Never mind that as one of the largest museums in the world, it houses over three million works of art and artifacts. Pay no attention to the cumulative efforts of Babylon, ancient Greece, Scythia, Raphael, Velazquez, Rembrandt, Gauguin, and Matisse on display throughout six buildings. These are mere gilding to the true worth of St. Petersburg’s Hermitage museum. In 1764, Catherine the Great, ruler of Russia, was looking to acquire her own art collection. She decided to begin with an assemblage of over two hundred paintings that had initially been put together for the King of Prussia containing Flemish and Dutch masterpieces. To accommodate her collection, Catherine extended the quarters of her residence, the Winter Palace. As her art anthology grew so did the number of galleries of the palace. During Catherine’s reign, the Winter Palace acquired five new buildings while the queen acquired four thousand paintings, thirty-eight thousand books, and sixteen thousand artifacts.
The most memorable aspect of the Hermitage complex, part of which is the Winter Palace, are the palatial halls and rooms. Their architecture and interior design easily overtake the entire collection of masterpieces residing inside. From the death of Peter the Great, the Winter Palace began to be expanded and embellished by successive Russian rulers who sought to portray Russia’s grandeur and sophistication through the palace structure. Elaborately designed marble floors and stucco ceilings flaunted extravagant furniture of gold and ebony crafted specifically for particular rooms. Amidst this splendor the imperial rulers of Russia retreated with close friends and family to enjoy sumptuous dinners and lavish balls. Though designed for the tastes and caprices of Russia’s imperial family, two Italians, a Frenchman, and an Englishman were the architects behind the renowned mixture of neoclassical and rococo rooms.
In 1837, a fire burned down most of the Winter Palace, but through quick thinking it did not touch the rest of the Hermitage. The tsar demanded the immediate rebuilding of the palace and a great team of builders set about completing his wishes. More ornate designs were installed in the principal galleries while more gilding was added to the main halls. Smaller suites and private rooms used by the extended royal family took on a hodgepodge of styles ranging from antiquity to Gothic per the requests of each individual. The result is a palace that revels in a variety of architectural styles all ornately tied together with gold, marble, and jasper. The intricacy of each room’s floor design is enough to keep visitors enthralled by where their feet are stepping. The Hermitage complex is a museum that easily outshines its entire collection.
While trying to see all the art at this museum, I found myself staring instead at the fabulous museum’s decor. If you’ve visited the Hermitage museum, let me know what you thought of it!