The treasures of the Hermitage, the largest museum in the Soviet Union, are famous throughout the world.
Hermitage. People come here to see the exquisite works of Leonardo da Vinci and Titian, Rembrandt and Rubens, to view the monuments of Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, and the culture and art of many peoples. And among the almost seventy thousand pictures, sculptures and other exhibits each visitor finds something to fascinate and interest him. The statistics quoted in the guidebook are for January 1, 1978. Altogether the Museum’s displays and storerooms contain about 2,695,000 works of art and other objects.
Yet it is not only the exhibits which attract the visitor. That fine specimen of Russian architecture, the Winter Palace, is also world famous. Like the three adjacent museum buildings, it now contains exhibitions. The Winter Palace is the former residence of the Russian emperors, and was the seat of the bourgeois Provisional Government on the eve of the Great October Socialist Revolution. On the night of 25/26 October, (7/8 November) 1917 the Winter Palace was stormed and captured by the revolutionary workers, soldiers and sailors of Petrograd. Following the establishment of Soviet power measures were taken to restore and preserve the Winter Palace. In 1922 several rooms in the Winter Palace were made available to provide additional space for the Hermitage’s numerous collections.
Museum. The Hermitage buildings also include the Hermitage Theatre built in 1783-87 from a design by Giacomo Quarenghi (1744-1817). This now houses the Museum’s lecture hall. The grandiose building of the Winter Palace with its impressive dimensions was built in 1754-62 from a design by the famous architect Francesco Bartolomeo Rastrelli (1700-71). It was completed in such a short time thanks to the labour of many thousands of talented craftsmen, soldiers and serfs sent there from all over Russia. The palace is built in the magnificent and lavish style of Russian baroque typical of the mid-18th century.
Three façades of the building, with its rectangular plan and fine large courtyard, face the Neva, the Admiralty and Palace Square. Accordingly Rastrelli gave each façade a distinctive appearance, while retaining the harmony of a single style. Lacking excessively large projections, the façade facing the Neva seems to run horizontally, stressing the straight line of the embankment. The wings of the side façade jut out sharply towards the Admiralty. Finally, the main façade (facing Palace Square) has a projecting central section. The triple arcade of its gates was formerly the main entrance. Carriages drove through it into the large courtyard and drew up at the main steps.
Hermitage. The building has a majestic elegance. It impresses one with its sumptuousness and variety of ornament, but is also harmonious and well- proportioned. In spite of their vast length, the façades are not monotonous. Rastrelli alternates projecting and recessed sections, giving the façade a deep profile enhanced by the play of light and shade, and uses a special arrangement of columns. Set in two tiers – one above the other – the columns are placed in groups, in pairs, or singly, with varying intervals subjected to a complex, overall rhythm.
The bronze sculptures and vases lining the parapet at the roof’s edge seem to continue the vertical lines of the columns. The original stone sculptures and vases were replaced in the 1890s by bronze replicas by the sculptor Popov. The numerous white window surrounds framed with stucco moldings give the palace a festive air. The combination of three colors-green (walls), white (columns and window surrounds) and goldish grey (stucco moldings) stresses the building’s majestic beauty. In the 18th and early 19th centuries the palace was a pinkish yellow with white columns.
Rastrelli designed the palace interior just as strikingly. But only small sections have retained their original appearance to any extent. On a cold December day in 1837 when the stoves were going at full blast sparks escaped from a flue and set fire to a timber wall in the Throne Room of Peter the Great starting a conflagration which lasted for three days. The fire destroyed almost the whole palace. The architects Vasily Stasov (1769-1848) and Alexander Bryullov (1798-1877) who were in charge of the restoration of the Winter Palace and its individual halls introduced many new features. Nevertheless part of the interior, particularly the Grand Staircase, recalls the brilliant elegance with which Rastrelli designed the palace.
Hermitage. We shall begin our tour of the Museum by passing through the vestibule to the Grand Straircase. The long gallery along which we are walking, with its semi-vaulted ceiling and rhytmically arranged pylons, its walls and ceiling of calm white, prepares us for the sumptuous decor of the Grand Staircase. The first vivid impression comes as we approach it standing in a niche and framed by columns, shines the white marble sculpture and glitters the gilded stucco molding of the walls, with light from overhead. The staircase’s beauty unfolds gradually. Standing on the lower steps you suddenly become aware of its vast dimensions. High above is the painted ceiling : human figures soaring over mountain peaks among clouds in a pale blue sky. This plafond (painting executed on a ceiling) is the work of Italian painters and depicts the gods on Olympus.
The Grand Staircase
Hermitage. The Grand Staircase is very spacious, light and airy. The light comes not only from the large windows but also from the walls where mirrors reflect its rays, creating the illusion of more illumination. Moving up the side flights, you pass fine sculptures by the windows and mirrors, slender pilasters and the intricate scrolls of the gilt stucco molding. Finally, from the side landings you have a splendid view of the huge colonnade with ten solid grey columns of Serdobol granite supporting the semi-circular vaults of the ceiling, which are decorated with molding, gilt and representations of the Caryatides.
