Russian art house
One of the major attractions for visitors to St Petersburg is the museum located in the Winter Palace. Named The Hermitage, it houses some of the finest and most valuable pieces of art in the world.
The name, Hermitage, on reflection, is not so much of a misnomer after all. Surrounded when you are by so much creativity, you do distance yourself from the world, in humility and awe. Further, although the treasures are all laid out there, they belong to no one. But, most of all, despite the struggles the museum has faced — it has survived wars, natural calamities, revolutions — it has risen each time, phoenix-like. So, all things considered, “hermitage” is quite the right name for an institution that has captured the essence of the human spirit, in both the art it displays, and its own story of survival.
Neither numbers nor adjectives can adequately express the vastness of The Hermitage. Its exhibits are categorised country-wise, and everything is housed chronologically in its 460 rooms, each with a compelling history of its own. Apart from this, there are two rooms known as the Gold Room and the Diamond Room, that house treasures from all over the world and can be visited only through a guided tour.
Vision of opulence
Going to this museum is an experience by itself. It requires at least a week’s research, so you better begin doing it before you reach the city of St Petersburg. It will also be wise if you book your tickets online for the queue outside the entry gate runs into miles, and people tell you stories of how they have waited four or five hours to go in. Again, once you go there, you can believe. In this sparsely populated city of five million residents, where you won’t find crowds in the supermarkets or streets, The Hermitage is an exception. In fact, the only two places where you can spot a large number of people are in the metro and in The Hermitage.
The whole world seems to turn up to visit the museum. And they come not only with interest in the arts, but for the complete tourist experience — they see the palace and enjoy themselves in a little market adjoining it.
Just outside the palace is a huge cobbled square called the Palace Square. You will see men and women wearing period costumes walking about there. They would love to have a picture of you taken with them and they keep following you until you concede. Then they begin to charge you…it could be anything from 300 roubles downwards. To add to the ambience, there are horse-drawn carriages which take you around the roundabout — again for a price that you have to bargain. After feeling like a tsar or tsarina, you may indulge in some common man’s activities too — there are lots of stalls that sell Russian crafts and artefacts.
Once you enter the gates of the palace, you walk a short distance to the entry door where you show your ticket. Thereafter, you have three choices: be on your own and follow a guide book, which is available on sale; ask for an audio guide and take the equipment with you; or, be part of a guided tour. For the Gold Room and Diamond Room, you will need additional tickets and it is mandatory to go inside only with a guide and at specific timings.
There are downsides to all three options. If you go on your own, you need to first sit down somewhere and read your guide book so that you do not miss the best and get lost in the maze of beauty. And, remember, there is beauty at every turn — the museum is famed for its collection of paintings and original Rembrandts and Matisses that stare down at you. So perhaps it is best to take the audio, you may not get answers to all your questions, and often you would need to hurry to identify what is being said in the audio, yet it is a useful device. If you take a guide, you get a good overall picture, but may miss out on the details.
Of ‘tsars & tsarinas’
This is perhaps the only museum in the world where the interiors are almost as interesting as its exhibits. The history of the Winter Palace is not more 400 years old, but it is so eventful that it requires many pages to tell the story. In essence, what we see today is not how it was when it was built as a palace for the tsars. The site along River Neva was chosen by Peter the Great, the founder of St Petersburg. From many of its windows, you have a lovely view of the river and the St Peter and Paul Fortress. Construction began with
Catherine the Great, the longest-ruling female leader of Russia. Each ruler had his or her own favourite style of architecture. They all added and subtracted to it, but perhaps the most decisive change was wrought by a fire in 1837 when much of the palace was destroyed. The refrain in Russian architectural history is that this restoration was done with care, attention to detail and a large degree of painstaking faithfulness to the original.
So the palace was literally reconstructed. In 1917, it became the provisional government for the Bolsheviks. Eventually, it went back into being a museum and today has branches not just in different buildings in St Petersburg itself, but also outside the country.
Although located in the Winter Palace, the museum had always been visualised as one. Catherine the Great, somewhere around 1764, acquired 225 paintings of western European masters. This was the first acquisition. Collecting art items soon became an obsession. Thirty-two years later, when Catherine died, she left behind 4,000 paintings. She was not too fond of sculptures, the story goes, and so they were all housed in the summer palace at the other end of the town. After her demise, they were also brought here and the need to catalogue and organise the artefacts gave birth to The Hermitage, named so then.
As you walk through the museum, you will find groups of people from all over the world walking with you. It takes at least a couple of hours to just get a hang of your surroundings — and yourself. Finally, when you start seeing the exhibits, you lose yourself all over again. I would advise you to visit the Gold Room, even though it costs extra. If you want to see the Diamond Room as well, you may need to devote at least two days to The Hermitage.
Fatigue may overcome you, given the vast expanse you have to traverse. Fortunately, there is a café waiting to revive you, so that you can go back to the paintings with renewed energy. Then, as you sit with the great art works of the world, you will wonder at the boundary-less appeal of art.