I ogle the golden clock mesmerized by the glittering intricacy. Its elegant glamor is the fondant on the ivory and gold decadence of this balconied room inside the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, Russia. For a moment, I consider what it would be like to own the exquisite machinery: wafting through the room as the golden peacock spreads its tail on the hour inside its gilded cage; hearing the crow of the glossy rooster as I stand upon the upper balcony. I imagine introducing guests to the glittering owl who blinks and swivels its head every sixty minutes and pointing out to them the luster of the miniature squirrel as he patiently waits for his nut. Only for a few minutes I picture this timepiece among my possessions. Then, I am glad it does not belong to me. Set in its splendor within the museum I can meditate upon the intrinsic value of this marvelous contraption then walk away satisfied. To have experienced it is enough for me.
The one-of-a-kind horologe is not the only priceless treasure the Hermitage holds. In 1764, in order to pay off his debt to Queen Catherine II, German merchant Johann Gotzkowski gifted her his collection of 225 paintings. This act inspired a lifetime of acquisitions for the empress, who would avidly purchase European sculptures, tapestries, and other valuable objets d’art to decorate her gleaming palace. Exotic interiors of malachite, lapis lazuli, and gold are set off by Raphael paintings, works by van Dyck, and masterpieces of Rubens, all of which she gained from auctions and through art dealers. Rows of old Masters hang from the silk draped walls, precious faience twinkles in the reflection of crystal chandeliers, and Baroque moldings give gravitas to classical statues along the many halls of the Hermitage museum.
Catherine the Great’s taste in art was impeccable, yet as I stroll through these glitzy embellished rooms I am curious to know if she paused to study any of what she owned, if she appreciated her trove. When she gazed upon Watteau’s “An Embarrassing Proposal” did she dream of English summers filled with pale rose-cloud skies? When she passed by Rembrandt’s “Return of the Prodigal Son” did the sight twist her heart-strings?
“Did the look on the father’s face compel her to pause?”
An ambitious woman, Catherine craved political power. She planned the successful military coup of her husband and alienated herself from her two sons, whom she disliked, in order to control the throne. In her private life, she joined forces with a string of young noblemen, none of whom met her cultural standards. She amassed a good part of the Western world’s finest artworks and was endowed with bountiful material wealth, but was she able to savor her acquisitions? Did she believe simply owning these Rubens and Veronese made her affluent or did she desire to understand the beauty and love behind these works?
While I appreciate the empress’s treasury, I am happy they belong to the public and not to me. I am grateful that I can admire them and then walk away from them, keeping only my memories on the return journey. I do not own gilded turn-of-the-century furniture or even copies of the masters to hang upon my walls.
“What I own is simple and it is enough for me.”
Perhaps by the standards of society that makes me unsuccessful, but by my standards I have obtained the wealth of many princes. Through my journeys I have experienced the sun’s role inside an Incan observatory. I have read the poetry of an emperor’s marble love story and tasted the honeyed history of a reticent culture. I have stared into the eyes of a wild beast and made friends with a giraffe. I have gazed upon enough jewels to last a thousand lifetimes. More importantly, inside an elaborate room of the Hermitage, I have watched the fog settling over Caspar Friedrich’s “Riesengebirge.” That is all the wealth I need, all the gold I require.
Since Catherine II’s reign, the Hermitage museum has added quite a bit to its collection. It now houses over three million paintings, sculptures, artifacts, and scientific devices. Among its prodigious horde are several unusual objects belonging to Saint Petersburg founder Peter the Great, including a traveling medicine chest used by the emperor who considered himself both a barber and a dentist.
Do you have a favorite museum that you have visited? What was the most powerful work of art or ancient artifact you saw? Is there a masterpiece you would love to own?