After the fire of 1837 restoration of the palace began in which eight thousand workers took part. Stasov was in general charge of the project and a number of interiors. He retained the character of the decor of the Grand Sought to restore the original appearance not only of the exterior but also Staircase to a large extent, although certain alterations were made conformity with the demands and taste of his day. Thus, before the fire the columns and walls of the staircase were covered with pink artificial marble (stucco).
Stasov introduced the granite columns, the use of which in interior decoration was one of his innovations. He also used a different color scheme, combining the grey of the granite columns with the white of the walls. The old, burnt plafond was replaced by a new one, and the gilt wood carving by gilded molding. Other alterations were also made, but the overall stately appearance of the staircase was preserved. In Rastrelli’s day it was called the Ambassadorial Staircase because it was used by visitors from abroad and the ambassadors of foreign powers. Later it became known as the Jordan Staircase as the Imperial family walked down it on their way to the Neva during Epiphany.
Hermitage. The majesty and size of Rastrelli’s staircase inspired the other architects who designed the palace’s numerous rooms. But before visiting these rooms, which became museum premises comparatively recently, let us view the old museum buildings where the first collections were formed in the latter half of the 18th century.Continuing to the top of the staircase we turn left and pass through the Field Marshals’ Room into a corridor hung with woven tapestries, the work of West European masters of the 16th to 18th centuries. Another door, in the centre opposite the staircase, leads to the Avant Saloon which, before the fire, was the beginning of a suite of ceremonial rooms along the Neva embankment. The Saloon was designed by Stasov; the painting on the ceiling is “The Sacrifice of Iphigenia”.
Hermitage. The Field Mars hals’ Room was decorated in 1833 by the architect August Montferrand (1786-1858), and again in a different style after the fire by Stasov. It was formerly hung with the portraits of Russian field marshals. A small corridor takes us into the building adjoining the Winter Palace. This is the pavilion built in 1764-75 from a design by the architect Yuri Veldten (1730-1801) and Jean Baptiste Vallin de la Mothe (1729- 1800), which was later called the Small Hermitage. Compared with the Museum’s other buildings the Small Hermitage is not large. The two other buildings next to it were called the Old Hermitage and the New Hermitage according to when they were built.
Hermitage. The first floor of this building originally had several rooms, one of which contained a glass winter garden with real trees, flower-beds and birds. In 1856 the architect Andrei Stakenschneider (1802-65) constructed the large pavilion Room in place of the winter garden and adjoining rooms. Stakenschneider was an eclectic and combined various different styles in its design : elements of Moorish art and Renaissance and Antique architecture. In spite of this the Pavilion Room is remarkably elegant, spacious, light and airy. It has windows on all four sides.
The slender rows of white marble columns in the centre support a light, graceful gallery with the musicians’ gallery. The twenty-eight crystal chandeliers shine and glitter with a myriad colored lights. Rhythmically, drop by drop, the water falls from the four “fountains of tears” adorning the walls. The floor mosaic is worthy of attention. It was made in 1847-51 by masters from the St. Petersburg · Academy of Arts and is an imitation (half-size and with certain changes) of mosaics discovered in 1780 in excavations of Roman baths of the Emperor Titus. The room also contains mosaic tables made by Italian and Russian stone-cutters.
The pavilion Room is on the first floor, but an unexpected sight greets you through the windows : on one side is the Neva embankment far below, and on the other, a garden on a level with the room itself. This is the so- called Hanging Garden, a feature which was fashionable in the 18th century and is typical of many palace ensembles. In the summer, when the doors are open, the visitor can stroll around it. The area below the Hanging Garden contained the imperial stables and mange. Later the reconstructed rooms were used to house the museum’s exhibitions. Above the stone vaulting on which the garden rests, on a special metal lining covered with a layer of soil about two meters deep, are trees and shrubs, flower-beds, avenues, a small fountain and pieces of sculpture. In the winter snow hills were heaped for tobogganning and in the summer peacocks, pheasants, doves, squirrels and other animals were let out of their cages to roam the garden.
Hermitage. The galleries next to the garden were gradually filled with numerous pictures, sculptures and other precious and rare objects acquired in different countries by ambassadors and special agents and brought to St. Petersburg to adorn the Hermitage. On the left is the Peter the Great Gallery (which now houses temporary exhibitions) and on the right, the Winter palace side, the Romanov Gallery which contains West-European applied art of the 5th to 15th centuries and 15th-to 16th-century Netherlandish Art.
Thus the collections of the future museum were gradually formed in the 18th century. In 1764 a collection of pictures (mostly Dutch and Flemish schools) was purchased from a merchant by the name of Gotzkowski in Berlin. This purchase marked the beginning of systematic acquisition by the museum. Consequently 1764 is regarded as the date of the foundation of the Hermitage as a museum. It subsequently acquired the collections of Count Kobentzl (1768), Count Brohl (1769), Pierre Crozat (1772), Sir Robert Walpole (1779), Count Baudouin (1781) and others.
