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A Taste of Russian—and World—History at the Hermitage Museum

Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg

Hermitage may not be the most appropriate name for Saint Petersburg’s famed museum, the Hermitage Museum. A hermitage is supposed to be the abode or home of a hermit, a person who is recluse and detached from the world. But while the idea of calling the Hermitage Museum as such is to imply that some of the world’s most valuable treasures are stored here safely, in some sort of artistic and cultural sanctuary, the term hermitage is ill-fitting because this museum offers so much to the world. And far from being an actual hermitage, this famed museum in the Russian city Saint Petersburg is actually one of the biggest in the world, with a number of branches and other countries as well. The Hermitage Museum boasts of having one of the biggest and most precious collections in the world—it even rivals the more popular Louvre in France.

But what do museums have that attract travelers around the world, with the Hermitage Museum being no exemption? After all, Russia may not be as expensive a country as France, but it does take considerable amount of money to travel to this magnificent country. Travel guide materials, history books, tourist manuals, and even the recommendation of fellow travelers always suggest visiting the museum in the country where is traveling too. What makes the Hermitage Museum such a gem?

For one, anyone who would travel to the Hermitage Museum would notice that this attraction does not only feature Russian artifacts. Of course, as a Russian museum, it features the usual local displays—including the imperial regalia of Russia, as well as the jewelry of the famed Russian jeweler Peter Carl Faberge. However, beyond these local cultural gems, the Hermitage Museum also boasts of an overwhelming number of art pieces. This is the major point of the Hermitage Museum, why people travel all the way to Russia just to see the museum. It holds an impressive range of Western art pieces, created by some of the most renowned artists in the world—including no less than Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Vincet van Gogh, Picasso, Matisse, Anthony van Dyck, and other artists. The Guinness World Record even recognizes the Hermitage Museum, as the museum with the largest painting collection in the world—more than what the Lourve in France or the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, American can feature. All in all, the collection of the Hermitage Museum amounts to three million artworks, although not all are displayed at the same time.

The history of the Hermitage Museum during the reign of Tsar Peter I the Great (or Pyotr Romanov), also known as Peter the Great, famous for making the Russian Empire into a powerful European nation during his time. The Hermitage—or the Winter Palace, which is the first and main building in what is now the museum—was actually based on the Chateau de Marly in Paris. It was a commune near the royal park which Peter called his hermitage, perhaps owing to the fact that it afforded him a serene and peaceful stay during his visit to the said city. This prompted him to call his palace the Hermitage. Later on, many parts of the palace were also called the Hermitage. The Winter Palace became the official residence of the Tsars of Russia, and five other buildings were later on added to the complex.

The famed art collection of the Hermitage Museum started also during the time of Catherine the Great. In 1764, she bought the paintings from the popular merchant Johann Ernst Gotzkowsky, at the time of his bankruptcy. To help defray his debt, Catherine the Great bought more than 300 paintings from the merchant, which later on served as the start of what will be a big and vast collection. The initial collection included some paintings by Rembrandt, Rubens, Antoon van Dyck, and Raphael—already big name artists at that time, hence giving even the initially small collection some air of prestige and class. Catherine the Great commissioned the building of an extension to the main palace, and also called it “my hermitage,” in honor of Peter the Great, although it was later on called as the “Small Hermitage,” to differentiate it from the Winter Palace. Within her lifetime, she collected more 4,000 painting, as well as thousands of books, gems, drawings, medal, coins, among others.

As the years passed, the complex—initially just the Winter Palace—grew bigger and bigger, as the collections become larger and larger. However, it was Nicholas I who commissioned the building of a public museum so the collection of the Russian tsars, past and present, can be seen by the public. This museum is probably among the first art galleries in Eastern Europe—it was later called the New Hermitage, in recognition of Catherine the Great’s Old Hermitage, and it was opened in 1852. This would have made Catherine the Great happy, as she lamented that very few people can actually see the marvelous art collections in the palace, which made the name “hermitage” fitting then.

More works were collected later on, including some by Leonardo da Vinci and Jan van Eyck. At this point, the Hermitage could have been already considered as the world’s largest collection of Rembrandt paintings in one place. After the reign of the Russian Empire, the Soviet claimed the Hermitage. During this time, the state redistributed the art collections from other palaces and mansions of the tsars, and a number went to the Hermitage, further increasing the collection.

A travel to the Hermitage Museum will give visitors a peek of the more in-depth history of the Hermitage, with the museum’s electronic visual display of the palace’s history. But this does not amount to what people would see within the halls of this museum—something no travel guide or history book can do justice. The Hermitage Museum gives people a peek of how prosperous the Russian Empire was, and how they—and the country itself—value art. Whether one is an art lover or a simply tourist, the Hermitage Museum is a must-see.

Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg

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