The Hermitage ranks with the very finest of the world s art museums. It is the largest and most splendid in the Russia and contains more than two and a half million works of art representing different ages, countries and peoples.
In the two hundred years since its foundation the Hermitage has been transformed from a palace art collection, accessible only to a narrow circle of the nobility, into a truly national museum, whose treasures bring beauty and happiness to millions of people.
The history of the Hermitage is closely connected with that of the buildings which house the present-day museum. The Winter Palace and the three buildings of the Hermitage, conventionally called the Small Hermitage, the Old Hermitage and the New Hermitage, and united by a series of covered passage-ways, form one of the most superb architectural ensembles in Leningrad.
The Winter Palace.
The Winter Palace was built between 1754 and 1762 by Bartolommeo Rastrelli (1700-1711) in magnificent Baroque style. The inside of the Palace has been reconstructed several times; for example during the 1780s and 1790s Giacomo Qua-renghi (1744-1817) and Ivan Starov (1744-1808) redecorated a series of interiors in Classical style. The alterations continued into the first thirty years of the nineteenth century, when such distinguished architects as Carlo Rossi (1775-1849) and Auguste Mont-ferrand (1786-1858) worked in the Palace. In the winter of 1837 a fire broke out and burnt for three days, leaving nothing but charred walls. The restoration work under Vasily Stasov (1769-1848) and Alexander Briullov (1798-1877) was completed for the most part by the spring of 1839. The exterior was restored in the original, the majority of the interiors redecorated in late Classical style. For more than a century and a half the Winter Palace served as the residence of the tsars; then, for a short time, as the seat of the Provisional Government. Finally, after the Revolution, the Palace became a museum.
The Main Staircase of the Winter Palace.
From the entrance hall on Palace Embankment we enter the Rastrelli Gallery, at the end of which the ceremonial staircase of the Winter Palace comes into view. High, well lit and sparkling with gilt and mirrors, the staircase was re-designed after the fire of 1837 by Vasily Stasov in keeping with the plan of Rastrelli, though with certain alterations. Stasov replaced the pillars of pink imitation marble with columns of grey granite from Serdobol (Karelia), and the gilded wooden handrail with a marble balustrade. On pedestals are the following alabaster statues: Wisdom and Justice by Terebenev, Grandeur and Opulence by Ustinov, Fidelity and Equity by Leppe, Mercury and Mars by Manuylov, and The Muse by Hermann. On the lower landing stands the marble sculpture entitled Allegory of the State (Sovereignty) by an unknown eighteenth century sculptor. The eighteenth century ceiling portrays the gods on Olympus.
The Foundation of the Hermitage.
The Hermitage is regarded as having been founded in the year 1764, when two hundred and twenty-five paintings were delivered to the Palace, having been bought from the Berlin merchant Gotzkowsky. He had made the collection for the Prussian king, Frederick II, but owing to reverses in the Seven Years’ War finances were in a deplorable state, and the collection came into the possession of the Russian empress Catherine II. After this, large consignments of paintings acquired at sales began to arrive one after the other from abroad: the Brflhl collection from Saxony in 1769, Crozat’s, bought in France in 1722, the Walpole gallery from England and several others. Prints, sculptures, carved stones, coins and medals, tapestries, jewellery, in addition to paintings, gave the Hermitage collections exceptional diversity. The treasures of the Palace museum, which is what, the
Hermitage was at that time, were regarded as the personal possession of the Empress, and very few people were allowed to visit the collection. In one of her letters Catherine wrote, referring to the riches of the Hermitage: “Only the mice and I can admire all this …”
The Small Hermitage.
Between 1764 and 1767, according to a plan made by Jean-Baptiste-Michel Vallin de la Mothe (1729- 1800), a building of smallish proportions was erected adjacent to the Winter Palace. This became known as the “Hermitage” * which was used by Catherine for unofficial receptions. The art collections were accommodated in two galleries adjoined by the Hanging Garden which was laid out on the roof of the Palace stables. In 1856 the architect Andrey Stakenschneider (1802-1865) designed the still existing Pavilion Hall in what had been some small rooms built during the time of Catherine. At the present time the Pavilion Hall contains an excellent collection of eighteenth and nineteenth century Italian mosaics – for example the mosaic tables The Bottom of the Sea, A Day in Rome. A floor mosaic, a copy of an ancient Roman original now preserved in the Vatican museum, was completed between 1847 and 1851 by artists who had studied in Rome. Another notable feature of the Hall is the “Peacock” clock, the work of James Coxe, an eighteenth century English watch-maker. The complex mechanism, concealed beneath a mound above which stands the trunk of a tree, sets in motion when the clock strikes the figures of a peacock, an owl and a cockerel. A small revolving dial, set in the cap of a toadstool, shows the time.
The Old Hermitage.
A building, subsequently known as the Old Hermitage, was built in 1787 by the architect Yury Velten (1730- 1801) to accommodate the ever growing collection of works of art. In the nineteenth century, rooms on the first floor, which now contain an exhibition of thirteenth to sixteenth century Italian art, were redecorated by Stakenschneider as additional Palace premises, and this decor has been preserved up to the present day.
