By Lori Verderame
As an art historian and professional fine art and antiques appraiser, I have spent my fair share of professional and personal time in the world’s museums. I have had the good fortune to visit and lecture among fine works of art and antiques from various cultures. I started my museum career at the Yale University Art Gallery near my childhood home of New Haven, CT. Over time, I have studied in museum environments, researched specific collections, and talked about art and antiques at historic places like The Louvre in Paris, The Uffizi in Florence, The National Gallery in London, and some American museums. Despite my professional experience among the world’s masterpieces in superb locales, it was Catherine the Great’s Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia that made me stop and count my art-filled blessings. The breadth and scope of the Hermitage museum and the Winter Palace in which the collection resides in the heart of the city is truly a marvel to behold. For the seasoned art lover or the novice traveler, three full days in St. Petersburg is unheard of and we had ample time to view the works at the Hermitage and the wonders of the Winter Palace. In short, St. Petersburg is simply unforgettable.
The Czarina of Bling
There is something for everyone at the Winter Palace, the winter residence of the Imperial family dating back to the 1700s and located in the heart of the city of St. Petersburg. If impressive architecture is your interest, the Winter Palace and its famous, breathtaking, and gilt-laden Jordan staircase is a must see. During a tour of the art collections within the Hermitage museum, this famous staircase will start your memorable tour experience. Groups move swiftly through the museum and ample time is given to view works of art and learn about specific collections. Certain galleries and pieces are highlighted such as the background of Czarina Catherine the Great who was interested in all things French and collected works of art from sites far and wide in an attempt to put the Russian empire on the cultural map.
The Hermitage collections feature some of the best examples of fine art through the ages including a large number of paintings by the Italian Renaissance artist, Titian, numerous large scale canvases by the Dutch master, Rembrandt including The Return of the Prodigal Son, The Descent from the Cross, and Saskia as Flora to name a few. There is gallery after gallery of famous Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, and Modern works by Renoir, Monet, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Matisse, Picasso, and other big names in the history of art. Here reside some of the most beautiful, important, and fascinating works of art the world over. The Hermitage works do not regularly travel to other world class museums as part of organized traveling exhibitions so if you don’t see these paintings, sculptures, and antiques here in St. Petersburg, odds are very good that you won’t have the opportunity to see them in other venues.
In the midst of all the grandeur, there are serious condition issues that plague the Hermitage museum and its collections. Many visitors are appalled at such problems as leaking air conditioning units, open windows, no consistent temperature/humidity controls and museum conditions which are unlike those found in most major museums. The faulty and sometimes non-existent preservation problems relating to the works of art on view are attributed to the age of the Winter Palace building itself dating back to the mid-1700s, the difficulties in maintaining such a vast collection, and economic problems. The administrators, however, understand the importance of the collections on the world stage and work to protect them as best they can under the circumstances.
My tips for enjoying your visit are straightforward, just like my talks. Many of you who have traveled with me through other museum sites and historic palaces will giggle when I once again warn you to avoid standing beneath any chandeliers or other large scale installation objects in these aging museums. Wear comfortable clothes and shoes. You will have to check large bags and purses so travel light (always a good idea!) When you are in the museum’s galleries, do your best to look around, listen carefully, and enjoy your experience. With huge collections like that of the Hermitage, you will not be able to see every single piece and to linger for a long period of time. Listen, look, and use your cameras when you can. When cameras are not allowed, remember your visual memory is one of your best assets. If you want to recall a particular piece of art, just use your visual memory as your camera. Stand there and take a good long look at whatever it is that you want to remember. Take a picture with your mind! I assure you that you won’t forget what you see in St. Petersburg and at the Hermitage.