Culture · Things to do · Northern Europe
February 13, 2019 Words: Anna Hedigan

Winter Palace Mysteries

Catherine the Great launched an art collection that spans the centuries with eternal beauty.


St. Petersburg’s Hermitage does everything bigger than any other cultural institution worldwide, except perhaps the Louvre — in terms of its square footage, its vast trove of holdings (over three million objects) and the unflinching luxuriousness of its buildings. Even a single exhibition space — say, the Large Italian Skylight Room — could require an hour to examine. Savour the enormous urns of solid malachite with serpent-form gilded handles, chased-bronze massive candelabras, baroque marbles, gold commode tables and large canvases by Luca Giordano, Giovanni Battista Crespi, Canaletto, Francesco Guardi and Tiepolo. The upper half of the room, where light floods down through the skylight, is executed as a double-height vault of Renaissance-motif gilded plaster of incredible richness.

A visual feast, but only one of the collection's over 350 rooms.

Artistic Origins

To wander The Hermitage evokes the sumptuousness of the Imperial Easter Eggs that master jeweler Fabergé crafted for members of Tsar Nicholas II’s family to exchange as gifts on the most holy day of the Russian Orthodox year. You can see some of Fabergé’s work on display in the Gold Room and marvel at the craftsmanship and preciousness of it. His jewelry represents some of the last expressions of Russian aristocratic taste and patronage before the Revolution in 1917.

That taste first emerged at The Hermitage with Russia’s most significant leader, Catherine II, or Catherine Alexeyevna, née Princess Sophia Augusta Frederike of Anhalt-Zerbst. On June 28, 1762, with military support, she overthrew her husband Emperor Peter III and seized control of Russia. Catherine was empress for 34 years and sent her diplomats and imperial agents to purchase the best of Western art — Dutch, Flemish, Italian, French and English. Collections were bought wholesale: over 600 paintings from Saxon Prime Minister Count de Brule, over 400 paintings from the French aristocrat Pierre Crozat. They even snapped up the collection of English Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole from his heirs, a sale that had the London press up in arms at the thought of it leaving England.

Catherine’s correspondence with French encyclopaedists Diderot and Grimm influenced her spending sprees and soon her collection had outgrown the Winter Palace, necessitating the construction of the Small and Large Hermitages. This was not a public collection — Catherine used to joke, “The only ones to admire all this are the mice and me” — but surrounding herself with such refinements demonstrated her power and wealth to her own aristocracy and her diplomatic visitors.

Catherine established art collecting as a tradition for Russian royalty that was enriched and enlarged upon by her successors. Alexander I purchased Josephine de Beauharnais’s collection from Malmaison (which must have been especially sweet considering her ex-husband Bonaparte had failed in his attempt to subjugate Russia), while Nicholas I and Alexander II expanded The Hermitage’s collection of Greek and Roman antiques.

A hermitage is a place of refuge and contemplation. That is what Catherine called her picture gallery — with a delicate irony, one assumes — but the name gives a sense of the instruction to be taken from her collection. There are lessons to be absorbed, just as there are from the great iconostases of Russian Orthodox churches, alive with the figures of the saints… or even the traditional “red corner” of each Russian home, where domestic icons are placed to be venerated. Russians intuitively understand the power and charge of looking at beautiful images.

A Single Take

Russian Ark, Alexander Sokurov’s movie of The Hermitage as repository of the country’s cultural heritage, uses continuous motion of the camera to make the viewer feel free. We can float across a room to see something that has caught the eye high on a wall, or chase the figure of Catherine the Great as she dashes into the deep snow of a bare midwinter avenue of trees, her lumbering gait evoking the weight of her inescapable responsibilities.

The French diplomat Custine, the ghost who acts as the movie’s guide, enters the hall known as the Raphael Loggia (neither the work of Raphael, nor the architectural form of a loggia), crouches down to look at the work in detail and admires it while scathingly remarking on the quality of Russian copyists: “So fine… because you have no ideas of your own.” The decorative scheme of the arched hallway — lozenges of color and line work known as grotesque style — were commissioned by Catherine the Great to emulate the light and color of the Vatican.

Raphael had decorated the Vatican’s Borgia apartments with inspiration from a classical discovery of his own time: ancient frescoes from Nero’s Domus Aurea, rediscovered in the 15th century when collapsed earth revealed his subterranean palace. The classical decoration of Nero’s unearthed palace deteriorated rapidly, but not before Raphael copied the rich colors and decorative scheme featuring fanciful doodles of armor, masks, grotesque faces and amusements. He then painted them into a scheme to invoke the sophistication and power of ancient Rome for his papal client.

The Hermitage copies also sought to draw on that power, though in a more “no holds barred” way. The Raphael stanze in the Vatican are fresco (painted onto wet plaster), but Christopher Unterberger and his studio executed Catherine’s copies in tempera on canvas (egg yolk mixed with raw pigment in a technique similar to icon painting) — far brighter and flashier than the Italian originals.

Russian Ark captures the wonder that any visitor to The Hermitage feels at the concentration of so much impressive treasure. The desire for the imperial tsars to be recognized as sophisticated by Western standards, for the collection to reflect their self-image, is palpable as each enfilade room reveals itself with more painting, sculpture, porcelain, automata, furniture, coins and archaeological treasures. It is unwise to attempt to see everything. Instead, like the Marquis de Custine, it is better to stop only for what captures your attention. Otherwise you risk being crushed by the scale of it all.

Time Tested

It is to our benefit that post-revolutionary Russia valued The Hermitage. It is all the more remarkable considering that the storming of the Winter Palace by the Bolsheviks was the decisive act that kicked off the Revolution. This fact is recorded by the stopped clock in the small dining room of the Winter Palace, forever showing 2:10 a.m., when the provisional government was arrested there on the night of November 7, 1917.

Contrast this with France’s revolution, where so many cultural treasures were destroyed (not a scrap of the Bastille remains). Retained as a symbol of the decadence of the disgraced Russian elite, The Hermitage collection was nationalized, and thus rescued from destruction. Time has restored its status as irreplaceable treasure.

The more recent addition of an incredibly fine and significant modern art collection is essential to visit. Some works come from Russian collectors like Piotr Shchukin, while others were “liberated” by the Soviets from Nazi Germany, including Salon masterpieces, Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works and 20th-century pieces. The extent of these spoils of war was only revealed in the 1990s. Russia is increasingly concerned about the forced repatriation of works, and formerly warm relations with international galleries for exhibition lending has grown frosty in recent years. The Hermitage may be the only place you’ll ever see these masterpieces.

In its last moments, Russian Ark shows a view over the Neva river from the entrance hall of The Hermitage. The river literally steams in the extreme cold. The entire building floats untethered as a great boat of culture, drifting across a voidlike blizzard away from the West that inspired it.

The Hermitage collection was amassed to showcase the best of the West, but in bringing the art to the East, into the Imperium, it found a home where its value became cherished more here than where it came from. The Hermitage might just be the last place on earth where the art of Europe is preserved in the old way: not originally Russian, and yet entirely Russian in the protection and respect that it accords to the past.

A portrait of Russia's Catherine the Great
A hallway of statues of Catherine the great
A painting of oranges on a desk from the Catherine the Great collection
A painting of a man and a woman from the Catherine the Great collection
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