The creation in Russia of a museum with an extremely rich art collection was an important progressive event. But for the most part only members of the Imperial family could enjoy the treasures of the closed palace museum. The building in which the collections were then housed was called the Hermitage, which means a secluded corner, the dwelling of a recluse. This name was used for the museum as well. We still call it the Hermitage, although in Soviet times it has changed beyond recognition and is now visited by more than three million people each year.
Hermitage. The Pavilion Room contains a somewhat curious exhibit-the Peacock clock, It was made by the English master James Cox in the 18th century, when there was a craze for weird mechanisms. The glass case contains an oak tree, several birds and a squirrel. The centre of the group is a peacock which revolves, opening its gorgeous tail and moving its head, each time the clock chimes. Its neighbours also “come to life’ – the owl turns its head and links, and the cock opens its beak and crows. To tell the time you must look at the mushroom by the tree. Its cap contains two revolving discs (one above the other) with little windows showing the hours and minutes. The clock was purchased in 1780 by Prince Potemkin of Taurida and presented to Catherine the Great. It came to the museum in 1797 and is thus one its earliest exhibits.
Hermitage. In 1771-87 a building later known as the Old Hermitage was erected next to the La Mothe Pavilion on the Neva embankment by Veldten. And in the mid-19th century a special museum building, the New Hermitage to house the growing collections was designed by Leo von Klenze (1784-1864) and completed by the architect Nikolai Yefimov (1799-1851) under the supervision of Stasov. We shall begin our tour of these buildings and their exhibitions by descending the Councillor’ Staircase and walking through the Hall of Twenty Columns.
The Councillors’ Staircase, built in the middle of the 19th century by A. Stakenschneider, is so called because members of the State Council used to come to meetings presided over by the emperor through its entrance. The staircase connects the three buildings: it is linked with the Small Hermitage by a corridor, then on the other side, along the embankment, is the Old Hermitage (with the exhibition of Italian paintings on the first floor), and the doors in the centre (opposite the windows) lead to the rooms containing Dutch paintings in the New Hermitage. The plafond on the Councillors’ Staircase of “The Virtues Presenting Russian Youth to Minerva” is the work of the French painter Gabriel François Doyen (18th century).
On the landing of the second flight of the Councillors’ Staircase is a large malachite vase made at the Yekaterinburg factory in 1843 by a special technique known as Russian mosaic (thin layers of stone skilfully arranged in an attractive pattern and stuck to the base with a special putty). The fine specimens of stone-cutting made at this factory in the Urals and also at the Peterhof workshop (the oldest in Russia, founded under Peter the Great) and he Kolyvan factory in the Altai adorn many of the rooms and staircases in the Hermitage, which possesses the largest collection of Russian semi – precious stones. Extensive use was made of stone in the decoration of the rooms themselves. Thus in the Hall of Twenty Columns, containing Italian vases the columns were made of grey Serdobol granite by craftsmen in the Peterhof lapidary workshop. The whole floor is covered with a mosaic made up of several hundred thousand pieces of stone.
Hermitage. One of the finest creations of Russian stone-cutters of the past is the famous Kolyvan Vase (Room 128). Made of a beautiful stone, Revnev, jasper. It is remarkable for its size, beauty of form and perfection of execution. The vase is more than two-and-a-half meters high, and the diameter of the bowl is five meters at its widest point and over three meters at its narrowest. Although it weighs nineteen tons (and is the heaviest vase in the world made of hard stone) it does not look cumbersome.
Hermitage. The slender stem, the elongated oval shape of the bowl, patterned at the sides and below by symmetrically radiating rounded grooves, and the fine proportions of the parts give it an elegance and lightness. The vase is made of a single slab of stone which was worked for three years on the spot where it was found and then moved by a thousand men over thirty-three miles along specially made forest roads and river ferries to the Kolyvan factory.
The craftsmen at the Kolyvan lapidary factory spent twelve years working on the vase, designed by the architect A. I. Melnikov, and completed it by 1843. It was transported to St. Petersburg with great difficulty in separate sections (the vase consists of five sections, of which the main one, the bowl, is solid). It was carried as far as the Urals on a special cart drawn by a hundred and sixty horses. From there it travelled by barge along the Chusovaya, Kama, Volga, Sheksna and the Mariinskaya system to its unloading point on the Neva embankment.
Hermitage. After preliminary reinforcing of the base seven hundred and seventy workers installed it in the room in the Hermitage where it stands to this very day. The Kolyvan vase is one of the most impressive specimens of Russian stone-cutting and rightly occupies a place of honour among the treasures of the Hermitage. This room and the adjoining rooms contain monuments of antique culture. A tour of the most interesting exhibits begins in Room 107 which is reached by passing straight through Room 106 without turning right.