Whatever else you may want to say about Catherine the Great, Empress of all Russia, she was an anorak when it came to art. She started her collection by buying a couple of hundred paintings in 1764. Nothing too fancy, just a few Rembrandts, a couple of Holbeins and Raphaels, and a nice Titian. A bit later, she acquired several hundred more paintings, as well as some prints and drawings. Gradually, Catherine branched out into other arts, commissioning extensions to her imperial home in the Winter Palace to display her belongings; the buildings are today collectively called The Hermitage. Catherine eventually acquired thousands of paintings, thousands of drawings, thousands of books, thousands of engraved gems (her passion), alongside coins, medals, sculptures, silver, clocks, furniture, porcelain and archaeological artefacts. Later Romanovs added to the collection, which also grew after the Russian Revolution in 1917, when private art collections were claimed for the people. The result is one of the largest museums in the world. We’d read about The Hermitage, knew something of what it contained, but nothing prepared us for what we found when we walked across that courtyard and through the doors of the Winter Palace. All that glass and gold. Marble floors. Crystal chandeliers. And so much art.
We spent two days in St Petersburg just in The Hermitage. The ticket-sellers will sell you a two-day ticket because they know you’ll want to come back. If you spent one minute in front of each of the roughly 3 million items the museum contains, non-stop, without sleep or lapses of consciousness, to see everything would take you around six years. (They don’t sell you six-year tickets, however.) “Where do you want to start?” said my spouse as we ascended the Jordan Staircase. “Paintings? English? Flemish? Spanish? A little Impressionism. Post-Impressionism?” “The Italian Renaissance,” I said. “First floor.” Two Leonardo da Vinci Madonnas, for starters. (There are only about 14 undisputed daVinci paintings in the world and two of them awaited.) For several hours, we simply wandered, astonished at so much brilliance in one place. Even when we looked away from the exhibits, the views through the windows were awe-inducing. Over our two days, we moved from Monet to Matisse, roamed the Raphael loggias, visited Van Gogh and pointed at Picassos, covering several miles in the process. The Hermitage is vast — five linked buildings with around 400 rooms — so several times, despite the numbers of visitors, we found ourselves alone amongst the antiquities.
Everyone will have their own must-see list (the Hermitage’s own gallery of “highlights” runs to 75 pages). These are the five I most enjoyed communing with along the banks of the Neva:
1 – I loved the intensity of the colours, the composition and the gaze of Caravaggio’s Lute Player, said to have been the painter’s own favourite work. (Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio is certainly my own favourite painter.) 2 – I could almost see Michelangelo’s fingerprints on the shoulders of his Crouching Boy sculpture. 3 – Some Italian bloke.
I don’t know who he is (and nor does anyone else now) but that’s not the point. The point is, you can see he was a real person around two thousand years ago. He hasn’t been made to look especially handsome (check out the bags under the eyes) or particularly noble. This is an affectionate portrait of someone who looks like they’re about to smile and spin you a yarn about an ancient Roman rite. I wished I had the means to talk to Joe. 4 – I wish the fearsome cherubs above this doorway had had the means to talk to me.
What are they doing with those unangelic axes? I am not suggesting they are a great artwork, just that I found them thought-provoking. 5 – Finally, the atlantes (plural of atlant: an architectural support sculpted in the form of a man) carved from Finnish Serdobol granite.
They’ve been doggedly holding up the walls of what was originally the entrance to the New Hermitage since 1848. Pop along Millionaire Street at the back of the Winter Palace and congratulate them on an excellent job. What? No statue of Jupiter? (That’s a GOD if anyone’s looking for one.) No Peacock Clock? No Madonna with a goldfinch? No. Every list will exclude the ones you might love. So make your own list, not that of a guided tour. Summary: Go with a plan. Don’t try to see everything because you can’t. Know what you want to see and just spend time admiring those exhibits, thanking Catherine for embracing the collecting bug in the first place.