The Hermitage is synonymous with St. Petersburg. One of the city’s best-recognized landmarks, the museum lies directly in the city center, with the city center’s radial roads pointing towards it; even someone lost in St. Petersburg has a good chance of finding themselves at the doorstep of this world-renowned art collection.
The Hermitage can be seen as the heart of Russia’s cultural capital, yet it doesn’t look particularly Russian. In contrast to the Church on Spilt Blood, just a few blocks away and overflowing with unique Russian architectural elements, the Hermitage reminds one much more of the neoclassical heritage shared throughout Western Europe. The Hermitage is as much a “window on Europe” as the city itself. The building was built in part to prove that Russia could both replicate and compete with European achievements. In fact, it is the second largest art museum in the world following the Louvre. Thus, it fits perfectly into the city, its geography, history, and identity.
History and Structure
The Hermitage is a vast complex of buildings. Its main part is an interconnected mass composed of the Winter Palace, Large Hermitage, Small Hermitage, New Hermitage, and the Hermitage Theater. Across Palace Square, the East Wing of the General Staff Building, and, across the river, the Menshikov Palace have been added to the museum’s facilities in recent years. Meanwhile, on the outskirts of the city, a new, state-of-the-art Hermitage Storage and Restoration Centre has been built. Further afield, the Hermitage now has auxiliary spaces across Russia and even abroad.
The complex as a whole started with the Winter Palace in the 1700s. Empress Elizabeth Petrovna and the Italian architect Bartolommeo Francesco Rastrelli constructed abaroque-style palace to serve as a winter residence for the royal family. It took eight years to build and was said to have been so rich and ornate that, together with the Empress’ other luxurious and fickle tastes, it nearly bankrupted the country. The Empress died before construction ended, a task that then fell to Catherine the Great who chose a more neo-classical but no less ambitious style in its continued expansion and construction.
During Catherine’s reign, the Large and Small Hermitages were added as well as the Theatre. The theater was built to help sate Catherine’s great passion for opera. The Small Hermitage originally held royal stables in basement and an equestrian training hall on the first floor. The upper levels are connected to the palace via skyway and include a grand hanging garden and two large pavilions.
The Hermitage Museum today often dates its beginning to 1764, when Catherine bought a large collection of 225 paintings from a Berlin merchant named Gotzkowsky. This was followed by the acquisition of the 600-painting Bruhl collection in 1769. Construction of the Large Hermitage began in 1771 specifically to house this extensive and growing royal art collection.
The Greco-Roman New Hermitage, built under Nicholas I and opened in 1852, was the first structure built in Russia as a public museum. Before this, the ever-growing art collections were available only to the royal family and invited guests. Nicholas I decided to take at least a part of his collection public after touring several well-established public museums in Western Europe.
After the Communists came to power, the entire complex was given over to the public museum. This decision was made not only in the interests of public enlightenment and education, allowing the bulging collection to spread to more display space, but also as propaganda: to allow the public to see the sprawling luxury built with public funds to serve one family.
The Communists also appropriated some 250 pieces of art from the Hermitage’s collection. These were sold abroad to help fund Soviet industrialization. However, while regrettable, this proved a small dent in the massive collections. The Soviets later added to the collections again through acquisitions and, perhaps most dramatically, with 74 paintings seized from Nazi Germany as war trophies during WWII.
With the fall of Communism, the Hermitage again fell on hard times. As the government and economy crumbled, so did the funding for the museum. Priceless works of art had to be stored, guarded, and preserved on a shoestring budget. In one department, a total of 226 pieces, including icons and antiques, were lost in what was later uncovered to have been an inside heist carried out over the course of more than a decade. The fact that this could have occurred, however, is another indication of just how large the Hermitage’s collections now are.
The Hermitage Today
The Hermitage is currently ranked as the second largest art museum in the world following the Louvre, with over 3 million works of art in hundreds of rooms. Although the museum also has nearly 720,000 square feet of total exhibition space, the majority of the collection remains in storage.
The Soviets first tried to alleviate this in 1981 when they added the newly restored Menshikov Palace, a former noble residence, to the museum’s property. The Russian government also added the East Wing of the General Staff Building, which oncehoused the tsar’s Ministry of Finance and Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to the museum’s property in 2014. Today it offers additional exhibition space and room for presentations and workshops.
