Hermitage Museum Tour: Cradle of Russian culture and history

Originally a home to Tzars, Hermitage has endured numerous turmoils throughout the centuries, only to emerge as the longest standing witness of ever changing politico-social climate and a central figure of Russian culture and art.

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Widely acclaimed as one of the most beautiful and elaborate museums in history, Hermitage has gone a long way from being a home of the Russian Emperors to housing priceless collections of world-renowned art and approximately 60 cats. Spanning across 233 345 square meters, Hermitage today is known to be a hotspot for art enthusiasts and tourists from all over the world, and an authentic and unique symbol of Russian cultural identity.

History of Hermitage

Ever since its inception in the smaller form of Imperial Winter Palace, buildings that make up the Hermitage complex have gone through numerous changes and renovations, but also ideologically driven acts of vandalism and destruction. Shaped by the tempestuous history and politics of 19th and 20th century Russia, it’s absolutely clear Hermitage and its past are anything but ordinary or boring.

Founding of St. Petersburg

Originally envisioned as the new center of Western world by a Westernized Emperor Peter the Great, Winter Palace was built during his rule along with a new capital, Saint Petersburg. Modest and quite small, the first Winter Palace was far from the European architectural wonders Peter was inspired by, such as Versailles. Emperor had big aspirations regarding his new found capital and soon to-be majestic palace, but these plans were interrupted by his death in 1725. Most aristocrats were quick to leave St. Petersburg after his death, often with explanations of how they despised the ”cold city found on a swamp” they resided in only because they were ordered to. However, the works on the palace and city continued under the rule of Peter’s heirs Peter II and Anna Ivanovna, Duchess of Courland. After her rise to power, Peter’s daughter Grand Duchess Elisabeth completely re-designed the palace with the help of its original architect Bartolomeo Rastrelli. The new Empress became almost obsessed with the finalization of a palace before her death, which caused a painful tax increase to the Russian people. By 1760., St. Petersburg and Winter Palace that Peter the Great dreamed of were finished, just shortly before Elisabeth’s death.

Enlargement and rise of Winter Palace

After seizing the throne from her husband Peter III, new Empress Catherine the Great hired famed architects Quarenghi and Stavrov to enlarge and improve her new home, the Winter Palace. During these structural changes, three monumental palaces including the Winter Palace, were adjoined on Catherine’s command and became a complex known today as Hermitage. A well-traveled and educated Empress, who also happened to be a life-long patron of arts, assigned her ambassadors in Rome, London and Paris with a task of buying numerous fine art pieces on her behalf. Needles to say, most of them were of priceless value and made by great masters such as Raphael, Rembrandt, Rubens and Titian. Gradually, countless pieces of artwork took over the palace and second enlargement became necessary in order to provide enough living space for the Empress, but also more space for new art that was yet to be bought.

Abandonment, Revolution and WW2

After Catherine, the major influence on the look and content of the palace was that of Nicholas I, who completely restored it after a devastating fire in 1837., finalizing the appearance of complex as we know it today. The last Emperor to fully reside in Winter Palace Alexander II, added noticeable works of Da Vinci to the art collection shortly before his assassination. Deemed as impossible to be safe due to its size, the palace turned into a place of official gatherings after the murder of Alexander II. His son Alexander III and his wife resided in Alexander’s Palace in Tsarskoe Selo, rejecting the Winter Palace as their home; This action was mirrored by their son Nicholas II, the last Russian Emperor. After 1904., Winter Palace, once a home to numerous Russian Tzars, became an abandoned ghostly monument of Russian Imperial greatness, quite ironically, while its Emperors were still alive and well. Yet, despite being empty and abandoned, Winter Palace never lost its status or captivating power, as it was always known to be more than just a home to Emperors; It was a symbol of Russian Imperial greatness.

After a series of pre-revolution events and the revolution itself which took place between 1905. and 1917., Nicholas II abdicated and Winter Palace was reestablished as a Seat of Government. This was extremely short-term as militant Bolsheviks had their eyes on the Winter Palace and fantasized of its public and shameful destruction as a final act of murder of the Empire. In the historical event known as ”Storming of the Winter Palace”, the former home of numerous Emperors was severely damaged both internally and externally, and there were those among Bolsheviks who even advocated the explosion of the building. However, its outstanding art collection saved the Winter Palace, as it was eventually declared to be a part of a newfound Hermitage complex, National Museum of Russia. During the Siege of Leningrad (new name communists gave to St. Petersburg) from 1941. to 1944., Hermitage was damaged, but fully and quickly repaired as soon as the WW2 ended. Today, it attracts approximately 4 million visitors a year, and is considered to be one of the largest, oldest and most historically, culturally and artistically significant museums in the world.

Present-day Hermitage Museum

Founded in 1754. by Catherine the Great, and open to the public since 1852., Hermitage museum is rightfully considered to be one of the largest and oldest museums in the world. Comprised of approximately 4 million items, Hermitage collections are displayed in around 1000 rooms and include Western European, Egyptian, Spanish, Italian, Greek, Roman and Russian artworks of priceless value. Located in the heart of Saint Petersburg, the Palace square, Hermitage museum is a glorious symbol of the city, architectural and artistic wonder, and a monument to rich and turbulent Russian history.

Originally envisioned as an Imperial residence, Hermitage was built on a monumental scale in sync with the intention of showcasing the power and greatness of the Russian Empire. Considering that the territory of Russian Empire spanned across 1/6 of Earth’s landmass, it’s no wonder the Imperial Palace had 2000 doors, 2000 windows, over 100 staircases and 1500 rooms.

Today, Hermitage complex is made up of six buildings, with the Imperial Winter Palace being the central one containing rooms Tzars resided in. Other buildings feature art collections from all around the world, purchased by the members of Russian Imperial family between 18th and 20th century.

Some of the most famous and acclaimed artists featured in numerous Hermitage collections are Titian, Tintoretto, Velasquez, Michelangelo, El Greco, Goya, Rubens, Rembrandt, Monet, Van Gogh, Renoir, Gaugin, Cezanne, Degas, Picasso, Da Vinci, Kadinsky, Malevich and many more. Ranked consistently among top 10 museums in the world, Hermitage is truly a synonym for impressive history and art, as well as a major tourist attraction.

Despite facing an unforgiving period of harsh ideological shifts as the last temple of Russian Imperialism, Hermitage has been preserved against all odds. Today, it remains a host to an unsurpassed number of collections containing world’s finest artwork, but more importantly, a silent witness of events that shaped the world we live in and an irreplaceable part of Russian history.

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