Joe Hendren

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Travels: The Hermitage

Visit to Hermitage Museum / Winter Palace

Thursday September 20, 2002

Breakfast at the hotel was interesting. It was a smorgasbord with the selection ranging from what kiwis might eat for breakfast, to what we might eat at tea. Bread consisted of small slices of French bread, which were slightly stale. Coffee was a little weak, so I needed three to start the day. I am afraid I couldn't resist the novelty of hot chips for breakfast.

I made my way to the bus to take us into the central part of town for our visit to the Hermitage. The Hermitage incorporates the Winter Palace of the Romanov's, the Hermitage Museum and the Hermitage theatre. The Palace was constructed between 1754 and 1762 for Elizabeth, the daughter of Peter the Great.

The Winter Palace was the family home of the Romanov Emperors from the time of Empress Elizabeth right up until the palace was stormed during the revolution of 1917. The palace square was the site of the infamous events of the 9th of January 1905, or 'Bloody Sunday', where royal troops opened fire on a crowd of peasants and workers who had come to address the emperor.

Window inside Hermitage Overlooking the Palace Square

Looking out on the Palace Square from the Hermitage

The Hermitage museum was officially founded by Catherine the Great in 1764 to house her personal collection of treasures. She is reputed to have said that 'only mice and me' can admire this museum. Suffice to say very few were invited into the Hermitage. Servants were not even allowed to enter the dining area Catherine used for diplomatic engagements - a 'down waiter' table was constructed so that the servants could prepare the table on the ground floor before elevating the table to the first floor.

The ceilings inside the Hermitage are very pretty

The collection was started with 225 paintings acquired from a Berlin merchant called Gotzkowsky. These were originally made for Frederick II of Prussia, but Frederick found he could not afford the paintings following large spending during the seven years war.

The Hermitage Theatre was constructed in 1783 on the orders of Catherine. It is the oldest theatre building in St Petersburg.

Following the October revolution, the Hermitage and the winter palace were converted into a public museum by the revolutionaries. The private collection of the Tsars, as well as many other private collections from around Russia were nationalised and made open for public viewing inside the Hermitage. The creation of the collection is a good example of how nationalisation can benefit all.

While the creation of a world-class art museum, open to the public is a good thing, it is a shame that the conversion of the Winter Palace into an art museum was so complete, given its historical importance. While the Grand Staircase and the library remain close to how they were in imperial times, and the main throne area of the St Georges Hall has been restored, nearly all other rooms in the old palace, including the living quarters used by the Romanov family have been converted into collection rooms. However, this loss is balanced by the restoration of the Summer Palace.

Between two Monet's

One of my favourite parts of the palace was the Grand Staircase (also known as the Jordan or Ambassadors staircase). White marble of the staircase contrasts with the grey granite columns on the upper landing, and the intricate gold on (artificial) marble decoration on the walls. Allegorical figures on the high point of the walls appear to hold up a ceiling painting of Mount Olympus. I admit the staircase made me think of those old telemovies about the Russian revolution such as 'Nicolas and Alexandra'. It was good to see it for real.  

Related Travel

Visit to Summer Palace of Romanov family
First Impressions of Russia