There is also the Hermitage Volunteer Service. Created and organized by Mikhail Kozhukhovsky in 2003, the program began as a means to help the Hermitage during grand events. Now, both locals and foreigners staying in the city for a while often donate their time there translating documents, assisting in events and museum projects, or even working on projects of their own. Anyone can express interest via instructionsprovided on the Hermitage site. The Volunteer Service creates a sense of community – but one with an international flare.
The Hermitage Storage and Restoration Centre, a complex of nine buildings in Staraya Derevnya, just outside the city, was first opened in 2003, expanded In 2006, and is currently awaiting a third expansion. This is not just an advanced center to store and restore artworks, but also acts as an additional exposition space through a unique “open-storage” format. The space offers entry only by appointment and only with a guide, which can be reserved in several languages. More can be read about this here.
The Hermitage has also now expanded to permanent facilities for regular traveling expositions in other cities. This includes centers in nearby Vyborg and far away Vladivostok as well as Kazan. New centers are currently being developed in Omsk and Ekaterinburg. Russia’s former tsars would probably be especially proud that it now also has representations in Amsterdam and Italy, showing that Russian cultural institutions can be exported successfully to Europe.
The main stage and draw of the Hermitage, however, remains the original complex of buildings. Here, there is something for every type of art or history lover, and it is recommended to do more than one trip as one could spend weeks inside the museum and still not see everything on offer.
For history, the Military Gallery, for instance, lies quite close to the entrance. There are portraits of generals who served during the War of 1812. Some portraits are left blank as simple blue squares, representing those generals who died before the portraits were done. Another interesting historical piece is Nicholas’s II soiled shirt, located in the Church of the Winter place, the blood from a failed assassination attempt in Japan still very noticeable. Other diverse pieces include a mummy with broken legs, one of the largest vases in the world, and a pillbox that killed a Russian royal.
While the history displayed focuses largely on Russia, the art collections are decidedly international and diverse in style. Holdings range from Greek and Roman to Surrealism and Impressionism. Dutch, Italian, Flemish, Spanish, and Russian are just some of the many nationalities of the artists on display.
Madonna and the Child (Benois Madonna) by Leonardo da Vinci provides a glimpse into the artist’s earlier works. The Crouching Boy by Michelangelo, also on display, is sculpted from the iconic white marble that the artist was known to use throughout his career. Other works of note include Dance by Henri Matisse, Absinthe Drinker by Pablo Picasso, and Cottages with Thatched Roofs by Vincent Van Gogh.
Currently, a temporary exhibit by the name of “The Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer: Masterpieces of The Leiden Collection” will be in The Nicholas Hall of the Winter Palace until January 13, 2019. Numerous works done by Rembrandt, Frans Hals, Johannes Vermeer are featured.
It is as normal to feel overwhelmed by the size and scope of the Hermitage as it is to feel overwhelmed by the size and scope of Russia. The museum can be seen as a microcosm of a country proud of its individual accomplishments and its place within European tradition. Russia’s history is given a relatively small but prized place and Russian artists are on display alongside the greatest of Western Europe. The neo-classical buildings themselves display Russian-executed architecture as a beautifully cared for and breathtaking artistic achievement rather than the negative class propaganda the Communists intended them to be.
The Hermitage’s vast collections are also being used to continue Russia’s centuries-old efforts to unite its vast and diverse territories with common cultural institutions and to project Russia’s cultural achievements abroad. Today’s Hermitage is designed to impress visitors of all nationalities. It is a must see for any visitor who wants to peer into the heart of St. Petersburg and Russian history.
The State Hermitage Museum
State Hermitage. Russia, 190000, St Petersburg, Dvortsovaya Naberezhnaya (Embankment), 34
Students and children get free admission.
300 Rubles is the cost for only one branch of the Hermitage complex.
700 Rubles includes the Main Museum Complex, the General Staff Building, Winter Palace of Peter the Great, Menshikov Palace, and the Museum of the Imperial Porcelain Factory.
The first Thursday of each month is free, and there is an online ticket option.
Hours are: 10:30-18:00, Wednesdays 10:30-21:00, and Mondays are closed.