What to stare at...

What to stare at...

Often, life and I do not spar mathematically. No, not because I'm crummy adding, multiplying or subtracting numbers. I let Life - and my years - live. The way they want to. But in St Petersburg, I was urgently setting aside 10 years of my life. Every minute of those 10 years, without eating, drinking or sleeping. Not for a sole noble purpose. Nothing exalted. Instead, 10 years for staring. Yes, only staring.

In the city named after St Peter, I had more work on hand: prep myself to walk 20 kilometres. With a duff pair of lungs and stolid pair of feet, 20 kilometres seemed like walking to the moon. But on that cold, frosty day in St Petersburg, I was ready to stare.

Beauty in numbers

Wait, do not put me in the pillory. In The Hermitage Museum, perhaps the world's largest museum, staring is the norm. Everyone stares. How else do you soak in the beauty - and history - of three million objects displayed in nearly 400 rooms spread over six interlinked historical buildings? Now you understand my '10 years and 20 kilometres' thought. If one were to stare at every artefact in The Hermitage for only 30 seconds each, it would take 10 years and 20 kilometres of walking.

I was still juggling 10/20 numbers when the bus screeched in front of the Winter Palace, undoubtedly the most famous building of imperial St Petersburg built by the 18th-century baroque genius Bartolomeo Francesco Rastrelli and restored extravagantly to his designs after the fire of 1837.

"In The Hermitage, the biggest aim is not to catch a glimpse of the original Leonardo da Vinci painting or find the Rembrandts. The aim is not to get lost. Also, remember not to smile at the babushkas in the museum. No one smiles in Russia. So, do not smile." Alexsey, the guide, spewed warnings as I clipped the audio guide on the tweed lapel. So large is The Hermitage that there are how-not-to-get-lost-in-The Hermitage manuals.

In the Winter Palace, I found beauty even before stepping on to the Jordanian white marble staircase. Its opulent baroque facade, stretching 200 metres and laden with pilasters, bays and statuary is dazzling.

Inside, I first noticed the babushkas -women manning the turnstiles with the  rictus of angst on their cragged faces - and then naked marble men in the corridors. A few with wreaths on their head and fig leaves for their modesty. I walked up the red carpet thinking of Catherine the Great, Russia's first ambitious art collector who bumped off her husband for the gilded throne. She commissioned artists, bought contemporary art from France and England, purchased Rembrandt's The Return of the Prodigal Son and The Descent from the Cross, Tintoretto's Birth of St John the Baptist and Giorgione's Judith.

Building a dynasty

She commissioned Jean-Antoine Houdon's statue of Voltaire, invited Diderot to St Petersburg, bought his library and paid him as its curator. She even built the Large Hermitage to house her art collection.

Much of The Hermitage's art collection can be attributed directly to Catherine, her lovers, and her agents.

Housed in the Winter Palace, Small Hermitage, Great (Old) Hermitage, the New Hermitage, the Hermitage Theatre and the General Staff Building, the museum has a rich collection of Italian Renaissance and French Impressionist paintings, Greek and Roman antiquities, Siberian and Central Asian art, Egyptian mummies, Knight's Hall, Portraits' Gallery, to name a few. Pablo Picasso, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet, Paul Cézanne, Vincent van Gogh, Peter Paul Rubens, Paul Gauguin, Henri Matisse - they are all framed in the museum.

I ignored the Egyptian mummies; I chose Rembrandt (the Hermitage has the world's largest collection of Rembrandts) and his monumental The Return of the Prodigal Son (1669).

The ragged garment of the bald and repentant son, the old man's ochre sleeves tinged with golden olive, the sinner leaning against his father's breast and the old father holding him in mercy. Such deft strokes in oil on the canvas.

Not too far in Room 214, there was a mother affectionately holding a child in her arms, their hands entwined around a four-petalled flower - 'Madonna and Child with Flowers' was painted around 1478 by Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), and is one of the 10 surviving paintings by the master. It was in front of the cherubic child that da Vinci had painted 539 years ago that I forgot all about mathematics.

Ten years, 20 kilometres. And the three million artefacts. The child's beatific smile turned all numbers inessential. I could stare at him for 10 years. Without eating, sleeping or drinking.

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