate.

The Room of the Italian School in the Large Hemitage building of the State Museum.
The Room of the Italian School in the Large Hemitage building of the State Museum.

The first indelible impression of the Winter Palace is made by the Grand Staircase’s white Italian marble and ceiling murals followed by an imposing Peter the Great Room, the restored gallery dedicated to the Victory over Napoleon, and the newly renovated Great Church of the Winter Palace.

In the adjoining Small Hermitage, Pavilion Hall is considered the most beautiful. It features exquisitely designed tabletop murals made from tiny, almost imperceptible, glass pieces.

Restored Rembrandt painting "Danae" is the focus of considerable attention in The Hermitage Museum.
Restored Rembrandt painting “Danae” is the focus of considerable attention in The Hermitage Museum.

Next, the Old Hermitage (AKA Large Hermitage) features Renaissance Italian art including two paintings by Leonardo de Vinci that are his only works housed in Russia. Also notable is one sculpture by Michelangelo, the “Crouching Boy.” But the painting that surely grabs the most attention is of a woman with a lover, both unclothed, who was cheating on her husband while her housekeeper kept a look out for the husband, “Love Scene” by Romano.

The parking lot of The Hermitage Museum in 2015.
The parking lot of The Hermitage Museum in 2015.

For the biggest paintings in the biggest room, the works in The Room of the Italian School are an obvious standout.

Of the twenty-six Rembrandts in Rembrandt Hall, the painting “Danae” that was nearly destroyed in 1985 is the infamous favorite, drawing considerable attention and smart-phone camera action. The painting had notoriously drawn the wrath of a deranged man, apparently disapproving of nudity in classical art, who tossed acid on it, then sliced it twice with a knife, before being subdued. Fortunately museum experts were able to restore it by 1997 and now have it protected under armored glass.

Photos above © Dennis Cox / WorldViews

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