The Growth of the Collection.
In the course of time the collections were enriched by relics of Greek and Scythian culture, unearthed by Russian scholars during excavations on ancient burial mounds in southern Russia. Thus was begun the world-famous collection of Scythian antiquities and of relics from ancient towns on and around the northern Black Sea coast. The purchase of the best items from the collection of the Marquis of Campana in Rome in 1861 facilitated the creation of a department devoted to the art of classical antiquity. At the same time, though not so intensively, a collection was accumulated of items of oriental culture. Throughout the nineteenth century up to the beginning of the twentieth the Hermitage collections were further enlarged by the acquisition of works of art from ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, individual specimens of Sassanian and Byzantine silver, Coptic fabrics, Syrian vessels, oriental weapons, etc.
There was an increase in the number of works of Western European art: in 1814 a large part of the Mal-maison gallery was bought from the empress Josephine (Napoleon’s first wife), and in 1815 the collection of the Amsterdam banker Coesvelt was added. The collection of the Spanish minister Qodoy was acquired in 1836, and in 1850 that of the Venetian Barbarigo family among others. Leonardo da Vinci’s The Litta Madonna was purchased in Milan in 1866, and The Benols Madonna in St Petersburg in 1914, and Raphael’s Conestabile Madonna in Perugia in 1870. A collection of medieval works of art belonging to A. Bazi-levsky was bought in Paris in 1884. The last major purchase before the Revolution was made in 1915, when the museum acquired, after the death of the famous Russian geographer and traveller P. Semion-ov-Tyanshansky, his large collection of Dutch and Flemish paintings.
The New Hermitage.
Between 1842 and 1851 Yefimov (1799- 1851) carried out the construction, according to the design of the Munich architect Leo Klenze (1784-1864), of a special museum building- the New Hermitage, the entrance to which, from the present-day Khalturin Street, is adorned by a portico with grey granite atlantes, five metres high (a little over 16 ft.), the work of A.Tere-benev (1812-1859).
The ceremonial opening of the Imperial Hermitage took place in 1852. For a long time, however, tickets enabling the bearer to visit the museum were issued by a court office; admission was granted only to those wearing military uniform or tail-coat, and all the items were labelled in French. Only in the second half of the nineteenth century did admission to the museum become relatively easy.
The Hermitage after the Revolution.
In October 1917 the Winter Palace was witness to a great historic event. From the morning of November 7th (October 25th old style) detachments of Red Guards and revolutionary units of soldiers and sailors rushed from the headquarters of the Revolution at Smolny to the Winter Palace, where the ministers of the counter-revolutionary Provisional Government took refuge under the protection of the officer cadets and shock troops. During the night of November 7th the Winter Palace was taken by storm.
In spite of the difficult conditions of civil war, foreign intervention and post-war economic disruption, the Soviet government, under the personal guidance of Lenin, took vigorous measures towards preserving the cultural legacy of the past. In October 1918 a special decree was issued by the Council of People’s Commissars concerning the preservation and registering of works of art and relics of antiquity.
During the years of Soviet power the scope of the Hermitage collections has been enlarged more then fourfold. Among the works acquired are the finest items from the Anichkov Palace, the suburban palaces of Peterhof and Gatchina, and from the private picture galleries of the Youssupovs, Stroganovs, Shuvalovs and Sheremetevs requisitioned by the state after the Revolution, and from the galleries of the Moscow collectors, Shchukin and Morozov, and a number of others. For the purposes of acquiring works of art and ancient relics expeditions were made on several occasions to the Caucasus, Central Asia and other parts of the country, and many valuable items have been, and are still being bought from private individuals by a special purchasing commission. Lastly, there are excavations systematically conducted by Soviet scholars, and these represent inexhaustible sources for the enrichment of the museum.
The Hermitage during the War of 1941-45.
In the very first days of the war all valuable items were carefully packed and made ready for evacuation. 1,118,000 exhibits were dispatched to the safety of the Urals; the remainder, largely decorative objects, were put into the cellars of the Winter Palace. Bombing attacks and artillery fire caused considerable damage to the buildings of the Hermitage; thus, as a result of direct hits, the famons portico of the New Hermitage with the atlantes was damaged, as well as several rooms in the Winter Palace. Glass was blown out of the windows, and paintings of the ceilings and walls, stuccowork, gilt and inlaid floors all suffered from the dampness and cold. Even during the siege of Leningrad plans were made for the reconstruction work, which was begun immediately after the blockade was lifted. On November 8th, 1945, after an interval of four years, the doors of the Hermitage were again opened to visitors.
The Hermitage today.
At present the collections of the Hermitage number 2,532,000 items. These include about 15,000 paintings, 12,000 sculptures, 600,000 prints and drawings, over 600,000 archaeological exhibits, 1,000,000 coins and medals, and 220,000 items of applied art. More than three hundred and fifty rooms are open to the public.
Expressing its high regard for the services rendered by the museum staff in art education, the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet awarded the Hermitage the Order of Lenin in connection with the museum’s two hundredth anniversary in 1964.